Palm Sunday: Marching for Jesus

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John 12:12-16

One of my earliest memories is Paul Harvey’s voice on the radio. I can’t tell you much about many of the stories I heard or any of those final, key things that Paul always held back until the end of a story, but I remember the way he would sign off, with the show’s title: “I’m Paul Harvey, and now you know the rest of the story.”

When I started to look at this John passage from Palm Sunday, I happened to notice that, in true Paul Harvey style, that John had indeed left off the rest of the story until the end, but that wasn’t included in the Gospel reading, so here you go.

Jesus came into Jerusalem with palms waving, sitting on a donkey. You’d expect the son of God to come in on a mighty steed, but nope: young donkey.

(Side sermon: I’ve heard it said that during this whole parade, the donkey must’ve thought it was pretty special — like the whole thing was about him. We can get like that when people start complimenting us for the things we do for Jesus, but I’ve heard it said that when we do that, we’re like the donkey, and we’d do well to remember: we’re not the show. We’re just the asses that get to bring in Jesus. Moving on.)

So Jesus comes in on a donkey and is greeted with palms, but have you ever wondered exactly why they gathered? I’ve always assumed that it was because of his popularity spreading through the city, then people told other people that he was coming and then everyone gathered. At least in John, though, that’s not the whole story, and this is obviously before social media could be used to gather thousands of people in mere hours. The book of John continues where we left off:

So the crowd that had been with him when he called Lazarus out of the tomb and raised him from the dead continued to tell everyone about it. It was because they heard that he had [raised Lazarus from the dead] that the crowd went to meet him.”

They weren’t just gathering to hear a teacher. They were rallying because the whole city of Jerusalem had heard by then that he had brought a dead guy back to life.

The Israelites by this point in history were becoming a desperate lot. They were under the thumb of powerful Rome, searching for anything that might give them hope. They were a small people living in a land occupied by a superpower. Since long before the Romans, they had lived in a land that was prime real estate to say the least: a series of key ports on the Mediterranean Sea and good land for farming.

As a small people, they held their own, but biblical history shows us that they also often got conquered. In the time of Jesus, they lived in an occupied land under an often cruel superpower.

By the time Jesus is born, the very DNA of the Israelites is crying out for hope. Literally.

Hosanna, after all, comes from two roots meaning “Save us, we pray.” And calling Jesus “the King of Israel” when Rome ruled the land? Needless to say, that was some provocative political speech.

We’ve got a lot people in our own world shouting “Save us!” these days, from the students and supporters who gathered for the March for Our Lives yesterday, to those around the world who have lived in their own war-torn lands for too long.

We’ve got people shouting “save us” because they are afraid of domestic and foreign terrorism, war with North Korea, racist violence of all kinds, sexual harassment and assault, right down to being afraid of the other political party being in or taking control. We’re not unfamiliar with the sentiment. We, too, are crying out to the powers that be to be saved. And sometimes, we hold rallies and marches, too.

It’s notable on Palm Sunday that this where the people of God had found themselves in their long history: rallying together in the streets, calling out “Save us!” to a poor, homeless teacher born to a carpenter who rode in on a young donkey. The only particularly exceptional thing about him to this crowd, as far as we know, is that rumor had it that he had called a dead man out of his tomb and given him back alive to his family. So they gather together, and they march. For new life, for new hope, for a chance to be saved.

“Hosanna! Save us, we pray!”

We are not unfamiliar with rallies and marches. People of all political persuasions and none have been known to rally and to march. At their best, if the cause is worthy, they can clear the way for new hope, new energy, new life. But marches and rallies are never an end in themselves. It is not enough to simply gather and cheer. Marches and rallies are a beginning.

Palm Sunday, naturally, is no different. Palm Sunday was a march for Jesus. And it was only the beginning.

This, of course, is only the beginning of the story of Holy Week. To get to the rest of the story, I’ll need to see you on Thursday, Friday, and Saturday nights. I certainly understand that life happens and people are busy, but if you’re able and you’ve never done so before and even if you have, live this story with me. Come an experience the rest of the story. Experience what happens after everyone goes home from the rally.

You’ve already held an actual palm in your hand and laid a garment down before Jesus. On Thursday, come feel water on your feet and taste bread and wine and remember that fraught night when Jesus shared a last meal with his friends. Pray with him in the garden. Hear him betrayed. On Friday, attend the service that serves as his funeral. And come to the tomb when the sun sets on Saturday to see heaven meet earth as the whole history of earth spins on its axis and the fire of new life is kindled.

What I have said every single year I say to you now: forget you know the ending.

Just as we do not how all of this turns out, whether in our lives or in our national story, Jesus’ friends who came into Jerusalem with him did not know what they were in for, either. They had no idea as they walked through the streets of Jerusalem to cheers that their beloved rabbi would be dead by the end of the week.

Though many churches try to brighten up Good Friday by referencing Easter, I refuse. Because the disciples went away sad and confused and hopeless that day. When our loved ones and friends die, we walk away from their graves sad and confused and hopeless. If Jesus’ death was not a real death, there’s nothing to celebrate next Sunday.

So here’s your invitation: make time this week, if at all possible, to join in the Story — especially if you never have before. Because liturgical Christians don’t just read about Jesus. We see his story, taste, touch, and hear his story. Because it is the story that tells us who we are and what we’re supposed to do here.

And it is Jesus’ story that informs Christian people what hope for new life might be possible in our own world, in our own lives, and in our own movements.

Hosanna! Save us, we pray!

As we prepare to walk through this story again this year, let us go to the table and receive food for the journey.

Because these shouts, this march, this joyful day of hope — this is only a beginning.

Stay tuned for the rest of the story. Amen.

Sundays & Seasons

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Lent 5
John 12:20-33

“Unless a grain of wheat falls into the ground and dies, it remains a single grain.”

It seems an apt time to be talking about seasons.

Since moving to New England and observing the church year for the third time here, I’ve started to feel a little sorry for my Southern friends and colleagues. This is true even though I’ve spent the last couple of weeks seeing them on social media in tank tops among flowers on while I’m inside hiding from the thirty-sixth a nor’easter and trying to figure out exactly how one cancels church because of snow (because no one taught me that at seminary – in Atlanta).

What I value about living here, though, is the harsh winter and the perspective that it gives. I’m amazed every single year that I watch this entire land die, be covered in ice and snow and buried — not for a few weeks, but for right at half the year — to be gloriously resurrected in the springtime. During Lent, we cancel church as nor’easters make their way over us, burying everything in snow. During a bad year, this might continue into the season of Easter, but because the festival of Easter in liturgical Christianity is seven weeks long, even the earliest possible Easter in late March will still see the landscape well resurrected before Pentecost in May.

In the South, the flowers bloom in March and sometimes even in February. Where I’m from in south Alabama, the landscape doesn’t even die all the way — most things just go dormant for a few months. My parents’ oak trees keep a lot of their leaves.

Here, everything is officially deceased several times over as we stare at the bare bones of any tree that is not evergreen. We watch the defeated grass sit for months upon months as it all gets covered with ice and snow over and over and then, somehow, when the time is right, it all comes back to life. I find myself appreciating the green and warmth of summer more here than I ever have before.

I tell everyone that my favorite time of year in New England is the summer, when we all have permission to not wear closed-toed shoes or shirts with sleeves or go inside more than is absolutely necessary for however long the summer lasts.

This Sunday, though, there’s still snow outside as Holy Week looms intimidatingly over all clergy and musicians and worship planners like some sort of liturgical Babadook.

This Sunday is the final step before Holy Week in the divine dance of a drama that you sign up for every year by showing up here. Next week we will wave branches and welcome Palm Sunday.

But this Sunday, we’re talking about growing things. I guess in the interest of full disclosure it needs to be said: passages like this are a big reason that lots of people are turned off by John.

The story goes like this: Greeks show up looking for Jesus in a recurring theme in John: “We wish to see Jesus.”  “Seeing” in the book of John is tantamount to some sort of enlightenment or revelation. Jesus often invites people to “come and see” – and most recently before this story happens, Jesus was invited to come and see the tomb of Lazarus before raising him from the dead.

So some Greeks wish to see Jesus. Philip and Andrew play a game of telephone before there were telephones, proving that the church has never been totally efficient at communication, eventually communicating to Jesus that someone wants to see him.

Jesus hears that these foreigners want to see him, and he responds with a weird parable about wheat. Weird, isn’t it, how historically great wisdom teachers have been so impractical and downright bizarre in their statements? Normal people say things to them like, “Yo, someone wants to see you,” and they launch off into, “Observe the pine tree!

We imagine that being one of Jesus’ first disciples would have been some great and romantic adventure where you get to sit at the feet of the Son of God and watch him preach great truths about being human, heal people, and multiply wine and snax. But then you realize that half the time they couldn’t ask him what he wanted for dinner without him giving them some metaphor.

Case in point: this story. Jesus responds to a request to see him with an observation about nature: “Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains a single grain. But if it dies, it bears much fruit. Those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it to eternal life.

I can just imagine the Greeks being like, “DUDE. Who’s dying?! We don’t want to die, we just wanted to chat.”

It’s hard to be sure, but I think the idea was, “You want to see me? Wait until I’m crucified as a criminal. And if you really want to understand, follow me where I go and don’t cling to life, but be willing to die.”

Or, as Ecclesiastes says, to everything there is a season.

Everything in our nature seems to tell us to cling to life above all else. On the one hand, this makes total sense: everything that is alive is bred, over centuries, to stay alive. At our core, we humans are not really any different.

Of course, clinging to life doesn’t make us the kindest creatures. Some of the worst atrocities have been committed in the name of wiping out a people group that is perceived as an existential threat. Whether it is real or imagined, all you have to do in order to justify violence to a minority population is to convince the majority that that population is a threat to the majority.

Jesus came to teach us a better way, but the problem is that kindness doesn’t exactly come with immortality. Following Jesus’ way does not mean that we cannot be hurt. It’s quite the opposite: kindness and nonviolence make us more vulnerable, as we will see as we re-live the story of Jesus during Holy Week.

Note: This does not mean that we can only be passive. It does not mean that those being victimized do not get to stand up for their own worth and dignity.

It does mean that we do not get to destroy people just because we are afraid of them.

It also means that, to reference Ecclesiastes again, everything has a season and a time. As someone said at Wednesday night supper this week, we cannot appreciate or even fully understand great joy without great pain. Being shown grace and forgiveness and love by another person just doesn’t have the same weight without repentance, owning our stuff, and being vulnerable — and that’s hard.

It also means that, even in our capitalist, money-making economy where we are measured by how few days we take off, no one can actually go full speed all the time. I’ve found myself wishing often that being a pastor was like running. You see, I love running, but I cannot run all the time. Taking a day off, or two or three or even a week when I’m injured, doesn’t mean that I don’t love running. Quite the opposite, in fact — it means that I want to continue running for as long as possible. If I decided to run every time I had a spare moment, very soon, I wouldn’t even be able to walk.

I’ve sometimes wished, while watching my colleagues and peers, that working too much as a pastor, or a CEO, or anything really, rendered us incapable of doing the most visible parts of our jobs. What if we had to take time off to take care of ourselves, to lay fallow, to heal and re-grow, or else we wouldn’t be able to do the thing we love anymore?

Rest. Stop growing and advancing and rest. Creation was designed to do it — and so were we. There’s a reason God made Sabbath a thing.

So if your life is decidedly in winter right now: if you find yourself struggling every single day, if things look hopeless and bleak and dead, or if you find yourself just too tired to move, remember that one way or another, spring has to come.

I believe that God is in the business of redeeming all things — hard times, exhaustion, even death itself. I think that that’s a big part of this story that reminds us who we are each and every year.

Every year, someone on social media or elsewhere in my life critiques the sadness of the worship service that is Holy Week, and especially Good Friday. Good Friday is the darkest day of the church year, the one that symbolizes the times in our lives when nothing is okay. The times when a person we love has died and we feel like nothing will ever feel bearable again.

Good Friday is the deep depths of winter, those long nights in December when the sun seems like it barely rises before falling again. Before I moved here, I’d always thought that it always looked like late afternoon in every photo I’d ever seen of December in New England. When I moved here, I realized: it’s because the sun basically never gets all the way up into the sky.

As the shadows lengthen, most people get at least a touch of Seasonal Affective Disorder and we turn on our full spectrum sun lamps and we wait for the light to return.

And there’s no getting to summer without going through that. Just like there’s no high productivity without rest.

“Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain.”

So here we go, one more time, into the breach of Holy Week, and then the Three Days, and then Easter. Whether you’ve lived in New England all your life or not, let nature teach you, because it teaches well in this place. Watch as the snow lays on the fallow ground, cold and bleak, but secretly nourishing and watering the glorious growth of the summer months. As we are taught the story of Jesus in here, let’s watch it also be proclaimed out there, telling us the clear, true message: the darkest seasons are never the end. Spring is coming. Warm days and pleasant spring walks and beers and laughter by the campfire are coming.

And the nor’easters that can’t seem to stay away from us will only help us enjoy the warm days that much more.

And so with that, let us prepare our hearts for Holy Week.

Thanks be to God. Amen.

Snakes, Secretaries, and Saving the World

Adventures in Paradox.

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Or, what Jesus’ conversation with Nicodemus and modern-day political dramas have to do with one another.

Lent 4: Laetare Sunday

Numbers 21:4-9
John 3:14-21

Today is a day of paradoxes: it’s the fourth Sunday of Lent, the mid-point, when we’re called to rejoice in the midst of a somber season. Much like Gaudette Sunday in Advent, some churches go pink rather than purple for the day, and the first word of the ancient liturgy was “laetare” — “rejoice” — even as we continue along this somber wilderness road. It’s a day of paradoxes.

Keep that in mind.

My favorite professor in seminary was from New England and upstate New York. When I moved here, that sentence began to really make sense. People reflect the places that have formed them, and loving a place and loving its people go together well. I wish this had been true for all of history.

Gail R. O’Day is now the dean at Wake Forest Divinity in North Carolina. The most memorable course I took from her was the Gospel of John. She is single-handedly responsible for the fact that I sometimes forget that there are three other Gospels.

She was full of memorable, matter-of-fact quotes delivered with New England shortness and practicality. There’s kindness, too, but often the big translation problem between North and South is learning to read attention and dedication as kindness rather than, necessarily, overflowing warmth of manner. Dr. O’Day might seem cold to some, but to me, she was hilarious. It is a day of paradoxes.

Once while I was taking Dr. O’Day’s John class, Tim Tebow wrote John 16:33 on the two sides of his eye black. When people called her, knowing she was a John scholar, to ask what John 16:33 was, she responded, but also asked playfully at the end of the conversation, “So, wait, you don’t have a Bible [or Google]?”

She remarked after the game, “I don’t think that game went so well for Tim Tebow. Guess that’s what happens when you take an apocalyptic claim by the Son of God and wear it on your face.”

As part of a larger conversation about John references and football, she said, “I’ve noticed a lot of people [at football games and elsewhere] carrying signs with JOHN 3:16 on them. I always want to come behind with a marker and add “dash 17.”

John 3:16 is within the passage that we read today. I don’t know about you, but if you were raised any flavor of Christian and had to memorize scripture as part of your formation as a kid, chances are good that you at some point had to memorize John 3:16. I can’t remember exactly what Sunday school teacher had me memorize it, but I can still remember it in the King James translation, pronounced with a thick Southern accent.

So come with me for a quick and nerdy run through text and context in maybe the most popular passage in Christianity, would you? Remember: it’s a day of paradoxes.

Unlike me, most people don’t have to go to seminary to figure out that context matters and that 3:16 is entirely incomplete without 17. Jarringly so — at least to me. If you read and memorize only 16, you might think that this whole story was about us. That each of our lives stands alone as a love story with Jesus — our very own divine rom com — about us believing that Jesus came and saved us alone. Instead, our individual stories are part of a much bigger, more cosmic story. It’s not that our stories aren’t real — it’s just that we miss the beauty of the forest by falling in love with the first tree we saw.

But verse 17? “For God did not come into the world to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him.” Yeah. I want to take a magic marker to some signs now too.

Just like our stories get dragged out of the wider story that they belongs in, so did John 3:16. What we’re not being told even within this lectionary passage is that Jesus is talking to Nicodemus, a Pharisee, who snuck in by night. Nicodemus sneaks in to see the teacher who had thrown a fit in the temple just a chapter before, knocking over all the tables and making an actual whip out of cords. To clarify: this is roughly equivalent to another local preacher, unaffiliated with any church, coming into this room on a Sunday, turning over Wayne’s chair, and knocking over the pulpit, yelling at all of us, and storming out. Then this is me, without informing any of you, having a secret meeting with him to ask him serious questions about his theology.

Nicodemus will spend the entirety of John 3 trying to understand, but failing spectacularly, and given this passage and the analogy above, I can’t really say that I blame him. What did you think would happen, Nicodemus? That you would suddenly understand this new, possibly-crazy teacher?

But sometimes appearances, even secret, controversial appearances, can be deceiving. It is a day, after all, of paradoxes.

One of my favorite TV shows is Madam Secretary, the tales of fictional Secretary of State and CIA veteran Elizabeth McCord. McCord is a powerful, charismatic, funny woman who runs the state department in a way that would make the vast majority of Americans proud. Social intelligence is her thing; her ability to read people and to get to the heart of a given matter is what made her career in the CIA, and it’s also what makes her excellent as the top diplomat of the United States. She’s idealistic, but not naive. She’s very aware of appearances, but she often clashes with those who put appearances over ideals.

One thing I noticed recently involves the way that the fictional Secretary McCord often conducts secret meetings and back channel negotiations. Contrary to what you might have heard on the news, a back channel — that is, an unofficial secret communication with a foreign government or entity — is not in an of itself a bad thing. In fact, diplomacy wouldn’t happen without back channels, which often allow leaders to save face. It’s all about who and when and how.

Secretary McCord, I noticed, often conducts her secret diplomatic meetings in churches. She will enter a church under the appearance of prayer, happen to sit next to a foreign diplomat or other agent, have a quiet conversation, and then quietly leave. It only occurred to me recently that if she were our actual Secretary of State (and we should be so lucky), we would probably think of her as pious because of the number of times she appears to go and pray. It even sort of makes sense, as her husband is a fairly devout Catholic and a religious scholar.

What she’s actually doing is not praying, however — it’s saving the world. During these church meetings, in different episodes, she arranges the rescue of American hostages, averts wars between other nations, and averts wars for the United States itself.

I think that the same is likely true, in a way, of this conversation between Jesus and Nicodemus. We’re tempted to think it’s about Nicodemus’s personal salvation. In reality, Jesus is talking about saving the world.

The content of the conversation between Jesus and Nicodemus is, not surprisingly, rooted in their Jewish faith. Jesus brings up the serpents in the wilderness in Numbers — the Old Testament passage for today.

About that Numbers story. The people complain about everything, and suddenly, snakes appear and start biting and killing people.

Well that, as they say, escalated quickly.

Then, in what reads like maybe something written by one of the Monty Python guys, God says, “Make a bronze snake and put it on a pole.”

You can almost hear Moses. “A snake? On a pole.”


“And the people who get bitten will live?”


And he does, and they do.

They look at what’s killing them, and live.

That’s a nice Hebrew Bible classic, but it doesn’t explain why Nicodemus and Jesus were talking about it. What do snakes on poles have to do with saving the world?

Remember: it is a day of paradoxes, and that’s good, because my experience is that the Gospel is full of them.

It begins in an obvious place for the season of Lent: we humans are pretty awful. Humans are often violent and broken and stubborn. Don’t believe me? Watch the news. Listen to your own thoughts. Watch people interact in traffic. We’re capable of a lot of good, but we’re all far from perfect; we can be downright awful and have been for the entirety of human history.

This past Wednesday, we had to cancel for the snowstorm. We were due to talk about Satan. We’ll likely come back to it this week, but since it connects, here’s a preview: “Satan” in Hebrew means “accuser” or “adversary” — the one who blocks the way.

Satan is the one who tells you that you are not beloved, that you are not good enough, that you cannot accomplish anything you set out to do. The accuser. The one who blocks the way. And we, in turn, rather than being like Jesus, more or less become little devils instead: those who tell others that they are not beloved, that they are not worthy, that they cannot be part of our club. We block their way: sometimes to the necessities of life or the recognition of their human dignity, sometimes into the church itself.

In the Garden, Satan appeared as a snake. When we’re at our most broken, we can be little snakes ourselves. Think Slytherin in Harry Potter, but without the redeeming qualities.

We are broken, so God became a human. God taught us to, as Rachel Held Evans says, “heal instead of kill, how to mend instead of destroy, how to love instead of hate, how to live instead of long for more” (46). As violent people who do not like to be told what to do, we accused God, condemned God, and violently nailed God to a tree.

I once heard a comedian remark about how odd it is that we celebrate and symbolize Jesus using the manner of his death, with little crosses, some even containing the image of his body. The comedian joked, if Jesus beamed down and saw that, you think he’d be like, “DUDE! What the heck?! That was a BAD DAY!”

I mean, if we celebrated those who died in car crashes by wearing cars around our necks or if we celebrated assassinated politicians using sniper rifles, that would be really, really messed up. But with Jesus, the method of his death actually has become the symbol of what he stands for — and how he heals.

Now, people look upon the violence of a Roman cross and see love. They look upon what was killing them: violence and oppression — and live.

“For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him.”

Indeed, it is a day of paradoxes.

And that’s my best guess at what Jesus wanted to say to Nicodemus the Pharisee.

This whole thing is also much bigger than we’ve made it. We think it’s about saving us individually, about saving Nicodemus individually, but what Jesus is really doing is saving the world. Driving out the Satan in all of us that says that we and others are not worthy of love and life and happiness.

And that changes everything. It moves us from a posture of trying to convince our neighbors to loving them instead. It moves us from being little devils who accuse and judge and condemn into little Christs instead who forgive and love and rescue, in big ways and small. It moves us from a place of only mourning our shortcomings to rejoicing over what God has done. It moves us from despair to rejoicing.

And such a revelation just may give you the overwhelming urge to add “dash seventeen” to the next John 3:16 sign that you see at a football game.

Let me know. I’ll help you. Amen.

Jesus Rants

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Lent 3

Exodus 20:1-17
John 2:13-22

There’s a meme that made the rounds not long ago that features the line, “I promise not to get into any religious arguments.” Below that, it reads: “Three Drinks Later…” with a painting of Martin Luther nailing the 95 theses to the door of the Wittenberg castle church. Three drinks later, I think I’m Martin Luther, telling the Church exactly what I think of this.

It has several less funny, more partisan political cousins, but this meme has stuck with me because I think it reveals something.

The “three drinks later” joke is funny to us because it’s a snide acknowledgement that the current institutions are not serving us well, but if we said what we really think (perhaps with the help of some liquid courage), we’d admit that everything needs to change.

That’s why I think it’s funny that this Jesus story we read today — the one where Jesus goes flipping tables over in the temple right in front of the religious leaders — happens right after Jesus changes water into the good wine at the wedding at Cana.

Jesus promises the disciples, “I won’t get into any arguments with the Pharisees.”

Three drinks later, tables flip.

(Note: It doesn’t really happen immediately after. The Gospel of John tells us that Jesus goes down to Capernaum with his family and his disciples for a few days. But it’s fun to imagine anyhow.)

This is a story that must be important, because it appears in all four Gospels. If no one’s ever told you, now’s the time: there are distinct differences in the Gospels. If you tried to compile four accounts of your grandmother from four different family members, you’d understand. The order changes, quotes are slightly different, you’d borrow from one another. Things like that.

One significant difference is that this story appears in two different places in the four Gospels. In Matthew, Mark, and Luke, it’s the final straw that convinces the religious leaders to have Jesus killed. In those Gospels, he flips over the tables and he’s dead within a week.

But in John, as you see, it’s in chapter 2. In John, this story is only the beginning, days after the Cana wedding and only days after Jesus recruits the disciples.

Sometime soon, we really should have a conversation about John’s Gospel.

It’s my favorite, and not only because it tends to shake up our expectations and assumptions about what things happened when and why.

It’s because John’s Jesus is, to me, the realest, earthiest, most relatable Jesus available, but John gets a bad rap because almost all of the overly pious Jesus quotes that people pull out of the Bible at annoying moments come from John. “I am the way, the truth and the life,” quoted by your fundamentalist relative when you mention other faiths? John. “For God so loved the world,” appearing on the signs of street preachers everywhere? John. 3:16, of course, to be specific. “Living water?” John. “I am the Good Shepherd?” John. “I am the light of the world?” John again. “Take heart, I have overcome the world,” the citation once written on Tim Tebow’s eye black? Also John.

I could go on.

Still, I hold that John is still the most scandalous, messily human Gospel we have.

Indeed, sometime soon, we really should have a conversation about John’s Gospel.

For today, though, let’s just talk about Jesus making whips out of cords driving the livestock out of the temple, pouring out the moneychangers’ money in front of them, and flipping over their tables.

After their new rabbi turning water into wine, this the disciples’ second clue that they have signed up for a wild ride. Years ago, in my internship church, my mentor set up various scenes from Jesus’ last days (according, again, to the first 3 Gospels), and one of them was a table that people were encouraged to flip over. It was hilarious to watch people try to do it gently without making any noise. Finally, Mandy, the Methodist pastor who was my supervisor, explained,  Flip it! Make noise! You won’t break anything. It’s an IKEA table on a stone floor. It’s an Ektorp, for God’s sake. Don’t be gentle.

I once read a tweet that said, “When asking “what would Jesus do,” consider that flipping over tables and throwing a hissy fit is a viable option.”

After Jesus causes a huge ruckus with what I can now only imagine as Ektorps banging against a stone floor, we have the disciples pondering what it all means (that whole “zeal for your house will consume me” thing, which is from a psalm), then the Jews coming to Jesus saying, in 21st century parlance, “WTF man? Why did you do that?” Essentially, “Show us how in the world you have the authority to do that and not get punished for it.”

Jesus’ answer comes quickly, even if it’s mysterious: “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up again.”

The Jewish leaders aren’t crazy for thinking he means the temple that they’re standing in. If someone sitting here today said “Destroy this church, and in three days I’ll raise it up again,” only a moron would not assume they were talking about this building.

So John helps us out by telling us that he’s talking about his body.

The point of the whole thing  seems, at least to me, to be that the Spirit of God isn’t in the institution, no matter how impressive that institution may currently have been. God isn’t in the building or the church organization or in the programs we create. No institution owns God.

As one slam poet so deftly put it, “The body of Christ be your body.” (1)

Right after the 2016 election, the Gospel passage was another one where the disciples are super impressed with the temple, and Jesus says, essentially, “Meh. It’ll all be destroyed in a little while.”

The message that I took from that passage in November of 2016 was that no matter what your political beliefs, you cannot trust institutions to save you. This is true of politics, religion, education, everything. Institutions can be helpful, but they will not save us. Only God, common sense, and community can do that.

The body of Christ be your body.

The Old Testament reading is about Moses getting the Ten Commandments. It’s where we get the phase, “brought down the mountain to,” which we use to mean information that normal people receive from some authority “on high.” We Protestants tend to think of both Jews and Catholics as being law-based, of never questioning the word that has been brought down to them from supposed authorities.

This week, I spent an hour and a half or so studying with other clergy from the area under the teaching of Mark Shapiro, who, before his recent retirement, served for some years as the rabbi at Sinai Temple in Springfield. Since his retirement, the rabbi has busied himself with several projects, one of them being a teaching gig at the Episcopal cathedral. On Wednesday we delved a little into rabbinic tradition, talking about how Jewish communities and leaders are steeped in the tradition of reading their scriptures and working things out for themselves via good old fashioned argument. As the saying goes, where you’ve got four rabbis, you’ve got at least five opinions. Jews work things out the only way anyone can: God, common sense, and community.

You see, we like to think of this whole thing as Old Testament law vs. New Testament grace. We also like to think that it’s the Catholics who are legalistic and us Protestants who are grace-focused.

The truth is that no institution, ours included, can save us. Only God, common sense, and community can do that, and to some degree, somebody in every major religious tradition has understood this.

The body of Christ be your body.

In an age where everyone seems to be worried about the futures of religious institutions of all shapes and sizes, this knowledge is freeing — and terrifying.

As Lutherans, we believe that the bread that we break is the body of Christ, meaning that it is a tangible way that Christ shares himself with us, and also how we, the body of Christ the Church, share ourselves with each other.

Because here’s what Jesus knew: temples, institutions, churches — they all come and go. They die hard deaths, usually fighting death the whole time, but they all eventually die. As yet, no religious institution has really stood the test of time for more than a couple thousand years.

What does last is tradition, and identity, which we mark with our bodies and imprint into our minds. Practices that link us to those who came before us, both people we knew and people who died long ago. Telling the stories that tell us who we are and what we’re doing in the world, and working it all out via God, common sense, and community.

“The body of Christ be your body.”

And that, dear beloved people, is my own “three drinks later” rant, written and delivered to you stone sober.

Our hymn of the day is one of Our Savior’s collective favorites, “Built on a Rock.” Among its best lines is “Surely, in temples made with hands, God the most high is not dwelling — high in the heavens God’s temple stands, all early temples excelling. Yet God who dwells in heaven above deigns to abide with us in love, making our bodies God’s temple.

The body of Christ be your body. The body of Christ is us, and nothing can save us except God, common sense, and community. And when we die, the body of Christ will remain. Destroy this temple, and in three days, Christ will raise it up again. Not the Church we find ourselves in, but the community around Jesus Christ — the body of Christ.

The body of Christ be your body. Not an institution. Not a building or a set of programs, and certainly not a central office in Chicago.

The body of Christ is us together. Destroy it, and it’ll always be back. We’ve been responsible for a lot of ugly in the world, but even our own failures and irrelevance can’t destroy it forever.

In the meantime, just remember: when you ask the question “What would Jesus do?” just remember that flipping over tables and ranting – especially when an institution is not serving its purpose – is always an option.

Three drinks later, indeed. Amen.

1. That slam poet is George Watsky, and that poem is quite funny and insightful, and you can find it here.