‘Tis the Season

a newsletter article


It had begun to be so nice and spring-y outside. Crocuses were blooming in the church courtyard gardens. Maple trees had blossoming buds and robins were hopping about.

Today as I type this, however, there’s snow again! A cheerful little ditty is in my brain, which starts, “Christmas is coming. The goose is getting fat.” Except the snow is an anomaly and Christmas isn’t coming. Easter is. But there’s no melodic round about the fatted ham (or rabbit?) for this season. Nevertheless, as Easter is coming, we may ask why this season is when it is, why we celebrate it now.

An obvious initial question is why the heck Easter jumps around so much. Christmas has the sense to stay put on December 25th. All Saints can confine itself to the first Sunday of November. So what gives, Easter? The short answer (which still isn’t very simple) is that Easter is on the first Sunday after the first full moon after the spring equinox.

That can vary anywhere from March 22 to April 25. This year it’s April 5. In 2013, it was on Pastor Tim’s birthday (March 31), and will be again in 2024. It’s been on April 8 twice in my 11 years here. In 2007, it was March 23 and in 2011 April 24 (the second earliest and latest possible), and the next time we’ll hit such an early extreme isn’t until 2160!

That’s already as clear as the mud my dog tracks in during these days. So another obvious question is why on earth we’d want such a variable date. For this, we turn to our Jewish heritage. In Exodus 11, we find Moses preparing to lead the Israelites out of slavery in Egypt. After nine nasty plagues, Moses warned of the final plague: death to the firstborn, humans and livestock alike, anybody without a special lamb’s blood marker for the destroyer to pass-over their door. It was so terrible that Pharaoh told the people to skedaddle, to get out of there, to go now. They left in such a hurry they didn’t even have time for their bread to rise. This is the central salvation story of our Old Testament, and the people were instructed to commemorate the event with a festival of unleavened bread on the 14th day of the 1st month every year.

But that’s not January 14th, so we’re back to some peculiar dating. The calendar of the Bible (and most ancient societies) was lunar-based rather than our solar version. Time was set by the moon, rather than the earth’s journey around the sun. A new month began with the new moon. The 14th day would be the full moon. I don’t know whether they called this the first month of a new year because the Exodus meant the start of people’s new life or because it was spring, the start of the growing season, and the exodus paralleled that sense of new life. Either way fits.

One more notch of time-keeping: in Jewish practice, a new day begins at sunset. So the sabbath (Saturday) starts at sunset on our Friday. (Think of Genesis 1, “There was evening and there was morning, the first day.”)

Why it all matters for us is that Jesus was celebrating the festival of unleavened bread with his disciples, eating the Passover meal at the start of Friday (our Thursday evening), on the night in which he was betrayed, before he was crucified on Friday afternoon. On the third day (1. Friday, 2. Saturday, 3. Sunday) he rose again.

(Confused yet? For one notch more complexity, the Gospel of John tells the significance differently. Instead of eating the feast with his friends, John says Passover that year fell on Saturday, so Jesus died as the lamb of salvation to prepare for the festival.)

If you’d like a simpler statement: Easter is at this time of year because it makes sense. It is our festival of new life, which actually does fit with breeding rabbits and reproducing chickens and sprouting plants.

A larger point: the discrediting story is often repeated that Christians co-opted pagan holidays, that Christmas stole the date for the popular Festival of the Unconquered Sun, and Easter tried to take over spring fertility rites. We would, however, do better to see that our festivals from their very origins are connected to the rhythms of life on this planet, that God-given natural life provides an echo or a lens for what our faith asserts. Easter is a festival of new life. And seeing that in the world all around you validates and helps you better to believe Jesus is working it in your life, too.

Happy Almost Easter!

+ nick


a funeral sermon

With Thanksgiving for the Life

of Gary David Runk

6 Oct 1950 + 19 March 2015

Ecclesiastes 3:1-8; Psalm 23

A time for every season.

It’s a helpful way to look at the frame of life overall. We are born. We all die. We work, we play. There are good times and bad times, in sickness and in health. Even as wedding vows realize, we can’t live a life without living through the variety of all of these moments.

And that reading from Ecclesiastes seems to fit exceptionally well for Gary, including for life with Judy. A time to be born and a time to die. A time to embrace and a time to refrain from embracing. A time to tear and a time to sew. Those last two probably fit with two broken lives coming together into a new, beautiful relationship, even of old wedding rings becoming part of how you two marked your new relationship forming, that you didn’t forget or ignore your old selves and your old hurts and all of your identity even as you came together, united in something new.

And Ecclesiastes goes on in such fitting ways. It says there’s a time to dance! Ah, yes, there was! Not only the relationship for the two of you growing out of the enjoyment of that ballroom floor, but so many other great friendships as well. But in the verse of the Bible reading, that time to dance is also paired with a time to mourn. We certainly aren’t doing much jumping for joy or dancing these days. This must be the time of loss, the time to mourn.

As we’re marking the variety of times in life, all these different seasons and every matter under heaven, as it says, we probably also can’t help but notice that we don’t get to choose the allotments of when the times happen, of how much of any given moment we have to enjoy (or to suffer through).

Particularly this past month, time has been strange. Gary finished work on February 12th. He had his last tests at the doctor on February 13th. February 16th, the following Monday, he discovered there was no treatment option. And just over four weeks later, his illness was over.

Time is also strange in these moments of farewell, looking for how each and every breath is drawn and what each opening of the eyes might mean, trying to measure and draw out the seconds of time together. You’ve also experienced the surprises of this time, of so many caring people showing up all of a sudden to help and to offer care. And when Gary was in pain at the end, it felt like an eternity before relief finally came. All minutes and hours are not the same length or of equal value.

And in the end, we have to confess it didn’t measure up to how we would wish. The 25 years you had with Gary, Judy, is so much less than you’d want. His time was cut too short for how his relationship with you, Devin and Ashley, Brennan and Lillian, should’ve been. You should’ve had more time to spend with your grandpa. And Theresa, this is something a mother should never have to do for her son.

So we can say that there is a time for every season, that we’re born and then we die. But we cannot very well say why those times are what they are. It is not fair. It is not right.

But the one further thing that we must say about time is God’s presence in time with us. Through that whole list in Ecclesiastes, there was nothing about a time of blessing versus a time of punishment, nothing that said a time of God caring for you and a time of God forgetting about you or ignoring you. There are no lone footprints in the sand.

God is always present, for every moment. That is what we said in the words of our Psalm together, that God is with you in quiet and peaceful times, and God is with you through the darkest valleys and moments of death. Furthermore, the Psalm doesn’t end with death. God brings you to a new moment, a new time, a new age, to dwell in the house of the Lord forever.

It is this that we have embodied for us in Jesus, God who took on our flesh. God was not content to dwell outside of time in some far away eternity. God came into our world, into our sufferings, into our lives to be with us. In Jesus, God even went through the terrible tragedies of untimely death. But death would not be the end, not have the last word. You’ve experienced and shared so much with Gary, good and bad, but this says there is more to come. Resurrection, new life, wiping away every tear, reunion, gladness, feasting, dancing—these are what is still to come.

That is a promise for Gary, a promise in which he now rests. And it is a promise that is with you for every moment, too.


A Forgetful God’s Memory

 Sermon for 5th Sunday in Lent
Jeremiah31:31-34; John12:20-33; Psalm51:1-12

When I used the phrase “heart of the matter” in my last sermon, Pastor Tim decided to share a song with that name by Don Henley. Today I’m provoking it directly: a lyric from the Eagles’ song “Hotel California” says, “Some dance to remember, some dance to forget.” That points us toward both forgetfulness and memory and illustrates the balance, the narrow divide between what we want to call to mind and what we’d just as soon leave behind.

This reflection is prompted by peculiar words at the end of our Jeremiah reading, where the LORD says, “I will remember their sin no more.” Last week Tim highlighted for us the perhaps surprising notion that God can change God’s mind, that God doesn’t have the future written in stone or fully predicted. This is a notch stranger still: not only does God not see into the future, but the LORD also has a bad memory and will forget the past!

The name of the LORD may even hint at this. See, whenever our Bible has the LORD in capital letters, it is a replacement for Yahweh, the name introduced to Moses at the burning bush. Yahweh means something like “I AM” or “I will be who I will be.” I like to think it indicates that existence, all of being is grounded in God.

If this is who God is, present tense existing “I AM,” if God doesn’t dwell on the past, that means your own past doesn’t need to define you. And the future is not predetermined. You may take those as good news, words of freedom and encouragement. Your God is the LORD of what will be, and so you also are not stuck in stasis, not left to the status quo, but always becoming, leaving the past behind, living in the now, moving toward a new future.

Yet with matters of memory, we can’t claim amnesia. Life isn’t simply a blank slate or carpe diem and what you can make of each day. God also explained to Moses, “I am the God of your ancestors, of Abraham and Isaac and Jacob.” It isn’t only a fresh start. History is important. Our heritage and genealogy give shape to our present, whether we like it or not. In eulogizing departed saints, we should also memorialize them as sinners. For us, too, there are things we’d prefer to forget—traumas and tragedies we’ve lived through or major blunders and bloopers we’ve committed. “My sin is ever before me,” the Psalm said. Those often continue to shape us, even when we don’t want them to.

Plus, memory is incredibly persistent. As Acacia’s mom, Judy, has been unresponsive in critical care, we heard multiple stories of patients waking up from a coma to recall conversations that happened around them.
While it may be preferable to forget all about the terrible struggle with illness this week, we’ve simultaneously been confronted with wishing for more memories, both in the past and to come. I’ve been trying to recollect conversations with Judy, gardening advice, how she gloated when she beat me in dominoes. Some of what we remember is not as clear as we’d wish.

Amid complexities of forgetfulness and memory that mirror the complexities of life is when we turn to find our foundation in God, a relationship that is built on trusting the validity of a promise. This is the point in repeating as a blessing that God will remember the covenant made with you, with your ancestors, with all people of faith, with all creation. This is also the heart of the sacrament of baptism—it is a guarantee of God’s unconditional love, an assurance that you’ll never be expelled from God’s presence or condemned by your failings. Ultimately, it isn’t dependent on your behaviors or how tightly you adhere to God’s ways. Much stronger, God’s utter insistence on the promise is what enables our faith, our trusting and confidence.

The promise of God’s memory is essential when your memory fails, when you don’t or can’t keep up your end of the bargain. But the just-as-essential parallel is the promise of God’s forgetfulness when your memory is too strong, when you simply can’t forget. This is the amazing thing in God’s promise: that God both promises to remember and promises to forget.

The first part of that—that God remembers the promise even when you don’t—in regular daily existence may be a matter of negligence, where you didn’t measure up to the standards of faith, where you fall short as a disciple of Jesus, where life is too scattered. But God’s memory is not only a resource for when you’re distracted from church and don’t give God the devotion you should. It fundamentally shapes our baptisms. Courtney Reagan and Hazel Lydia will have no recollection of the words spoken with water today. Nevertheless, it isn’t their capabilities or mental capacity, but God’s promise that is the essential thing in the sacrament.

In another way, this also pairs importantly with our Gathering Hymn, “When Memory Fades.” As a congregation, we are walking through dementia and memory loss and Alzheimer’s disease in many ways. Too many. In our midst, we share the difficulties with Lorraine Johnson and Edward, with Roger Kinson and Nancy, with Gene Hanson and Jo. Through many degrees, from the early onset testing for Lee Johnson and Janice to the greater struggles of Jane Dohler and Dave. Many more affected relationships ripple beyond this assembly. Amid worries and sadness, however, remains God’s abiding word. It is an absolutely vital promise that even when memory fades, when the brokenness of confusion cannot be overcome, when the loss becomes too great, God will not let you slip away but will insist on the covenant. God will remember! Always!

Yet, with an amazing paradox, God will also forget. God will not hold iniquity against you. No sin, no failure, no shortcoming will separate you from God’s blessing. It’s not even that God overlooks your character flaws or that God grades on a curve to count your benefits more strongly than your faults. No. God simply has a terribly lousy memory when it comes to keeping score. God will forget.

And God forgets because God remembers. In the Jeremiah reading, though the people forgot to follow God’s law and had gotten so estranged that they had become almost foreigners, still God remembers them, holds them dear, promises to care for them and guide them. Your relationship with God is so important that God will keep the covenant and forget your sin.

With that, we may also, then, begin to explore how this same pairing of memory and forgetting can take place in our lives. Certainly it’s obvious as we gather here and turn again to the renewed covenant of the Lord’s Supper that we are called to “Do this for the remembrance of” Jesus. We ask that he remember us in his kingdom, but also that we live into his kingdom. If we are members of the body of Christ, rather than being dis-membered, in this gathering we are re-membered into the body, into the life of Christ, into the life he still lives through and among us.

Yet there must also be an element of not remembering for us to be in communion. We gather starting with the confession of sin. We don’t do it to dwell in feelings of guilt or shame, but to find release from what haunts us. Neither is it repressing or ignoring, but is holding sin to proper account. We confess to God and each other, to those who hold us accountable. We remember in order to name the wrongs as wrong, to capture them and no longer let them define our meaning, since our true identity is as children of God, in Christ. The lens for examining our past is the cross and resurrection of Jesus. He is how we see the future. Living into what that means, we can acknowledge our suffering as victims and complicity in hurt, but then we also practice setting it aside.

Maybe in some way we forgive and forget. I know that’s among the most disliked phrases, that we’d prefer to claim “I’ll forgive, but I’ll never forget.” But such an attitude either means a grudge yearning for revenge or else it means that the wrong has not been released, that it still has power over you, a control that then is attempting to usurp your relationship with God, to cut you off from life in Christ and with each other.

Maybe the phrase of burying the hatchet can be instructive for us, since from a buried hatchet one expects reconciliation to blossom and come to fruition. It fits with the saying from Jesus, that a seed must be buried in order to bear fruit. There is a surprise in burying the past, in forgetting it. Each spring, bulbs emerge and plants start to sprout that I had forgotten were there, maybe that even arrived by accident, transplanted by a squirrel or something. New life comes where there was no reasonable expectation for it to be.

The same is true not only for burying those old injuries and trespasses, but even more centrally for you yourself. You have been buried with Christ by baptism into death so that you may rise to walk in newness of life. Remember: that is your future.

Hymn: Remember and Rejoice (ELW #454)

with a hearty endorsement of Miroslav Volf’s The End of Memory


My Generation and Church

Lenten Midweek reflection for 11Mar15
Isaiah 44:24-45:5; 61:1-4; Psalm 1

Paired with verses from the hymn O Blessed Spring, we are proceeding through our ages. Last week Paige talked about lively energy of children. Next week Edward may reflect on resolution and rest toward the end of life. Yet, today’s reflecting on faith among my age group is a matter of disruption, with probably the defining characteristic being that we don’t participate.

My age is approximately where many of your daughters and sons and grandchildren are. I share your pain and lament of wishing and wondering why they don’t come to church. I’ve even heard several of our older generation of members as they’ve been dying, that having their offspring connect to church would be almost a last request.

Yet there aren’t obvious answers. We can’t force each other to go to church. In spite of huge amounts of research and strategizing and books and books on the topic of faith and my generation, there is still no quick fix.

To start, some standard generational differences are helpful to highlight. The World War 2 generation built St. Stephen’s and many mainline congregations. That generation by-and-large trusted authority. They came to church just because it was the right thing to do. The Baby Boomers were more skeptical. They went through Vietnam and Watergate. They were willing to question church, among other authorities, and hold them accountable.

We younger generations, however, are said to have lost almost all confidence in institutions. There is nothing about a national brand of ELCA (or McDonalds or Oldsmobile) that automatically has our loyalty. We won’t say, “my country, right or wrong.” Instead, our loyalty is relationship-based, in diffuse small groups, online connections, and what we experience.

One way this is talked about is that the older generation would give out of a sense of duty and would give just plain to support the budget of the church, but younger generations respond specifically to causes or projects. And the more evidence they have their giving makes a difference, the better.

Among my people, I’m an anomaly. I wasn’t a church-geek as a kid, but since I started college I’ve probably hardly missed two weeks of church in a row. That’s weird. My peers don’t have that kind of rhythm. Sometimes it’s because our lives are actually busy, and work weeks aren’t 9-to-5 Monday to Friday. Or because we’re more mobile, and traveling on weekends. Or because life just feels more distracted, since we’re bombarded by news from around the world and are always in touch through social media and have zillions of other media options. We’re the generations that were first to have VCRs and cable, on to video games and cell phones and the internet. Even having children, which in former times was supposed to bring people back to church, doesn’t work well in my generation, with lives so overprogrammed from the get-go.

A lot of this reflection seems pretty dismal. So the first of my bright sides amid the darkness is that, even though my generation is less in church than others were, still when we we’re here it’s because we want to be, because it’s important to us. I like to share my anecdotal evidence that even in the 10 years I’ve been here I’ve witnessed a change. It used to be that young families brought children to be baptized as an insurance policy in case something bad happened (we’ll say more about that later) or just because they’d been baptized and thought it was what they were supposed to do. The same for parents of Confirmation students, saying, “I had to go through this even though I didn’t like it, and so my kids have to, too.”

Now it’s more like parents I met with today who said they’re bringing their daughter for baptism because they want her to be part of this community and to know God’s love and to learn to live with these values. Even when parents aren’t mindful of it, students themselves are seeking to be part of our Sunday School and Confirmation gatherings. Being here is not just by default, but because you really want to be, and find some sort of value in this.

So what sorts of values are there? I’d say the church is still looked to as a moral authority, a place of answers, and probably some peace or serenity compared to the rest of life. In this week, I’ve had people who are otherwise not at all connected to church asking me—and therefore asking for some sort of official church response—about the shooting of Tony Robinson, and for prayers during sickness, and for financial assistance amid a time of crisis. That people are turning to the church in those various needs and concerns still says in our society we’re seen as a resource, a place of morality and insight and caring. In the words of our hymn, people still expect from Christians “gifts of beauty, wisdom, love.” That’s another of the potential bright spots.

The shadow side of it, though, is that it’s tough to exist only as that occasional resource. If people aren’t listening to the church or listening for God except in sporadic moments of emergency or panic or despair, first of all that’s not a very pleasant way to live life, and second it doesn’t allow for any sort of sustained involvement. It leaves faith as a sound bite instead of the Word that becomes flesh to inhabit and inform all of your lives and outlook on the world.

That sort of superficial connection is also problematic for sustaining the way we’re used to doing church. In pre-marriage counseling I ask about generosity and what people do for charity. One couple said they support the Humane Society and American Heart Association drives at work, and said they put $10 in the offering plate when they come to church. But if they’re here once a month, that level of support sure doesn’t pay my salary!

It also doesn’t do very well to build community. I can get by visiting my dentist twice a year or car repair shop only when I need it. But for church, community is vital to who we are. We’re not just an outlet for theological answers or a venue for finding inner calm. We are—from the very core of our identity as people of God—in community. This is what we understand of God in Trinity. God is not God by being the Solitary Highest Individual. Nor is Trinity a pyramid scheme, where the Father is boss and the Son and Spirit are subordinate. No, the theological vision is all about mutuality, agreement, and balance. And since God is like that, then that’s our shape, too. But, again, it’s hard to be community when we’re around each other only once a month, and when we’re also trying to put on a good face to mask our problems and pains.

I’ve heard from numerous peers and parishioners that the breakdown in relationship is indeed what separated them from church. They didn’t get the support they needed when a baby was born. They felt ostracized or were hurt or shamed by the very ones who were supposed to be about love and care. Church, which is supposed to represent God and to live Christ-like, as the Body of Christ, where we ought to be able to practice living as Jesus people with love and vulnerability, too frequently has instead become a liability in relating to God, leaving people to the hard task of trying to find a relationship with God apart from church. The difficulty is that it’s nobody’s singular fault, since we all need to practice being community together. For it to work when you need it, you also need to be here when others need it. It’s not about being perfect, but is for practicing grace, forgiveness, and compassion.

Besides those direct, personal failings in relationships, people also of course cite the broader categorical failings. Some see the church as anti-science, or anti-woman, or anti-gay, or as greedy or causing violence, or as navel-gazers who insularly talk about what we believe in but don’t stand up for it when the rubber meets the road.

I’d hope we could counter all of that. I’d hope we would understand science and faith are not mutually exclusive, that they cover different territory and may both inspire increasing wonder rather than reductionist blinders. I’d hope we would see the early church’s work of breaking down barriers to include so many in society—the rich and the poor, the healthy and the sick, the local and the foreigner, the righteous and the sinners, young and old, men and women, slave and free—and that we’d be able to see society has taken 2000 years to get back to the equality Jesus and the early church were already embodying, seeing all humanity as valued in Christ, respecting insiders and outsiders of all types and abilities. I’d hope we’d continue to embody Jesus’ way of suffering love, not voicing brash aggression, but living out callings for humility and peace and reconciliation.

In my view, there are some bad reasons and weak excuses for not being part of church, but there are some really rational reasons, even if those aren’t usually what’s mentioned by those I’ve asked. For example, if you’re selfish and don’t want to share your resources or your time, then church should be a difficult place for you. If you think Jesus just doesn’t really matter and that there’s nothing in him that connects you to God, then church probably loses most of its meaning. If it seems that church has restrictive belief, that we claim that what we believe is true, well…I’m still not sure how to disagree with that.

For a final bit of grounding, I’d like to use our Bible passages. The first chunk from Isaiah I chose because it talks about God’s activity and operations even among the unsuspecting. Cyrus was the Persian emperor, a foreign. He didn’t worship God. He didn’t even know about God. Yet this declares that Cyrus was God’s shepherd, God’s chosen, God’s messiah, working out God’s good purposes and larger intent. That’s an interesting and helpful word for my generation, separated from a regular worshipping assembly. God is still working in our lives, even when we don’t realize. Those of us here may cling to the blessing of knowing what God is up to, joining in the callings to strive for God’s kingdom. Yet our lives are never cut off from God. The stanza of our hymn for this week seems to recognize busy lives filled with so many details and so much work, about “limbs holding a heavy harvest.” God is still producing fruit in our lives, through our various vocations and careers and places in life where we try to be productive and prosper. Sometimes it’s with our best efforts, and sometimes in spite of us. That’s a word of relief for us who can only continue to commend our friends or siblings or children or grandchildren into God’s ongoing care.

The other Isaiah passage is about the work that God is up to, that the Spirit anoints us “to bring good news to the oppressed and poor, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty, to comfort all who mourn…” to repair ruined cities, the devastation of many generations. Two things are significant about this: first, Jesus quotes this passage as the purpose of his ministry, too. Second, there’s no mention about the afterlife or going to heaven.

Church shouldn’t only be about the insurance policy of whether you’ll get in to heaven if or when you die. That isn’t a burning question for people these days, and it should never have been our sole focus. A more important question is who God is and what the church is and who we are for all the days of our life before death. I’d say if God so loves our world and is concerned about all hurting lives, and that that’s a word for so many of our moments and not only for facing death, that we will do well to receive that work and to join in on it. It is first what God does for us, but also what God does through us. As that kind of people, we’ll be sustained by a power that restores devastated generations.


The Heart of the Matter

3rd Sunday in Lent        8Mar15
Exodus20:1-17; 1Corinthians1:18-25; Psalm19; John2:12-23
When I work with wedding couples, one of the inevitable early prep questions is: how long will the wedding service be? It’s always followed by a statement that they want to keep it short. (As if they’re expecting other couples ask how we can drag it out to be tediously boring.)

I could just directly answer couples that it almost always takes about 20 minutes. But instead I take the opportunity to talk through the wedding service and the day, explaining that it could be completed in about 30 seconds, if they really wished. The only necessary requirement is to say vows to each other. That, with official witnesses and signatures on the license sent to the record-keeper is what a wedding is.

Beyond that, the other pieces are pointers to what these vows say and mean. The rings are a visible symbol. Readings and music give voice to describe love. In prayers and proclamation we share belief and promise in God’s work to strengthen and sustain our relationships. We can recognize that love is worth the big party and worth preserving in memories to call upon, “in all circumstances of our life together, for better or for worse” as some vows verbally intend. Yet videographers, delicious cakes, stunning dresses, or any of the other details—good as they are—remain tangential, inessential.

You may say that if a wedding were only a set of vows and names signed on paper it wouldn’t be much. But, on the other hand, it is well worthwhile to remember what is the center of the day, what is essential, what is the heart. Clearing away the extra accretions allows us to see what is most important. Without vows of love, there’s no wedding and nothing to make a marriage. The vows truly are the fundamental foundation for everything else—not only a great day or honeymoon bliss but (what’s intended to be) a lifelong relationship.

That’s meant as an (ironically extended) introduction to the notion that these Bible readings are about zeroing in on the essentials. In this case, they’re not just between married partners, but really about all our relationships throughout life.

To start with the first reading, it’s rules for how we live in relationship. I can tell you, there’s a lot of this in Exodus and the other books of the law in the Old Testament. Jewish rabbis listed 613 different rules and rituals and regulations for maintaining right relationship, the things you had to do or were forbidden from doing. This list was intended to comprise most every detail of how you ought to interact in your relationships. So there were explanations of what to do if you accidentally broke your neighbor’s snowblower (though in older biblical terms, it was their ox). Exhaustive regulations like that go on and on, which you can keep reading after Exodus 20, if you wanted. Except I expect you probably don’t really want to, because it feels pretty litigious—the sets of laws and rules. It quickly seems onerous and burdensome, like there are lots of constantly worrisome details.

So if we’re trying to reduce it to the essentials, then maybe we figure that today’s list is a good summary way to do that, with the top ten commandments. Even here, though, things aren’t quite so set in stone as the story would say. Coveting, for instance. We know our commercial market economy would fall apart if you weren’t doing your part of coveting, of keeping up with the Joneses and wishing for stuff you don’t yet have. For bearing false witness, Monty Clifcorn has wondered if you can bear false witness for your neighbor, if not against them.

For stealing, our mind probably associates with burglary or armed robbery. But Martin Luther recognized it even has to do with paying fair wages.

If those gray areas start to hit home in our state, the essential is hammered home into our community this weekend for “you shall not kill.” As an African-American teenager has been killed by a police officer, it makes us recognize the brokenness in our relationships. Aside from questions of what Tony Robinson or Officer Matt Kenny were doing right or wrong, of what’s justified or what’s an injustice, still it’s obvious that this is not how it should be. This is a fracture, wrecking the order of our relationships. It hurts our community.

And yet such brokenness isn’t solved by reiterating the laws, or by setting up stone tablets in courtrooms that try insisting that God has said “you shall not kill.” We can’t so simply legislate morality or instruct in ethics. A lecture won’t change society’s behavior, or yours or mine. What we need is a change of heart.

There, we’re getting closer to the heart of the matter. All of that is built into the 1st Commandment: “I am the LORD your God; you shall have no other gods before me.” Even the big ten haven’t gotten us where we need to be. But this is about understanding and cherishing that God delighted to create you and claims responsibility for you. Realizing that would make you share in valuing and caring for your life, guiding you to eat right or exercise, to enjoy the talents God has given you. Yet God didn’t create just you but gave you the blessing of family and friends, and placed you amid society. In sad and difficult days, that may be cause to strive on behalf of those oppressed or suffering around you, realizing that God cares for them, too. As Martin Luther King saw in his “I have a dream” speech, black and white are inevitably united together—like it or not—in this great, fractious family. “Inextricably bound” in mutual wellbeing, was how he said it, that one cannot be well without the other.

Further, it’s not just human. Aldo Leopold, whose words I was reading yesterday, talked of us all joined as essential parts in the land mechanism, each as “small cogs and wheels” in the grand operation. So this also goes on to value and attend to your place amid creation, among other beings. That notion is beautifully proclaimed in our Psalm, that it’s not only your voice that sings praise to God; you are joined in praise, or even preceded, by the sun and stars and skies. We’d have to say, then, that pollution that smudges the atmosphere impairs the praise of God.

That’s getting really big. So to reduce it back down, I’m trying to show that all of that chain—from you and your actions to other people to society’s behavior to the skies—grows naturally out of reflecting on the first commandment, on understanding your relationship with God. As with getting swamped in the details of the wedding and enormous to-do lists while forgetting about the core purpose of the relationship, and not seeing the forest for the trees, so here it all boils down to the center that if your relationship with God is right, then all else falls correctly into place. That is the heart of the matter. With that foundation, everything will fit together well.

Moving to the Gospel reading, we change from the metaphor of clearing away the clutter and obstructions to an actual acting out of that idea from Jesus, in a non-violent protest, civil disobedience. The Selma march across the Edmund Pettis bridge 50 years ago served to disturb, highlighting a conflict and uncovering an injustice that the majority preferred to ignore and continue on with life, when society wanted to say “it’s mostly fine for now. Stop disturbing the peace. Wait for racial equality.”

There’s something about that here in Jesus’ actions, that he’s trying to cut through life as usual to bring up something better. He goes to the courtyard of the temple where there are moneychangers and vendors selling animals. Those were regular parts of what it meant to maintain relationship with God in Jesus’ time. So Jesus is not leading an assault on the temple itself, but is enacting a disruption of their worship patterns, of how they access God, clearing away the extras to get to what’s essential.

Although I’ve heard that former St. Stephen’s pastor Jon Enslin referenced this against having stuff for sale at church (like our olive wood display or youth fundraising goodies), this isn’t so much about money or profits or finances. A better present-day parallel would be to tear up our hymnals or smash Fred Hoff’s guitar or to wreck the sound system or even just to blow out a candle. It’s disorder to raise a question: what do we need to be connected to God? Would we still be able to worship without electricity, without beautiful paraments, without this building?

We might be ready to say Yes. Which means in part we’ve learned Jesus’ lesson. In his time, God’s presence was understood to dwell in the temple. If you wanted to visit God, that’s where you went. And you brought along your offering. We no longer view an inner sanctuary in Jerusalem as the place to go find God, nor sacrifice as a part of our holiness in being able to relate to God. And this is Jesus’ point, but with a distinction: it isn’t just that God is not sitting on a box in the temple because God is everywhere so it’s possible for you to worship God in nature or the quiet of your room just as well as here.

Rather the point is that we find God, we worship God, we have relationship with God through and in Jesus. The temple has been relocated from a place to a person. God’s presence abides with Jesus. And to build and extend on that, since you are the body of Christ, God’s presence and God’s activity takes place in your lives, as commercialized or corrupt or careless, as obstructive or distracted or uncertain as they may be.

We gather here, not as a special holy building, but because here is where the trash and diversions are again cleared away, cleansed, where your heart is renewed with the heart of God, where you are given new life. Through Jesus’ death and resurrection our relationship with God—and, again always therefore, with each other—is founded and set right. In Jesus, you are known and related to God and therefore to each other and to all God’s creation.

That is our core, our foundation. With that heart of the matter, we build outward. In this place, we could have church without olive wood and without hymnals. We don’t need fancy clothes. We could have church with no building. We’ve all broken the laws, so it’s not about perfect behavior. What, then, are our Christian essentials? Our short list probably includes: Water. Bread and wine. Our voices. Each other’s bodies, lives inextricably bound amid creation. This is how God comes into our midst, even through our sadness and suffering. So finally barring all of the other parts, we need the cross in our center.

That’s what gives shape to what we do here and how we think about ethics and all of our lives. It may sound foolish or at least unimpressive to say that the cross is the heart of it all for us, but that is where your trust may rest. Everything else is just details. But Jesus brings those details into focus. Even if it’s just in brief glimpses of insight, in these moments together he is clearing away the clutter, even if just momentarily before life becomes a mess again. But even amid brokenness and fractures and too much confusing chaos, still Jesus finds his way to you, clears a path to you, and will never let you go. That is what is essential.

Hymn: In a Lowly Manger Born (ELW #718)