The Twenty-Second Sunday after the Pentecost, Year C
[Texts: Job 19:23-27, Psalm 17 1-9, II Thessalonians 2:1-5, 13-17, Luke 20:27-38]
“Seven Weddings and a Funeral”
Sunday, 10 November 2019
My sisters and brothers, I speak to you today in the name of God, who is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
What do you think Heaven will be like?
No, really. I want you to think about it.
What do you think of when you imagine the afterlife?
What do you think Heaven looks like?
Do you imagine pearly gates,
streets of gold,
choirs of angels,
an all-you-can-eat taco buffet that’s open twenty-four hours a day and you never get fat eating there?
(Okay, so maybe the taco thing is just me, but you get my point…)
What if we think a bit more deeply than just imagining what they pave the streets with?
What do you think Heaven will be like?
Do you think you’ll get to see all your loved ones who passed before you?
Will all the pets you’ve had in your life be there?
What about ancestors whose names you never knew? Will you meet them?
Do you think you’ll get to meet some famous people, too? Will you get to have tea with Queen Elizabeth I, or a fried peanut butter and banana sandwich with Elvis? Play a game of chess with Albert Einstein? Talk about justice with Rosa Parks?
And, do you think you’ll get to ask God all those burning questions you’ve had in your life about how the universe works?
What do you think?
People have been asking questions just like these about the hereafter since… well, probably about as long as there have been people on earth.
Even people who don’t profess belief in an afterlife aren’t immune from this curiosity, as we see in today’s Gospel lesson.
Today we have the story of a Sadducee—he is Jewish, but the particular sect of Judaism he practices does not teach that there is a Heaven. (Believe it or not, the Pharisees were the religious liberals of their day, because they believed in radical ideas like the afterlife—the Sadducees did not.)
He makes up a little hypothetical scenario and presents it to Jesus, asking Him, “How would this work in the afterlife?”
In order for us to understand this scenario the Sadducee came up with, we need to talk about a practice called Levirate marriage.
Levirate marriage is “a type of marriage in which the brother of a deceased man is obliged to marry his brother’s widow.” 
In other words, if a woman was married and her husband died, she became her late husband’s brother’s wife.
You’re probably cringing right now, imagining having to spend the rest of your life married to your stupid brother-in-law who manages to ruin Thanksgiving every year by bringing up politics at the dinner table. I feel you.
But imagine you’re a woman living in the first century.
You have no voice in society. You can’t have a job. You can’t own property – legally, you’re little more than property yourself. You have no independence and no agency.
If you were to become a widow, and you didn’t have a son to take care of you, your life would essentially be over.
Your best bet would be to remarry as soon as possible, but you’re hardly anyone’s first pick at your age, especially since you’ve already been married. You might find a new husband, but your odds aren’t great.
Barring that, you will likely die in poverty, a beggar or a prostitute, homeless and alone.
I’m sure you can see how levirate marriage would be a positive in such a society, where women are totally legally dependent on men. The practice would ensure that the widow—who would otherwise be SOL—had a male provider and protector, as well as another chance at having kids.
This practice was common in the Ancient Near East at the time of Jesus—not just practiced among the Jews, but many cultures in that area—and is still practiced by some people groups today, especially in sub-Saharan Africa.
Jewish law regarding levirate marriage can be found in Deuteronomy chapter 25. This passage makes it very clear that this is something a widow is entitled to. Her late husband’s brother is obligated to marry her and take her in—it is his duty, and if he refuses, he is in big trouble under the law.
So, this Sadducee comes to Jesus with a story:
There is a certain woman who was married, and her husband died, leaving her a childless widow. Under the law—according to the rules of levirate marriage—she automatically became the wife of his next-oldest brother. When that brother died, she became the wife of the next-oldest brother. Well, he died too, and I bet you can guess what happened next. And so on and so forth. By the time this woman eventually passed away, she was married to the seventh brother, and still didn’t have any kids.
The Sadducee wanted to know, “When this lady gets to Heaven, Jesus, who is going to be her husband? The first brother? The seventh brother? All of them? How’s that going to work? Who is she going to enjoy all of those delicious no-calorie tacos with for the rest of eternity?”
Now, during her life on earth, the woman in the story got the best deal that a widow could possibly get, thanks to levirate marriage.
Rather than be condemned to the sort of life a childless widow would normally have after the death of her husband, she got a new husband automatically.
She had a male provider—and, remember, only males could really be providers—from the moment she left her dad’s house to marry her first husband to the moment of her own death.
Given the alternative, I’d say she lucked out by the standards of her day. Her story is a best-case scenario, if you think about it.
For a guy who doesn’t believe in Heaven, the Sadducee sure made a lot of assumptions about Heaven—and not very imaginative assumptions.
By his logic, the afterlife would basically be a carbon copy of Earth but with a few improvements, like death not being a thing, but all the same systems would still be in place. It would be different, but not too different—certainly not outside of our ability to grasp.
And that is where our friend the Sadducee went wrong in this story.
He probably thought he was going to win this little game of stump-the-rabbi, but Jesus gave him an answer he wasn’t prepared for: The woman in this story wouldn’t be married to any of the seven brothers when she got to Heaven. She wouldn’t be anyone’s property. She wouldn’t need to be married in order to ensure her survival.
In the eternal reality– in God’s reality– no one is property. Everyone is equal– equally cherished, equally valued, equally beloved of God. We belong to God alone, not to a husband or a father or a master, and stand on level ground as sisters and brothers, children of the same God.
I’m sure this blew the guy’s mind.
Like I said, he is thinking too much in terms of the here and now. (Well, “now” for him, meaning the first century.) He is thinking too much in terms of the systems and the reality he is familiar with.
Sure, levirate marriage isn’t a thing we really see a lot in the United States in 2019, so his story seems a little dated to us now, but I’m sure we could create a modernized equivalent, something that makes sense in our day. And whatever we came up with wouldn’t sound any less silly compared to the eternal reality than what this Sadducee came up with did.
Jesus isn’t talking about the first century or the twenty-first. He is talking about eternity. He is talking about something radically different.
He’s not talking about a place where your side always wins the war—He’s talking about a reality where we will “study war no more.”
He isn’t talking about a place where we work out all the kinks in oppressive systems and make them work better for more people—He is talking about a reality where those systems simply do not exist.
He’s talking about the Kingdom of God.
And the truth is, we can’t grasp that. We can’t even begin to imagine it.
Sure, we have glimpses of eternity here on earth—what Celtic Christians called “thin places,” those moments when the veil between this life and the next seems to be thinner and more transparent than usual. We have the witness of people who have had near-death experiences. And, most importantly, we have the Eucharist, which is the way we encounter Christ in bodily form here on Earth.
But, as St. Paul said, in this life we see the eternal reality as though we were looking “through a glass dimly.” Even our most profound experiences as human beings on earth are like looking through a foggy pair of glasses. We don’t know all the details—and, in fact, could not comprehend them with our finite human minds.
You know, people might think I’m weird for this, but my absolute favorite thing in the Book of Common Prayer is the Order for the Burial of the Dead.
I love Episcopal funerals. They’re beautiful. The liturgy is exquisite.
And one of my favorite parts is at the very beginning, and it actually comes from our reading from Job this morning. It goes like this:
“I know that my Redeemer liveth,
and that He shall stand at the latter day upon the earth;
and though this body be destroyed, yet shall I see God;
whom I shall see for myself and mine eyes shall behold,
and not as a stranger.” 
While we don’t know the details of the hereafter, we do know that we will see God face-to-face one day, once this life is over.
We know that. We cling to that. We claim that.
That is our hope as Christians—that, just as Christ was raised from the dead, we too will be raised, and we will see Him in all His glory and majesty and power—not through a glass dimly but fully and completely. That is His promise to us.
Will the streets really be made of gold?
Will we get to meet all our favorite saints?
Will we all recognize each other?
Most importantly, am I going to get my taco buffet?
You know what? I don’t know.
But I do know that my Redeemer liveth, and shall stand at the latter day upon the Earth.
And, for right now, that is all I need to know.
 Definition obtained from wikipedia.org
 The Burial of the Dead, Rite I. BCP 1979 pg. 469