Genesis 2:18-24; Hebrews 1:1-4,2:5-12; Mark 10:2-16
Welcome to the 2012 stewardship season! What, no applause? Now, this may not be a season you look forward to quite as much as, say, football season or the Christmas season, and that’s understandable. For many of us, “stewardship” is the Church’s code language for, “Give us money.” Coming to church in the fall can feel like turning on NPR during the pledge drive – you wait for the pitch to end so you can get back to regular programming.
Even though we’re officially kicking off our pledge campaign today, a number of you have beaten us to the punch. At this point, we’ve already received 70 pledges for 2013, including seven new ones. You’ll hear more from one of our Stewardship chairs, Glenn Crawford, in just a few minutes.
So yes, there’s certainly a financial component to stewardship; but it doesn’t mean, “Give us money.” And I hope this year’s stewardship season makes that point loud and clear. For example: The pledge card this year does ask for a financial pledge, but it also asks for a pledge of time and talent, because your bank account isn’t the measure of your life. And the pledge card is about more than pledging, too. It includes a bookmark with Scripture verses for you to read and pray over each day in order to flesh out the deeper reality of stewardship: that our lives are gifts from God that bless us when we pass them along. That’s why the theme for this year is choosing to say “thank you” for the love that God showers on us.
But that begs the question, what exactly do I have to be thankful for? I mean, we all know we’re supposed to be thankful; but frankly, there’s a lot that’s wrong these days. We’re anxious about the economy, with many people still out of work or uncertain about their jobs. We’re anxious about our social institutions like marriage and family, with “long-term relationships” now measured in a few years rather than lifetimes. We’re anxious about our nation’s politics and the polarization that keeps us from governing ourselves responsibly. We’re anxious about the future, fearing that our children’s lives will be harder than ours have been.
So there’s plenty for us to worry about. And yet, this pledge card reads, “Choose to say, ‘Thank You.’” Thank you for what?
For me, at least, our readings today point to an answer: What we have to be most thankful for is the gift of relationships.
The reading from Genesis begins the story. After six days of creation, even as God has spun the majesty of the heavens and the earth out of nothing, God realizes the work isn’t quite done. All the “stuff” is right – oceans and forests teeming with life; food free for the taking; the human being serving as God’s deputy, naming the animals and caring for creation. But the human being is not yet complete. He yearns for something: mutual relationship with someone who makes him whole. God sees it and makes for him not another thing to manage but a partner to complete him. The human being now has “bone of my bone and flesh of my flesh” (2:23), and the two can become the “one flesh” together they each long to be (2:24). The gift of relationship begins there in the Garden and makes creation perfect. And every time God calls us into the fullness of relationship with another human being, every time we make ourselves vulnerable and give ourselves to another, every time love happens and endures – that perfection of creation blossoms once again. That’s quite a gift to be thankful for.
And in the reading from Hebrews, we hear what holy relationships look like: They look like the relationships modeled by Jesus, the one sent not simply to speak for God but to show us “the exact imprint of God’s very being” (1:3). This is why Christianity is so shocking, even 2,000 years later – because the exact imprint of God’s very being looks like giving yourself up for those you love. In fact, God loves us at the ultimate cost, experiencing human death in order to defeat it and let us live forever. In Jesus, God gives us a relationship of love that never dies. That’s quite a gift to be thankful for.
And then there’s the Gospel reading, where we hear words we may find harsh, even judgmental. When it comes to divorce, Jesus is clearly not a fan. But to me, at least, the point here isn’t simply “divorce is bad,” and it certainly isn’t that divorced people are bad. The point I hear Jesus making is about love and control. When we can’t get what we want, sometimes we choose control over mutual self-giving. But the gift of deep relationship comes when both parties give up trying to control it, when we empty ourselves of power over the relationship.
I think that’s why Jesus’ comments about divorce are followed, oddly, by the story of little children coming to him. The kids aren’t seeking anything but love. The disciples try to keep them away from Jesus because children were the lowest of the low in Ancient Near Eastern culture, and no respectable rabbi would want to get his hands dirty with them (literally). But Jesus sees the kids’ desire to be with him as the contrast to the Pharisees’ “hardness of heart” in justifying divorce. The powerless kids don’t come into the relationship with any need for control. They’re just hoping to be loved. And, Jesus says, that’s the kind of relationship God gives to us – the intimate, freely given love of a parent for a child. That’s quite a gift to be thankful for.
But it’s hard to live in a state of thankfulness, remembering God’s blessings in anxiety and stress. Frankly, I’m not always as grateful for my life as I know I’m supposed to be. In this job, there are times when counting my blessings isn’t exactly the first thing on my mind. I had one of those times a few weeks ago, when Mtr. Anne was gone on vacation. We were getting ready for the fall program, and juggling schedules for restoration work on the building, and developing commission mandates, and planning for next year’s budget, and working on the pledge campaign. I had a wedding to prepare for, and people in the hospital, and a couple of funerals to do. And in the midst of all that, a parishioner whom I’d never met, a member in name only, was making her way into the last stages of her life. Honestly, it just felt like one more thing I had to attend to. But as it turns out, I was truly blessed to be able to visit her in her last weeks.
On the first visit, I sat with her in her beautiful living room and got to hear about her life – her joys, her struggles with some relationships, her fight with cancer, and her wishes for her funeral. We talked about how surprising it is that healing can come from situations like hers, both in terms of healing present relationships and in terms of the ultimate healing – God’s love in eternal life.
Going over to her house for a second visit, I had more limited expectations. She had taken a turn and wasn’t able to communicate; family and friends were preparing for the end. I brought my oil stock and expected a quick visit – anointing and prayers, then on my way. I rang the doorbell, came in, and found her sitting on the couch, dressed to receive guests, with her hair combed and wearing makeup, and smoking a cigarette. I was dumbfounded and said something really caring like, “What are you doing, sitting there on the couch?” She looked at me, smiled, and said, “Well, I’m smoking a cigarette.” I came and sat with her, and we talked about the turn for the better she’d taken that morning. Then she asked, “Did you bring Communion?”; and I said, “No, I didn’t think you’d be up for a meal. But have you got a cracker and some wine?” So she got up, went into the kitchen, and came back with the necessary elements for a complete celebration of Holy Eucharist: a cracker on a small clay plate, a bottle of wine, and a Dixie cup. We sat there together and celebrated the Eucharist, making her coffee table God’s altar, and transforming a cracker and paper cup of wine into the banquet of the kingdom of heaven.
On my third visit, she really was at the end of this life. Her eyes were closed; she couldn’t speak; and I didn’t know what she might be able to hear. But I came to her bedside and sat with her, praising her for finishing up some letters to significant people in her life. I got out my oil for anointing the sick, inscribed a cross on her forehead, and prayed that she would soon know God’s ultimate healing – that God would usher her gently from this side of eternal life and bring her joyfully to other side. I sat with her a few minutes, holding her hand. Finally, I looked at her and said, “Have a good trip.”
In the car, driving back to church, I received a call from the family. She had died minutes after I left. From the family’s perspective, she had heard whatever it was that she needed to hear in order to let go and make her journey home. Her breathing had changed; she’d become peaceful; and she’d entered into the fullness of eternal life, coming into her Father’s loving embrace.
What am I thankful for? I’m thankful for the gift of holy relationships. With my family, with my friends, with you whom I see week in and week out, and with people I never expected – in all those holy relationships – God gives me windows into the kingdom of heaven, windows into eternal life begun in the here and now. That is quite a gift. And for that gift, I choose to say, “Thank you,” and pass it along.