I remember the moment as if it were yesterday. I was sitting in a conference room across from David, the associate pastor of the church I was serving as a student pastor. He was a young man, about the age I am now, and he had been assigned to be my teacher and guide as I navigated my first ever role as pastor, though in this case, as student pastor while in seminary. We were approaching Advent, it was about this time of year. I don’t know why we had sat down, but we were talking about the Advent stories the church would be remembering when the season began. While I think I was putting on a good face, inside I was in turmoil.
You see, I had learned just enough in seminary to no longer know what I believed about God. Seminary, a good seminary, does that. It takes everything you think you know about faith and God, and breaks it down before giving you the tools to build it back up. In that conversation, I still didn’t have the tools I needed. Instead, all I had were broken pieces of the untested faith I brought with me to seminary. And, sitting across a conference room table, thinking about the stories of Advent and Christmas that I had loved, I fell into the role the Sadducees play in today’s scripture. I tried to catch my teacher out.
I started to hound him with questions about virgin birth and a Roman census. I began to point out the inconsistencies in the various Gospel recordings of Jesus’ origins. I questioned the use of Jewish prophetic texts as part of a Christian holiday. Then, I made it personal. I insisted that he explain to me how he can believe in what is fundamentally a mystery – God in flesh, Immanuel. How did he reconcile his doubts? Where did he draw a line between accepting the unexplainable and needing evidence to back up his beliefs? I was doing exactly what the Sadducees are describing as doing in today’s text – trying to catch out someone whose belief in God allowed for more mystery than mine did.
In my reading of this scripture, I feel the Sadducees have the same discomfort with mystery that I had at one point in my life. The Sadducees were religious authorities and in leadership at the Temple. They believed in a strict interpretation of the Torah, the first 5 books of the Old Testament. They did not believe in resurrection or any type of afterlife. And they did not like what Jesus was teaching.
This scripture falls in the story of Jesus’ ministry and life after he arrives in Jerusalem. He has been traveling the countryside, making his way to Jerusalem, and has caused quite a stir along the way. Not only has he been performing miracles and healings, but he has been spreading a message of God and God’s grace that was difficult for a lot of people to hear. He was not only challenging the Roman Imperial rule, but he was challenging the status quo and system of divisions that were just as prevalent then as they are today. The Sadducees had heard about him and from the minute he arrived in Jerusalem, they were trying to catch him in some sort of heresy. That is why they made up the ridiculous scenario they present him with in this scripture. Jewish law required that, if a woman is widowed without children, the brother of her late husband would marry her – ensuring that her future children would carry on the family lineage. While it seems odd to our ears today, it was meant as a way to protect the widow. A woman without a husband or male children had no place in ancient society. This law saved a woman from destitution. But, in the scenario the Sadducees present Jesus with – a woman outlives seven brothers and never has children – is preposterous. Remember, the Sadducees did not believe in life after death, or life everlasting, or resurrection. So, they wanted to test Jesus with an impossible situation that would cause him, in their minds, to say something that would prove once and for all that he actually did not know what he was talking about and force people to stop listening to him and following him.
But that is not what happened. Jesus responded that we cannot possibly know what happens after death because it is so different than anything we experience in the here and now. Yes, Jesus says, today we marry, but in the resurrection, in life after death, there isn’t marriage like we understand it today. The concepts of how we order our lives on earth don’t exist in what is to come when we are returned to God. None of it is comparable. So, he continues, you can’t catch me out with some ridiculous scenario because it simply isn’t relevant. Life Everlasting, resurrection, life after death, is beyond human understanding. With God, Jesus teaches, there are simply things completely beyond our comprehension.
But, I think that is what can be so hard about living a life of faith. Especially in a tradition like this one, where questions and doubts are not only welcomed but encouraged. Sometimes, leaning into the mystery of God feels like we are simply floating with nothing to hold on to. And it can feel terrifying. I compare it to a time when I was about 12 years old and out on a hike with my family. I slipped and fell down a hillside, actually a small cliff. I was sliding along the ground and kept flailing my arms out trying to catch on to something to hold on to. Something to stop me from falling. Something to ground me. And sometimes the difficult questions of faith can feel just as desperate. While a student, as I approached Advent having more questions than I was comfortable with and interrogating the associate pastor at the church I was serving, I was trying to find something, anything to hold on to. But, in that moment, none of it felt like it was enough. I wonder if the Sadducees, whose faith and understanding of God was being challenged by Jesus were just as desperate as I was. So, they lashed out, trying to catch him in an inconsistency. Trying to stop the questions and settle back into what felt more comfortable.
Have you ever done that? Maybe you have questioned someone, trying to figure out their formula of faith and make it work for you. Maybe you have lashed out and tried to prove someone wrong so your beliefs weren’t put in turmoil. Or maybe, you simply felt alone and afraid that everything you believed in might not be true. And I am here, as your pastor, to tell you that is okay. Those questions, those doubts, those fears, those ambiguities – those are all acceptable to God. In fact, I think God uses those questions and doubts to help us draw closer to God and learn to accept the grandness of God that is completely beyond our understanding.
Which, in this moment, is easy for me to say. I worked through that time of doubt in my life and have found comfort and even joy in the mystery. Right now, in my life, I am relieved I don’t have to fully understand God, that I get to keep learning and changing and growing with God. But I also imagine there are some here today for whom those doubts feel overwhelming. For whom the mystery feels dangerous.
Several years ago, when the private journals of Mother Theresa were made public, the world was shocked to read that she struggled daily with doubts about God and doubts about her ministry. They were shocked that a woman who embodied faith in God spent much of her life questioning God. How could that be, the world wondered? Some were even angry, thinking she was a fraud because she had doubts, and how could someone who professed a faith in God have doubts. And I think some felt resigned, thinking that if Mother Theresa didn’t have a perfect faith, then no one can.
And I also think there were a lot of people like me, who felt relieved. Like a burden had been lifted. That we can continue to do the work of our faith, to do the works of mercy and justice that we feel compelled towards, and not have God all figured out. That we can keep leaning into the mystery, seeing what is around the next corner – not with fear but with curiosity, even excitement. And, what happens after death is a mystery that we can never fully figure out, though believe me, I know how tempting it is to try.
Jesus’ taught the Sadducees that our imaginations are not up to the task because the realities of this world do not compute to what it means to be children of resurrection. To be born into life eternal after this life. We cannot possibly imagine, but don’t worry about it, Jesus says, because God will be with you. If God can be present in this moment and in the next – whatever that moment might be – then we can be assured we will never be alone, no matter what happens next. Don’t fret, Jesus says, God has got this – you don’t have to figure it out. Focus on your life now.
While this encounter as told in Luke between Jesus and the Sadducees ends with the Sadducees conceding that they could not catch Jesus out, the way this story is told in the Gospel of Mark takes it a step further. In Mark, someone is listening to Jesus teach the Sadducees and was impressed by Jesus’ answer and composure under questioning. So, he asks Jesus his own question – one that we have heard before. He asks, “Which commandment is the first of all?” Jesus’ answer, to love God with all our soul, and heart, and strength. And we should love our neighbor as we love ourselves.
Jesus tells the Sadducees to not worry so much about whether there is an afterlife and what that will look like because it is completely and totally in God’s control. And, then he says, what we need to be worrying about is loving God and our neighbor. That is where our focus should be. To love God and to love our neighbor. To do what we can to make this life one that is steeped in love. That is what we should concern ourselves with. That is precisely what Mother Theresa, even with all of her doubts did. She loved God and she loved her neighbor, all while leaning into the mystery of God and accepting the fact that she would never really understand.
What would it look like for us to lean a little more fully in our doubts? What would it look like for us to name those doubts out loud? And what would it look like if we tried to simply accept the understanding that we can’t understand it all? Here is what I think it would look like: we would question and we would learn and we would wonder together. We would be open to having our mind changed and our hearts opened. We would say to someone, “I don’t agree with you, but I am willing to have you convince me, so I am going to listen to what you think.” We would continue to serve our neighbors, and maybe in the midst of that service learn something new about God.
My favorite definition of Christianity comes from St. Augustine, and I share it here frequently. He said, “We are an Easter people, and alleluia is our cry.” We are a people of resurrection. We are people of mystery. We are a people whose faith rests on the life, death, and new life of Jesus Christ. And while we don’t understand it all that well, we still cry alleluia! We love God and our neighbor, and cry alleluia. We hear our children struggling with the questions of their faith, and cry alleluia. We say to God, I believe, help my unbelief – to which God cries alleluia.
In a few weeks we will begin Advent, a time of true mystery. A time when, inexplicably, God took on human flesh and lived amongst us. Why? How? I just don’t know. There was a time when I wanted, even needed, to know. Right now, I am reveling in the mystery. Tomorrow, maybe I will feel the need to fully understand again. And maybe right now you feel like you need to understand. That’s okay. I get it. All I can say is this: God lives in the midst of mystery and gives us space there. And God can handle our questions. So, don’t hold back. Amen.