I am guilty of this, I know I am. I preach funerals and I paint pictures imagining heaven as a place that is some kind of extension of all that we have held dear here in this life. I would guess this is because my imagination is earth-bound. This is all I know. If today’s Gospel lesson is any indication, clearly I am not alone.
For I imagine this also must have been true for the Sadducees who seek to back Jesus into a corner today. They only know what they know and aren’t willing to risk beyond that. In fact, they go nowhere near where the Pharisees and Jesus and you and I would go in terms of believing God has something in store for us after this life — even if we can’t describe it or fully understand it. Instead, given their example today, it is clear they have placed their hope for immortality squarely on the shoulders of their children and their children’s children. If they live on at all, they believe they will do so through their offspring. And I have to admit that their question is a pretty good one — if you carry my usual earth-bound preaching images to their extreme. If the next life is simply a continuation of what we have known here? Well, things could get pretty confusing!
And yet, on first glance I don’t necessarily find Jesus’ response to the Pharisees today all that helpful. What does he mean when he speaks of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob saying ‘for to God all of them are alive?’ How can this be, these many generations later? How does this speak to those who have surely stood at gravesides and said good-bye? How does this bring hope to those living in the darkness that always seems to come — if not the next day — then in the weeks and months that follow when those who brought such comfort return to their lives and the proclamation of hope which rang so true has now faded.
At least this was so for me. I had to sort through these questions about what follows this life the hard way. Perhaps we all do, I don’t know.
I offer you now one of the most tender pieces of my journey in life and in faith. I know I am still finding words for it, so I hope it will make sense to you
You’ve heard me speak before of the time around my dad’s final illness and death. Now, as you might guess, by then I had rested in the promise of the Resurrection my whole life. I had unflinchingly preached it for a decade by then. And then, suddenly, the loss was mine and I experienced the sort of grief which perhaps we all experience at one time or another — where it feels as though a pillar of your world has fallen away — where you are walking around with a hole in your heart which no one else can see. Oh yes, I expect you know of what I speak.
It was in that lingering winter that I came to wonder about heaven — about the promise of the next life that is ours. Oh, I could not imagine that a life force as strong as his was then simply gone from this world. And it was not enough, somehow, to believe that he simply lived on in memory or in the lives of his children and grandchildren — although this was very much true. Still, while I knew there had to be something more, I am also a child of this age. I have seen rocket ships fly through space and men walk on the moon. Those who have crossed those borders have come back to say that they saw no evidence of heaven. (I know. Perhaps until the age of 35 my faith was quite child-like. I had never thought to think this through before. It took this shock to my system, to my life, to the ground that had held me, to make me go deeper.)
And so I silently wondered and feared and doubted and still I preached. Sunday after Sunday I preached right through that barren time, all the while wondering if what I was offering was based on truth or not. For I simply couldn’t see it then. With the Sadducees, I found myself asking impossible questions. Only I was the one backed into the corner.
Now what happened next is difficult for me to relay for I am not fluent in science fiction. I simply don’t understand it and what I don’t have any hope of understanding holds no great fascination for me, so this is a language I have not begun to master. But for some reason the summer after that long winter I went to see the movie, “Contact.” Perhaps you remember it. The film is based on the novel of the same name by Carl Sagan. It deals with the question of other life forms in the universe. More than that, it deals with matters of doubt and faith. It starred Jodie Foster and Matthew McConaughey. If you want the full synopsis of the plot, you can find it here
At any rate, Jodie Foster plays a scientist whose life calling has been to listen for evidence of alien life. The backdrop of her personal story is that her mother died first when she was a child followed then by the sudden death of her dad. The climax of the movie comes when she ‘travels through a wormhole’ and encounters alien life: which takes the form of her dad. “He” says to her that though it appears as though he is, he is not actually her dad. Rather, he came in this form so she would be able to accept and receive it. When she “returned to earth” she believed that she had been away for some time, but those observing said she had only been gone a couple of minutes. (Are you still with me?) The audio tapes which were recorded did, in fact, record 18 hours of static. At the end of the film, she is before Congress testifying that not everything can be explained, but that does not make it not so.
I weep every time I watch this movie… especially at the scene where the form of her dad comes to her again. Only, I weep not so much because of the story before me, but because of the faith that somehow was then born again in my heart. For where I arrived then is where I find I still am. This is the understanding I now hold:
- There are so many parts of the universe I do not know. There are ways and places which are utter mystery to me. I know many understand more than I do, but we all, at some point, come to the end of our understanding. And I have become comfortable in not knowing.
More than that though:
- I don’t know how God does what God does, but still I believe God can and God does; most likely in ways and places yet unimaginable to me or to any of us. Indeed, this may seem a little strange, but ever since I left that darkened theater, I have come to think of heaven as a kind of other ‘dimension’ — we can’t find it now, perhaps. No matter how high we fly or how deep we dig. But God is bigger than this. And that is enough.
I never would have believed that a movie could have done this for me. But it did.
So, no, I have to say that Jesus’ words don’t necessarily speak to my mind which has been shaped by a scientific, proof-seeking age. But his words do speak to my heart. For they speak of a God of life who does the unimaginable. If Abraham and Isaac and Jacob are still living, then so somehow must be those I have loved and so will I be, too, one day.
And while it is so that my funeral preaching images are entirely inadequate, they do all speak to joy and hope and wonder in the face of sorrow and despair and doubt. For they are all images of lives lived well in faith and with hope and with purpose. And if what God has created here is ‘good’ then that must go on in some way, mustn’t it? Even if it’s not enough? Even if it won’t even really begin to compare with what’s in store for us next?
As for the Sadducees and their very good question today? They are right, of course, if God is bound by what we know here. But God is not. For in a world and in our lives which are marked by death, God is about something more. Life. And yes, I don’t completely get it yet. But somehow I’m able to rest in my not completely knowing now. And that is something.
- Have you ever found yourself identifying with the Sadducees and their question today? What was that time like for you?
- How have you sorted out the important matters before us in our Gospel lesson now?
- What does it mean to you that ours is a “God of the living?”