November song

The year is winding down, and the scripture readings for these Sundays in November gently draw our hearts and minds toward thinking about endings. That’s not a difficult thing to do this time of year when we put the garden to bed for the winter and watch the leaves falling from the trees.

Richard Wilbur wrote a beautiful poem for this season; it is called, “October Maples, Portland.”

The leaves, though little time they have to live,
Were never so unfallen as today,
And seem to yield us through a rustled sieve
The very light from which time fell away.
It is a light of maples, and will go;
But not before it washes eye and brain
With such a tincture, such a sanguine glow
As cannot fail to leave a lasting stain.

In October, maples like gold ranks of temples flank the dazzled street, and in November, the killing frost arrives at night and throws its cold blanket over everything. And suddenly the glorious light of maples is only a memory.

We don’t think too much about time in the spring when everything around us is beginning, blooming, bursting into life. In the spring, time is the friend that opens the miracle and wonder of life to us – but in the fall we look at life from the other side. In the fall, we are reminded of time as the merciless thief that takes everything, ever eroding, dissolving, burying and forgetting.

Isaac Watts read Psalm 90, and he taught us to sing

Time, like an everrolling stream,
soon bears us all away;
we fly forgotten, as a dream
dies at the opening day

Watts wrote a November song, yet this verse wasn’t the final one. The last stanza of his hymn teaches our anxious hearts to trust the power of God in the winter of life when we ask, “What will become of me when I die? Will life simply continue without me? What about my life story, my relationships, my dreams that remained unfulfilled – will they all just fall like leaves and be blown away?”

Some of you were in the room when someone you loved was dying. You remember the deep sense of absence you felt after they breathed their last. The body was there, but the person you knew and loved was not. Your world, your heart, your life had a hole in it the size of your love. The body was there, but you wondered, “Where is he now? Where is she?”

We understand intuitively how in human history and across cultures ideas evolved that describe human beings as consisting of body and soul, with the body returning to the elements at death, and the soul flying into the spirit world. In old pictures, the soul is often shown as a tiny winged human being, a bird, or a butterfly, so that after the death of the body, the soul, no longer weighed down by earthly concerns, could take flight into the freedom of heaven. Many Greek and Roman philosophers even thought of the soul as entrapped in the prison of the body, so that death would come as its liberation.

The ancient Israelites had little use for such ideas. They affirmed the goodness of the body as God’s creation, intricately woven, fearfully and wonderfully made. Human life was enbodied, or it was neither human nor life.

In ancient Israel, a good life meant living to a ripe old age and seeing one’s children grow up and one’s children’s children. A person’s life story wasn’t so much the tale of an individual as it was a story of participating in the life of the family, the tribe, and the covenant community. A man’s name lived on in his children, and family memories of parents and grandparents became tribal narratives about the ancestors.

In Genesis we read of Abraham’s death, “he breathed his last and died in a good old age, an old man and full of years, and was gathered to his ancestors.” The story continued with his sons Isaac and Ishmael, and the web of relationships across generations was a source of comfort and hope for the living. For them the crucial question was, “What if a man dies childless? How will his name and memory continue?”

The law of Moses stated,

When brothers reside together, and one of them dies and has no son, the wife of the deceased shall not be married outside the family to a stranger. Her husband’s brother shall go in to her, taking her in marriage, and performing the duty of a husband’s brother to her, and the firstborn whom she bears shall succeed to the name of the deceased brother, so that his name may not be blotted out of Israel. Deuteronomy 25:5-6

This family arrangement was to make sure the name and memory of the deceased man continued. It also made sure his property stayed in the family and his widow was protected and taken care of.

The Sadducees in today’s gospel passage used this tradition to make fun of the notion of resurrection. What if there are seven brothers, and each dies without an heir, and each marries the woman in turn? To whom will she belong in the resurrection?

The Sadducees were part of the wealthy aristocracy in Jerusalem. They held leadership positions at the temple, and politically they were pragmatists. Theologically they were strict traditionalists. In contrast to the Pharisees, they accepted only the written Torah, not the oral tradition of interpretation of the law. They rejected newfangled beliefs like the resurrection of the dead, because they couldn’t see a scriptural basis for it in the five books of Moses. They had great fun painting this picture of a woman in the world to come, looking at seven brothers, wondering whose wife she would be.

Perhaps you noticed that women were strangely missing from these deep reflections on life and death and memory. It would appear that they were put on earth for the sole purpose of providing men with sons. It’s men who have names, women have children. Things didn’t look any better in Greek philosophy where women’s status as fully human was in question, since the men weren’t sure if women even had a soul.

Jesus, in his response, surprised these privileged gentlemen by pointing out that the resurrection life is not a mere continuation of life in this age. Those who are considered worthy of a place in the resurrection from the dead neither marry nor are given in marriage, for they cannot die anymore. There’s no need for marriage arrangements to secure offspring and property and memory. In the resurrection, men as well as women live as children of God, whether they were married or not, whether they had children or not. In the resurrection, they live in relationships no longer distorted by power, but entirely and solely defined by their relationship with God. In the resurrection, the glory of God shines through all things, brighter than the light of maples, and November comes no more.

But you can’t convince Sadducees with visions of beauty and justice. “We can’t find this resurrection in our texts,” they say. And Jesus says, “Moses himself showed it, in the story about the bush.”

The voice of God out of the bush didn’t say, “Many generations ago, I used to be Abraham’s God, and then also Isaac’s and Jacob’s, and now I’d like to be yours.” No, the voice said, “I am the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.” The voice of God doesn’t refer to a past reality that is gone, but to a living relationship that time and death did not tear apart. Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob are alive in God.

Now that is a highly imaginative reading of scripture, perhaps even a little too imaginative for some of us, but without an imagination nurtured by Jesus we may never see the new thing God is doing in our midst.

November’s killing frost threw the coldest blanket on Jerusalem, putting an end to Jesus’ life of grace and truth and compassion – and time, like an everrolling stream bore him away, and it was like the light had vanished from the world forever.

You know it wasn’t the Sadducees who started to speak of his resurrection. The women did, Mary Magdalene and the others who had followed him from Galilee. They barely had words to speak about what they had seen and heard, but they spoke. They began to talk about life, embodied life no longer subject to sin, suffering, or death, but glorified and fulfilled. They spoke about this new beginning God had made in the world, a beginning that would not become just another ending, but flow into fulfillment like a river flows to the sea. And soon the disciples didn’t just talk about the new life, they began to live it with boldness and courage, as brothers and sisters of Christ.

There is an exuberance behind this proclamation of new life and new hope that is easier to catch in the spring. But November is the season when we say with Paul, “I am convinced that neither death, nor life ... nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” Romans 8:38-39

November is the season when we affirm the faithfulness of God that extends beyond all endings. November is the season when we sing with Isaac Watts that final verse,

O God, our help in ages past,
our hope for years to come,
be thou our God while life shall last,
and our eternal home.

[1] Richard Wilbur, Collected Poems 1943-2004 (Orlando: Harcourt, 2004) p. 274

[2] O God, Our Help in Ages Past, Chalice Hymnal #67