Now he is God not of the dead, but of the living; for to him all of them are alive” (Luke 20:38).

I’ve discovered that Nashville is an interesting place to be if you’re involved in any way with churches.  The Methodists and at least two Baptist groups have their headquarters here.  I found out recently that Church Publishing, the Episcopal Church’s publishing house, is moving their distribution center from Harrisburg PA to Nashville–not sure what that might mean except that it highlights the intersections that exist here between various industries and the institutional structures the various denominations have put together to–ideally at least–support the mission and ministry of their local congregations.

And being in this area, with all of its connections to the different denominations and thinkers, it means that I hear of or have been involved in any number of conversations about the problems confronting our congregations today.  One of these problems is declining attendance which is spurred on by an even more fundamental problem: fewer people actually identifying as Christian–or at least being involved in any sort of Christian fellowship.

There are many reasons for this.  We could pull out sociologists, anthropologists, theologians, church development gurus and maybe even a physicist or two (I’m barely joking) and consider their ideas about why this is happening.  But I don’t think we need to.  Today we should consider a key ingredient in this stew of negativity and it is simply this: People aren’t sure why they should go to church anymore.

Some of them may have decided that they don’t need to go to church to worship, but I think a greater number have found themselves in the situation that they can’t come up with a good reason to worship, or maybe they’re unsure how.  There are surely times when some of us here today might discover, upon reflection, that we’re simply here out of habit.

Regardless of what the ultimate underlying psychological reasons might be, there are lots of little things in our lives that call into question the offering of time each week to the communal worship of God.  It’s called into question because the point has been obscured, made to seem less important or even, in some cases, discredited or silly.

In the Gospel lesson we see something similar taking place, this time between two different religious schools of thought in Second Temple Judaism.  At the time the majority of Jews–the Pharisees and Jesus among them–believed in the bodily resurrection of the dead.  In most cases this belief was based primarily upon texts from the prophetic books–such as Ezekiel’s vision of the valley of dry bones.  The Sadducees, unlike the other Jewish groups, did not accept the idea of the resurrection, in part because they did not consider the prophetic books to be scriptural or to be on the same footing as the Torah (the five books of Moses).

As Luke recounts it, they believed that the idea of the resurrection was foolish and they thought they had a way to prove it.  So they came to Jesus and reminded him of the requirement of Levirate marriage that a man must marry the widow of his brother in order to “raise up” children for the brother.  They then set about shaping what I’m sure was even then an absurd example of a woman marrying seven brothers–outliving each one–before she herself died.  “In the resurrection, therefore, whose wife will the woman be?” they asked “For the seven had married her.”

In their attempt to discredit belief in the resurrection they made two assumptions that Jesus is going to take on directly.  They believed that resurrection described a return to life as it is–therefore the woman must have to be someone’s wife–and they assumed that the Torah was in conflict with the prophets.  But, as Luke wants us to understand, they were matching wits with the one who is the fulfillment of both the law and the prophets, the one who can demonstrate the fullness of scripture.

And so Jesus challenges their assumptions, first by telling them that in the resurrection people will neither marry or be given in marriage, but will be like angels (another thing the Sadducees did not believe in), living forever.  Understanding that they wouldn’t accept support from the prophetic books, Jesus interprets another section of the Torah, explaining that God is a God of the living, and therefore must have maintained the life of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob in some way between their deaths and the coming resurrection.  Going further, Jesus proclaims that God is not a God of the dead, but of the living “for to him all of them are alive…”

The Christian faith is firmly rooted in the truth that God loves us so overwhelmingly that he sent his Son to save us from ourselves, from our sin, and ultimately from the death that is the ramification of that sin.  A salvation that does not include salvation from death is no salvation, and without the hope of the resurrection, with Christ as its first fruits, we are truly as Paul wrote, most to be pitied among all people.

And so when we reflect on what brings us here Sunday after Sunday.  When we consider what draws us to give praise to God, it can be nothing less than the confession of hope: Our God is God of the living, and those who die in him do not ultimately die, but rest in him awaiting the day when we will all see one another again, clothed in bodies like that of the resurrected Christ.  Perhaps this confession looks absurd to the Sadducees of today.  Perhaps the doubts they spread give us pause.  But we come here, confessing our hope, receiving the sacraments and with them the grace of God, and we move forward.

It is especially important for us to remember this hope today, on this All Saints’ Sunday.  As we remember those who have gone on before, as we say their names during the prayers, as we give thanks for their lives I invite you to consider the words of this poem, A Hymn to God, My God, in My Sickness, written by the great poet-priest John Donne not long before he died:

We think that Paradise and Calvary,
Christ’s cross and Adam’s tree, stood in one place;
Look, Lord, and find both Adams met in me ;
As the first Adam’s sweat surrounds my face,
May the last Adam’s blood my soul embrace.

So, in His purple wrapp’d, receive me, Lord ;
By these His thorns, give me His other crown ;
And as to others’ souls I preach’d Thy word,
Be this my text, my sermon to mine own,
“Therefore that He may raise, the Lord throws down.”

–Donne, Hymn to God, My God, in My Sickness

Click below to read the whole Donne poem

HYMN TO GOD, MY GOD, IN MY SICKNESS.

SINCE I am coming to that Holy room,
Where, with Thy choir of saints for evermore,
I shall be made Thy music ; as I come
I tune the instrument here at the door,
And what I must do then, think here before ;

Whilst my physicians by their love are grown
Cosmographers, and I their map, who lie
Flat on this bed, that by them may be shown
That this is my south-west discovery,
Per fretum febris, by these straits to die ;

I joy, that in these straits I see my west ;
For, though those currents yield return to none,
What shall my west hurt me ? As west and east
In all flat maps—and I am one—are one,
So death doth touch the resurrection.

Is the Pacific sea my home ? Or are
The eastern riches ? Is Jerusalem ?
Anyan, and Magellan, and Gibraltar ?
All straits, and none but straits, are ways to them
Whether where Japhet dwelt, or Cham, or Shem.

We think that Paradise and Calvary,
Christ’s cross and Adam’s tree, stood in one place ;
Look, Lord, and find both Adams met in me ;
As the first Adam’s sweat surrounds my face,
May the last Adam’s blood my soul embrace.

So, in His purple wrapp’d, receive me, Lord ;
By these His thorns, give me His other crown ;
And as to others’ souls I preach’d Thy word,
Be this my text, my sermon to mine own,
“Therefore that He may raise, the Lord throws down.”