Sunday, December 6, 2020

Phil Kniss: On plagues, peace, and penitence

Advent 2: PEACE
Joel 2:12-13, 28-29

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On the second Sunday of Advent we always highlight peace . . .
but with a little bit of an edge.
This call to peace comes along with a call to repent.
And “repent” is usually a one-word command!
with an exclamation mark!
or two or three!
plus maybe a few unspeakable squiggles!

When we follow the traditional Revised Common Lectionary,
that call to repentance comes out of the mouth
of a screechy and straggly prophet down by the Jordan River,
called John the Baptist,
a man whose idea of good preaching
is calling his congregation a “brood of vipers.”

This year, in the Narrative Lectionary,
we come to another prophet, in our Old Testament—
the prophet Joel.
Now, I like John the Baptist.
He’s a colorful character and I like preaching about him.
And we’ll get to him later, in January.

But I’m relieved to listen to Joel this year on Advent 2.
Joel was a prophet made for the times we live in.

Is it just a coincidence, or is it Providence,
that today, as a pandemic surges around us,
the lectionary gives us a prophet
who was sent to speak good news
to a people devastated by a plague?
In his case, it was a plague of locusts.

What Joel has to say, is pretty timely, it seems to me.
We heard just a few verses in chapter 2.
But the first chapter and a half are full of the most vivid
word-pictures of vast human and environmental suffering,
not unlike today’s world.
We probably can’t picture a locust plague on this scale,
but we have seen news photos and frightening video,
where wildfires or hurricanes swept through,
destroying everything in their paths.
Add then throw in a pandemic.

Joel writes,
“What the cutting locust left,
the swarming locust has eaten.
What the swarming locust left,
the hopping locust has eaten,
and what the hopping locust left,
the destroying locust has eaten.”
Or as Phil Helmuth might paraphrase,
having been to St. Charles Parish recently
on Mennonite Disaster Service work . . .
“What Hurricane Laura left,
Hurricane Delta has eaten.
What Hurricane Delta left,
Black Mold has eaten.
What Black Mold left,
COVID-19 made worse by keeping people away.”

The prophet Joel goes on.
“Be dismayed, you farmers,
wail, you vinedressers.
Pomegranate, palm, and apple—
all the trees of the field are dried up.
Surely, joy withers away among the people.
Put on sackcloth and lament, you priests,
wail, you ministers at the altar.”

And it continues painting word pictures of utter devastation.

Until we come to today’s reading,
“Yet even now, says the Lord,
return to me with all your heart,
with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning;
rend your hearts and not your clothing.
Return to the Lord, your God,
for he is gracious and merciful,
slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love,
and relents from punishing.”

And Joel then offers,
“God will give you the early rain for your vindication . . .
I will repay you for the years the locust has eaten.”
And then, “I will pour out my spirit on all flesh;
your sons and your daughters shall prophesy,
your old men shall dream dreams,
and your young men shall see visions . . .
I will pour out my spirit.”

So what do we make out of this, for our times?
No, we’re not going to draw exact parallels.
Our context is entirely different.
Our nation is not a worshiping community
of God’s covenant people.
Our theology doesn’t interpret locusts and viruses
as God’s judgement for sin.
Nevertheless, what can we learn about God from Joel,
that might help in a pandemic and other widespread suffering?

What we learn is that God does not desire our suffering.
God is full of grace and mercy.
And God is longing for, and watching for
our openness and receptivity to God’s initiative.
Where there is any movement toward God,
where there is any willingness to humble ourselves,
to open ourselves,
to acknowledge our need, our dependency,
to be vulnerable before God,
where there is any of that, it warms the heart of God,
and God opens up the storehouse of mercy,
and forgiveness falls like the early rains.

That is the picture of God in Joel, and throughout scripture.
What’s needed from us is only a grain of trust,
a nod toward God,
a willingness to at least open our hearts to God.
I love Joel’s word choice: “rend your hearts, not your garments.”

The biblical symbol of repentance is tearing your clothing.
Sitting on the ground in sackcloth—
humble fabric made even more lowly by ripping it up.

That’s well and good, Joel says,
but even better, tear open your hearts.
No, this is not a violent image.
It’s not tearing apart in order to inflict pain or destroy.
It’s a rending that opens up,
pulls apart an opening that allows God,
invites God, to enter, to transform, to effect a true change,
a repentance,
and then, to heal and create a new and clean heart.

This is not unwelcomed punishment.
This is a welcomed rending that opens us
to the endless love and mercy of God.

I have a feeling this kind of repentance,
is what we all need right now,
to lead us down the path of peace.

Not saying we’re a degenerate “brood of vipers”
to be guilted into putting on sackcloth and ashes.
But . . .

Who of us is not guilty of harboring ill will
toward people on the other side of the political aisle,
or toward people who think the virus is a hoax?
Who of us does not find ourselves, at times,
being self-protective or self-interested,
rather than vulnerable and open to others?
Who of us does not give in to worry or dread now and then,
and fall short in faith and trust?
Who of us does not sometimes listen more closely
to the shrill voices of division, despair, and distrust,
than to the softer, deeper voices of compassion and empathy?
Who of us does not find ourselves
weary and worn and depleted; dried-up versions of ourselves,
unable to muster the energy or spiritual wherewithal
to boldly step out in faith,
or to give sacrificially of ourselves,
or even say or do much of anything that resembles faith?

Who of us does not struggle like that at times,
and stand in need of God’s mercy?

I know for certain that I do.
That list of human frailty and faithlessness that I just named?
I have owned everyone of them,
at one point or another during this past year.
And some I battle against daily.

So what response does God want of me?
What does Joel call me toward?

A word that means, literally, a change in my way of thinking.
I am being called to turn, or to return,
to rend my heart, even if just a crack,
and open up it to God.
To say to God,
“I open myself to you.”
And mean it.

And then let God do God’s work.
According to Joel, here is the kind of God
toward whom we rend our hearts—
a God who is “gracious and compassionate,
slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love,”
a God who “pours down for you abundant rain,
the early and the later rain.”
a God who, in the words of Jesus in today’s Gospel reading,
“gives good gifts to his children, to those who ask.”

This kind of repentance is available to us all.
It’s not just for the despicable evil-doers of this world.
It’s also for us good-hearted and well-intentioned Jesus people,
who happen to have gotten the wind knocked out of us,
who are spent, and sad,
and struggling to make sense of life and faith.

We . . . are invited to rend our hearts.
It’s a gentle, and kind invitation.
It comes from a God of unconditional love.
This repentance is not about remorse or self-punishment,
or wallowing in guilt,
or adopting a “coulda-shoulda-woulda” mindset.

It’s about turning toward God, instead of away.
It’s about a positive choice to
honestly re-examine ourselves and our assumptions,
to open ourselves to a deeper truth,
to individually and collectively return
to that which makes us human—
being in a right relationship with our Creator.

So let us do that right now, 
in a prayer of confession.
You will find it in your order of worship.
I will read the light print,
and you will respond with the bold.
And we will observe a moment of silence in the middle.

one Gracious God, we humbly confess our utter need of you.
We too often carry our fear close to our chest.
We guard ourselves from discomforting vulnerability.
Help us to open ourselves to you more fully.
all We return to you. 
        We rend our hearts open before you. 
        We receive your grace.
one Still our minds. Calm our racing hearts. Fill our lungs with your spirit-breath of peace.
one Children of God, be of good cheer.
We have opened ourselves to a God 
who is gracious and merciful,
slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love.
all We come, we cry, we watch, we wait, we look, we long for you.

—Phil Kniss, December 6, 2020

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