17th Sunday after Pentecost, Pastor Bradley E. Schmeling
Maybe you’ve heard about the marshmallow design challenge. It’s a teamwork and design exercise. Groups are given 20 pieces of spaghetti, one yard of tape, one yard of string, and one marshmallow. The goal is to build the tallest structure you can in the time allotted. The only rule is that the marshmallow must go on the top and must be in one piece.
You probably won’t be surprised to learn that all usually goes well until the last minute. With the clock ticking, the group adds the marshmallow. Very often, the whole structure collapses. It can’t handle the weight. You may also not be surprised to learn that recent graduates of an MBA program, and probably seminaries, have some of the worst track records. The best?
Why do kindergartners perform better than adults? The adults jockey for power, spend a lot of time talking about process, try to get around the rules, or just cheat. The kindergartners succeed because usually none of them is trying to be the CEO. They share equally in the task. But mostly, it’s because they start with the marshmallow. They build under it, and when something doesn’t work, they dismantle and start over. The marshmallow is always on top in their project.
I sometimes wonder if Jesus would have had a more supportive team had he invited twelve kindergartners to join on the way to Jerusalem. A group willing to be closer to the ground than scraping the sky; a group that values each member of the team and knows that God’s wisdom is always collaborative.
In today’s gospel text, we hear the final conflict between two design processes. By the end of the week, Jesus will be lynched and buried. He just entered Jerusalem, to great acclaim and the waving of palm branches. He overturned the tables in the temple, a pretty clear symbol of what he’s about. And now this is the first argument with the authorities, likely with the police who were sent to disburse the protesters.
On one side: Jesus’ project to build a structure that beats with God’s heart. On the other side: the institution, political and religious, that resists change, silences dissent, and rewards the wealthy and powerful. [Let me be clear about one thing: The temple doesn’t represent Judaism, as if Christianity is somehow the real spiritual project that gets rid of some rigid Jewish system.]
Here the temple represents the world that we’ve all been schooled to believe is the real one, or, at least, the only practical one. If you want to hear what the temple-reality looks like today, get on Twitter or turn on the TV or open the newspaper. You’ll find it on just about every page. I like to call it “an accumulation system”; an endless, frantic, and finally murderous race to have more and more. It’s literally a dead-end.
The entire gospel text for today turns around the question of what kind of authority will re-make the future. In Matthew’s gospel, this a moment of crisis, a turning point. In fact, even the way he tells this story, compels the reader to choose a side. Do you want to end up like the leaders, the ones who have everything but really nothing, or the prostitutes and the tax collectors, the judged and despised, but are open to discovering the deepest truth? Will you be the child that nods their head at the request but never does anything about it? Or the one, who may not get it at first, even arguing with the authority, but tackles the work, anyway?
I can’t help but think that Jesus overturning those tables and now confronting the authorities is an iconic image for the time we’re living in right now.
Part of building the world that God intends means we have to work at dismantling another one. Maybe that’s what it means to be the faithful child, the one trying to follow the guide: to be constantly deconstructing those things that kill the least among us, and building something that brings good and deep life for those same people.
Cynthia Moe-Lobeda says that if God is the creator, we have become the “un-creators” in our destructive and unstainable use of the earth. When I first heard the term in a talk about Jesus, I misunderstood. I thought they said that Jesus was an un-creator, overturning the systems that we have built, by initiating his own design process to heal, and feed, and welcome; building a community that has a wide-generosity of heart and energy.
Maybe that misunderstanding was a little inspiration. (Don’t tell the preachers that often it’s a good idea only to half-listen what they’re saying!) In the work of creation, God designed a spirit of un-creation, to keep death from having the last word. Maybe Lutherans hear it as reformation. Maybe on the streets today, we hear it as protest or breaking down privilege. Maybe it’s a growing awareness of the need to make reparations for centuries of injustice. Maybe it’s just the old church term is repentance and making amends. Or the Christ pattern of dying and rising.
The kindergartners knew this, breaking apart a little bit of their work in order to keep it moving taller, always keeping the marshmallow—that sweet and beautiful goal—at the very center of their task.
This time feels like a big design project that we’ve been all been given in order to learn something about collaboration and design and truth. It’s the pandemic challenge; the white supremacy challenge; the getting-through-until-tomorrow challenge. Name your own marshmallow!
The gospel news is that the Christ who stood in the temple is the one standing among us, sending us out into this field. We’ve been given some tools, a few directions, a lot of grace to make it up with our friends, and one sweet vision of love and mercy and justice that will crown it all.
It’s also gospel news to remember that the conflict in the temple didn’t end on Friday, but on a Sunday.
In the name of the Creator, the Un-Creator, and the Wisdom to Build, Christ is risen! Alleluia!
 Thank you to Mikka McCracken, Director of Innovation, at the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America for pointing me to Dr. Moe-Lobeda’s work. Cynthia Moe-Lobeda, “Liturgy for the ‘Uncreators’,” Sage Journals, SL38 (2008), pp. 64-80. https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/10.1177/003932070803800105?icid=int.sj-abstract.similar-articles.2&.