Marriage is a touchy topic. Perhaps that is because it evokes deep feelings about who we are. We receive subtle and blatant messages that suggest that we are only “complete” or socially acceptable if we are married as adults. When we fill out a form to receive health care or vote, we are confronted with four choices: M, S, W, D; married, single, widowed, divorced. Those who are committed to another person but are not legally married are considered “single” by default, regardless of the depth or longevity of relationship that doesn’t tick the boxes. Other people thus assume a position to decide who we are based on whether we are married of not.
Marriage is also very political, as we know. I’ve been trying to figure out a way to weave the imminent election in my sermon today without of course endorsing or otherwise compromising the integrity of the pulpit. The election doesn’t really fit into our text, but I will at least say clearly that I hope you vote if you haven’t already. Marriage hasn’t been a big topic in this presidential election cycle as it has in the past, but while one party assumes that the relatively new reality of marriage equality in our nation is here to stay, the other has promised to revoke that right from LGBT citizens. It’s remarkable to me that any political party or candidate would seek votes by promising that other people will have fewer rights if they win. The national conversation that has taken place regarding same-sex marriage has often included the phrase “biblical marriage.” What is often forgotten in those discussions (which are arguments, really) is that marriage in Bible times looked very different from what we call marriage today. Biblical marriage has included multiple spouses, arranged marriages, the right to marry someone if you rape them first, and of course the payment of a bride price. And then there is a practice that is called “Levirite marriage” which is what today’s Gospel reading is about. The reading itself is pretty bizarre, and I have to admit that I have never preached on it before. Here goes!
Shortly after Jesus entered Jerusalem at the start of the final week before his death, a group of religious folk called Sadducees approached him with a question. The Sadducees had the responsibility of maintaining the temple and many served as priests. In this encounter with Jesus, they are distinguished from other religious leaders by their lack of belief in an afterlife. They did not believe in the resurrection, meaning that they denied that souls emerged from death to take on a new and lasting form.
Levirite marriage was the practice where a man was required to marry his brother’s widow in order to carry on the brother’s line. The widow, also, was required to do so. It was a pretty straightforward and quite practical, though obviously patriarchal tradition, but the Sadducees were intent on making Jesus look foolish, so they embellished it. They carried it out to an extreme by imagining a situation where seven brothers all married the same woman. Seven brother all died in a row. How could that not be suspicious?! Today, the wife would be labeled “the black widow” and an investigation opened! The Sadducees wanted to know, if there is a resurrection as Jesus spoke of, who would the woman be married to for the rest of eternity? Perhaps this was the first time that marriage was being used as a wedge issue, and Jesus was not about to be tripped up by this “gotcha” question. He replied that marriage is part of this current life but will not continue into eternity. Apparently that is why we say “till death do us part,” since Jesus’ description of marriage is earth-bound and temporary.
I’m still a little baffled how to base an entire sermon on this text, but I am drawn to the last several words: “God is God not of the dead, but of the living; for to God all of them are alive.” He was referring to the seven brothers, all now deceased. When there is resurrection, there is ultimately life not death, so Jesus was not inclined to think of the brothers as dead.
When we celebrate All Saints Sunday, we affirm what Jesus said. Those who we remember are not dead if their souls are animated by resurrection. And even if we’re not so sure about resurrection and life after death, we can affirm that people live in and through us in many ways after their death.
Some of you know that Rev. Pete Terpenning and I responded to a request for clergy to go to the Standing Rock Reservation in North Dakota this week. We were there to support the Lakota people in their effort to block the Dakota Access Pipe Line that threatens their water and has already destroyed portions of their ancestral land. It’s hard to know exactly how many clergy arrived from around the country and from many faith traditions, but there were at least 524, one for every year since Columbus arrived in what was erroneously dubbed “the new world.”
What a cultural contrast with the story in Luke’s gospel! Levirite marriage in the days of Jesus was about as patriarchal as you can get. It is about men controlling women and offspring. It was a societal expectation in a culture that where men made the rules and held most of the power. Native American societies, in contrast, are matriarchal and matrilineal, and family lines are traced through the mother.
When we arrived at Standing Rock, we attended an orientation session at a gymnasium. A Lakota woman concerned that we would provoke police unnecessarily was emphatic that all of our actions should be done peacefully. She wagged her finger at us and there was no question about who was in charge. The next morning, as we gathered around the sacred fire to publicly renounce the Doctrine of Discovery that allowed native lands to be taken and tribes to be killed, the Lakota women began the rituals with a water ceremony. The women moved through the crowd and gently poured water into our cupped hands, reminding us of the power of water as we sought to be Water Protectors by the edge of the Missouri River. Wherever we went at Standing Rock, we saw and heard the words, “Water is Life.” For the Lakota people, the river is not just a slow-moving body of water, it is a living being. It is part of their family, much as their ancestors are also considered living beings who the honor by being stewards of “Turtle Island,” the earth.
Mother Teresa was canonized as a saint this past September, only twenty years after her death. She was essentially fast-tracked to the sainthood by the Catholic Church. UCC pastor and author Lillian Daniel wrote about her this week, reminding us that most official saints took decades if not centuries to be approved for sainthood. Saint Teresa’s journals and the writings of others about her reveal that she was less than perfect. Her work with orphans, though, was so profoundly selfless and influenced so many people worldwide, that it was hard not to recognize her as a saint. Lillian remarked that Teresa’s fast-tracking seemed like a Protestant move. For us, sainthood is not about super-special status or evidence of miracles. Instead, it is recognizing the spark of divinity in each of us.
Today we take time to remember all who have blessed us through lives of love and service. We honor them by committing ourselves to the causes they upheld. We venerate the first peoples of our continent and Mother Earth herself by protecting our common land and water and the animals who share our planet. We pay homage to those who faith inspired us as children and youth by passing on that faith to current and future generations. We honor our own departed family members by reflecting on who we have become as a result of their commitment and faithfulness to us.
We are saints alive; not at all perfect, but fully capable of great things for the sake of all who will follow after us. Thanks be to God. Amen!