I AM in you

sermon on John 14:1-20


There’s a scene in the movie “Three Amigos” where these three clueless, doofy white Hollywood actors walk into a Mexican cantina. The bartender whispers a message to Steve Martin’s character, named Lucky Day: “The German says, Wait here.” Lucky looks thoughtful, nods carefully, and remains thoroughly confused. Because it’s not a message for him. It’s for an arms dealer, not a pampered playful actor. He couldn’t possibly know what that message meant.*

This might be your Lucky Day, having-your-own-Three-Amigos-kind-of moment. The reading says you know where Jesus is going as he prepares a place for you. Hearing that message, I can see you looking thoughtful, nodding carefully, and remaining confused. You don’t know where he’s going, what it means, do you?

At least you’ve got the benefit of hindsight, while within the story, the followers of Jesus must’ve been baffled. As we hear the words of Jesus talking about going away and coming back, we might figure out from context clues that this is on the night in which Jesus is betrayed. In the previous chapter, after he washed feet and loved and served, Judas, who betrayed him, went out into the night to fetch authorities to arrest Jesus. In less than 24 hours, he’ll be dead. But on the third day, we happen to know that Jesus will have risen from the dead. So we might be able to piece together that when Jesus talks about going away and coming back, it might relate to crucifixion and resurrection. Thomas and Philip and the rest of the amigos would’ve had little clue that Jesus could be meaning this.

Maybe you’re able to nod your head a bit more confidently. You might recognize this message as slightly less cryptic and confusing than you first thought, with some vague sense of what’s going on here…Except the stuff of “I AM the way, the truth and the life, and nobody comes except through me” and Thomas saying “We don’t know where in the heck you’re going, so how in blazes can we know the way?”

I adapted Thomas’s language there a bit. I started out with it just to sound silly, but realized it can point to our usual interpretation of this passage. But this mysterious message from Jesus actually insists we redefine our understandings and outlook.

We mostly take this as being about heaven. Jesus says his Father’s house has many rooms. At a funeral, you may have heard Jesus going to prepare a place as sort of the equivalent of him getting your heavenly condo ready, as a turndown service to leave a mint on the pillow, so your accommodations will be set when you get to heaven.

That’s often accompanied by a notion that Jesus is your only ticket to heaven, that if you want to get there, then you need Jesus. This passage gets used not only as a gentle assurance that insiders have someplace good to go afterlife, but also used as a cudgel to whack outsiders and threaten they’ll be left out, to exclude entire religions as unable to get into heaven. It makes Jesus into a bouncer at the heavenly hotel, waving his amigos past the velvet rope, but rejecting the bad hombres and, in the severest interpretations, telling them that not only are they not welcome, that there’s no place prepared for them, but pointing them instead to the blazing fires of hell as their eternal abode.

That’s nasty. But it’s also a sloppy reading of this passage. It claims to understand a secret message from Jesus to mean that if you don’t understand the secret message, you’ll be damned. That gets it wrong, and exactly violently wrong.

To start, I notice that almost all the time the Bible refers to the Father’s house, or the house of the Lord, or God’s house it is talking about…the temple. Not heaven. That’s also the case for the one other time the Gospel of John uses the phrase “my Father’s house” as Jesus is cleansing the temple.

As we’ve been reminded in these weeks, the point in the Gospel of John is that Jesus has replaced the temple. If that was the place where you could go to meet God, to be on the Father’s turf, to be chez Pere, now we look to Jesus to meet God, to understand God, to have God revealed for us.

Of course, that’s part of what Jesus reiterates in this passage—that when you’ve seen him, you’ve seen God. To know the Son is to know the Father. There is no separate surprise waiting behind the curtain. What you need to know, you get from Jesus already.

Further, when Jesus describes himself as the place to meet God, it’s not something we’re waiting for. It isn’t post-mortem when your soul flies to the sky. John’s Gospel says eternal life already begins now in this relationship. Other Gospels similarly recognize the kingdom of heaven is present now, breaking into our earthly realm. You already are able to dwell with God.

A vital characteristic of the term “dwelling places” is that this isn’t isolated reserved space, but that it ties to the verb remain, “remaining places,” like we heard last week amid the reflection of I AM the vine and you are the branches as remain or “abide in my love.” You see, this is less a physical space than a mode of existence. The dwelling place isn’t elsewhere; the dwelling place is in you, and you in him! The abundant place Jesus prepares is to abide, remain, dwell, live in his love, you and all the amigos. Not because you discerned the cryptic message and figured out a roadmap, but because the whole point is to welcome you in. That’s what the way of Jesus does.

That leads back to the confusion about I AM the way, the truth, and the life. It’s exactly the opposite of some general domineering view that this is a “my way or the highway” kind of way, that God shuts the door on you if you don’t agree. Rather, Jesus is inviting you into his abundant love and life. Finding a place in Jesus is never an exclusive hierarchy, but is for sharing love. There’s no discouraging backside threat to this encouragement of “don’t let your hearts be troubled.”

Yet that clearly subverts any usual expectations our society has. If Jesus is talking about life on the night before he dies, we could be skeptical whether his way is the right and true way. We might figure our survival instinct would point us away from such a path.

Such resistance to it also shows when Jesus argues with Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor with power to execute him, who is so confused he asks, “what is truth?” and who can’t see that the kingdom of Jesus could be different than earthly kingdoms. Pilate is stuck in the lies and falsehoods of his authority: that might makes right, that the way to peace is through violence, that the strongest and biggest must be best.

But the way of Jesus subverts that. His way of offering himself in love and laying down his life cannot be understood by empire. Those fixated on appearances and stature will never be able to grasp it. It is not what ads claiming to have the way to happiness and longevity can truly offer. It cannot be marketed and it cannot be commanded. It feels questionable because it defies our norms of success, and so is risky. This way of suffering love, dying for others, loving to the end is not the way this world rules.

But it is the way of life because it is the way of God. That is what Jesus is saying here: if you want to see God, look at the love that gives itself away, that doesn’t selfishly insist on its own presumed best interests. That is how you’ll know God, as Jesus goes to the cross to confront oppressions of violent authorities, a nonviolent resistance, a force more powerful than the biggest military in the world, of love that cannot finally be killed, God’s enduring work.

That is how Jesus invites you to live at every turn—not clinging selfishly and not to give in to hate, not persuaded it’s better to avoid getting your hands dirty, not to imagine that it’s about having everything you ever wanted, but to wade into the threatening lies, able to risk your wellbeing for the sake of others, to take pain and sorrow in order to transform it, to bear wounds to heal.** Jesus says that’s what he’s doing and that’s how you’ll truly find life, and that can never be taken away.

Now, clearly there are major ways such sacrificial love is needed around us, to keep breaking into our world. It’s needed when we figure we can take away from those on welfare. It’s needed against claims that our wellbeing is damaged by those with other religions or skin colors or nations of origin. It’s needed when we would extract life from natural environments around us and dispose of them as expendable resources. It’s needed when deadly weapons and militarized budgets come at the cost of life. For the true good, for real life that God intends, that is when we need to give up our comfort and alleged safety for this greater good.

But it’s also abundant in smaller moments. This way of Jesus is daily lived out as you practice caring and sharing in your family, when you set aside your selfish desires, when you take time to listen, when you examine your budget for how it can help others, when hear Aldo Leopold’s land ethic,*** when you prepare to resist immigrations police, when you take your turn, when you pause to help, when you teach and clean and serve and observe and on and on.

It shouldn’t be surprising, that for all the dominance of violent power and selfish tenacity, that this way of God is pervasive and all around us. After all, it’s part of what Jesus promises you—that his works will amplify. It happens increasingly, as he also promises he won’t abandon you to this practice by yourself, because you are his amigos in love. He remains in you. God dwells in you. The Holy Spirit abides in you. You have become part of God’s spreading efforts. It wasn’t only once long ago, since you bear that presence now, as heaven continues breaking into this world. And through all the struggles you are embodied also to say “I AM the way, the truth, and the life.”

There’s really no secret in that. But there’s still a lot to discover.





* https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Zh7eAG2jJkA

** see Henri Nouwen, The Living Reminder: Service and Prayer in Memory of Jesus Christ, p25

*** From the Foreword to “A Sand County Almanac,” finished 70 years ago today:

There are some who can live without wild things, and some who cannot. These essays are the delights and dilemmas of one who cannot.

Like winds and sunsets, wild things were taken for granted until progress began to do away with them. Now we face the question whether a still higher ‘standard of living’ is worth its cost in things natural, wild, and free. For us of the minority, the opportunity to see geese is more important than television, and the chance to find a pasque-flower is a right as inalienable as free speech.

These wild things, I admit had little human value until mechanization assured us of a good breakfast and until science disclosed the drama of where they come from and how they live. The whole conflict thus boils down to a question of degree. We of the minority see a law of diminishing returns in progress; our opponents do not. …

We abuse land because we regard it as a commodity belonging to us. When we see land as a community to which we belong, we may begin to use it with love and respect. There is no other way for land to survive the impact of mechanized man, nor for us to reap from it the esthetic harvest it is capable, under science, of contributing to culture.

That land is a community is the basic concept of ecology, but that land is to be loved and respected is an extension of ethics. That land yields a cultural harvest is a fact long known, but latterly often forgotten.

These essays attempt to weld these three concepts. Such a view of land and people is, of course subject to the blurs and distortions of personal experience and personal bias. But wherever the truth may lie, this much is crystal-clear: our bigger-and-better society is now like a hypochondriac, so obsessed with its own economic health as to have lost the capacity to remain healthy. The whole world is so greedy for more bathtubs that it has lost the stability necessary to build them, or even to turn off the tap. Nothing could be more salutary at this stage than a little healthy contempt for a plethora of material blessings.

Perhaps such a shift of values can be achieved by reappraising things unnatural, tame, and confined in terms of things natural, wild, and free.


Aldo Leopold

Madison, Wisconsin

4 March 1948


sermon for Animal Sunday

(Job39:1-12,126-30; Psalm104:14-23,31; 1Corinthians1:10-23; Luke12:5-6,22-31)
For a couple decades, Dave Rhoads, an emeritus professor from the Chicago seminary, has been among the most important inventors and instigators for this ecological edge in Lutheran churches. (He’s also a friend of Joyce Anderson’s from her church in Racine.)
Fitting this Animal Sunday, Dave tells of a dream where he was going to receive communion and found himself next to a snake, and then a person next in line, and then a raccoon with its paws extended, then a bird at communion eating bread crumbs.*
Perhaps that’s an image to keep in mind for this day, and is among the reasons we ourselves are receiving communion each Sunday of this season, even without bears and turtles lined up with us, still a reminder that we are in communion with all creation—not just with wheat and grape, but with pollinators and soil microbes and deer along the roadsides that lead to markets and grazing blackbirds and sunshine and rain and so much more.
But if you’re still feeling that we’re a mainly human contingent gathered in church this morning, then you may yet turn your faithful attention to the words we have from Psalm 104. This is no Isaian (65:25) “peaceable kingdom,” where the wolf lays down with the lamb and the lion eats straw like an ox. No, in Psalm 104 the lion still eats ox like a lion. Those young lions lurk and prowl at night to find their food, food given to them by God, just as the grass is given for cattle and grain for us. It may not be a utopian dream in Psalm 104, but it very much is a faithful “topian” vision. It’s not a “utopia” (literally meaning “no place” or “not a place”) but is firmly rooted in place, in the actual topography of our lives amid this world. With that, the Psalm sees God not only as some distant goal, but as fully engaged and caring about these different and disagreeing creatures here and now. So the lions still get to be carnivores. And humans get wine. (Though, for full disclosure we’re not the only ones who enjoy alcohol; cedar waxwings eat fruit that has hung on trees too long and fermented, until they can even get so tipsy they can’t quite fly on course. Though it’s not that birds need a DUI patrolling squad car—an absurd notion, but which we’ll reflect on more later.)
Anyway, just as we heard in another beautiful and expansive selection in Job that portrays members of creation far from humans, Psalm 104 also nicely attends to distinct habitats as blessing from God for biodiversity, the varieties of life. God grows trees for birds. God created night for nocturnal animals. From our Darwinian understanding of natural selection we may question which direction this actually proceeds, but nevertheless Psalm 104 is onto something in its attention to specific habitats with the thriving of species.
Among that, I especially have been enjoying what we read from verse 18, “the stony cliffs are a refuge for the badgers.” Instead of “badger,” other translations use the odd animal terms “coneys” or “hyrax.” So I sent a note this week to one of my Old Testament professors, Diane Jacobson, who worked on this translation for our hymnals. Since it relates to our own shared habitat, I asked her, “can the Wisconsin Badger fans amid my congregation claim blessing with the appearance of these badgers?” She replied that was, “remarkably insightful and clearly part of original authorial intent.” So there you have it, a special divine nod to Bucky.
Whether it’s as playful as that or not, I also love Diane’s translation in verse 22, where the night ends and the sun rises and, as she phrases it, the lions “lay themselves down” in their dens. It seems a poetic reflection of that old bedtime prayer, “now I lay me down to sleep.” Though we’re awake at different times and eat different things and rest in different places, still the echo in that verse ties our lives to the lives of lions, refusing to let them be too separate from us. We can see other animals as our siblings, as part of this vast family.
But that may confront us with the Gospel reading, which seems to play family favorites. Last week I’d said that our God doesn’t care “exclusively or maybe even mostly about humans.” This would seem to be yet another example of why I should read ahead to the next week’s lesson and actually pay attention to what Jesus says before I open my big mouth. Or maybe it’s an example of the interplay of Scripture, how it doesn’t all say the same exact thing, but does disagree or is in situational dialogue with itself. So last week’s readings portrayed God’s delight in cavorting with Leviathan the sea monster, though it was harmful to humans. But today Jesus promises that “you are of more value than many sparrows” or flowers of the field or ravens. One reading seems to say humans are just one among many, amid the mix of this grand family of creatures, and the other says you are most valuable.
So what would make Jesus say we are more highly valued by God than sparrows? We certainly can’t say you’re cuter than a tiger cub or more precious than pandas. It may be claimed that, just as we feel special kinship looking into the face of a chimpanzee, that we’re valued because we are more like God, though I’m particularly reluctant to make that argument. Indeed, as categories of creature or Creator, we’d have to confess we’re more like chinchillas or alligators or poinsettia plants or moon rocks than like God.
Instead, might the value be by body mass, that big creatures get more attention than little ones? That’s often our human tendency, to count and notice the plight of megafauna like elephants or polar bears or whales, but to be less invested in smaller creatures.
Or maybe lifespan gives us more value, where mayflies only last for a day, or rabbits breed three times per year and are mature at four months old, or why Jesus mentions sparrows, that typically live only to 4 years or so in the wild, just as Aldo Leopold noticed chickadee mortality rates were more than 50% after a single winter.
Or maybe another factor in our value and associated with our lifespan is our place in the food chain, that it takes a lot of mosquitoes to feed one bat, or rabbits to feed a hawk, that there are fewer snakes than mice and fewer mice than grasshoppers. Or in your case, that it takes a lot of salmon, who ate even more herring or crayfish, which had to eat scads of larvae or plankton.
To try on a completely different version, though, of why God would value us differently than lilies or sparrows, it might be because of what we’re capable of, or what our potential is. This is true in both negative and positive ways. To return to the absurd drunk flying cedar waxwings, they don’t need police to pull them over for imbibing too much fermented fruit because they won’t do much harm that way, whereas we need laws about drinking and driving because we are all too liable to harm others.
Or, in an apparently more benign perspective, what we cause in getting this bread and wine here today may be terribly destructive. That process may be destroying other life and interrupting cycles of well-being and altering the habitats that other animals depend on. Fields may be covered in pesticides and insecticides that help our grain and grapes to grow, but harm other life and, we’re learning, will even wreck the health of the soil. It’s still a fairly new thing to think of healthy dirt. More, our roads not only bear risk for the deer standing alongside them, but also carry vehicles that are polluting the air and changing the climate of the planet, even for those animals that live far, far away from direct human presence.
And there are those birds of the air that Jesus mentions. My life may be of more value than many sparrows (and our habits benefit house sparrows and crows and seagulls). But I wonder about trading the value of my life, what it would be not to count myself more than, for example, an extinct passenger pigeon. I wonder what I’d trade to be able to see flocks that block out the sun all day. Or to see an auk or 12 foot tall great moa of New Zealand or a Carolina parakeet that was exterminated for the benefit of making hats or an ivory-billed woodpecker that simply didn’t have enough old forests.
Or if I wouldn’t actually trade my life for a bird’s, what would I sacrifice? We figured out how to make do without DDT in order for bald eagles again to soar over our Wisconsin lakes and figured it may be okay that cranes cause crop damage. But what else of my life would I change or give up for the wellbeing of another creature?
That question may be the reason we hear the assigned reading from 1st Corinthians today. There’s nothing very natural or animal-ish in there, but maybe it is the guidance from Jesus that we as faithful humans have a spot in creation not only to cause harm but to ask what we may sacrifice for others (or for “otters”), following the way of the cross that doesn’t try to claim my own life is more valuable for being hoarded, but finds the worth in community of God’s blessing.
Perhaps that’s a perspective of our value, in assessing what can go wrong, and also in figuring how to do better. We’re valued because God strives so much to redeem you. Weighing whether comfort and convenience, our worries in life of what we eat or wear, that this is not worth the loss of life, I’m offering the last word to Aldo Leopold. From his speech at Wyalusing State Park, this is for “the funeral of a species,” on a monument to the passenger pigeon:
We know now what was unknown to all the preceding caravan of generations: that [humans] are only fellow-voyagers with other creatures in the odyssey of evolution. This new knowledge should have given us…a sense of kinship with fellow-creatures;…of wonder over the magnitude and duration of the biotic enterprise.…
These things, I say, should have come to us. I fear they have not come to many.
For one species to mourn the death of another is a new thing under the sun. The Cro-Magnon who slew the last mammoth thought only of steaks. The sportsman who shot the last pigeon thought only of his prowess. The sailor who clubbed the last auk thought of nothing at all. But we, who have lost our pigeons, mourn the loss. Had the funeral been ours, the pigeons would hardly have mourned us. In this fact [and this potential], rather than in [synthetic] nylon or [computers or nuclear] bombs, lies objective evidence of our superiority over the beasts.**
** found in A Sand County Almanac
Rejoicing with all creation, let us pray for the church, the world, and all those in need.
God of all creation, with all creation we join in praise. And as Francis of Assisi preached your word to the birds, we pray you open our ears to hear other creatures preaching you to us. We also give thanks for these favorite animals in our household or larger family of earth now (PAUSE) Lord, in your mercy, hear our prayer.
We pray today as one among many, as one species surrounded by millions. So we think of those who are close, like the chickens and chickadees, crows, raccoons, and coyotes, and those farther away and more foreign to us, in jungles and deserts, on mountains and in the depths of seas. In all of this, we ask your blessing on these creatures and sustenance in their habitats. Lord, in your mercy, hear our prayer.
We give thanks for political movements that care for creation, for 100 years of the National Park Service, for the Endangered Species Act, the Department of Natural Resources, for nations working together on climate change, for organizations that motivate us to take up this challenge. Expand our hearts and strengthen us for sacrificial love. Lord, in your mercy,
hear our prayer.
We pray for the health of creatures who are at risk, for snow leopards and orcas, rhinocersoses and manatees, for karner blue butterflies and kirtland’s warbler, for those suffering from too much rain–for farmers, those with flooded homes, and creatures around there. For all these places of concern, for animals as well as the people we worry about and which we name now, silent or aloud (PAUSE). Lord, in your mercy, hear our prayer.
Celebrating the beauty of creation’s habitats, we also celebrate the beauty of these quilts that surround us today. We praise you for the blessing of hardworking and deeply caring hands that have made them, and pray for all the places around this world where people will receive them from Lutheran World Relief. Lord, in your mercy, hear our prayer.
In the promise that you chose us and, in the fullness of time, will gather all things on earth into your embrace, bring us with all creation around your throne in eternal praise. Lord, in your mercy, hear our prayer.
Gather all these prayers and whatever else you see we need as we join together with these concluding words:
Jesus Christ, teach us to empathize with Earth. Make our spirits sensitive to the cries of creation, for justice from the land, the seas, and the skies. Jesus Christ, make our faith sensitive to the longing groans of the Spirit in creation. Jesus Christ, make our hearts sensitive to the songs of our kin, celebrations from the sea, the forest, and the air. Christ, teach us to care. Amen

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)