the insights of the prophet joel for our community...
my transition from full-time ministry into retirement and a part-time ministry into context.
The message I am going to share with you today is NOT the one I anticipated when I did my worship planning for this season back in August. Back in the beauty of late summer I expected a sermon about how we might respect BOTH the Pharisee and the tax collector. For far too long, Christian anti-Semitism has demonized the Pharisees who were serious people of faith striving to live in peace with God’s holiness in a vicious and vulgar culture.
Did they make mistakes? You bet! Did they get carried away with themselves? Without a doubt. Did some of them lose focus and start to celebrate the rules more than the spirit? You know they did – just as some Christians abandoned the love of the Lord in Hitler’s Germany or some white evangelical believers are doing so in this year’s presidential race. Nobody – Christian, Jew, Muslim, Buddhist, atheist, Republican or Democrat – has a monopoly on purity. In fact, we ALL get it wrong at LEAST as often as we get it right. Such is the nature of our broken humanity.
So I had planned to talk with you about this truth: the humanity of the Pharisees, what they genuinely believed and practiced, how Jesus was probably closer to them than anyone else in ancient Israel rather than the caricature the gospels too often give us that perpetuate anti-Semitism.
But guess what? I’m not in control! Like John Lennon once sang: Life is what happens while you’re busy making other plans. And while I was busy planning worship, church council had commissioned a small group of wise souls under the leadership of Jon Grenoble to come up with a way to solve our history of deficit spending – a problem that has plagued us for over 50 years and caused way too much anxiety – and set into motion a new visioning process for our mission together as a congregation grounded in the 21st century. In response to their hard work, it became clear to me that now was the right time to announce my intent to retire after our annual meeting in the New Year. I have laid out my prayerful thoughts about this already so I’m not going to revisit it here. I will remain in the Sanctuary after the closing music though if you would like to ask me questions or just to check in, ok? What I’d rather address with you now is what I sense the prophet Joel could be saying to our congregation 2,600 years after his first prophecy in light of the challenges facing us as a community of faith.
Like one of my mentors in ministry, Professor Walter Brueggemann, I believe that the stories and poetry of the Old Testament are not merely fascinating insights about another time and place; they are salvific – IF – we embrace their sacred wisdom with all our heart, soul, mind and strength. Sadly, from my perspective, most modern, middle class white folk in America – you and me, included – are often too harried, anxious and distracted to let this truth transform our lives. As a result, we are mostly clueless when it comes to waiting upon the Lord: as a collection of well-educated professionals we know a lot about problem-solving, we are reasonably proficient at manipulating so-called time-saving technologies, and we are often confident of our ability to manage our resources so that we can weather the ups and downs of a volatile stock market. What I have seen after nearly 35 years of ordained ministry, serving four distinct churches in very different areas of our country, however, is that most of us are bewildered and even afraid of waiting on the Lord.
It is genuinely counter-cultural – it demands that we give up all illusions of control to a love greater than ourselves – it asks us to invest in God’s way rather than the way of the university, the marketplace or our culture. Jesus wasn’t kidding when he said: “Seek ye first… what?” The kingdom of God – THEN all these things shall be added unto you – but not until then.
Now this observation is not to blame or shame you: I just want to be clear about one of the challenges facing First Church and MOST churches in America today. As one of my spiritual directors back in Arizona used to say, “When moving towards spiritual health, man, NEVER put whipped cream on BS!”
That’s one of the truths the prophets of ancient Israel offer us today: they NEVER put whipped cream on BS. Take today’s lesson from Joel: we don’t know much about this man except that he probably lived outside of Jerusalem around 400 BCE. He ascribed Israel’s troubles to be the consequence of not loving the Lord and our neighbors with all your heart, soul, mind and strength. Those who valued their individuality and personal control more than social compassion, he prophesied, were the root cause of ancient Israel’s plague of locusts. Scientists say that during such a plague over 120 million locusts would descend upon each acre of food, devour the nation’s food supply and cover everything in insect debris and decay. It had to have been disgusting and terrifying in ways we cannot imagine.
So what the prophet Joel told his loved ones is something we need to wrestle with, too. First, he called this miserable plague of locusts the Day of the Lord – not the Lord’s Day for feasting and festivities – but a sacred time of sober confession in community. And second, he assured God’s people that after a season of waiting – and grieving – God would restore blessings upon the people because that is God’s nature. He told them that they could never control nor predict when the blessing would come, but if they waited in faith and emptied them-selves of hubris, the steadfast love of the Lord would restore new life even in the midst of death. “Rend your hearts not your garments,” he said. Take time to grieve what has been lost. Feel it within. Do not distract yourselves by putting whipped cream on BS. Face the hardships and anguish honestly and OWN YOUR PART WITHIN THEM.
Now that’s the hardest thing for all people to do consistency – but especially folks like us! Wait and grieve our brokenness? Trust that God will show us wisdom and new blessings within our pain? Give me a break – and a pill! As a rule, most middle class, white folk not only don’t have much practice in doing this unless we’ve faced serious illness in our lives – we don’t believe it. Most of us have to get fired or end up in the hospital before we realize we’re not really in control and need to wait upon the Lord for guidance. But there are no guarantees we’ll do it. We have too many drugs and distractions to mask our pain – we’re too busy and self-important to pay attention to the day of the Lord – so time and again we miss the chance to ripen in faith and receive God’s gift of new depth and blessing within our emptiness even as we walk through the valley of the shadow of death.
Do you know that name Ruby Sales? While Dianne and I were driving down to Kentucky to celebrate the wedding of our dear young friends, Christabelle and Irene, we listened to a podcast by Krista Tippett in which she interviewed Ms. Sales, an African American theologian who came of age during the movement against American apartheid in the 1960s. One of the truths she shared was shattering: there is a spiritual crisis throughout white America that is devouring us rich, poor and middle-class alike:
It’s a crisis of meaning, and I don’t hear (much talk about it as a) liberating white theology… but we’ve got to deal with developing such a theology in a 21st-century capitalist technocracy where up until now only a few lives have mattered. We have to talk about how to raise people up from disposability to essentiality? She wants to know what God talk has to say: To the white person in Massachusetts who’s heroin-addicted because they feel that their lives have no meaning, because of the trickle-down impact of whiteness in the world today? What do you say to someone who has been told that their whole essence is whiteness and power and domination? And when that no longer exists, or starts to change, then they feel as if they are dying or they get caught up in the throes of death, whether it’s heroin addiction… or the cruel politics of this hour?
Ruby Sales is on to something vital here. She is naming the importance of our current social, political, spiritual and economic dysfunctions as essential – even a Day of the Lord like unto Joel’s time – because they expose the deep pain and anxieties within and among us. What we see in this presidential race are the pathological and outward signs of God’s inward invitation for us to wake up and take care of what is vital. The morbidity rates in Anglo West Virginia, Pennsylvania and Kentucky are trying to tell us that white folk all across America are having a hard time tapping into the goodness inside of ourselves and nourish it relationally in our ever-shifting sea of racial and cultural diversity. And so there is anger and despair and addiction and moral confusion. The question Ruby Sales asks is the same question the prophet asks:: How do we raise people up from disposability to essentiality?!? And Joel tells us that in begins with grief and waiting upon the Lord so that we might be filled with God rather than ourselves.
And here’s where the challenge of our church, my retirement announcement and today’s Scripture all come together for me: subtlety for seven years – and assertively since our 250th anniversary – I have been asking you to grieve the loss of what First Church used to be so that we might become the church God needs right now. Our loss is part of the spiritual crisis wounding white America. I think some of God’s deeper grieving finally began to surface during the small group house meetings that were held throughout the summer where about 50 of us discussed our current financial challenges openly and honestly – and I know it is taking place in other venues, too – and yet for too long we have avoided owning the connection between our problems and the crisis of faith ravaging the white working class. There is a curse as well as a blessing to the way of the bourgeoisie. Unlike the kid with a needle in her arm in Chicopee or the 60 year old father who has to show up as a day laborer now because his factory in Altoona, PA shut down four years ago, our relative economic security creates the illusion of autonomy. Consequently, we ignore grieving over our lost status – here and throughout America’s white culture – and never feel the need to rend our hearts in solidarity and humility.
Some are so disconnected from our collective anguish that they have said to my face: oh, closing this church won’t really hurt all that much. Yes it will be sad, but businesses close all the time, we go to different stores or restaurants or physicians when one no longer serves us, so we can do the same thing with our church. Challenge me after worship if you think I’ve overstated the case, beloved, but a community of faith is different from Wal-Mart. We are NOT a business. We are the Body of Christ.
And the Body of Christ in history came into the world as a vulnerable baby needing the tenderness and attention of his family to thrive. You are the body of Christ. The Body of Christ in real time knelt at the feet of those who would betray him and loved them even unto the Cross. You are the Body of Christ. The Body of Christ in faith rose from death by the love of God to show us that love, not hatred, wins no matter how much we put whipped cream on BS. And that is what I’ve tried to share and realize with you over the past decade: how kneeling, trusting and waiting on the Lord beyond our privilege – beyond the depletion of our endowment and status – could be our Day of the Lord, our time of getting empty enough that God could fill us with a new era of blessing in Pittsfield born of humility and solidarity.
You see only when Joel’s community owned their reality of scarcity was God ready to reveal abundance; only when there was no place else to go but the shelter of God’s love, did the rains come, the locusts cease and the harvests return. God’s promise was stunning: 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 shall see visions. Even upon the male and female slaves, in those days, I will pour out my spirit. In humility the whole community can be renewed. That’s what I believe – not without fear and trembling, mind you – but in time, history, individual lives and scripture I’ve seen how waiting leads to blessings. And when I practice what I try to preach and refuse to put whipped cream on my own BS, I think I’ve been too subtle about the essentiality of our journey into humility, grieving, emptiness and solidarity. I’ve been too hesitant about pushing away from disposability and privilege to essentiality!
And this saddens me – you are a beautiful, creative, resourceful, talented and loving constellation of Christians – and I sense that God still has great things for you to do albeit in a smaller and more humble way. I trust by faith that God still aches to pour out the Spirit upon ALL the flesh here so that you dream new dreams and claim new visions. But I no longer sense this happening with me.
I can be helpful for a transition now, but in retrospect, I think my time with you has been something like a 10 year interim getting you ready for the next chapter of blessing. Once you had 240 years of grandeur – and then you got ten years of grief with me. And if that isn’t humbling enough, because we’ve nearly depleted our endowment, all illusions of privilege and power are coming to an end. This angers some and frightens others, but it strikes me maybe a beautiful thing where we might be able to kneel down in community like the tax collector and say: “Lord, I am a sinner, I’m empty and I don’t know what to do. Save me.” That would be a holy time– but it’s a lot to ask of anyone who still believes they’re in control. Like the Serenity Prayer says: God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference. You have to want to let go – accept your powerlessness – and trust God is greater than all fear.
And that’s why Dianne and I sensed it was time to step aside. Either you want to move beyond privilege – and know you need to do it – or not. Come February, of course, by the necessity of limited funds, I must move into a part-time, twenty hour a week ministry with you – and in order to make up some lost salary I needed to retire to access my annuity. But let’s be real, me being part-time is going to be a big change for us all – a bold time to figure out whether we’re really can give up our privileged past and move into God’s humility and solidarity.
That’s how the prophecy of Joel ends, you know: “Everyone who calls upon the name of the Lord will be made whole and filled with the Spirit.” And I believe that is as true here and now as it was there and then. Remember: to be filled with the Spirit literally means to be in-spired – filled with God’s grace – nourished by a love poured out upon ALL flesh together – not by our doing – but by God’s. And that brings me back to the gospel story I wanted to preach on before life interfered with my plans: more than anything else I think Christ’s parable shows us what life looks like without inspiration and solidarity: The Pharisee and the tax collector remain separated - divided by contempt, class, privilege, occupation, habit and theology – and such segregation is NOT of the Lord. That is hubris and discrimination – not the body of Christ inspired by the Spirit of the Lord to bind all ALL flesh together in love. It is the logic of domination as practiced by Imperial Rome or 21st century technocracy that separates us into winners and losers, in crowd and misfits, America-First versus the immigrants, the beautiful people and the despised, the privileged and powerless or just those who idolize the past and fear the future.
In a splendidly Jungian manner, this story calls the lion within us to lay down with the lamb, the dark and fearful to embrace the light of hope, the Spirit to inspire all flesh – male and female, young and old, gay and strait alike – and quit putting whipped cream on BS! We need one another. Dare I say we need a new incarnation of First Church for the 21st century, too.
+ Professor Brueggemann writes that the theological commentary of the Old Testament in general and the theological conviction of the prophets in particular is that God’s steadfast love endures forever. This became a practical resource to protect God’s people past, present and future from surrendering to the vagaries of historical circumstance. God’s word, is always judgment bat also the promise of grace to us forever as a counter to denial, privilege, and despair
+ Perhaps that is why another member of the ancient tribe, NY Times columnist David Brooks, could put it like this: our culture needs a religious voice in the public square now more than at any other time in the history of our republic: We need to become more communitarian in a society that has become too individual. We need to become more moralistic in a society that’s too utilitarian. And we need to be more emotional in a society that is too cognitive. Religion born of humility not hubris speaks those three languages very well.
+ And Jesus closes his message with equal clarity: “all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.” Blessed are the humble and broken-hearted… for with less of ourselves taking up all the space there is more room for God and God’s grace that tears down all divisions.
I sense that God has a sacred and glorious new call for this congregation, one that will be smaller and more humble, to be sure – more focused and even more tender, too – and probably more satisfying for the whole of this community. For this to happen I believe it is time for me as a full-time pastor to step back so that the Christ within you may increase. In that spirit I invite you to affirm your faith in the way of the Lord and sing with me:
Seek ye first the kingdom of God and all its righteousness
And all these things shall be given unto you: allelu, alleluia.
Ask and it shall be given unto you, seek and ye shall find,
Knock and the door will be opened unto you: allelu, alleluia.