Unclear Signs

sermon on John 2:1-11


This story gets me into trouble.

The first instance was when I was maybe in middle school, and with this Bible passage made my mom even more upset than she had been at me before. See, I had called her “woman.” She wasn’t too pleased about me referring to her that way. I pointed out that Jesus called his mom “woman,” saying “woman, what concern is that to me and you?” so she was discounting Jesus as my role model. That odd biblical trivia from a time in life when I wasn’t paying much attention surely is an indicator I’ve always been a smart… something. (A smart aleck.)

Now I have more reason to know Bible stories, and I find this one getting me into trouble for a different reason. See, this story of turning water into wine is the second most typical request or pseudo-expectation of what being a pastor might mean. With the odd presumption that I’m closer to Jesus (which I’m not), this turns to the playful suggestion that I also could liven up the party by conjuring some wine. If Jesus could suddenly make 180 gallons of primo wine out of stale water, well…I can’t. (If you’re wondering, in this sort of category the most typical request of pastors is to do something about the weather. I can’t do that, either.)

But how this story most gets me into trouble is because I just don’t get it. If this is the first of Jesus’ signs, signs are supposed to indicate something, to point us in the right direction. But what exactly is this miraculous sign pointing to? It’s not clear.

For me, there’s at least a hint here that Jesus loved a party and the delights of life, that following Jesus isn’t about struggle and cross-bearing all the time, but is also about celebrating loving relationships and enjoying plenty of good drink and making merry. I figure his attitude is some of why we ourselves celebrate at weddings.

Or maybe more than permission for us to cut loose, it could signify that God is not a God of stinginess but of abundance. The finest abundance, not to keep cellared but breaking it out to share flagrantly. That metaphor seems like it could fit our Creator.

Or maybe it’s more direct than God providing our general festivities. At the end of the next chapter, in his last appearance, John the Baptist will refer to Jesus as the bridegroom. So is this miracle supposed to be a celebration of us being wedded to Jesus (as it has it some places in the Bible)? As I hold onto those possibilities, I’m not sure exactly what the sign means.

And if I consider those might be what this sign is indicating, for the kind of Christian who would frequently put a lot more stock in miracles than I do and who would be eager to accept each word of the Bible as factual accuracy, they may actually point away instead of following this direction. There are some of those literalist and fundamentalist sorts of believers who don’t approve of drinking and so would have to explain away this first sign or ignore something of what it might be indicating.

It’s not only piety that could shape an aversion to this or that our sense of propriety seemed to be (rather backwardly) of a higher standard than God’s interest. There are good reasons to object, obviously foremost including too many instances of alcohol abuse, where an abundance of wine would not be so positive a sign. We distort gifts of God’s goodness in our lives by overconsumption. This sign has that ambiguity, other problems complicating the clarity of its goodness.

But, to reorient, this isn’t probably best conceived as a sign to tell us what God thinks about drinking wine.  This is a sign pointing to God in Jesus.

So maybe we are meant to see God incarnate in Jesus since Jesus can do God’s work of making wine, which we could superstitiously take as the magic of turning grape juice into a fermented beverage. Or maybe more scientifically we appreciate the aspect of God bringing rainfall and growth of grapes. Or God’s work in the mystical edge of how people fall in love. And so on.

But even before trying to figure that out, I can’t help but notice that if this sign is supposed to be showcasing something about Jesus, it seems to do kind of a lousy job. It says this revealed his glory, or made it manifest. Good words for this Epiphany season—reveal and manifest. After his arrival at Christmas, this is a season about helping us understand who Jesus is.

Yet within the story, he’s not really revealed. All of it happens behind the scenes. The closest is a parenthetical comment that the servants knew where the winey water came from when the chief steward tasted it, who then went to congratulate or praise the bridegroom. Jesus gets no credit. So much for his glory. Nobody really seems to know this miracle could be attributed to him. It could’ve just as well been claimed by Wanda the Wondermaker, seated across from Jesus at the banquet table. Maybe Jesus needed to work on his magician’s showmanship and throw some big Voilas and TaDas with a swish of his cape or something.

The thing is, this notion of signs is a pretty big deal in John’s Gospel, but it never really resolves to be clear indicators, at least in the way we’d expect. Signs get mentioned 17 times through the story, but mainly seem to add to confusion rather than clarity in revealing the work of God in Jesus.

The multiplication of bread and fish to feed 5000 is one of the signs, but mostly it increased the people’s appetite for bread rather than making them hunger for Jesus. The healing of a man blind from birth is described as something never done before, but that sign created an argument over whether Jesus was a sinner. And the final and greatest sign of Jesus’ life was calling four-day dead Lazarus out of his tomb, but this resuscitation from death didn’t resolve that Jesus was the giver of life; rather it made the authorities determine to kill him. Against the whole purpose of the signs, and of the Gospel of John itself—that these were so you may believe in Jesus—the summary word at the end of his ministry was “Although he had performed many signs in their presence, they did not believe in him” (12:37).

The reverse troubling side to me is that while they had signs that didn’t make a difference, we want signs we don’t get. We may say that if we could see, we’d believe. We just ask for a sign from God, a clear indicator, something that can make us know and trust. So people would like it if I could change water to wine. Following that advancing pattern in the Gospel, being able to multiply bread and feed the hungry could provide great relief. We deeply long for cures to our illnesses and infirmities. Finally, in a question of proliferating signs already asked in the Gospel story itself (11:37): if Jesus could call Lazarus out of the tomb, how come Jesus isn’t still doing that now?

I suppose there’s an edge of being able to say that we know from the story that he did it, so we are able to believe in Jesus, that it’s not about changing all the water to wine or about resuscitating every last dead person. Or maybe we say that these are isolated indicators of God’s larger work, that God is striving to feed the hungry and will indeed raise us all from death into eternal life.

I guess my final difficulty with signs is that I distrust them. That’s not where I want to hang my theological cap, since signs seem so much to be the opposite of what we’re up to here. Scripture says that “faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen” (Hebrews 11:1). Hope and faith don’t have clear revelation. They remain bound with doubt and uncertainty, as unsettling as that is.

It may rightly make us wonder how we can be so assured and convinced when we have no proof, no clear sign. With that surprising sense, I want to share words from Martin Luther King. He said:

In recent months I have also become more and more convinced of the reality of a personal God….In the past years the idea of a personal God was little more than a metaphysical category which I found theologically and philosophically satisfying. Now it is a living reality that has been validated in the experiences of everyday life. Perhaps the suffering, frustration, and agonizing moments which I have had to undergo occasionally as a result of my involvement in a difficult struggle have drawn me closer to God….In the midst of outer dangers I have felt and inner calm and known resources of strength that only God could give. In many instances I have felt the power of God transforming the fatigue of despair into the buoyancy of hope. I am convinced that the universe is under the control of a loving purpose.*

There’s surprise in that for me, because Dr. King’s sign pointed the opposite direction we’d expect. He doesn’t say that he can believe and trust God because the efforts for justice in the Civil Rights movement were advancing so well, much less because he was inexplicably saved from the assassin’s knife. It wasn’t in abundance or what we call blessing that he was convinced of God and confident in hope, but rather in suffering, frustration, and agonizing moments.

I wouldn’t try to commend struggles to you so that you could have a sign of God. But I suppose that with Dr. King there are many of us who admit that that can be the case, who know that when the going gets tough, that’s exactly when faith is such a strong and apparent resource.

Maybe that’s also why the Gospel of John doesn’t find Jesus manifest in glory as one whom everybody understands and likes, where it’s a party whenever he’s around, and who does just what we want and gives us everything we ask, but instead says that the clearest sign of God is as Jesus is lifted up on the cross. That is glory. That is our sign.

So might it be that we usually look the wrong direction? We figure the sign points to an end result. But maybe these stories aren’t that the sign is more wine, more bread, more health, longer life. Maybe it’s that through Jesus we’re also supposed to see God showing up in the lack, when we’re in tears and confronting death, amid the exclusions and disabilities of our bodies and of culture, when we’re hungering for more, and even amid the shame and social distress and hospitality failure of a spoiled party when the wine has run out. At those moments of despair, large and small, maybe we’re realizing God’s presence comes to those low and hurting and deadly places.

And further in that way, rather than a faith that goes hunting to discover God in each little glimmer or that tries to attribute the coincidences of fermenting yeast and healing of cells and averting of death, rather than that guesswork and chasing after our own imagined signs or their lack, I trust the God who is with us in sorrow and torment, who isn’t waiting to show up in odd phenomena, but who has promised to be found fully and infinitely present in a remarkably small tidbit of bread and non-abundant sip of wine, in the water of the font joining you to death and the hope of resurrection, and this Word of God—that was from the beginning—speaking to you even with the voice of a wisenheimer who was rude to his mother. That’s our revelation, the sign of this hidden God, as unspectacular and unclear as it may be, and those very regular and inglorious places are just where we need God to be found.


* in A Testament of Hope, p40


Amos: Justice Rolls Down

sermon on Amos 1:1-2, 5:14-15, 21-24
Can I suggest this image of justice and flowing waters must apply to the economic policies of President Reagan, even though it may first ring in your ears associated with Martin Luther King and the Civil Rights movement?

Such observations occur for these six weeks of the Narrative Lectionary, that the words of prophets, the word of the Lord continues to speak, to have varied voice. That’s true, though we isolate some of these passages as applying only to one instance—whether the Civil Rights era for today or amid Handel’s Messiah and Christmas Eve services with next week’s reading from Isaiah. We take the impression that the words have a solitary application.

But that misses several layers of their importance. First, we must remain aware that the prophets weren’t just offering future forecasts, making predictions about a Messiah, as if their message had to wait for hundreds of years to make any sense at all, and now we only look back to verify that their prognostications about Jesus were correct.

The prophets were speaking a message from God, of God’s will and purpose, of God’s command and God’s blessing, primarily to the people of their own time, even if the significance became more timeless. Just as it wouldn’t make sense for me to give a sermon that wasn’t for you but was a time capsule communication for 500 years from now, the words of the prophets were meant and had meaning for their own time and place and people.

So Amos was speaking to his culture’s prosperity, but also injustice. His nation was expanding and profiting, but the benefits weren’t equally shared. People were taking bribes and spurning the courts, selling shoddy merchandise at rip-off prices. They built fancy houses with good landscaping. They lounged on beds of ivory, got dolled up in finery, and went all out enjoying feasts to gulp down bowls of wine with entertainment, but weren’t in the least grieved over distress around them. Amos observed these “fat cows” (as he called them) had too much ease, too much luxury, while others went hungry and poor.

And Amos declared God was against that.

That may seem second-nature to us, but Amos is an entirely new voice within biblical history. It hadn’t addressed God’s concern about economic injustice. Amos speaking of God’s displeasure and opposition for having too much at the neighbor’s expense, and that detrimentally affecting relationships with God—that was a new insistence.

Although Amos was addressing inequality in his own time, these words aren’t isolated to that period. We apply them in other ways, as well. So a central aspect and second layer of importance is in how we understand Jesus as the embodiment of God’s presence partly because he embodies the words of the prophets. From the emphasis of Amos, we recognize Jesus as living out God’s justice, striving for a religion that connects to the wellbeing of the poor, not simply paying lip service to relationships with God and with society. Jesus portrays that living rightly for the marginalized is inherent and vital in relating to God. In our Gospel window today, Jesus says he himself is the living, flowing water to quench the thirst of those who long for justice. Amos had no way of knowing about Jesus, but if he had lived three quarters of a millennium later, Amos would’ve seen Jesus personifying his message.

So the words of Amos were first spoken to his own time. But they are not left as ancient and dead words from 2700 years ago. We also find their fulfillment in Jesus. And the third layer of importance is in other situations and settings where these words keep resonating, as a living message, empowered by the Spirit of God.

So Martin Luther King could take this message, could tweak the wording, and could speak the voice of a long gone biblical sheep owner and dresser of sycamore trees, then to confront racism. This “mighty stream” Martin Luther King proclaimed became one of his favorite images, including in his “I Have a Dream” speech, where in part he said:

We can never be satisfied as long as African Americans are the victims of the unspeakable horrors of police brutality. We cannot be satisfied as long as long as our children are stripped of their selfhood and robbed of their dignity. We cannot be satisfied as long as some cannot vote and others believe they have nothing for which to vote. No, we are not satisfied, and we will not be satisfied until justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream.

There it is, Amos again talking through the most famous speech of the 20th Century, not with the old historical moment of ignorant luxury, but a new moment of voting rights and segregation and white supremacy, yet maintaining Amos’s impatience and dissatisfaction at how domineering injustices linger.

Moving to our time, and because Amos was part of shaping this awareness of and resistance to injustice, I want to share a few sentences of a modern instance about elites, echoing the old injustice, in a new book by Naomi Klein. She writes:

What matters is that not one of them appears to be worried about climate change. The early catastrophic events are playing out mostly in poor parts of the world, where the people are not white. And when disasters do strike…, there are growing numbers of ways for the wealthy to buy their relative safety…They will lose some beachfront property, sure, but nothing that can’t be replaced with a new mansion in the mountains…Almost every one of them is catastrophically unconcerned…In an age of ever-widening income inequality, a significant cohort of our elites are walling themselves off not just physically but also psychologically, mentally detaching themselves from the collective fate of the rest of humanity.*

That condemnation strikes me as a fairly exact parallel of Amos’s critique of those who lie on beds of ivory and neglect the poor at the edge of town. And that’s not only a rebuke from Naomi Klein and Amos, but from God. God is against this elitism that would wall ourselves off from the problems others are having at our expense. That is evil, says the Lord.

Now, all of that might make us question effect. Was God’s message received in Amos’s time? Was it effective in changing the attitudes or behavior of the rich people in oblivious leisure? We don’t know. Martin Luther King’s message still needs to be repeated for our white ears. Naomi Klein may not be speaking directly to the situation of us in this room as climate denying elites, but it’s a message that resonates in our lives anyway and at the very least needs to be spoken.

Finally, however, I’m also aware that in a few minutes we will be offering our pledges of how we use our time and our skills and our financial resources. Almost certainly, Amos’s message of economic justice is relevant and should affect our consideration for those decisions and dedications.

That realization that this matters for what we do brings me back around to President Reagan. For weeks now, I’ve been thinking about Amos’s vision of justice as ever-flowing waters, and Martin Luther King’s take on it as a mighty stream, which seems to contrast starkly with the term “trickle-down economics.” President Reagan claimed the top having more would drip down to everyone else. While things have gotten significantly better for those few, by some measures it has actually worsened for many and by all measures income equality is more disparate. The pool for the rich is growing, while the trickle to other 90% of us is drying up.**

Now, obviously that has much broader policy implications. It goes with the conversations about reforming the tax code. And the voice of Amos—indeed, the voice of God—should be part of that discussion, and it may be for us to offer that prophetic voice.

Instead of the slow trickle of justice, God calls us to open the floodgates, to un-dam the river, to gush with goodness. And though the implications can be much broader, still as we gather for worship, we have the chance to practice. We can practice speaking and hearing the truth. We practice envisioning new realities. We live into the justice God calls us to. And our pledges and offerings are a vital part of that. It is the practice of not holding back the floodgates, not keeping dammed up what we either consider our own or have failed to notice we retain at the expense of others who need more. Our worship is an opening for the outpouring of justice.

I confess I don’t suggest this devotional practice lightly, knowing that the largest chunk of what you give here goes to fund me. So I will say, thank you. And with that realization, know that I am swimming eagerly in these waters with you, responding to the invitation to let it flow abundantly and give freely, again increasing by an additional 6% what flows from my hands—or, better, through my hands—for God’s work. Thank you for hearing this prophetic message anew and letting it work on you today, because that is how God comes to quench your thirst also.




* No Is Not Enough: Resisting Trump’s Shock Politics and Winning the World We Need, p180

** http://www.politifact.com/truth-o-meter/statements/2015/jan/13/elizabeth-warren/warren-average-family-bottom-90-percent-made-more-/


Abundant Life

sermon on Psalm23; 1Peter2:19-25; Acts2:42-47; John10:1-10

Jesus gives a great purpose statement today: “I came that they may have life and have it abundantly.”

Yet it makes us ask, what does he mean? What qualifies (or quantifies) as abundant life? Is it about longevity, as if the number of years is what makes life abundant? Do you imagine it’s having abundance in your life, of food on your table and square footage of your dwelling space and of possessions? Or is abundance in satisfaction, in enjoyment, in feeling accomplishment? Might the abundance of life come in relationships, in types of friends or delight in family? More, is it abundant through relationship with God?

We don’t need to guess at understanding what Jesus might mean by living abundantly, since each of our Bible readings today hits on considerations of abundant life, to give a sense of what Jesus wants for you.

Let’s start with the 23rd Psalm, since that is such a definitive statement of our faith and hope. We sang before, but join in if you know these words:

The LORD is my shepherd, I shall not want; he makes me lie down in green pastures. He leads me beside still waters; he restores my soul. He leads me in paths of righteousness for his name’s sake. Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I fear no evil; for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me. You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies; you anoint my head with oil, my cup overflows. Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life; and I shall dwell in the house of the LORD forever.

We may hardly need say or reflect on more for a vision of abundant life than those beloved words. God abides as your Shepherd. Goodness chases after you so you lack or want for nothing. God guides you to calming waters and lush fields of peace and plenty. Even when life itself seems threatened in deadly dark valleys or by the presence of your enemies, you are comforted and safely kept in house of the Lord.

Still, as true and meaningful as those words are, we can’t stop there, because I don’t want you left thinking abundant life amid this faith of ours is just about you and Jesus, through your good times or troubles you endure or in some eternal heavenly home sense. As much as Jesus is your Good Shepherd and you are a sheep, you are a sheep of his fold and lamb of his own flock. You aren’t alone, but are among a gathering of sheep. And, as Jesus will go on to say later in chapter 10 of John’s Gospel, he has “other sheep that do not belong to this” group. It can’t be individualistic. We need to look broader and recognize more to understand what Jesus intends for abundant life.

To begin considering God amid our relationships, let’s take a fairly negative example. You may have been squirming in your seats during the reading from 1st Peter, and Joyce didn’t much seem to enjoy reading it or calling it “Word of God, Word of life.” You may have been protesting and arguing in your minds about unjust suffering. I concur that there’s much disagreeable there. This is the sort of passage the lectionary normally skips past without giving us a chance to confront it. In this case, what we didn’t hear makes it worse, since this lectionary skipped the first verse of the section, which began with addressing “slaves, accept the authority of your masters,” even if they’re too harsh. Yikes! Probably worse still, the next verse after our reading says, “Wives, in the same way, accept the authority of your husbands.” Double yikes! This among verses that commend enduring abuse and beatings!

We must quickly declare how wrong this is, but we first have to pause with an odd caveat. The author of this letter is trying to make sense of what the resurrection means, including in the course of life’s difficulties, and in some way understands that suffering is not the opposite of abundant life. 1st Peter says our worst difficulties in relationships don’t necessarily cut us off from abundant life.

Using suffering in service of life by breaking oppression was the method of Martin Luther King and the civil rights movement. Dr. King cited exactly this Bible passage, realizing that “unearned suffering [can be] redemptive. Suffering…has tremendous educational and transforming possibilities.” He liked to say, “The tension is, at bottom, between justice and injustice, between the forces of light and the forces of darkness. And if there is a victory, it will be a victory not merely for [African Americans], but a victory for justice and the forces of light. We are out to defeat injustice [he said] and not white persons who may be unjust.”* That’s a message of striving through intentional suffering on behalf of abundant life, that one side can’t win alone (as violence presumes). True victory for life needs to be shared by both sides. In Dr. King’s example of nonviolent resistance, it may make sense to commend that pain should be endured.

But we have to admit 1st Peter isn’t really talking about that. When this letter says that enduring unjust and unmerited suffering at work or in family relationships means you have God’s approval, that’s mostly wrong. God may be on the side of people suffering and hurting, but if the letter means that God approves of being abused, that is wrong and it is terrifyingly wrong. This passage has been used to perpetuate domestic violence. In another example, there have been some awful racist offences at St. Olaf College in recent days, and 1st Peter’s model would be that those students in positions of weakness should just put up with insults, humiliation, denigrations, or threats. That should not happen. That is not commendable. It’s not godly. That is not abundant life.

Almost every source I read this week declared the need to understand this writing in its ancient context, that slaves and wives and children were property controlled by the authority of a man, that that society was shaped and limited by their economy—a word literally meaning the household order. But that doesn’t make it okay. 1st Peter has some very faithful and wonderful things in it, but this is just plain wrong. It’s wrong about Jesus, wrong about society, wrong for us.

As a counter-example, Paul’s writings were in the same ancient context but refused to endorse that economic or household order. He undid slave/master hierarchy to invite them to live as brothers (see Philemon). He saw marriages as a mutual relationship (see 1Cor7). In Paul’s understanding, “there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus” and none should be treated as patriarchal fathers, because we are all counted as offspring and heirs to inherit God’s promise (Gal3:28-29).

So 1st Peter can’t just say that we need to put up with oppressive and abusive relationships or forms of society, because Paul rightly recognized that what Jesus was doing and is still doing for the sake of abundant life is to reshape our relationships and to confront unjust authorities, whether they be in economy, family, religion, school, government, or anywhere. The example of Jesus is not that he passively submitted to being killed but that he chose to risk his life confronting injustice, and even that not as a suicide mission but with God’s further insistence on life over death. Like Jesus, it may be worth confronting powers for the sake of abundant life. And in that way, amid suffering, you may trust that God intends something other than your pain.

Let’s move from a difficult passage to one that seems more obvious in its abundance. The reading from Acts is the same chapter as the Pentecost story, with the Holy Spirit is creating faith in crowds of new followers of Jesus. This is portrayed as the very early infant church. Just as 1st Peter was trying to figure out, then, what it means to live as the church, to live after Easter, how to encounter continuity of life in this world even while believing it is forever changed by the resurrection, that’s what the community is working on in Acts, too, trying to figure out what this way of life means. In this short reading, there are a couple ways they encounter the abundance of life:  they study, they join in prayers, they eat meals together.

Oh, and they’re also communists. This is a way of seeing the abundance of life, that we have enough to share, that it can’t really be abundant if we imagine it needs to be hoarded, but is best when offered for all. Yet this idea of sharing everything in common, of selling possessions in order to distribute the proceeds as anyone had need has been rejected by plenty of folks, as it’s almost as harmful as passive suffering in 1st Peter. Yet even as we’re skeptical about difficulties of living communally, and even as that ancient community struggled with it—where some wanted to keep their own things and where within four chapters the food pantry wasn’t running fairly—still we do practice this. We practice it in our offerings, bringing what we have, to share life in so many ways for our community (like helping the homeless) and around the world (like funds for ELCA World Hunger and welcoming refugees). We should note this is what happens with our taxes. Those funds are for sharing a common good larger than what we could possess or accomplish on our own. That is a vision of abundant life.

Besides financially, in another aspect of being part of the flock and sharing in this community, I had the privilege of hearing celebrations from Mary Rowe this week, of delight in the care and support and generosity of this congregation as she is recovering from her knee surgery. Now, being cooped up at home, stuck on pain medications, and wondering when she’ll be back into normal routines may not sound exactly like abundant life, but as she shares the joys of this community, Mary recognizes it. This is the koinonia, the fellowship, the sharing, the communion that binds us together in this meal today, and that finds expression as our lives commune and become one with each other.

Finally for our discernment about finding abundant life are Jesus’ words. He offers a strange image: I AM the gate. It’s easier to picture Jesus as the Good Shepherd, who will rescue you from trouble and carry you on his shoulders. Or as the Shepherd of the sheep who leads us and guides us together as a flock. But here Jesus also says he’s a gate. That’s an odd idea.

First, it makes us wonder whether we’re trying to get in or out. Is he a gate that protects us from marauders and harm? Or is he the way out from being trapped up so we can find freedom in green pastures of plenty? He says both: “Whoever enters by me will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture.”

Perhaps we need both sides of that. We see that church is not about being insiders who disparage outsiders. There’s nothing exclusive about those in the church as better or more blessed. We’re not here to hunker down and shut the world out. And yet we do come in through the gate for a message of salvation. We need a word unlike the bad news that surrounds us, we need the peace the world cannot give. We need the reassurance of resurrection, that life in Jesus wins, that those injustices and pains and fears of scarcity and all that threatens or breaks us apart do not and, in the end, cannot define, confine, or conquer us and our world.

Instead, trusting the message of life that is stronger than death, trusting in Jesus who submitted to death in order to burst through it and undo its powerful grip on us, proclaiming that that is our reality, too, that nothing can stifle this goodness, we go out through the gate of Jesus to his world. We go out to share that good news. We go out to confront the nastiness. We go out to share our life abundantly. We go out to enjoy the blessing that nothing will steal that from us, nothing will be able ultimately to destroy God’s goodness. Life in Jesus is for all for always. We go out, because through him, we recognize life more abundantly. Alleluia! Christ is risen!

* “An Experiment in Love” in Testament of Hope, p18


Inauguration Vigil for Climate Change

Reflection for Vigil of First 100 Hours of a New Presidency on Climate Change

A lot depends on perspective in these days, and so depending on your perspective, you might find it either a fitting coincidence or grotesquely ironic that this week ending in inauguration began with the observance of Martin Luther King day.

Whether good or ill, I’ve been considering the Rev. King’s words and example amid this moment. There are, again, things both more and less helpful.

Less helpful to me feels that grand reassurance oft repeated by Rev. King, that the arc of the moral universe is long but that it bends toward justice. Overall, I have that hope in God’s blessing and promise. Yet we’re gathered in vigils around the country in these days particularly recognizing that we don’t have time for a long arc. We can’t wait for eventuality. The fate of so much wellbeing on our planet—on lives already as well as generations to come and the very shape of creation’s community as we know it—direly is demanding our concern.

On that note, Rev. King also impatiently resisted those who asked him to wait for more favorable conditions. He witnessed such revolutionary times where people all over the globe “are revolting against old systems of exploitation and oppression.” Almost 50 years ago he gave a famous speech explaining the challenge that resisting racism connected to resisting war. Or—in others of his famous phrases—that injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere and that we are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality.

We see today a similar expanse of overlapping categories and the calling to a common cause. Climate change is about saving polar bears from extinction, but climate change is also about native communities in Alaska melting through the permafrost. And climate change is about refugees and low-lying cities that are already facing expensive emergencies, and climate change is about women’s rights as villagers have to walk farther and farther for water, and climate change is about rural lives, as agriculture in Wisconsin will be battling more and more pests, and climate change is about health care facing pandemics for the poor and elderly, and climate change is about recreation and tourism, and avoidably about the Department of Natural Resources and the Public Service Commission (and their websites) and climate change is about politics and is about the economy, both tied together in the shameless greed of fossil fuel companies trying to profit in the face of impending disaster. Climate change is about the fullness of who we are, which also means climate change is about religion, is about God, about the faith we practice, about our sin and our hope, is about the deepest of our beliefs and corest of our commitments.

I’ll conclude with words Rev. King delivered those 50 years ago which speak for us here, now, and invite our ongoing devotion:  We are confronted with the fierce urgency of now. [he said]… Now let us begin. Now let us rededicate ourselves to the long and bitter, but beautiful, struggle for a new world. This is the calling of the sons [and daughters] of God, and our brothers [and sisters] wait eagerly for our response. … [W]hatever the cost … and though we might prefer it otherwise, we must [act] in this crucial moment of human [and non-human!] history.


sermon on The Baptism of Our Lord

(Matthew3:13-17, Acts10:34-43)


The first thing for today is an explanation and apology. Epiphany is January 6, and this festival of the Baptism of Our Lord is usually the first Sunday after Epiphany, which was last Sunday, but we were celebrating our choral service. So when you have to explain to friends and classmates and coworkers tomorrow that your church is a little slow, I apologize for that. We’ll see if we can fix it by the end.

In spite of our slowness, this was worth not bypassing. Actually, Jesus says that right in the Gospel reading. John the Baptist wanted to skip past it, to avoid the baptism of Jesus, but Jesus says, “Nope. We need this.”

We may wonder what about the baptism of Jesus we need, or why this is worth paying attention to. We may ask, does it tell us something important about Jesus, or is it because it tells us something important about us?

To start reflecting on this occasion, it sure seems that the baptism of Jesus is not like ours. I mean, we had nine baptisms here this past year, most of them when we were gathered together for Sunday worship services. You were here and part of those experiences. So how would you describe them? Nice? Community-building? Good to see young families and cute babies?

Nobody said that at a single one of those baptisms the roof was torn off the building, a bright light shone in on the child or a dove came to rest on them. And the voices we heard didn’t come echoing with the thunder but were plain old regular human voices. So we might draw distinctions that the baptism of Jesus was extraordinary, was special, very different from our baptism.

With that, another line is often drawn that our baptism washes away sins, but Jesus didn’t have any sins to wash away. Matthew doesn’t seem concerned about making that theological point in this story. I mention it partly because we have a bad conception of sin, mostly viewing it as the nasty little secrets and bad habits and quirky peccadilloes and guilty pleasures, but that is really a weak definition of sin.

More than that, though, this account of the baptism of Jesus isn’t trying to tell us about what Jesus isn’t, but who Jesus is. That gets obscured by how our lectionary chooses pericopes, or little snippets, lifted out of the larger context. Here are the verses right before today’s reading: John the Baptist proclaimed “Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree that doesn’t bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. I baptize you with water for repentance, but a more powerful one than I is coming after me; I’m not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear the threshing floor and…burn the chaff with unquenchable fire.” (3:10-12)

Against all that fierceness, you could feel the tone shift as if our reading today began with a big but: but “then Jesus came.” John seems to have expected a tough guy, busting in, taking charge, tossing out the bums. But Jesus comes, not with the ax or burning chaff or in all his glory, but comes and asks to be baptized.

That’s the first important thing we learn here about Jesus. Asking what it tells us, while you could take it that Jesus needed to repent or was just a wimp, it’s better and more likely that his means and ends weren’t John’s. So he could be modeling what it’s like to turn from our own ways and toward God’s way. Or showing us that God’s grace is never earned but always received as a gift. Maybe he goes through with it so we can hear about the Spirit resting on him and the voice calling him the Beloved Son. Maybe it’s about the importance of baptism.

That raises the next question, of whether the baptism of Jesus is like our baptisms or is completely different. By the simple fact that there aren’t these miraculous phenomena at our baptisms, does that mean we’re left with something second rate?

I’d argue wholeheartedly against that. I firmly believe some of the point in this story about Jesus is so we can understand the same thing in our baptisms. Even though you couldn’t see the Spirit descending on you, and even though it sounded like my voice, or like some pastor’s voice, or whoever did it, still by means of your baptism, with that splash of water, God was declaring: I choose you. You are my son. You are my daughter. I love you. I’m pleased with you. That message of claiming you always and delighting in you no matter what is exactly the purpose and reason for baptism.

Your baptism expressly connects you to Jesus. Within our baptismal liturgy, that’s proclaimed in words of prayer saying, “At the river your Son was baptized by John and anointed with the Holy Spirit. By the baptism of Jesus’ death and resurrection you set us free from the power of sin and death and raise us up to live in you.” That’s why the paschal candle is rekindled today, as a reminder that your baptismal candles share that flame, a symbol of Jesus’ death and resurrected presence. As we remember our baptisms in a minute, we renew the covenant connection with newness of life in Jesus.

That points to another aspect of reflection for this day. There have been times when we associated baptism with going to heaven, through the promise of eternal life. That was vital yesterday at the memorial service for John Goltermann, for example. It can be the central promise for baptism in newborn intensive care units.

But mostly, when we gather in church and when we need to think about our baptisms, it isn’t because we’re worried about going to heaven. It isn’t only about death and resurrection like rising from the grave, but is dying to an old way of living and newness of life we’re living into already.

We have some of that perspective from Martin Luther. Today you have in bulletins the first bit of his Small Catechism, and it will be most of the way through this 500th anniversary year of the Reformation before we get to the section on baptism, but for a preview, Luther reminds us that baptism means a daily dying and rising. It’s not only amid tragedy or after we’ve drawn our last breath, but is about how we’re rising to live each and every day. It’s not just an eventuality, but is actually changing you here and now.

This is similar to a discussion with Confirmation students and their families and mentors this week, that it’s foolish to think of Confirmation as happening once and for all, that in the spring of 8th grade you’re able to say, Yep, I agree with this faith and am interested in participating in it. Rather, every single day we could be Confirmed, could gather here at church and say to each other, here’s what I believe today and where I’m left wondering, here’s what I find important, here’s how I expect God is working in me and in this world. That every-day-Confirmation would be essentially the remembrance of baptism, the daily dying and rising, the repentance of trying to orient our lives on what God is calling us toward and working in us.

The ongoing reality of living as beloved by God and embodying that for daily existence was also the case for Jesus; if it would’ve only been about his death, about his ending on the cross and the promise of new life from the tomb, then Jesus could’ve been baptized near the very end of the Gospel. Instead he does it right away, so we know this promise and the presence of the Holy Spirit with him in all of his life, in all that he does, with the power to go “about doing good and [struggling against] the devil,” as we heard Acts describe his ministry. Again paralleling our lives, most of us were baptized as infants, not as an insurance against something bad, but as assurance that God’s blessing is with us in all that happens to us, throughout our lives and beyond, giving us power to keep doing what’s right.

I began with an apology that you’d have to say your congregation is a little slow, but also wanted to redeem that slowness. For your existence this week, you may need the promise of God’s presence and some hope for life. This week, as we face new beginnings which may be accompanied by worries and challenging tasks and so many possibilities of striving to embody God’s goodness in our world, here to conclude are words of encouragement and blessing from Martin Luther King Jr.:quote-our-only-hope-today-lies-in-our-ability-to-recapture-the-revolutionary-spirit-and-go-martin-luther-king-55-75-20

Our only hope today lies in our ability to recapture the revolutionary spirit and go out into a sometimes hostile world declaring eternal hostility to poverty, racism, and militarism. With this powerful commitment we shall boldly challenge the status quo and unjust mores, and thereby speed the day when “every valley shall be exalted, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough places plain.”

A genuine revolution of values means in the final analysis that our loyalties must become ecumenical rather than sectional. Every nation must now develop an overriding loyalty to [hu]mankind as a whole … This call for a worldwide fellowship that lifts neighborly concern beyond one’s tribe, race, class, and nation is in reality a call for an all-embracing and unconditional love for all [hu]mankind.

We can no longer afford to worship the god of hate or bow before the altar of retaliation. … We are now faced with the fact, my friends, that tomorrow is today. We are confronted with the fierce urgency of now. …

Now let us begin. Now let us rededicate ourselves to the long and bitter, but beautiful, struggle for a new world. This is the calling of the sons [and daughters] of God, and our brothers [and sisters] wait eagerly for our response.*

That’s what your baptism is for. Amen



* from “A Time to Break Silence” in A Testament of Hope, p242-244

* from “A Time to Break Silence” in A Testament of Hope, p242-244


the Strength of Sermons (and the 1st for Advent Lutheran)

3rd Sunday after Epiphany – 24Jan16

Luke4:13-21; Psalm19; 1Corinthians12:12-31a; Nehemiah8
As Pastor Sonja and I are beginning this week, it’s only fair game for the fodder of jokes about recycling previous sermons. Though you’ve heard me touted as green and eco-conscious and a care-r of creation, I’m not a recycler in that particular way.

Without the reuse or recycle, I wondered if maybe I could emphasize the reduce side of things, as in reducing my workload. So I went searching on the internet. But I couldn’t find any good sermons for newly arriving pastors, and instead came upon this for two new veterinarians:

Greetings, dear dogs and cats. It is a pleasure to be here with you. Both Dr. Sondra and I, Dr. Nate, appreciate your patience in these recent months of having to sit, wait, and stay while you’ve been eager for us to arrive. We’re grateful for those interim professionals who were with you in the meantime, for David Claws-n-Barks, Jerry Paws, and Dan Beagle. As we begin serving among you, we look forward to the opportunity to care for you in times of sickness, to administer the proper inoculations against evil and dread diseases, to comfort you amid your fears, for office visits, and also to share snacks when you are good. Finally, we are held by the promise that all dogs do go to heaven.

So I could go on like that, but I’m going to stop for several reasons. First, such work of making up playful allegory does not serve to endear me to my wife Acacia. More importantly, it’s prompting us to move toward a larger point. Almost always in sermons, we have to consider how we’re hearing words and what we take them for. That gets highlighted in perhaps an opposite way when I told you those words of veterinarian greeting weren’t originally for you, not for your situation. By claiming that it was from an old vet clinic and not church here today I’d suspect it made you hear it differently, taking it with less weight.

Now, a sermon is much the exact reverse of that, since we should receive it with utmost importance. In our Lutheran understanding (since I’m so steeped in this identity, you’ll have to bear with me as I come to understand how this works and who may or may not identify as Lutheran in these gatherings), in our Lutheran understanding a sermon is very special, among the chances to hear directly God’s Word to you and for you.

This is a very different way to hear and apply words, amid our normal reality bombarded by constant communication and lying news updates, and also especially when so much of what we hear and apply together as church are very old words of the Bible and ancient liturgy. Let’s take another couple examples to clarify this direction.

One place I like to turn is to the words of the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. It was disappointing this past week that my books were all packed away and so I was out of my normal rhythm of getting to be steeped in MLK for his birthday observance. It’s worth re-reading his words partly because he was so eloquent, such a fine preacher, and his words are still so moving.

That we’re moved by what he had to say also indicates that his words still have relevance. Partly that’s ongoing tensions and justice and rights that still demand to be worked out in our society. When he called for a “radical revolution of values” and to “shift from a ‘thing-oriented’ society to a ‘person-oriented’ society,” we hear that also as a contemporary calling. We still now observe that “when machines and computers, profit motives and property rights are considered more important than people,” we are approaching “spiritual death” from “the giant triplets of racism, extreme materialism, and militarism.” We long for life, and may take those words as emphatic and inspirational, desiring to have our own lives transformed and for the church again to serve as a beacon, a headlight to guide society rather than a taillight bringing up the rear.

What gets fuzzier, however, is when we try to ascribe larger credit or source to Pastor King’s words. Can we clearly say that God was speaking through him? And is God’s Word still talking to us through this preacher who has been gone for almost five decades? What do we do when those old words are chauvinistic or simply old, more of a historical document than meeting our present realities? Where does God’s voice go then?

Obviously there is no way to delineate that, no definitive way to attribute one voice or set of words as speaking for God while eliminating another. That ambiguity is, after all, what makes this faith: it cannot be proven.

To turn to another example, we read together the words from Psalm 19. The first half is seen as a Psalm of creation, that night and day, sun, moon, stars, and even new planets are declaring and telling the glory of God, that somehow God might be identified by the sky. Yet verse 3 contradicts that. It seems to say that the firmament proclaims God’s handiwork, but we can’t understand the message. Even though the voice goes out to all, it is an unheard voice, and whatever they have to report does not sound in our ears.

Though I don’t always like it, I appreciate that distinction. We may be in awe of sunsets or aurora borealis or of deep-gazing telescopes, but we’d have to confess that these don’t directly tell us about God. We may take them as validation for what we already believe, a God of beauty, of infinite handiwork throughout the cosmos. Converse perspectives don’t shy away from labeling natural phenomena as signs from a retributive God, exacting punishment. A poster outside one of our Sunday school classrooms downstairs asks what God looks like. It features a drawing of the sun, the answer “you,” plus the polar sides of “everything and nothing.” This discernment does get notoriously complex: is the pummeling blizzard on the east coast a message of divine displeasure? Is it a supersized dose of wintry wonderland gift to be enjoyed? Is it less a factor of communicating God’s identity and more of the climate change we’re causing? Or none of these? There may be knowledge being declared, but we have a tough time discerning the message, just as the Psalm said.

Similarly for that ambiguous message in the Psalm, let’s notice the final verse, on “words of my mouth” and meditations being acceptable. That verse is frequently prayed by preachers as an opener to sermons, perhaps here, too. I don’t use it. It may be that I’m a little too brash; I learned to begin with something shocking or provocative, or just to jump right in with the big stuff. But there’s also something that leaves me uncomfortable with that pre-sermon prayer, as a bit too un-Lutheran. Again, we don’t understand sermons to be take-or-leave meditations, not just one person’s ideas about God, but words from God. Because this isn’t intended as another among polyvalent spiritual suggestions, it’s not just sentimental trivialities that can be shrugged off.

On the other hand, in sermons I have said and keep on saying plenty that’s unacceptable, words that don’t seem very godly for being so earthy or mundane. I can forget to say what needs to be said, or I’m ignorant, or I just plain miss the mark. We know that sermons have been used to hurt and exclude, to manipulate, to claim that I’m right and you’re wrong, with the heavy hand of divine sanction behind it. There is the risk of sounding or even being authoritarian, though I hope and try that you don’t hear it from me. Yet it remains a difficulty, not only when we’re gazing to the stars, but when we’re listening for God’s Word from a mortal, fallible, and occasionally absurd human mouth. I say that speaking from personal experience!

Yet these words are where we listen to have God’s will conveyed to us, meaning both what God wants from you and also what God wants for you and is working for on your behalf. Even if we’re not yet familiar with each other, still you have called me here in some major way in order to be a mouthpiece, to proclaim God’s expectations from and blessings for you.

So after all that background about sermons, how they should function and why we have them, maybe it’s time that I actually get around to doing it. For this, we have what I consider to be a prototypical and foundational epitome in our Gospel reading. Jesus has gathered with others in worship. He shares a Bible reading. And then, also giving his first sermon—one of the shortest of all time—he declares, “Today this has been fulfilled in your hearing.”

If we’re searching for God’s designs and purposes, Jesus is a good place to look (and listen). He’s the heart of why we’re here. And he proclaims God is sharing good news. Today, that sermon of his might seem to have more oomph, then, than mine or whatever the skies and weather patterns are trying to say. When he proclaims that something is accomplished, we might have inherent readiness to trust that.

Yet in picking up old words from the prophet Isaiah, he says they are speaking not just to ancient circumstances but continue to be purposeful. And not only are those old words still significant, but within the sermon is when they are accomplished, when God is doing what God says God will do. So just what is God’s Word saying to you today? Well, we might be best to repeat and reiterate from Jesus: from a Bible reading that speaks of good news to the poor, release to captives, sight for the blind, freedom from oppression, and God’s favor, again I declare this good news to you: this is fulfilled in your hearing.

Some of that truly is conveyed in the words themselves. You may know and trust in God’s loving presence with you and blessing for you because these words are what they promise.

Others of that you may find fulfilled in your life or through your life. Together, we are good news people. Through this gathering in worship, we are formed into the body of Christ. You become God’s hands and muscles and, yes, mouth. This work is for you and also through you, as God continues striving to love and serve our lives and this world in so much need. Rejoice: you are Jesus people, for the fulfillment of God’s work. 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)