Hope from Pessimism

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Luke 20:27-38

I don’t know about you, but over the course of the last week I’ve caught myself thinking a lot about death.

On Monday we celebrated Halloween.  This is a funny tradition we have, isn’t it?  What, are we trying to scare people into giving us candy?  Princesses and superheroes aside, why all the grisly, death-focused getups?

Then, on Tuesday it was All Saints’ Day.  If you happened to come to the service here on Tuesday night, the music was from Faure’s Requiem—a mass for the dead.  During the prayers a necrology—a list of names of loved ones who died over the past twelve months—was read.

Again, a chief theme was death.

Next, on Wednesday it was All Souls’ Day.  This is the day on the church’s calendar in which we remember specifically all those unnamed people who simply went about their lives day in and day out until they passed away, but never ended up in any history books.  God knows the names of every one; we do not.

Also on Wednesday, death entered my thinking as we witnessed what many thought impossible: the Cubs won the World Series.  The last time the Cubs won the World Series was in 1908.  None of the players on that team was alive to see this team do it.  How sad!

Then on Friday I hiked by myself up Flag Mountain, variously called Jester’s Peak.  It started out pleasantly enough, with a well-marked trail ascending at a good clip.  But near the top the trail gave way to what I call an avalanche chute—a very steep depression down through which rocks falling from above would funnel if there were a rockslide.  Up this chute was my way.  But which way—to the right or to the left?—was up to me to guess.

So I scrambled left, climbing with both my hands and feet, until I came to a final rock face.  Too steep, I thought!  Still, I could see the temptation, for there, just through that crack, it seemed the trail should continue.

I decided to retrace my steps, however, down and then scramble up to the right.  Which turned out to be a better choice.

But, at the top of the chute now, I observed a crude memorial set up right where I would have come through that crack in the rock (if I hadn’t changed my mind).  And I realized: someone died right here, hiking this very trail.

So, yeah, death has been on my mind this past week.

And I would be remiss if I didn’t mention Tuesday’s election.  Will this be the death of our nation?  Probably not, in all seriousness.  But the death focus of my week has left me pessimistic.  Or, in other words, I’m “sad, you see.”

Which brings us to today’s Gospel: “Some Sadducees, those who say there is no resurrection, came to Jesus and asked him a question.” The Sadducees didn’t believe in life after death, so they were “sad, you see.”

Focusing just on death can leave us pessimistic.

But what happens after, or beyond, death?

The Torah—the Pentateuch, the first five books of the Bible—says very little about the afterlife.

We do in fact learn a lot about death in the Torah.  Adam and Eve are tempted by the wily serpent, who lies to them saying, “You will not die”; but, as we all know, they succumb; and we all learn what death is.

Lots of people die in these early stories.  Jacob lived a hundred and forty-seven years, the Torah says, a rich, full life; and then went to sheol, the place of the dead, whatever that means.

But as to what happens to us after death—what sheol is, what happens there, and so on—the Torah is silent.

And so the Sadducees developed a theology of death, angels, and the afterlife.  Namely, they said, since the Torah is silent, these must not be: there must not be an afterlife; and there is no such thing as angels.

For them, there was no resurrection.

But another Jewish tradition, that of the Pharisees, included more in its canon of sacred scriptures.  Specifically, it included the book of the prophet Daniel, who talks both about angels and the afterlife.

And don’t you find it interesting—just a brief observation—that Jesus here opposes the Sadducees but favors the Pharisees?  How often do we think of the Pharisees as the bad guys of the New Testament, the opponents of Jesus!  But here Jesus aligns with them.  We need to give the Pharisees more credit!

Anyway, we do it too, you know.  Like the Pharisees, we Christians formulate our own, traditional, inferential views about death and the afterlife.

We talk about body and soul being conjoined in the human person; and death being the separation of body and soul.  But this understanding of the human person is nowhere plainly stated in our Bible.  We’ve developed this doctrine over the centuries—a doctrine that in fact is being reconsidered by theologians today.

And we talk about eternal rest.  That’s what a requiem mass is—a prayer that those souls who have been separated from their bodies will find eternal rest: dona eis requiem aeternam, Domine; Lord, give them eternal rest.

But what does this term eternal rest mean?  Are we to picture souls just sleeping the eons away in peaceful slumber?  Or, is it more like leisure, more like what we do in our free time?  Or, do we sit around in an everlasting worship service, in continual praise of God?  Or, do we engage in relationships similar to what we know as humans, maybe around a giant banquet table with beloved friends and relatives, bringing out food and wine and the old family stories that have somehow gotten even better over the eons?

And then, what happens when we put them all together—body, soul, and rest?  What are we to make of souls who’ve been separated from their bodies and yet are unable or unwilling to go to that place of everlasting rest?

Hmm.  A soul without a body?  That sounds like a ghost.  And body without soul?  Sounds like a zombie.

And we’re back to Halloween!

Well, for crying out loud, what is it—Sadducees, Pharisees, the Faure’s Requiem, or Halloween?

But Jesus says, “Now he is God not of the dead, but of the living; for to him all of them are alive.”

And isn’t this a masterful approach?  Jesus knows the Sadducees look only to the Torah as their sacred scriptures, from which they form all their theology; from which they derive all their ethics.  So this is where he goes:

“And the fact that the dead are raised Moses himself showed, in the story about the bush, [from Exodus, at the very heart of your sacred Torah,] where he speaks of the Lord as the [present] God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.  Now he is God not of the dead, but of the living; for to him all of them are alive.”

Life does not end, Jesus says; but it does change.  This much we know!  And thus we have confidence in our great hope, the resurrection!

And doesn’t this, our hope simply in the resurrection, change the way we look at things?

Some historians link Halloween to an ancient Celtic festival called Samhain, in which the dead and evil spirits are celebrated through dressing up and pulling pranks.  The church, these historians say, decided to “clean up” the festival by linking it to All Saints’ Day—Halloween means “all hallowed’s eve.”

However, other historians say no way!  All Saints’ Eve was never connected to Samhain.  Instead, yes, it is a part of All Saints’ Day, an extension of it, during which we Christians dress up as evil spirits and witches and so on in order to say, “Ha, we’re not scared!”—of Satan, his demons, or of any other power of darkness in the unseen realms—“for we follow Christ, and he holds the very keys to Death and Hades.  Our hope is in his resurrection and ours.”

Then, on All Saints’ Day we remember not just the dead but the church: followers of Christ who have lived throughout the ages, us who live now, and those who will live in the future.

And on All Souls’ Day, another extension of All Saints’ Day, we remember specifically the faithful departed—all those unnamed people who never ended up in any history books.  We can and should remember and honor them.

Do you see how our hope in the resurrection changes our perspective?  No longer are we pessimistic, but hopeful.

Two last thoughts:

First, think about the World Series Game.  1908 was the last time the Cubs won.  All the players on the team the last time they won are now dead and gone.  But, channeling hopeful thoughts of the resurrection, I wonder, were these former players, now passed on, sitting in some spiritual bleachers on Wednesday night, doing some kind of ghostly victory dance when that third out of the tenth inning finally materialized?

And the second thought: What about our nation?  Even if you are pessimistic about the possible outcome of Tuesday’s election, God is in the business of resurrection, of breathing in new life, of doing a new thing.  There’s tremendous hope in this!

Life does not end; it is changed.  We are not pessimistic, but hopeful.

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