Welcome to the Good Place... everything is fine?
Sunday Sermon for November 10, 2019 - The 22nd Sunday after Pentecost
Read Luke 20:27-38 before you read the sermon.
Does the name Eleanor Shellstrop ring a bell for anyone?
If the name sounds vaguely familiar it’s because you have probably watched the tv show “The Good Place.”
Eleanor is the lead character of this comedy that is in it’s 4th and final season.
The premise of this show is that Eleanor and three other lead characters have died and ended up in the Good Place.
They don’t use the traditional names of heaven and hell on the show.
It’s the Good Place and the Bad Place.
In the very first episode, we discover that Eleanor has died and, through a case of mistaken identity, wound up in the Good Place.
The show’s plot is far from solid Lutheran theology—the show is based on people doing good works and working their way into the Good Place—totally opposite of what we believe about God’s grace that saves us and not our own good deeds.
But there are some deep issues that are touched on throughout the show (with humor mixed in) that make it worth watching and discussing.
In the Good Place neighborhoods are set up so everything is the way that the individual who died would prefer it to be.
In the Good Place, everything there is based upon life HERE.
And in the Good Place everyone is matched with their soul mate.
Which gets very interesting throughout the show.
Viewers have seen twists and turns to the plot and some hilarious moments, as the show deals with a very serious subject.
That subject being:
What happens to us after we die?
It’s the timeless question.
It’s the question that is at the core of many world religions.
And what we believe about what happens when we die, shapes how we live. (More about that later)
Some churches talk about heaven a lot more than Lutherans tend to do.
We don’t tend to focus a lot on heaven in our preaching.
In part, because Jesus didn’t do a lot of talking about heaven—not in specifics—
and our preaching is usually focused on the stories of Jesus--the gospels.
About the only place Jesus talks about heaven,
at any length, is in our Gospel lesson today.
Our lesson starts out with a group of Jewish people called
called the Sadduccees, who don’t believe in resurrection.
They don’t believe in heaven.
Luke even includes that fact in his account in our lesson today.
The Sadducees said that when you die, that’s it.
Their thought was you only go around once. And when it’s over, it’s over.
A few of these Sadducees come to Jesus one day and present to him a hypothetical situation about a woman who’s dies, having been married seven times.
Now, just to back up a little bit, this story is based upon a Jewish law
which said that if a woman was married to a man who died before they had children together, the dead man’s brother should marry the widow.
It didn’t matter whether the woman wanted to be married to him or not.
She had no say in the matter.
It was a law.
The law said that after they were married their first child would be considered
the dead BROTHER’S child and would be given his name, so that the memory and the name of this dead man would be kept alive.
This law was written for several reasons.
One, to keep Jewish widows from marrying a foreigner—a non-Jew.
And another reason this law was written was that it would continue the name
of the husband who had died.
Clearly the laws and scripture were written in favor of men at this time.
Under these laws and in this society, women were dependent on men for
their livelihood and protection.
The Levitical Law may have been set up to be protective of women, but it also treated women as possessions.
As archaic as it may seem to us today, this was the law that women and men lived under and women had no say in the matter.
So in this hypothetical story, there are seven brothers who eventually are all married to this one woman.
Each one dying before they can have a child with her.
And so she has to marry the next brother and the next brother and the next.
Well, finally one day she dies.
And the Sadducees—these people who don’t even believe in heaven, want to know:
“What will be her marital status in heaven?”
“Jesus, who gets to ‘claim’ this woman?”
Not that these Sadducees really want to know the answer to that question.
After all, remember— they don’t believe there’s a heaven for this woman to be in in the first place.
They’re not looking for an answer to their question.
They’re looking to show Jesus how absurd it is to believe in the resurrection of the dead.
So, they lay all this out there for Jesus.
And then they stand back with their arms folded and wait for Jesus to solve their riddle.
In so many words, what he says to them is this…
Its like he is saying... “You guys make me tired.
Is that what you think heaven will be like?
That the way the world is arranged now, is the way God intends it to be?
And that heaven will just be a replay of all this?
Do you actually think that women are going to continue to be the property of men
passed around from man to man like beer at a tail gate party?
Is that all the imagination you have?
Do you think in the next world a woman’s value will be determined
by whether she’s married or whether she has a baby?
Is THAT what you think?”
That is what Jesus is saying to these guys when he says that those:
“…in the resurrection of the dead will neither marry nor be ‘given’ in marriage.”
The problem with the Sadducees was that they looked around
at the world as it is.
They assumed that if there IS a heaven God will surely set it up pretty much like the way
the world is set up now.
They lacked imagination.
If that’s what heaven is—I don’t think I’d believe in it either!
But Jesus says:
“REALLY? Is that what you think?”
Notice, Jesus doesn’t tell us exactly what heaven will be, but he lets us know it will be amazing.
Jesus takes a theoretical question about what life is going to look like in heaven and turns it into a lesson about what life OUGHT to look like on earth.
He’s making the Sadducees re-examine things.
And he’s calling them on their passive aggressive questioning style.
Jesus says, “Heaven won’t be like that. And that means earth shouldn’t be like that.”
We may not have a law on the books quite like the one the Sadducees talked about.
But we live in a world where people sometimes think that a man’s opinion about something is of more value than a woman’s.
Jesus says, “If heaven isn’t like that then why is it acceptable on earth?”
We may not live in a world quite like the Sadducees’ world.
But we do live in a world where children have been separated from their parents due to governmental decisions that have nothing to do with them,
Where people live on the streets because there is not enough affordable housing,
Where children go hungry every night because their parents can’t make a living wage.
Jesus says: “If heaven won’t be like that why are you not outraged that this kind of thing goes on in this world?"
You see? In his discussion of the NEXT world, Jesus causes us to be uncomfortable
with all the injustices of THIS world.
Uncomfortable enough to do something about them.
The Sadducees (and the Good Place show) are talking about a heaven
where society is organized just like it is here.
But Jesus says: No, no, no. You got it all wrong.
I’m talking about something brand new.
A world where everybody sees everybody else as a child of God.
That’s what belief in the resurrection is!
I take Jesus to mean that in the world God is bringing to pass we will finally see each other for the very first time—
not as married or unmarried,
not for our sexual orientation or identity,
not for the color of our skin,
not as legal or illegal,
or as any thing we use to divide ourselves here on earth,
but as a loved child of God.
THAT will make heaven, “heaven.”
God will finally have God’s way with us and the world will be as God always WANTED it to be. In the meantime, as the church we have work to do.
Work that involves, not only feeding the hungry but asking why folks are hungry
in the first place.
Not only weeping when children are gunned down in schools and on street corners
but questioning our nation’s obsession with guns.
And on and on it goes—this work of justice.
All of this is nothing less than showing the world, by what we say and do, a glimpse—just a glimpse—of what God’s heaven will look like...
Knowing all along, that when we enter that gate at the Good Place,
it won’t be because of anything we did to deserve or earn it.
It will all be because God is so crazy in love with us!
So in love that he gave his son.
That’s grace, and that’s what we are guaranteed heaven (the Good Place) will be
—a place filled with God’s love.