A Sign and a Wonder

This sermon was delivered at First Congregational United Church of Christ in DeWitt, Iowa, on April 8, 2018. The scriptures for this sermon are John 20:19-31 and Acts 4:32-35.

There are stories about Bill Murray; you know, the guy from Groundhog Day.

Some of them are not true. And the stories that aren’t true tend to follow the same format: Bill Murray walks up to someone when no one else is around, does something weird, and tells the one person who is there, “no one will ever believe you.”

So, for example: One time, when I was driving a long way and it was late, I stopped at a Wendy’s. The place was empty. I got my food and sat down for a late dinner when Bill Murray — you know, the guy from Ghostbusters — walked in. He walked right up to my table, picked up my burger, unwrapped it, and took a big bite. Then he looked me right in the eyes, slapped my burger down on the table, and said, “no one will ever believe you.”

And then he just walked out. And that story is not true.

But some of the stories are true. One time, Bill Murray — you know, the guy from Lost in Translation — walked into a bar in Austin, Texas, during the SXSW Festival with two of the guys from Wu-Tang Clan and started bartending.

And no matter what someone ordered, he only served shots of tequila. And that story is true.

And it’s not just stories about Bill Murray; you know the guy from Rushmore. Some stories are true and some stories are not true.

And I’ve always felt a little bad for Thomas.

Last week, we heard Mark’s version of Easter morning. This week, our gospel reading starts with John’s version of Easter evening. But we have to start by backing up… just a little.

In the gospel of John, on Easter morning, Mary Magdalene went to the tomb alone. She saw that the stone had been rolled away, and she ran to get Peter and another disciple. And Peter and that other disciple went into the tomb and saw that it was empty. And they went home.

But Mary Magdalene stayed at the tomb. And she saw Jesus. And she talked to Jesus. And then she went to the disciples and said, “I have seen the Lord.”

And I don’t know if they believed her. Because on the evening of the first day of the week — so this is Easter evening — some of the disciples were together. Judas probably wasn’t there. He betrayed Jesus. He probably wasn’t hanging out with the other disciples. And Thomas wasn’t there. We don’t know why. He was just gone.

And the disciples were together, locked in a house, because they were afraid. Mary Magdalene had told them the good news… and they were still afraid.

And on the evening of the first day of the week, Jesus appeared to some of the disciples. He greeted them. He showed them the nail marks in his hands. He showed them the spear wound in his side. And he breathed on them and gave them the Holy Spirit. And they rejoiced.

Sometime later, the disciples who were together that evening — who had seen Jesus that evening — told Thomas about this. And he didn’t believe them. “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands,” he said, “and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.”

And then, about a week later — so this is a week after Easter — Jesus appeared to the disciples while Thomas was with them. And he said, “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.”

And Thomas believed. Here was Jesus — with nail marks and a spear wound — and Thomas saw and believed.

And Jesus chided him.

“Have you believed because you have seen me?” he asked, “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”

And we call Thomas ‘Doubting Thomas’. We have the nerve to do that. We, who want to know it there’s video of Bill Murray — you know, the guy from Rushmore — serving tequila shots as SXSW, have the nerve to say that Thomas wasn’t trusting enough. Thomas, whose friends were saying that Jesus — you know, the guy who was crucified and buried — was had risen from the dead.

Thomas just wanted some evidence.

And that’s okay. We know what that’s like. We live in an age when people demand evidence. And we should demand evidence. Evidence is not the opposite of faith. Faith needs evidence. And that’s okay.

Thomas just wanted some evidence. We know what that’s like. We live in an age when people demand evidence. And we should demand evidence. Evidence is not the opposite of faith. Faith needs evidence. And that’s okay. Click To Tweet

Three things are true.

First, most of the disciples believed that Christ had risen because they saw Jesus, and the nail marks in his hands, and the spear wound in his side. They knew Jesus. They had seen him turn water to wine. They had seen him heal a paralyzed man. They had seen him raise Lazarus from the dead. But they believed because they saw Jesus.

Second, Thomas believed that Christ had risen because he saw Jesus, and put his finger in the nail marks in his hands, and put his hand in the spear wound in his side. He knew Jesus. He had seen him turn a few loaves and fish into a feast. He had seem him heal a woman with hemorrhages. He had seen him forgive sins. But he believed because he saw Jesus.

Third, Jesus said, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.” And while he said that to Thomas, I think he meant it for all of them. Because all of them had seen.

The disciples saw the risen Lord. They had their evidence.

But it is also true that there are people who have not seen Jesus, or the nail marks in his hands, or the spear wound in his side. But even they have seen something. Even we have seen something. We have seen the power of Christ. We have seen the signs and wonders that Christ has done.

Because, when we are the church, we are one of those signs. When we are the church, we are one of those wonders.

When we are the church, we are one of those signs. When we are the church, we are one of those wonders. Click To Tweet

Later — after Jesus had ascended into heaven, after Matthias had been chosen to replace Judas, after Pentecost, after Peter and John defended themselves in front of the high priest — the believers were together.

And they were of one heart and one soul. And they held everything in common. And they gave their testimony.

And there wasn’t a person in need among them. If there was someone in need, they gave to them. Even if it meant selling their land and houses, they did it.

Do you want to see a sign and a wonder? Do you want to see evidence of the transformative power of Christ?

Find a community that is so willing to share that there is not a person in need among them. Find a community that is so open and welcoming that every outcast feels at home the moment they walk in the door. Find a community that loves everyone just they way they are and too much to leave them that way.

Find a community that protects the environment, cares for the poor, forgives readily, rejects racism, fights for the powerless, shares its resources, embraces diversity, loves God, and enjoys this life.

Find the church.

When the disciples gathered together on an Easter evening a long time ago, they weren’t asking for evidence. And I doubt they were expecting a miracle. But they saw Jesus, and the nail marks in his hands, and the spear wound in his side. And they believed. And they were changed.

When they told Thomas, who wasn’t there, he didn’t believe them. But later, he saw Jesus. he put his finger in the nail marks and his hand in the spear wound. And he believed. And he was changed.

Right now, there are people — people in your lives, people in this sanctuary — who are desperate for evidence that power and violence and death will not win. Right now, there are people — in your lives and in this sanctuary — who are desperate for evidence that this is a world ruled by justice and peace and love.

Right now, there are people who are desperate for evidence that there is more magic in this world than Bill Murray — you know, the guy from What About Bob? — serving tequila shots. People who are desperate for evidence that there is a God who hears their prayers, who dances with them when they are joyful, who mourns with them when they cry, who loves them just they way they are and too much to leave them that way.

We are that evidence. I am that evidence. You are that evidence.

I know. That’s a huge responsibility. That’s a big ask. We’re not always going to be good at it.

But I have faith that God is working in me, because I have seen how God has changed me. I have faith that Jesus is showing me the nail marks in this world and the spear wounds in the side of the oppressed. I have faith that the Spirit is moving me.

And I have faith that the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit are at work in you, too.

I have faith that God is working in me, because I have seen how God has changed me. I have faith that Jesus is showing me the spear wounds in the side of the oppressed. I have faith that the Spirit is moving me. And in you, too. Click To Tweet

And when someone asks for evidence of a loving God, I have faith that I can point to this congregation — this congregation that, at its best, protects the environment, cares for the poor, forgives readily, rejects racism, fights for the powerless, shares its resources, embraces diversity, loves God, and enjoys this life — and say, “here are people who have been transformed by Christ.”

And then I can tell a story about the Christ we have been transformed by: you know, the Christ who was born in a manger in an occupied land, who was betrayed by his friend and crucified by the powers of this world, and who showed us once and for all that death does not have the final word and that this is a world ruled by love. Amen.

A Meditation for Maundy Thursday

This meditation was delivered at  First Congregational United Church of Christ in DeWitt, Iowa, on March 29, 2018 (Maundy Thursday). The scripture was John 13:1-17, 31b-35.

Those of you who are members of First Congregational United Church of Christ might have read the little bio of me that you received before you called me as your pastor. And, of you did, you might remember that about a year ago, I was consecrated as a diakonal minister by the United Church of Christ’s Council for Health and Human Services Ministries.

And as part of that, I got this bowl, and this towel, and this story.

In the 1850s or so, the Evangelical Church of the Prussian Union — one of the predecessors to the United Church of Christ — sent Louis Edward Nollau to the United States to minister to the First Nations people of the Pacific Northwest. On his way across America, he ended up stuck in St. Louis. So he became the pastor of St. Peter’s Evangelical Church.

And he founded some nonprofit organizations. One of them was an orphanage.

When he proposed the idea of an orphanage to the congregation at St. Peter’s, they said, “Rev. Nollau, we don’t have what we need to open an orphanage.” And he replied, “We have exactly what we need… we have an orphan.”

A boy named Henry Sam moved into the parsonage, and more joined him. And that community became the German Protestant Children’s Home, and then Evangelical Children’s Home. Today, it’s named Every Child’s Hope, it’s way more than an orphanage, and it serves more than 1,400 children every year.

All because there was an orphan, and there was someone who understood today’s gospel reading.

Jesus washed his disciples’ feet. He washed them to make a point about how they should treat each other; how we should treat each other.

Today is Maundy Thursday. The word ‘maundy’ comes from a Latin phrase: mandatum novum do vobis ut diligatis invicem sicut dilexi vos: A new command I give you: Love one another as I love you.

Jesus loved his disciples by washing their feet. He washed them to make a point about how they should treat each other; how we should treat each other. And he washed their feet because they were dirty.

We have all that we need to love one another as Jesus has loved us. We have people who are hungry and who are thirsty and who are strangers. We have people who are naked and who are sick and who are in prison.

We have all that we need to love one another as Jesus has loved us. We have people who are hungry and who are thirsty and who are strangers. We have people who are naked and who are sick and who are in prison. Click To Tweet

All that Pastor Nollau and his congregation needed to open an orphanage was an orphan. All that we need to love one another is someone who needs to be loved; which is to say, anyone at all.

Amen.

Will You Be Transformed?

This sermon was delivered at First Congregational United Church of Christ in DeWitt, Iowa, on March 18, 2018. The scriptures for this sermon are Jeremiah 31:31-34 and John 12:20-33.

Some of you may know that, before I came to serve as your pastor, I worked for Back Bay Mission. The Mission is a community ministry of the United Church of Christ in Biloxi, Mississippi. And it has a variety of programs centered on helping people who live in poverty. There’s a day center, a housing rehabilitation program, a community garden, and supportive housing… among other things.

And one of the most powerful programs there is the mission trip program. Every year, hundreds of people from dozens of congregations go to the Mission to work in its ministries. They repair houses, serve people in the food pantry, clean showers in the day center, and meet people living in poverty or homelessness on the Mississippi Gulf Coast.

One of the groups that comes every year is a huge youth group from one of Chicago’s affluent western suburbs. There are always young people in this group who have never really encountered someone who is experiencing homelessness. Sure, they’ve seen people on the streets asking for money, and they’ve almost certainly known a classmate who was staying with relatives, but they’ve never talked to a homeless person about being homeless.

Well, one year this group was sitting in the common room listening to one of the people who the Mission had been serving. Mr. Jesse is a 70-something-year-old veteran who had been on the streets for years before the Mission got him in an apartment. And he told his story.

And when he was done, this young woman raised her hand. Mr. Jesse called on her, and she cocked her head to one side – you could see the wheels turning – and she asked, “You mean we don’t just house veterans? That’s not something we just do?”
And that’s a good question. It cuts to the heart of who we are as a society. We don’t just house vets. We don’t just house anyone. We don’t just feed people. We don’t just provide healthcare for people. We don’t just welcome people.

We don’t just do these things. We just don’t do these things.

In today’s gospel reading, we’re given a frightening image.

“Very truly,” says Jesus, “unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life. Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there will my servant be also.”

And that’s scary because, not to spoil the story, I think something bad is going to happen to Jesus. ‘Those who love their life must lose it’ and ‘whoever serves me must follow me’ sound a lot like Jesus is asking us, “Would you die for this?”

That’s a good question. It might even be an important question.

You might know about RuPaul Charles. He’s an actor, model, singer, author, and, yes, drag queen. He’s probably the most commercially successful drag queen in history. And he has this great quote: we’re born naked, the rest is drag. Not just the clothes, hairstyles, and makeup, but the respectability, civility, politeness, and propriety. All of us lead lives that are performances. At least a little bit.

And ‘what would you die for?’ is a good question to strip away the drag and figure out who we are underneath. Not ‘what do you fantasize about dying for?’ This isn’t about being an action hero. What would you die for? What would you run into a burning building to save? Who would you take a bullet for? Really. Like, really really.

‘What would you die for?’ is a good question. It might even be an important question. But it’s not the question Jesus is asking.

There’s another question that goes along with ‘What would you die for?’ And that question is ‘What would you live for?’ It’s a good question. It might even be an important question. It is certainly a hard question.

All of us lead lives that are performances. At least a little bit. And it’s easy to slide into the performance and start living for other people’s expectations. It’s easy to slide into the performance and live the lives that other people have planned for us. It’s easy to slide into the performance and live a life that isn’t our own.

And ‘what would you live for’ is a good question to strip away the drag and figure out who we are underneath. What would you spend every day doing? Who would you spend every hour with?

‘What would you live for?’ is a good question. It might even be an important question. But it’s still not the question Jesus is asking.

Jesus is asking a much scarier question.

And it’s scary because, not to spoil the story, something amazing is going to happen to Jesus. He is like a grain of wheat that falls into the earth and dies… and bears much fruit. He is the judgement of the world, who drives out the ruler of this world, and draws all people to himself. He strips away the drag and shows us who we are underneath.

The question Jesus is asking is, ‘Will you be transformed?’

The prophet Jeremiah tells us that the day is coming when God will make a new covenant with his people. It won’t be a covenant that’s written on paper or carved in stone. It won’t be a set of rules that we try — and fail — to follow. It will be inside of us. It will be written on our hearts. It will be part of who we are.

Jesus is calling us into that life. Jesus is calling us into knowing God. Jesus is calling us into being the people of God.

And that’s scary.

It’s scary because all of us lead lives that are performances. At least a little bit. And following Jesus — going where Jesus is — means giving up those performances. It means not living the lives that other people expect. It means not living the lives that other people have planned for us. It means not living the lives that aren’t our own. It means taking off the drag and standing naked before world, as who God means for us to be: servants of Christ and servants to each other.

It means housing people and feeding people and caring for people and welcoming people. No matter who they are. No matter where they are on life’s journey. No matter what.

I don’t know what happened to the young woman who asked Mr. Jesse that question — “You mean we don’t just house veterans? That’s not something we just do?” — on a mission trip to Biloxi, Mississippi. But I have faith that somewhere on that trip — sometime while she was rebuilding a house or cleaning showers or handing out food or talking to someone she was serving — she met Jesus. And I have faith that she was changed. Maybe not all at once, but a little. I have faith that a word of God’s law was written on her heart. I have faith that Christ drew her a little closer to himself.

And I have faith that the same thing can happen to us. Whether in Jamaica or Haiti, whether in Kentucky or Colorado, whether in Biloxi or right here in DeWitt, when we serve, we give ourselves the opportunity to meet Jesus. And when we meet Jesus, we are transformed. Maybe not all at once, but a little. A word of God’s law is written on our hearts. Christ draws us a little closer.

When we serve, we meet Jesus. When we meet Jesus, we are transformed. A word of God’s law is written on our hearts. Christ draws us a little closer. Click To Tweet

And as we continue to serve day by day, our heart become cleaner and our spirits become more willing.

Because it is in giving that we receive, it is in pardoning that we are pardoned, and it is in dying to the ways of the world — to the lives that the rulers of this world demand from us — that we are born to eternal life.

Even Me. Even You.

This sermon was delivered at First Congregational United Church of Christ in DeWitt, Iowa, on March 11, 2018. The scriptures for this sermon are Ephesians 2:1-10 and John 3:14-21.

When I was in college, I met some Christians who believed in the contract. I don’t know if you’ve ever seen the contract, but I’ve seen it many times. It’s usually at the end of a thin little pamphlet.

These pamphlets lay out a version of Christianity that’s neat and simple and clean. God is good and you are a sinner. And because God is good and you are a sinner, God has no choice but to condemn you to eternal punishment in hell. But God sent his — and in these pamphlets, God is emphatically a him — God sent his son to take your punishment. Christ died on the cross in your place. He took the punishment you so richly deserve. And if you accept him as your personal lord and savior, you can trade eternal hellfire for eternal bliss. And you should do it now. Because you could die.

That’s the first part of the contract: believe these things.

Then these pamphlets have some version of the sinner’s prayer:

Dear Lord Jesus, I know that I am a sinner, and I ask for Your forgiveness. I believe You died for my sins and rose from the dead. I turn from my sins and invite You to come into my heart and life. I want to trust and follow You as my Lord and Savior. In Your Name. Amen. 1Billy Graham’s Sinner’s Prayer, from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sinner%27s_prayer

That’s the second part of the contract: say this prayer.

And then, right below that prayer, there’s a place to sign and date. And there are a lot of people who can tell you the year and month and day — the hour and the minute — that they signed on the dotted line and gave their life to Jesus Christ.

That’s the third part of the contract: sign here.

And that’s okay. Different people walk different paths. Different people have different stories. And while I might not have signed a contract on the back of a pamphlet, other people have. And that matters to them. And the fact that it matters to them, matters to me.

These Christians who I knew believed in the contract. Maybe not literally — most of them had probably never signed the back of a pamphlet — but they believed in it all the same. They believed the things they were supposed to believe. They prayed the sinner’s prayer. They knew when they had accepted Jesus as their personal lord and savior.

And I was never one of them.

Don’t get me wrong. I get it. It would be nice to have that kind of control over my fate. It would be nice to be that sure of my salvation. It would be nice if I could guarantee eternal life just by believing these things and saying this prayer and signing on the dotted line. It would be nice.

And there’s always the temptation to believe that I have that power. To think that I’m in control. To think that I am the master of my fate and the captain of my soul.

But I don’t. I’m not in control. I’m neither a master nor a captain. Thank God.

There’s something that comes along with the temptation to be in control: the temptation to judge. And there’s something that comes along with the temptation to judge: the temptation to condemn. If I know the list of things that we have to believe, then I can scrutinize your beliefs and tell you where you fall short. If I know the prayer that we have to pray, then I can listen to your prayer and tell you which words are wrong. If I know that my signature is on the contract, then I can tell you why it’s wrong if yours isn’t.

And I can look at the world and all of its horrors — its poverty and exploitation and oppression and war and hatred; or, in simpler language, its sin — can condemn it. I can do that. I’m good at it.

But I don’t have that power. I’m not in control. I’m neither a master nor a captain. Thank God.

Because when God saw this world — its poverty and exploitation and oppression and war and hatred; or, in simpler language, its sin — God did not condemn it. God loved it.

And God loved the world this way: God gave his only begotten son so that everyone who had faith in him would not perish, but have eternal life. God did not send her son to condemn the world, but to save it.

And that means all of it. Not half of it. Not some of it. But the entire world.

We are in the middle of Lent. We’re almost to the end. Soon, we’ll remember that Jesus was betrayed, that he died, that he was buried, and that he rose again.

We are in the middle of Lent. We’re almost to the end. For not, we remember that we have been dead. We have been dead through our trespasses. We have been dead through poverty and exploitation and oppression and war and hatred. In the simplest of language, we have been dead through sin.

That doesn’t mean we’ve been in the ground; it means something worse. It might seem hard to believe, but we have been walking around like zombies. We’ve been missing out on the chance to really live. We have stayed in the dark because we’ve been too afraid to to let the world see us. We’ve stayed in the dark because we’ve been too afraid to let God see us.

We’ve been so afraid that God will condemn us, that we’ve condemned ourselves.

We’ve been so afraid that God is like us, that we’ve condemned ourselves.

But it doesn’t have to be that way. Even in this season of Lent — even in this season of prayer and penance — there is good news. Especially in this season of Lent — especially in this season of prayer and penance — there is good news.

Because God saw us, dead through our sin, shambling in the dark, and loved us. And God loved us this way: God gave his only begotten son so that everyone who had faith in him would not perish, but have eternal life. God did not send her son to condemn the world, but to save it.

And that means all of it. Not half of it. Not some of it. But the entire world. Even you. Even me.

Now, I want to be fair. The pamphlets are right. I am a sinner. I am a sinner because I choose to sin. I am a sinner because I’m caught up in systems that leave me no choice but to sin. I am trapped in a world where I do not know how to be the person who I believe God is calling me to be. The pamphlets are right. I am a sinner.

And if it were up to me, I would condemn myself.

And I want to be even more fair. The pamphlets are right. I can be sure of my salvation. I can know that eternal and abundant life is there. The pamphlets are right. Another life is possible.

But here is something I am sure of, here is a way that the pamphlets are wrong: There is nothing I can do that will save me.

There is nothing that I can believe that will make God love me. There is no prayer I can say that will make God save me from my sin. There is nowhere I can sign that will make God extend her grace to me.

Because God has always loved me. God has already saved me. God is grace-filled and grace-giving. That is who God is.

Grace is not a contract. Grace is not a deal. Grace is a gift.

And there is nothing we can do to earn it. God gives it to us because that’s who God is.

Being a Christian — having faith in Christ — doesn’t mean believing a list of things or praying a certain way or praying or signing on the dotted line. Christians around the world and throughout history have believed so many things and prayed in so many ways. Being Christian must be about more than the list of things we believe or the ways that we pray.

Being a Christian means — at least in part — trusting that God is rich in mercy. It means trusting that even when we were dead through our sins, God raised us up. It means trusting that we do not need to stay in the darkness and condemn ourselves for our sins. It means trusting that we can step into the light, in all of our brokenness, and God will still love us.

Being Christian means trusting that we can step into the light, in all of our brokenness, and God will still love us. Click To Tweet

That is why I can be sure of my salvation. That is why I can know that eternal and abundant life is there. That is the other life that is possible.

And it means trusting that this is true for everyone. Not half of us. Not some of us. But the entire world. Even me. Even you.

And here’s the thing. That work is much harder than believing the things and saying the prayer and signing on the dotted line. That work is much more important than having a moment of conversion. That work is much braver than judging ourselves and the world. Because when we can walk into the light and open up to God — when we can be vulnerable to God’s love — then we can begin to love others.

And then we can be what God intended us for be: created in Jesus Christ for good works, which God created beforehand to be our way of life. Amen.

Footnotes   [ + ]

Sometimes, We Flip Tables

This sermon was delivered at First Congregational United Church of Christ in DeWitt, Iowa, on March 4, 2018. The scriptures for this sermon are Exodus 20:1-17 and John 2:13-22.

When I was in elementary school — and, probably when you were in elementary school — every classroom had rules. They were written on the chalkboard, or printed on a poster, or tacked to a bulletin board. And they were things like ‘Respect Others’ and ‘Follow Directions the First Time They’re Given’ and ‘Keep Hands, Feet, and Objects to Yourself’. And they always had capital letters. Because they were, with capital letters, The Rules.

When I was in high school and college, there were these bracelets… and bookmarks and coffee mugs and t-shirts and baseball caps and dozens or hundreds our thousands of other products with four letters and a question mark on them. WWJD? What Would Jesus Do?

And while that question might feel a little bit circa-1996, it’s part of an ancient tradition. Augustine, way back in the fifth century, wrote an essay on the Gospel of John — and our gospel reading today comes from John — where he told people that, in Christ, God had become low for them. And while we might be too proud to imitate a lowly person, we should at least try to imitate the lowly God. 1Augustine, In Iohannis evangelium, tractatus 25, 16

‘What would Jesus do?’ is an ancient question.

And something I’ve noticed over the years is that a lot of people answer that question with some version of The Rules.

Sometimes, The Rules are a kind of fruit of the spirit thing. Jesus would be loving and joyful and peaceful and patient and kind and good and faithful and gentle and self-controlled.

Sometimes, The Rules are a rundown of the ten commandments we heard from the book of Exodus today. Jesus would worship God alone, keep the sabbath, and honor his mother and father. And Jesus would never worship idols, take God’s name in vain, murder, commit adultery, steal, bear false witness, or covet his neighbor’s stuff.

Sometimes, The Rules are a blend of Biblical commandments and cultural preferences. Jesus would preach against abortion and same-sex marriage. Jesus would support a lower corporate tax rate and be tough on crime.

And sometimes — especially in Sunday School classrooms and with small children — The Rules are the same ones that are posted in elementary school classrooms across the country. Jesus would respect others and follow directions the first time they’re given and keep his hands, feet, and objects to himself.

And I get it. Rules are useful. Rules matter. Rules are important. And we need rules in classrooms and workplaces and, yes, churches. Don’t murder is a good rule. Try to be kind is a good rule. Go 25 miles an hour near schools when children are present is a good rule.

But here’s the thing. Sometimes the rules aren’t enough.

In today’s gospel reading, it’a almost Passover. Families are coming, from near and far, to the temple in Jerusalem to make their sacrifice: a lamb or a goat, one year old and without blemish. And, while they’re here, they’ll pay their temple tax.

But some families are traveling a long way. And it’s hard to travel with an animal. So it makes sense to have some people at the temple who can sell an animal for the sacrifice. And folks have set up shop. There is always a marketplace in the outer court of the temple, and there are always people selling lambs and goats and cattle and doves. If anyone needs to make a sacrifice — and people have to make sacrifices — they can buy the appropriate animal right here at the temple.

And because some of those families are traveling a long way, they might not have the right money to pay the temple tax. So it makes sense to have some people at the temple who can exchange money. And folks have set up shop.

But there’s always a problem when you have some people who have to do something — like bring a sacrifice to the temple or pay a temple tax — and some other people who are ready to make money off of that. The people who are selling sacrificial offerings are charging too much. And the people who are exchanging money are using unfair exchange rates and charging unreasonable fees.

And, of course, it’s the people who are using all that they have to get to the temple and offer their sacrifice and pay their tax who are getting hurt.

And none of that is against the rules. I mean, sure, you shouldn’t exploit the poor and you should be fair in business. But, strictly speaking, there’s no rule against charging a lot for an animal. Strictly speaking, there’s no law against taking advantage of the exchange rate. It’s how the market works. Demand is high, prices are high.

We all know this story.

We all know some business that found a way to make money while following the letter of the law and skirting the spirit. We all know someone who can bend the rules to their advantage without ever quite breaking them. It’s how the world works. My clothes are affordable because someone somewhere is paid far too little. My phone is affordable — I mean, barely affordable — because a child is working in a rare earth mine somewhere in Africa. And his family lives on a dollar a day.

And it’s how the temple worked; at least a little bit. The temple needed that marketplace, and the people in that marketplace needed to make money. And that meant taking money from people who gave everything they had to get to Jerusalem at Passover.

The ancient Roman Empire was not a place of economic equality. A few people were very rich. A few more people were economically secure. And most people — the vast majority of people — barely scraped by or didn’t scrape by at all.

And, sometimes, the answer to ‘What would Jesus do?’ is ‘Flip some tables and chase people with a whip.’

Sometimes, the answer to ‘What would Jesus do?’ is ‘Flip some tables and chase people with a whip.’ Click To Tweet

This is not a Jesus who is loving and joyful and peaceful and patient and kind and good and faithful and gentle and self-controlled.

This is not a Jesus who respects others and follows directions the first time they’re given and keeps his hands, feet, and objects to himself.

This is a Jesus who is face to face with the fact that the rules don’t always work. This is a Jesus who is face to face with the fact that people will find brilliant ways to follow the rules and exploit the poor.

This is a Jesus who is angry. Who is mad. Who is willing to burn the whole thing down.

And we need to take that seriously.

We’re in the midst of Lent, a time when we make a point of turning back towards God. Of praying for forgiveness for the things we have done and left undone, said and left unsaid, thought and left unthought. Of contemplating how we can do a better job of imitating Christ, the lowly God.

And today is Sunday, which is always a celebration of Easter, when Christ rose. It is a day of joy and gladness. Of wondering how we can do a better job of imitating Christ, the risen Son.

And today is also a communion Sunday, when we gather at Christ’s table to remember his sacrifice and take part in the bread of life and the cup of blessing. Of asking how we can do a better job of imitating Christ, who invites everyone into his kingdom.

Today is a day to ask, ‘What would Jesus do?’

And, yeah, sometimes the answer to that question is to cultivate the fruits of the spirit. Some days, we work on love and joy and peace and patience and kindness and goodness and faithfulness and gentleness and self-control.

And, yeah, sometimes the answer to that question is to look at the ten commandments. Some days, we work on worshipping God alone, keeping the sabbath, and honoring our mothers and fathers. Some days, we work on getting out of the systems that push us towards idol worship, taking God’s name in vain, murdering, committing adultery, stealing, bearing false witness, and coveting our neighbor’s stuff.

And, yeah, sometimes the answer to that question is to follow the rules. Some days, we work on respecting others and following directions the first time they’re given and keeping our hands, feet, and objects to ourselves.

But sometimes we ask ourselves whether we’re angry enough at the injustices of the world. Sometimes we ask ourselves if we’re mad enough that the powerful can play by the rules and still hurt the weak, and that the weak can play by the rules and still be hurt.

Sometimes, we ask ourselves whether we are foolish enough to burn the whole thing down and faithful enough to trust that God will build something better. Click To Tweet

Are we willing to disrupt business as usual? Are we ready to flip some tables? Are we filled with zeal not only for God’s house, but for God’s kingdom?

Because when we are, we move that much closer to not just asking what Jesus would do, but to doing what Jesus would do. To imitating the God who became low for us, and to creating a world of greater justice and mercy for all. Amen.

Footnotes   [ + ]

John 13:3-7 (for Maundy Thursday)

Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he had come from God and was going to God, got up from the table, took off his outer robe, and tied a towel around himself. Then he poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples’ feet and to wipe them with the towel that was tied around him. He came to Simon Peter, who said to him, “Lord, are you going to wash my feet?” Jesus answered, “You do not know now what I am doing, but later you will understand.”

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