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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.

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