November 7, 2010

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

Whenever I think of the Sadducees, I think of a silly kids’ song that I learned at camp many years ago. The refrain goes, “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. While 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, the Pastoral Care Team of our church had a gathering in the lower hall. A small group of women came together, representing some of the people who give their time and effort to caring for people in our church community who are sick or suffering or in need of support.

We came together to discuss the work of pastoral care in our church community, to celebrate the good work that is taking place, and to consider how we might enhance, improve, and expand the caring ministry together. We talked about visiting in the hospitals, and visiting our members who live in care homes. We talked about the ministry of phone calls and cards sent to give comfort and encouragement to folks who are sick or grieving. We talked about the ministry of prayer, shared in our congregation through the Prayer Chain and the Friday morning Prayer Group.

We talked about the idea of expanding our pastoral care program by hiring a part-time staff person for pastoral care, and we discussed what that role might look like… perhaps a dedicated pastoral visitor or perhaps a parish nurse. We didn’t come to a conclusion about what that new role should look like yet. We have some more work to do in considering the needs of our church community, and you will certainly be hearing more from the Pastoral Care Team on this topic in the new year. They will be asking for your input, and asking you to think and pray and discern about this important ministry.

But what became clear in our gathering yesterday was that no matter what model we might choose for a new staff position… or whether we hire for a new staff position or not… 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 the Pastoral Care Team leaders are doing is simply co-ordinating that 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.

As we gathered yesterday, and discussed some of the challenges that we encounter in our visiting and caring in the community, 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. 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.