Sunday, November 6, 2016

Sermon: "Honoring the Saints" (Luke 20:27-38)

Last weekend, I attended the cemetery tour sponsored by the Long Beach Historical Society. Costumed actors portraying residents from Long Beach history stood by the graves where the people they were portraying were buried, and told us about their lives and the history of Long Beach.
One of the historical figures who was portrayed was a woman who is buried there at Long Beach Municipal Cemetery, with her husband buried on one side of her, and her lover buried on the other side of her. Needless to say, her story was quite an interesting one.
Gee, wouldn’t it have been interesting if they had had actors portraying not only this woman, but also the husband and the lover? It does make one wonder how they are all getting along in the afterlife.
Then again, if Jesus’s response to the Sadducees is any indication, things are so different in life after death, that our ways of thinking do not even come close to understanding them.
The hypothetical situation presented by the Sadducees is even more extreme than the case of the woman buried at Long Beach Municipal Cemetery. The Sadducees didn’t even believe in an afterlife, but they came up with this situation to test Jesus and see how he would respond…
Their question centered on a woman whose husband died, and who remarried his brother, who died, and then remarried his brother, who died, and then remarried…
So, the Sadducees asked Jesus: “Since you say there is a resurrection, to which of the brothers will she belong to? How can there be one bride for seven brothers?”
Jesus’s answer, basically, is that you Sadducees are just trying to trick me, but in doing so, you only display your own ignorance. Jesus said that things in the life to come won’t be as they are in this life.
In other words, you can’t even imagine what it’s like.
Therefore, most of what can be said about the life to come can only be said by way of metaphor. Streets of gold, stuff like that. Or in abstract terms: we can talk about dwelling in the presence of God’s love, forever.
Which, for me right now, is a good enough description.
As for those who have already died: Paul writes in his letter to the Hebrews, we are surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses. People from the past are with us in the present.
And Paul mentions specifically: Abraham, whose faith was tested by God; Isaac, his son; Jacob, his grandson; Joseph, his great-grandson, who saved his people after being sold into slavery; Moses, who humbled himself, casting off his royal privilege on behalf of his people.
He also mentions Rahab, Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, David, Samuel… all of whom form a great cloud of witnesses that surrounds us.
I was reading a recent article by a theologian, who was writing about how these saints from the past spoke to her. Not just in a figurative sense, but in some real, though hard for her to explain way, they were communicating with her, guiding her, and that they do so for all who would listen.
This is kind of embarrassing stuff for people who have been academically trained to talk about, because academic training really is of little help. Academic training insists that you back up your ideas by citing other sources. My own academic training – and the fact that I’m more of a thinker than a feeler – make this a difficult subject for me to talk about. How do I explain something that Jesus says is basically beyond understanding?
Yet I have heard voices from the past speaking to me. I have heard the voices emanating from that great cloud of witnesses. And, appropriately enough, they spoke more to my head than to my heart.
Earlier this fall, I attended the opening reception of a new exhibit at Rancho Los Cerritos, celebrating 150 years since the Bixbys first came west.
One of the exhibits mentioned Reverend George Hathaway.  There wasn’t a whole lot of information there, just a brief mention, yet it was enough to capture my imagination. I wondered if Reverend Hathaway had any words to speak to me. I began investigating, researching, and here’s what I found…

Reverend George Hathaway moved from his home in Maine to Rancho Los Cerritos in 1877. Long before he made that move, he was an avid abolitionist who joined the American Anti-Slavery Society in 1833, participated as a conductor on the Underground Railroad; and he served as a volunteer Union chaplain during the Civil War.
At Rancho Los Cerritos, you can see the first edition copy of Uncle Tom’s Cabin that he owned. He passed it down to his daughter Martha, who then gave it to her nephew Llewellyn, who remodeled the Rancho in 1930.
I began to think that Rev. George Hathaway is one of those saints from the past who speaks to us today; or, at least, that he speaks to me.
After all, he lived right here in this community.  Perhaps he even walked the land where Bixby Knolls Christian Church is now.
Back then this area was all undeveloped, but four miles south of here the new city of Long Beach was being developed, and George Hathaway was one of the founders of First Congregational Church.  There’s no doubt that he influenced the progressive mood of this city in his push for justice and equality.
I’ve tried to find out more about him, his life, and the things he stood for as a preacher and as a resident of this area. I have a friend who volunteers at the Rancho, often playing the role of George Hathaway’s granddaughter, Fanny Bixby. She came and did a presentation – as Fanny Bixby – and met with our CWF group not too long ago.
Fanny Bixby grew up at the Rancho, and was herself quite a radically progressive woman.
Anyway, after two trips to Rancho Los Cerritos, all the information I had is what I just shared with you. There isn’t a whole lot of information out there about George Hathaway, but I did find a little more online.
I discovered that, before he moved to the Rancho, he served in the Maine legislature. And I discovered that, at his memorial service in 1891, it was said of him that “he was a man of remarkably clear thought, who had great power of clear and forcible expression. He was a man of very positive and strong convictions… He was the stuff of which reformers are made… He was a man of fervent enthusiasm for everything right and good.”
Of the people who lived at Rancho Los Cerritos, Rev. George Hathaway is one of the lesser known. I am now probably one of the few people in the world who know at least these few details about his life, and now you are as well. Maybe my strange interest in Reverend Hathaway is just that, and I’ve done nothing but bore you in telling you about him. Not everyone likes history, I know.
But standing there at the Rancho, it really did seem to me that I heard his voice calling to me, urging me to be a better citizen, a better preacher, and a better Christian. I hear him calling me – calling us – to continue the work in which he was involved, working for justice and for equal rights in our city and in our country.

Anyway, back to the Sadducees. Did you notice how they framed their question? “Whose wife will she be?” they asked. One of the presumptions in the question that the Sadducees posed to Jesus was that women belong to men. “Whose wife will she be?” they asked. In other words, to which of these men will she belong to?
Marriage in Jesus’s time was not an equal partnership between man and woman. The phrasing that women are “given and taken” in marriage speaks to how women were viewed; they were controlled by the men. The reason a brother would be obligated to marry his deceased brother’s widow is that because, without a husband, she was at a definite disadvantage in society. A woman’s interaction with society took place through her husband.
Some people today still feel that women should be viewed that way: controlled by men, who can do whatever they want to them. During this election campaign (that we are so ready to come to an end), the way some men speak and act toward women came to light, showing that too many men still have attitudes toward women that haven’t evolved much since ancient times. I think we have many voices from the past that speak to this issue: Jesus, who dared to engage in conversation with a woman at a well as equal; Paul, who said that in Christ there is neither woman nor man; and possibly even Rev. Hathaway.

By the way, in his reply Jesus said that, in the age to come, women will no longer be given in marriage. If the Sadducees pictured a heavenly game of tug-o-war between this woman’s earthly husbands, with her in the middle, Jesus was quick to cast that image aside.
In the age to come, women will no longer be given in marriage. There will no longer be an unequal partnership between men and women.
This sounds to me like an idea that George Hathaway would be a strong advocate of. I wonder, if we listened for his voice speaking to us, would we hear him calling for equal pay for equal work? Would he be excited by the potential election of the first female president in U.S. history, and if so, would he see that as a motivation to further improve the situation for women, breaking down the barriers that still exist?
I think he would.
His granddaughter who I’ve already mentioned – Fanny Bixby – fought for women’s right to vote. She was inspired by stories she heard of her grandfather welcoming a woman to speak at his church back in Maine. Fanny Bixby also became the first policewoman in Long Beach – one of the first in the country – and she spoke out against war, worked for peace, and on all sorts of topics she expressed her opinion to the Long Beach City Council.
This is history, but I think it is more than history. If those who have died really are still alive in some way, doesn’t it seem likely that they really do speak to us, in some way, today?
What about those who have been a part of Bixby Knolls Christian Church in its 70 years? What do they have to say to us?
What about those in our own families? How do they speak to us today?
And how can we honor all the saints who now surround us in a great cloud of witnesses?

I’m not sure how it is that the voices from the past speak to us. But I’m glad the church has set aside a day in its yearly calendar for us to remember the saints, and to let their lives speak to us again.

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