My cardiologist the other day was telling me about an angry patient who came in for the wrong appointment. She tried to correct him and he called her racist. It’s the terrible tenor of this election, she confided in me. It’s put everyone on edge. In the same conversation she spoke also of a recent medical mission trip to Haiti, where she cried every night, as she saw suffering children who would certainly die. The hundred miles between Haiti and a Miami children’s hospital with open heart surgery could have been the distance between here and the moon. Our conversation left a deep impression on me. Everywhere I look these days, I see people trapped in cycles of destruction, large and small, and I often feel overwhelmed and powerless, unsure at how to respond.
Today’s gospel may sound very strange, but if you’ll allow me, an excursion into the historical background will help us uncover its deeper spiritual message. The Saducees, brought to Jesus a case involving levirate marriage. When a woman’s husband died, the Mosaic law required that one of her husband’s brothers marry her to preserve the family and hopefully bear a successor. In this case, the family went through this cycle seven times: seven times the husband died, seven times the woman remarried, seven times there was no child, and finally in the end the woman died.
I propose that if we set aside the misogyny of this practice, which treats women like property and only values them if they can produce children, we are left with a deeper question. The deeper question is: where is God in a seemingly endless cycle of death or destruction? Where is God in Haiti, or in the election, or in Syria, or in San Francisco? Where is God in our lives—the frantic days that drain us; the anger, hurt, or pain that we can’t escape; the relationships in which we can’t find life; the situations that seem intractable?
At times it all seems insane. What’s the definition of insanity? Doing the same thing over and over expecting a different result. Seven, as we know, is the ancient number for perfection or infinity. The Saducees didn’t believe in the resurrection, so they just kept doing the same thing in a lifeless situation. Finally the poor woman died. Have we ever felt like that, beating your head up against the wall to no effect?
Jesus, however, offers us another approach. “The children of this age marry and remarry, but those who are deemed worthy to attain to the coming age and to the resurrection for the dead neither marry nor are given in marriage.” They are not trapped in the cycle. “They can no longer die, for they are like angels; and they are the children of God because they are the ones who will rise.” Angels live in God’s presence. The children of God enjoy divine life. We may know the words but how have we tangibly experienced this? What does God’s presence or resurrected life look like in these situations of death?
My cardiologist taught me about resurrection without even realizing it. I had been angry coming into the office that morning. Her staff had made a couple of mistakes, and as I started to tell the nurse about it, the same nurse that was literally measuring my blood pressure, the nurse got defensive and my blood pressure went up by twenty points. The office was already running half an hour late. The nurse left. I was got more angry.
When my cardiologist came in, she looked me in the eye: “I hear you’re not having a good day.” Then she listened patiently to my frustration. She promised to speak to the staff and assured me that they wouldn’t make the same mistake again. Before I knew it, we were laughing. A cycle of anger had been building: the staff was stressed, they made a mistake, which made me mad, which I had started to take out on the nurse, and my doctor stopped it in its tracks. I complemented her: I’m really impressed by your bedside manner. She said, “I’ve learned over the years that it’s important to take as much time with a patient as I need, even though some of my colleagues feel pressured by the system and how many patients they have to see.” Her encounter with me was a deliberate push back against the monster of the health care system, a system that leaves so many people angry and frustrated.
Her example gave me the freedom to push back in the same way against the system of my life. Later that day, I was feeling stressed, with errands in Berkeley and in San Francisco, and I voiced my frustration to God, who said, “take 30 minutes for lunch.” So I found a little coffee shop and I did. It was my step against the crazed pace of life in this culture. I encountered a different cycle of violence at dinner that night in the Jesuit community, when the conversation turned critical. Jesuits love critiquing homilies, and several people at dinner were taking someone apart. I asked the question: “maybe it was a little too long, but what did you connect with in the homily?” The conversation first went silent, and the tone changed. “He may have given three homilies, but they were all about the gospel, and he did it all with joy” the critic begrudgingly said.
“Small moves against destructiveness,” one author puts it. Laughter in a doctor’s office; a moment of respite in the middle of a busy day; a positive, encouraging comment in response to a critique. These to me are signs of the resurrection in my everyday life. Jesus connects the theme of resurrection to the story of the burning bush, a story of a God who shows himself to his suffering people, in the middle of their reality, in order to lead them to the Promised Land, the land of milk and honey. Our God is a God of the living who comes to us and invites us to embrace life as a way out of cycles of death.
It’s not always easy to do this. The Israelites had to make a long journey through the desert to the Promised Land. God strengthened them with manna along the way, food for their journey. Especially as members of our parish keep vigil this weekend for peace, we gather together this evening to ask the Lord in this Eucharist to nourish us so that we too can bring God’s peace as an antidote to the cycles of violence in the world.