Pastor Lecia Beck
30 April 2023 — Fourth Sunday of Easter
Acts 5:12-16; Psalm 119:97-103; Romans 6:5-11; Matthew 22:23-33 Saint Thomas Evangelical Lutheran Church, Bloomington, Indiana
Ready for Change
The same day some Sadducees came to [Jesus] saying there is no resurrection, and they asked him a question: “Teacher, Moses said, ‘If a man dies childless, his brother shall marry the widow and raise up children for his brother.’ Now there were seven brothers among us; the first married and died childless, leaving the widow to his brother. The second did the same, so also the third, down to the seventh. Last of all, the woman herself died. In the resurrection, then, whose wife of the seven will she be? For all of them had married her.”
Jesus answered them, “You are wrong because you know neither the scriptures nor the power of God. For in the resurrection people neither marry nor are given in marriage but are like angels of God in heaven. And as for the resurrection of the dead, have you not read what was said to you by God, ‘I am the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob’? The Lord is God not of the dead but of the living.” And when the crowds heard it, they were astounded at his teaching.
Most mornings when my alarm goes off, I pick up my phone to turn it off (because I am one of those people who use my phone as an alarm), and since I’m not quite ready to get out of bed yet (no matter what time the alarm went off), I end up scrolling through the news. It’s not really the best way to start the morning because it’s often about the things that have gone wrong. On my best days, I see it and it reminds me that we are called to be Christ’s heart, hands and feet in our world, working alongside God for restoration and renewal for all of creation. But most days, it simply makes me shake my head and lose patience with the neighbors I am called to love.
Just the other morning, in my early morning news review, I read about some current Indiana bills that were headed to the governor to be signed. I noticed one in particular. Since Indiana schools are no longer required to teach cursive writing, Senate Bill 72 will require the Department of Education to compile a list of which schools teach cursive and in which grade they do. The article included a quote from a representative about how important it is to bring cursive writing back so that kids will be able to sign legal documents and read cards from their grandma. While the ways we communicate with each other and complete legal documents have changed, it seems that there are enough lawmakers in Indiana who can’t believe that what our students need to learn is any different.
Whether or not we teach children to write in cursive is fairly innocuous, perhaps tedious at worst. But there are other movements around us that serve shore up systems ready for change. Current talk of transgender sports bans and gender-affirming care bans and so many of these book bans are about shoring up a binary system of gender that no longer works in our world.
And in the wake of every tragic shooting, discussions about second amendment rights fail to recognize that the world has changed – guns have changed – and so perhaps our interpretation of the right to bear arms needs to change along with it.
Of course, it’s easy to point fingers across the aisle at what everything everyone else gets wrong, but it’s easy to do the same thing. We spend a lot of time trying to maintain the way things were. Whether it’s relationships or jobs or habits, it often feels much safer to continue even when we know the system is broken.
If we take seriously what Paul writes, that if we are united with Christ in a death like his, we will be united with him in a life like his, can we trust God to care for our systems and institutions in the same way?
I love the church and believe God works through the church (both the big-C Church and the local little-C church), but the church is not exempt from this desire to perpetuate systems past their point of usefulness.
The beginnings of the church were marked by rapid change. One of the major questions before the early Jew was how much new Christians needed to live within the Jewish systems, which customs did they need to follow, especially around dietary restrictions. Everything was upended and something new needed to come forth once they were expelled from the synagogues and following the Way became a distinctly different way of believing and living.
We often point to the gift of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost as the beginning of the church, the wild and unpredictable gift that led them to preach and be understood in every language, but rapidly systems were built and things were put in order. With a few big exceptions, much of the history of the church since has been concerned with maintaining what always has been.
When we bring this down to us, it’s always tempting to continue what has been, to work on bringing back programs or continuing things that no longer bear fruit. We spend our time propping up systems and trying to return our church to some previous era of greatness, or at least the activities we did before the pandemic.
Like the Sadducees Jesus encountered, we cling to what was because we don’t know what will be. We want to stick to what we know rather than braving the unknown and trusting the future to God, trusting that the Holy Spirit continues to be present and at work in the church today.
What if some things need to die in order to be reborn? What must we let go of to make space for new life?
There are many great things happening here at St Thomas. We are connecting with new folks, we are leaning in deep with our mission partners. We are committed to reaching out to live, grow and celebrate God’s grace with all people. We have people who care deeply about our children and youth.
But we also know that there could be some things ready for change, for us to let go of so that new life can spring forth. It’s easy to fall into the cycle of simply trying harder when the things that came easily no longer work as well. We honor our past and remember the things that went before, but we must acknowledge that we live in a different world. We know the pandemic has changed how many people spend their time and how they connect to others – and to church, that these past years have brought forth things we didn’t see like the depths of inequality in this country, like the mental health struggles of so many, the far-reaching effects of climate change. But we also know that time and energy and passion have a limit – we cannot just keep adding and adding without also letting go of some things.
Or maybe it’s some of our attitudes that need to be reborn. Could it be time to let go of comparing ourselves to other churches or other people and patting ourselves on the back for feeling incrementally better? Could it be time to let go of letting my desires be my first priority or looking for someone else to step up to do the work? Could it be time to let go of trying to return to what was instead of trusting in what will be?
Elsewhere, Paul wrote, If anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation.(2 Corinthians 5:17)
The Prophet Isaiah speaking for God, said, Behold, I am doing a new thing – do you not perceive it? (Isaiah 43:19)
And our passage from Romans reminds us that if we have died with Christ, we will rise with Christ. But we often want to overlook that simple fact that death comes before resurrection. While death can be scary to face, we are promised that it is not the end, but something new will come forth.
When the Israelites returned from exile and rebuilt the temple, there was a mix of weeping and rejoicing. For some folks, they could not let go of the stories of what had been and believed that the present fell short. Even though the present looked different from what they knew, others trusted that God was doing a new thing in their midst, that new life had come to them.
It’s easy to feel overwhelmed by an unknown future, but God promises to be with us. God promises to never leave us or forsake us. (Deuteronomy 31:8) The Holy Spirit dwells with us and in the church.
And this is part of what we are doing today as a congregation. We are preparing for our annual meeting this afternoon – to celebrate the good that has been done this past year and thank everyone who has been part and to look to the future, electing leaders to help us dream God’s dream for our congregation, to help us join with God in the restoration and renewal of all creation.
And we are also preparing to plant trees – a declaration that we do indeed believe that there will be a future and it will be good. That “unless a seed falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single seed; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.” (John 12:24) As the story goes, when Martin Luther was asked what he would do if the world were to end tomorrow, he answered, “I would plant an apple tree today.” And so we look to the future in hope, trusting God will let die the things that must die and will bring new, resurrected life to us and to our world. Amen.