Rev. Danielle K Bartz March 7, 2021
John 2:13-22 #TheMoment
Last weekend, National Public Radio asked its listeners to comment on their social media pages about the moment from 2020 they realized the pandemic was going to change everything. Using the tag #TheMoment, thousands of people were sharing what it was that tipped the growing news of a mysterious illness from something that felt distant, to something that was right outside their door. I found myself reading their posts all weekend. Here are a few:
- McMurrab: “#TheMoment was when I heard on the radio that the NBA suspended its season; it happened the same night I went to a restaurant for the the last time and we all said goodbye without hugging. Struck me that everyone on the earth was in exactly the same boat.”
- Dot: “#TheMoment The first time I assisted in a COVID intubation and watched as the anesthesia team fled the room immediately after, leaving me alone with a highly contagious patient with no good therapy…it was terrifying”
- The Lesbian: “#TheMoment was when my university sent an email telling us we had 48 hrs to leave campus, and my boss looked at me & said “I haven’t felt this uncertain since 9/11, everything is about to change”
- Nicole: “I was excited I found paper napkins in the store… because there was no toilet paper… that was #TheMoment”
Several of the posts were simply pictures: empty streets, empty grocery store shelfs, hearts in windows. And then, empty church pews. One year ago, this 2nd week in March was when things changed. We had worship here on March 8th and I requested that you not shake hands for Passing of the Peace. One week later was the last time we gathered for in-person worship. I so vividly remember the week in between: the growing worry, a trip to the grocery store where I didn’t want to buy more than I needed but also wanting to make sure I had the necessities, the cascading news of closures. For me, #TheMoment came on Friday March 13th. I laid on my couch obsessively reading the news, waiting for someone to tell me what to do. I was paralyzed with in-decision all morning. Then about noon, something switched in my head. I was your pastor and I had a responsibility to you – and I got to work. What was your moment?
There are moments that forever mark our lives. Many of these are personal, some are national, and some are global. Those moments that change everything: how we live our lives, how we perceive the world, how we understand God. Our year of global pandemic has changed all of those things for us, but I want to talk today about how it has changed our understanding and worship of God.
One year ago today, what church was, was what church had been for our entire lives. Worship took place in a designated place at a designated time. While elements of worship changed, either gradually or week to week, there was a rhythm and a familiarity. Prayers were said aloud, songs were sung in harmony, everyone heard the unhappy baby or the person softly snoring in the back pew. It was communal and personal and filled with ritual and tradition. That is what we knew.
The rest of our church life was essentially fellowship. Sometimes it was fellowship for the sake of fellowship. Sometimes it was fellowship for the sake of service. Sometimes it was fellowship for the sake business. Sometimes it was fellowship for the sake of learning. Church life was face to face, hand in hand. And, it had been for our entire worshipping lives – all of us, no matter our age. Our traditions and our rituals assumed the ability to gather. And then, in a moment, we couldn’t.
We all wondered what this would mean, myself included. Would our church survive? Is worship possible online? Can fellowship exist through screens or through masks? I want to be blunt about this: we haven’t Passed the Peace in a year. We haven’t sang together in a year. We haven’t shared in Holy Communion together in a year. We haven’t sat at the tables in the Fireside room together for a year. It has been a year since everything we do together as a worshipping community has completely changed.
But here’s the thing. One year ago, it all seemed impossible. One year ago, we were afraid about the future of our church. One year ago, we were trying to figure out how to pretend everything was the same even though it very much wasn’t. One year ago, we were so very afraid of what all the change meant for us and our communal life together as a worshipping community. But, fear is not the prevailing emotion today. Because we have realized that we are so much more than what we thought we were. We are so much more than our rituals and traditions; we are so much more than what we once relied on to be comfortable.
The loss of those rituals and traditions seemed overwhelming and the possibility of worship without them felt out of reach. But we learned that the rituals and traditions are not what God requires of us. God doesn’t need those things from us. All God needs from us, is us. All God needs from us is our devotion, our prayers, our hopes and honest fears. All God needs from us, is us.
Much has been said about Jesus’ demonstration in the Temple, when he made a dramatic point of ridding the space of all those human-made rituals and traditions. “God doesn’t need all of this”, Jesus was saying. Jesus was making a dramatic point, so dramatic in fact this is just one a few stories that appear in all four Gospels. This was a profound moment of disruption, and while it infuriated the religious authorities, I am much more interested in what the everyday Temple worshipper thought about it.
Temple worship in the time of Jesus included many rituals that included animal sacrifice – and only certain animals were considered appropriate for this. In order to purchase the correct animal for sacrifice, worshippers from all over had to have the right type of currency, which is where the money-changers came in. For today, I want us to set aside all of the very real concerns about sacrifice, and marketplace tactics in the Temple. But, for the everyday worshipper at the Temple, that is what they knew. That was how they knew to worship God – it was all they ever known about worship. And here comes Jesus disrupting it all, in a very dramatic way. Those witnessing that moment no doubt were thinking, “well, how can we possibly be faithful Jews without these rituals?” Jesus was inviting them into something new, at the time something unknown. Throughout his ministry, Jesus disrupts all traditions and rituals, reminding those he encountered that to be faithful to God does not require human-made ritual. Faithfulness to God is so much more than that. But, I am certain one of the prevailing questions in the Temple that day was “What does it mean to be a Jew if I can’t do these things that I have always done?” That is question we were asking ourselves as Christians one year ago, and it is a question we continuing to ask ourselves. What does it mean to be Christian when everything we know about worshipping God has changed?
That day in the Temple, through a dramatic act, Jesus was inviting the people to imagine something new, something bigger. Which is exactly what we have been doing as a community for a year now. We have used our imaginations to think about our communal life in new ways. We have found new rituals, new traditions. We have realized it is okay to let some things go. We have learned that we are so much more than we realized. And we have learned that all God needs from us, is us.
Of course, this doesn’t mean we aren’t eager to be face to face and hand in hand again. This does not mean that I am not anxious for the day when I can hear your voices in prayer with mine. This does not mean I am not dreaming of the day when I can look you in the eye, call you by name, and offer you Holy Communion again. This does not mean we can’t wait until we hear the choir fill this space with sound again. I found myself the other day missing, of all things, the sound of the dishwasher over the voices of chatter during fellowship hour. We are all eager for those days, and the hope is so strong because they feel within reach once again.
But we must not forget the invitation Jesus is offering us, and has been offering his
followers all along. The invitation to remember we are more than that which makes us comfortable. The invitation to use our imaginations, to be held together in new ways. To worship God just as we are, wherever we find ourselves. The disruption of our rituals and traditions can feel overwhelming, even violent. But, once disrupted, they create room for something new. They create more room for the work of the Holy Spirit. Disruption, sometimes, creates room for God.
It has been a year. And what a year. We will gather again, and that day feels tantalizingly close, though it is not here yet. We will gather again, and we will rejoice. But we must also hold on to the space we have created for the work of the Holy Spirit. We must hold on to what we have learned. #TheMoment when we re-gather will not be the end of what we have done together this past year – instead that moment will be simply a continuation of all we have learned about ourselves and God. Amen.
Loving God, who creates us into new be-ing each day, help us to discover your purpose for our lives and to seek our roles in fulfilling this purpose. We praise you for your creation of our lives day by day, for your re-creation of hope within us, even when hope seems foolish. We pray for this world of ours, in which cynical self-interest and grasping for power often seem to be the rules by which human beings live. We accept your call to peacemaking, wherever we may be and in whatever situation we find the hatreds, the fears, of the distrusts which cry out for peace to heal and to mend the brokenness.
Help us each to offer thanks to you, not in empty words or pious gestures, but in lives which are faithful to your call. Enable us to bear the fruits of thankfulness in serving others and in building community. May we reach out to these persons, supporting them in their struggles and celebrating with them their joys. May we also accept the love and friendship offered to us by others. We see your loving purpose in these expressions of human concern; we feel your loving touch healing us and caring for us.
We know you are with us and for us in the midst of our lives. We praise you for this constant love and in Jesus’ name we offer together the prayer of our Savior…Our Father…