November 10, 2013

2 Thessalonians 2:1-5, 13-17
Luke 20:27-38

“Eternal Comfort and Good Hope”

Whenever I think of the Sadducees, I think of that silly kids’ song that I learned at camp many years ago. You’ve probably heard the kids here at St. Andrew’s singing it… “I only want to be a sheep, ba ba ba ba… I only want to be a sheep, ba ba ba ba, I pray the Lord my soul to keep, I only want to be a sheep, ba ba ba ba.”

And then each verse mentions a biblical character that I don’t so much want to be like. I don’t want to be a goat…. nope. I don’t want to be a Pharisee… ‘cause they’re not fair, you see. And… I don’t want to be a Sadducee… ‘cause they’re so sad, you see.

We don’t know very much about the Sadducees. They were a group of religious leaders in the time of Jesus – a different group from the Pharisees that we hear about so often in the Gospels. What we do know is that the Sadducees were part of the priestly aristocracy. They had status and power. The historian Josephus, describes them as harsh judges who were known to be most cruel among the Jews.

And several times in the Gospels and in the Book of Acts, there are indications that the Sadducees disagreed with the Pharisees on a significant theological point. The Sadducees did not believe in resurrection. I suppose, for them, when you were dead, you were dead, and that was all. Kind of sad, don’t you think? Kind of sad to think that when this life is over, that could just be it. I don’t want to be a Sadducee… ‘cause they’re so sad, you see…

Well, in today’s Gospel story, the Sadducees are not making the most of their limited time in the world. Instead, they are spending their time and energy arguing with Jesus about the resurrection. They suggest a situation in which a woman ends up being married to seven men in succession, as she is widowed over and over. When the woman finally dies as well, they want to know whose wife she will be in the afterlife. After all, she was married to seven different men!

I suppose they asked the question to try to trick Jesus… to try to make his beliefs look stupid… to try to make his convictions about the resurrection sound crazy… But Jesus’ wise answer points out that they are the ones who are being silly.

Though Jesus probably doesn’t know any more than any of us about what heaven will be like, he quite confidently declares that marriage is not even a relevant issue when it comes to the afterlife. And then he goes on to address the issue that is really behind their question… the fact that they don’t even believe that there will be an afterlife.

This is an unusual text in the Gospel of Luke, because Jesus doesn’t tend to do a lot of theologizing. He doesn’t usually tell his followers which theological doctrines they should believe and which they should reject. Most of the time, Jesus’ teaching has more to do with how to live in the world… how to love one another, including the poor and the outcast and the lowly ones. And Jesus not only teaches that value, but he also demonstrates it in the way he lives his life – in his healing and helping and forgiving ministry.

But it makes sense to me to think that Jesus must have had a great deal of confidence and hope that when his life in the world came to an end, it would not be the end – full stop. He wasn’t worried about death, and so he had the freedom to live fully. He could take risks. He could make friends with sinners. He could heal lepers. He could even argue with powerful Sadducees if he needed to… Because Jesus must have known – deep within him – that his life and his death were in the hands of a loving God.

I think of the Thessalonian Christians and their worries and concerns. Like the Sadducees, they were getting distracted by theological questions that were keeping them from living lives of faithfulness and goodness. Whereas the Sadducees were spending their time arguing about whether there was life after death, the Thessalonians were worrying, or perhaps debating about, whether Jesus had already returned and the world was coming to an end.

And so Paul wrote to them to set them straight and to get them back on track in their lives of faith. He comforted them and encouraged them to continue in faith… not by giving them any proof… but simply by reminding them of their identity as God’s chosen ones, and of the promise of glory because of God’s grace in Jesus Christ.

It wasn’t just a matter of helping the Thessalonian Christians to FEEL better. It was a matter of them being freed from fear and anxiety and worry so that they could focus their attention on living fully in the way of Jesus. Paul prays not only that God will comfort them, but that God will strengthen them in every good work and word.

And that is my prayer for our church today. I’m not really too worried about whether we all believe the right doctrines perfectly, or whether we agree on every detail. But we do need to stand firm and hold fast to what we have seen and heard in Jesus Christ. Following his way, we need to live in such confidence and hope and trust in God, that we are able to live freely – giving our time, our talent, ourselves for others – and not being held back by worry or fear about the future.

Yesterday was a pretty special day for our congregation, although we may not have all known it. Three years ago we began a conversation about pastoral care. We examined the pastoral care ministry that was taking place in our congregation, and started thinking about the possibility of growing the ministry through the addition of a pastoral care nurse.

We did the research on congregational nursing, and explored, discussed, and considered hiring a pastoral care nurse. And once the decision was made to go ahead, we looked for someone to be our pastoral care nurse. One of our own members, Laura Van Loon, heard the call of Christ , stepped out in faith, and applied for the position. Laura was an experienced and capable nurse with all kinds of relevant nursing experience, but she wasn’t yet trained in this type of congregational nursing.

So with the help of Interchurch Health Ministries, Saskatchewan, Laura and St. Andrew’s began a journey of learning and growing in pastoral care ministry. Laura began the Parish Nurse Training program, and several members of the pastoral care committee and I joined in the program to learn along with her.

Yesterday afternoon, both Laura Van Loon and Adela MacDonald, having completed all the required courses and assignments, graduated from ICHM’s Parish Nurse Training Program. Let’s congratulate them for that accomplishment!

I am personally very grateful to have Laura on staff at St. Andrew’s, contributing a great deal to our pastoral care ministry, and providing skills, expertise, and resources that often only a caring nurse can provide.

But I’m also very aware that the work of pastoral care is not the work of one person, or even the work of a small group of people within the church. The ministry of pastoral care… the work of comforting and encouraging one another within the body of the church… is a work that must be shared by all of us.

One of the most important things that our Pastoral Care Committee does is to simply co-ordinate care… encouraging communication about the needs and concerns of our members and others connected with our church, and trying to make sure that no one is left out or neglected. It takes more than just a nurse and a minister… but also a whole team of hospital visitors, home visitors, card-writers, phone callers, prayer shawl knitters, prayer chain pray-ers, and church family members who seek to care for one another through all the ups and downs of life.

As we celebrated the graduation yesterday, and blessed the hands of two newly commissioned nurses – Laura and Caroline, I thought about the fact that as caregivers, none of us know all the answers or how best to help the people that we seek to care for. Even when we have completed a program and taken all the required courses, we will always have more to learn from the experience of stepping out in faith to offer care.

But like Paul, we endeavor to speak words of comfort and encouragement to our friends who are sad, or scared, or worried or alone. And like Jesus, we give our time and attention towards those who may be on the margins… those who are sick, or suffering, or left out. We put our own concerns and priorities aside for a time, and with confidence and hope in God’s love, and God’s promises, and God’s presence, we give ourselves to the ministry of comfort and encouragement.

Jesus’ life and death and resurrection is our eternal comfort and our good hope. May God comfort our hearts and strengthen them in every good work and word. Amen.