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Monday, October 12, 2015

Chaos, Clutter, and Cost - Attachment Issues

Mark 10:17-31

            I was in a local store last week, and I just couldn’t keep from smiling to myself, though I was probably the only one around doing that. NOT smiling were the parents of a toddler, a little boy who was absolutely, heartbreakingly, and very noisily expressing his displeasure as his parents explained to him that no, he would not be getting anything from the store today. They were there for another reason. No, no toy; no Power Ranger; no ball, and certainly no candy.
            I smiled because I knew that struggle - I could remember enduring similar scenes, especially with the youngest of our three children. While our other two children saw him as the spoiled and indulged baby of the family, the “one who gets everything,” the one “who got to do the things we never got to do,” or at least got to do them sooner, he saw himself as the disadvantaged youngest. He was the one who got the leftovers. He was the one who got left behind when the other two got to do the really cool stuff. He got the hand-me-downs. He never got what they got.
            Maybe it was this sense of relative depravation that caused this child, more than either of our other two, to have melt-downs like the one that I witnessed in the store. Could that child wail! He just couldn’t help himself.
            His distress was so keen, his disappointment so deep, his grief so profound that it just poured out of him. I remember once he actually blurted out between sobs, “but I have to get something! I just have to!” He didn’t even care what it was. He just had to have. Some. Thing. Fortunately, that particular stage of development passed, and both our son and his parents survived it.
            Having been so recently reminded of those days, however, I thought of the children’s honest struggle and the stress and grief “needing to have things” caused them (and us) when I read the gospel lesson for today. Because, for the man in our story, his attachment to what he thought he needed was a real stumbling block for him, wasn’t it?
            So much so, that for the first and only time in the Gospel of Mark, the person offered healing and relief by Jesus rejects it. “Jesus looked at him and loved him.” In love, Jesus offered this man healing.
            What kind of healing does the man need? Perhaps he needs to be freed from the possession of his possessions – the power they hold over him. He needs to be freed from his idea of what is important in life, and what it means to be faithful.
            Jesus offers to free him of what possesses him, to cure him of what binds him. “You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.” But the man walked away, grieving. He just doesn’t get it.
            Jesus brings a reorientation of understanding of what is essential to life. The first few commandments on the tablets Moses brought down from Mt. Sinai had to do with our relationship with God. What followed, the ones Jesus lists now for this eager, seemingly sincere young man have to do with our relationships with others. It is what Jesus has been telling us all along. “Do not keep the little children from me.” Relationships matter. “Go, sell what you have. Give the money to the poor.” Relationships matter. “The last shall be first and the first shall be last.” Relationships in the kingdom of God matter – and they won’t look like what we cling to so tenaciously as what we “need” or “want.”
            Our notice and engagement with others in our community and in our world matter. Care of the poor is essential for those who follow Jesus.
            But the man in our story doesn’t understand. He goes away grieving, because he can’t imagine giving up the life he is currently clinging to – even for the true life that Jesus offers. His “stuff” got in the way of life.
            I can relate to this man. I get the thing about how attachment to things and to my own ideas of what is important can get in the way.
            My husband and I are getting ready to move to a new house soon. So, I’ve been spending a lot of hours going through the house and the garage doing the hard work of purging.
            While I am not a hoarder – I do have clutter. Our adult study group talked about clutter during one of our conversations this summer; about how it enters our lives and how hard it is to get it to leave. Of course, part of the problem is in most cases it doesn’t leave on its own. Which means we have to be intentional about getting it out, and keeping it out.
            We discussed the ways clutter affects us physically, emotionally, relationally, and spiritually; about how it can hold us back and impede our well-being in every one of those areas.
            After that conversation, I decided I was going to go through our house and purge us of all our clutter. I was going to free our lives for other, better, more important things, more godly things. Oh, the ambitious goals we have….
            The thing is, it’s not easy. I may not be screaming and crying and hollering like those children in the stores did about letting go of the stuff we have accumulated, but I am finding this hard, exhausting work.
            Am I possessed by my possessions too? Probably. Am I clinging more tightly to this “stuff” than to the relationships Jesus is inviting me into having with him? With others? Most certainly.
            Am I refusing to be healed by Jesus?  What can I do to inherit eternal life?
            Here’s the rub. That’s the wrong question. The answer to that question is, “nothing”.  We know that on our own there is nothing we can do or say to earn eternal life and forgiveness of our sin. We know that the camel has nothing over us in level-of-difficulty for earning eternal life. It is impossible.
            For human beings earning eternal life is indeed impossible. But it is not impossible for God. With God all things are possible. Neither wealth nor the divestment of wealth saves us. Only God can do that. Knowing our weakness, God has done in Jesus Christ the only thing God could do to raise us up to new life.
            In Jesus is the eternal life we seek. But that is not all. The eternal life we neither earn nor deserve is freely given to us by Jesus on the cross. It is assured through our baptism. We are reminded of it powerfully each time we gather around the table and hear the words, “….given for you……shed for you for the forgiveness of sin.”
            Perhaps the question we should be asking, then, is “how can I live a life more reflective of the love and values of Jesus?”
            In calling us his own through Jesus, God reorients us to the life to which God calls us. The grateful response to the gift of that life requires putting our hearts, our minds, our behaviors, our choices, and our relationships before our ideas or possessions.”            
             Jesus makes it clear that our relationship with the rest of God’s children is at the top of what concerns disciples of Christ. To follow Jesus means to love what Jesus loves. Jesus loves and calls us to love the least, last, lost, little and lifeless - those who lack the economic opportunities we have; those who live in poverty; those who are the cast aways of society – Jesus calls us to joyfully love and share our bounty with these.
            Our possessions blind us to the needs of our brother and sister. Jesus invites us to take off the blinders – “go…sell”. Sometimes they make us want to erect barriers between ourselves and others to keep out those who might compete with our ability to amass even more wealth. Jesus responds, “…sell what you have…give to the poor.” Dependence on our stuff keeps us from realizing our true dependence on God. Jesus invites us, “Come, follow me.”
            In our gospel text, the man thinks he is ready to commit, to do whatever Jesus tells him to – perhaps he thinks there is a simple exercise to complete, or some parchment that needs to be signed, or some final steps to be checked off a list. Because if he can just do something, then he is home free. “…tell me what to do, I’ll do anything you want, just give me this thing I want or need.”
            Like many Jews of Jesus’ time, the man probably thought of his wealth as a sign of God’s blessing. Not only a sign for him but also a sign to those around him. “Here I am. Blessed by God.” We are not all that different.
            What do you love so much that you might put it above relationship with God and all that God is offering you?
Rather than blessing, Jesus sees this thing as the impediment it truly is.
                At the heart of this gospel, we remember that Jesus looked at this man, and loved him. Love is a way of seeing, and in loving the young man, Jesus sees him as he truly is, but in a way that the man is not yet capable of seeing for himself. Jesus loves him AS HE IS, while this man seems to think there is more he must do.
            Jesus wants him to have life, but lets him know that it is his own attachments that prevent him from finding fullness of life.
            What is it in your life to which you might be clinging? What is the sword upon which you would fall, the thing you just can’t imagine giving up? What might you be tempted to turn away and pursue, rather than accepting Jesus’ invitation? Is it material? Intellectual? Relational?
            Jesus is inviting us, too, to let go. Whether we do or we don’t Jesus is still loving us, still caring for us, always desiring the best for us, and continuing to call us to follow. Jesus looks lovingly at the young man, at us, and awaits for us, waiting for us to know the joy and full life of discipleship.


Tuesday, October 6, 2015

Christmas Creche, Creatures, and Stewardship

Mark 10:2-16, Genesis 2:18-24
I have to confess that I am a fan of St. Francis of Assisi. I mean, who wouldn’t love a man who gives up the benefits of class and wealth in order to have a closer relationship with God? What is there not to admire about a man who commits to a life devoted to healthy relationship with God and neighbor? Who wouldn’t love a man who purportedly spoke to the birds, made friends even with wild animals, and embraced a God-centered ethic of love and peace?
Most notably, in case none of that impresses you, who wouldn’t love the man responsible for Christmas pageants and the Christmas crèche – those nativity scenes we display at Christmas? Though I must say the Francis who embraced a life of simplicity and even austerity would probably be stunned and horrified by many of the garish, commercialized offerings of the nativity already on display in stores this first weekend of October.
Today is the feast day of St. Francis of Assisi, a man who is identified as a renewer of the faith, and is also known for his great love and care for creation.
While we Lutherans do not worship the saints, nor do we pray to them as intercessories, we do honor them for the vision they offer of what the life of faith might look like. We consider what they can teach us about how a living relationship with God and how faith-full life – within which relationship with God is at the core of our being and the center of our decisions and behavior - might be experienced.
We remember the stories of the various named saints as their feast days approach and we recall that by God’s love and mercy, each of us is a saint of God too, named as such through our baptism, a fact that we will celebrate soon, on all Saints Day.
Francis of Assisi is a favorite among the saints, especially for peacemakers, tree huggers, and animal lovers. He is a frequent resident of both home and garden in statuary and artistic form. His gift to humankind was his love of God as he experienced God in all creation.
While we reflect on the themes of love and care for which God has created us, themes we see reflected in Francis’ life and work, we acknowledge those same themes working within the scripture readings we just read.
The stories of Francis and the biblical record work together to remind us not only how very much God intends good for us, but also how God uses us to serve the good of all within God’s creation.
God provides for abundant life for all that God loves. In the creation story from Genesis today, we are reminded that in the midst of God’s great works of creation, God determined that it was not good for the human to be alone, and so God gave him a partner, but not before God created the animals and birds, bringing each one to the first human for their naming.
This is a significant part of our story, because in the Hebrew Bible, the very act of giving a name is important and fraught with meaning. Giving a name is an act of love; giving a name is an act of bonding; giving a name is relational - it is an act which takes place within what is meant to be a lasting relationship. To underscore the importance of the bond and relationship of humanity and the creation, God gives Adam this privilege and duty.
Likewise, in the Hebrew Bible, when God calls you by name, it means that God loves you. When God calls you by name, it signifies that God is already in intimate relationship with you. Each of us, in our own baptism, is in fact called by name as well as given the name, Child of God.
In our reading from Genesis we learn that God engaged Adam, this very first human, in the naming exercise in the garden. To be human, is to be loved by God and to be drawn together in intimate relationship with all the others that God has created and loves. This text gives us the story of how God provides for the companionship and relationship at the very beginning.
In the gospel story, the Pharisees come to Jesus seeking an answer to a relationship question. In actuality, Mark makes it clear from the beginning that their question is really not a concern about relationship at all.
The Pharisees aren’t really looking to Jesus to clarify or teach them about love, marriage and divorce. They aren’t looking for clarity about how the laws address relationships and how the law of God applies to divorce. Not really. Rather, they are there to trip Jesus up. Having already begun an agenda to destroy this troublesome rabbi, they ask the question to test him hoping to cause him to stumble. It is really a trick question. Maybe they can discredit him.
But Jesus is wise to their ploy, and uses this opportunity to teach about the broader issues at hand; issues like our relationship with all that God has given us – most especially the people - all the people - God has placed in our lives.
These texts serve us well as stewardship texts, inasmuch as they truly speak to the way we consider, treat and care for one another and for all that God has given us.
It is in the broad spectrum of relationships that we define what we truly care about. God wants us to value and care about what God values and cares about. If we value what God values and has placed in our lives, we will have the kind of healthy relationships and world that God desires, and the kingdom of God demands.
God has given us so much, and our relationship with each of these gifts of God matters. The relationships God has established – between humankind and the works of God’s creation, between those whom God gives to love one another in loving union, with the neighbors God gives us and the communities in which God places us, communities like this one – are all gifts from God. And, as God has created and given for their care, God desires that within the scope of our relationships, we care for them too.
So in our gospel text, Jesus first makes it clear that the reason for the law God passed on through Moses and every law since has had at the heart of it God’s desire to fix a problem. The problem is that the lure of power, control and selfishness which result in  this hardness of heart that Jesus refers to - corrupts the goodness and purity of God’s intention for humanity.
In God’s goodness and love, God gave the law to support and nurture healthy relationships on earth. Jesus makes clear that God’s hope is that our relationships are more than legal matters but instead holistically provide for abundant life within relationships of mutual dependence and vitality.
This week is a week in which it has sometimes been difficult to see the cherished relationship God desires for us existing at all.
We have been surrounded by evidence of the brokenness of humanity and the persistent hardness of the human heart in the continuing refugee crisis and the fighting in Syria and Afghanistan; stories of executions and stays of executions; the ongoing issues of poverty and racial inequality and tensions here and elsewhere; and further upheaval on the political stage.
By week’s end we were confronted with yet another shooting, yet another school turned into a bloodbath, yet another massacre fueled by hatred or mental illness, either way igniting yet again the question of why exactly we hold more dearly to a law which holds the sanctity of gun ownership over the sanctity of life and protection of our citizens and children, who are too often the tragic, innocent victims in gun-related violence.
We know true brokenness in a world not only torn apart by war but a world in which international institutions of medical assistance are dismissed as “collateral damage” in combat action.
We know this brokenness not only from world events. We experience this brokenness when once-loving relationships do end in divorce; in everyday acts of jealousy and hostility; in the times we find ourselves caring too much about our status or power and too little about what is at the heart of our relationships.
The strong connection between today’s Old Testament reading and the Gospel story are timely, coming as they do during a week in which our weariness over the heartbreaking brokenness of this world and the disorder in our own lives is so present and overwhelming.
“Stewardship” refers to the management and care of something. The kind of care that God calls us to is a stewardship matter. Good stewardship reflects the kind of love and care that God first built into God’s creation even to the naming of creatures.
Good stewardship in marital relationships requires ongoing care, work, flexibility and compromise. Good stewardship in community means that we listen well to the other, engage in critical thinking and problem solving and look for the welfare of the other.
Good stewardship as citizens given a place in a particular society ensures that the most vulnerable and needy in our society are cared for, valued, and protected; That children grow up nurtured physically, spiritually, emotionally, educationally, with opportunities for growth and life. Good stewardship of our resources provides that each person has a place to go home and a bed to sleep in, and good nourishing food to support good health.
All stewardship comes from a place of gratitude. St. Francis saw all that God had done in creation and more specifically at the cross of Christ as God, in solidarity with the suffering and the poor and for those yearning for love and care, became as one of us in order to bring us everlasting life.
In gratitude for God’s love and generosity, may we be blessed to look upon our families, children, the church, the poor, the environment, the neglected, the prisoner, the refugee, are all given to us as gifts from God. They are each given over to our care in gratitude for the richness of God’s mercy. May our care and service to what God has entrusted to us be experienced as both duty and delight.