© 2021 Evan D. Garner
“Roy,” Clark said, “can you imagine how your kids would have felt if, when you got to Florida, it was closed?”
“They don’t close Florida,” said Roy.
In the closing scenes of the 1983 film National Lampoon’s Vacation, Clark W. Griswold tried to explain to Roy Wally why he had gone a little haywire. At the end of their family’s harrowing cross-country road trip, they arrived at Wally World only to find that it was closed for two weeks for cleaning and repairs. So Clark did what any of us would do. He kidnapped one of the security guards at gunpoint and forced him to let the Griswolds ride on all the rides.
After they were arrested, in an attempt to garner some sympathy from Mr. Wally, Clark asked him to imagine how he and his family would have reacted if, after their own cross-country trip, they had come to Florida to find it closed. But they don’t close Florida.
Imagine walking all the way from Galilee to Jerusalem—sixty-five miles uphill—but, when you got to the temple to offer the appointed sacrifices, you found that some fanatical rabbi had chased all the moneychangers and livestock sellers out of the temple precincts. Imagine coming all that way to do the thing that God had commanded you to do only to discover that the temple was effectively closed.
When Jesus braided together a whip of cords and chased the people and the livestock out of the temple grounds, he was effectively cancelling worship in that sacred place. By pouring out the coins and turning over the moneychangers’ tables, he was grinding to a halt the religious system at the heart of his people’s national life. Worshippers weren’t allowed to use ordinary coins to make their contributions to the temple. They had to exchange their Roman currency for Jewish coins that, while essentially worthless for everyday commerce, were acceptable at the temple because they did not have the Emperor’s graven image on them. And the people who came to the temple were counting on the livestock sellers to provide them what they needed to make their sacrifices. After all, who wants to ride in the backseat of a station wagon halfway across the country with a goat between your legs?
One of the mistakes we often make when reading this passage from John or its parallel in the synoptic gospel accounts is to assume that Jesus was interrupting temple worship because there was something fundamentally flawed about it. As Christians, we are quick to substitute our own version of worship and our own understanding of sacrifice for that which Jesus was protesting. But, if that’s what we think Jesus had in mind, we are not only doing a bad job of reading the bible by perpetuating the anti-Judaic and anti-Semitic interpretations of the New Testament, but we’re also ignoring what this dramatic moment has to say about the need for reform in our own worship.
Jesus’ prophetic action was a Jewish correction for Jewish worship. It’s hard to sift through the early Christian influences that shaped this passage into the form we have in the New Testament, but it’s pretty clear that Jesus was focused on the confusion of economic practices and religious rituals. “Take these things out of here!” Jesus declared as he chased the livestock from the temple courts. “Stop making my Father’s house a marketplace!” Literally, Jesus said, “Stop making the house of my Father a house of trade.” Somehow, the practices that were supposed to support temple worship had become an impediment to it.
Since we know that the livestock and currency exchange were necessary, it could be that the merchants were charging outrageous prices and commissions that made it difficult for ordinary people to participate in temple worship. Or it could be that the convenience of procuring one’s sacrifice at the entrance to the temple had undermined the spiritual connection between the things being offered and the hearts of those making the offerings. Whatever it was, Jesus took issue not with the worship that was happening in the temple but with the system of trade that had evolved to support that worship. And, by interfering with it, Jesus had forced God’s people to stop and think about why they had come to the temple in the first place and how they would accomplish the thing that they had come there to do.
Imagine if someone came and stood at the doors of your church and declared that no worship would happen in this place for a whole year. Imagine if someone came and took all the Communion wafers and wine away. Imagine if someone took all the prayer books and hymnals out of the pews. Imagine if someone declared that the congregation is no longer allowed to sing. Imagine if someone forbade the passing of the offering plate and the passing of the Peace. What would happen if someone came and took away all the stuff that makes our worship happen? How would we have a meaningful, transformative encounter with Almighty God if all the ways we usually have that encounter were taken away from us?
For fifty-two weeks, we have had to look for God in places and in ways that we never could have imagined. Some of us have been more successful at that than others. And many of us who cannot come back to church yet are still having to do just that. But, on this first Sunday back, when we have people in the pews for the first time in a year, we must stop and think about why it is we come into this place. We must stop and consider all the things that we have learned about looking for God over the past twelve months or else we will simply build everything back the way it was without listening to what Jesus is trying to teach us right now.
What does it mean to worship God at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church? What is it we come to do in this place every week? Over the last year, what have you really missed? What can the worship we share in this space give us that we cannot find anywhere else? I promise it’s not the Communion wafer or the cheap port wine or the hard wooden pews. It’s not the choir or the sermon or the stained-glass windows. It’s what all of those things are supposed to help us find in this place. It’s what that little piece of bread is all about. It’s what we can’t experience on the other side of a screen. It’s what we would willing sacrifice a lazy, care-free Sunday morning for without any hesitation. It’s the life-giving, life-changing encounter with God that we can only have when we have it together.
God is with us when we worship from home—absolutely and without question. God is also with us when we go for a walk in the park or play a round of golf or sleep in on a Sunday morning. But there is something fundamentally different about meeting God in that place where everyone is welcome—whoever they are and wherever they are on their pilgrimage of faith. We gather together in this place to have Communion with God and with each other. That Communion is not defined by the table fellowship of a family or by membership in an exclusive club. Here, everyone is welcome. When we are together at God’s table, we encounter the one who loves all of us unconditionally. And that encounter, experienced alongside all sorts and conditions of humanity, has the power to shape us into people who can love the world that same way.
Until we can all come back, therefore, that encounter will be incomplete. Until these pews are full—not merely full of people but full of anyone and everyone who wants to be here—we cannot experience the real spiritual power of Holy Communion. So let’s resist the temptation to hurry up and put everything back the way it was. Let’s hold off long enough to remember that we’re not here simply to say our prayers and to get a piece of holy bread. We are here to meet God and to do that together. How many of those things that we have had to let go of over the last twelve months are things that help us do that? Let’s not confuse those things for the reality to which they are directing us—a reality that cannot be complete until we’re all back together again. Otherwise, we’ve forgotten why being in this place really matters.