Archive for the 'Joel' Category

For Feb. 18, 2015: Ash Wednesday

The Reading                                                 Joel 2:1-2, 12-17

In the year 400 BC, hard times have come upon Judah: locusts have ravaged the crops. The prophet Joel sees this calamity as a sign that the Day of the Lord’s judgment is right now. Joel calls for repentance—not just by individuals, but by the people gathered together, that the Lord may bless all the people.

The Response                                              Psalm 103:8-14

Joel pointed out the Lord’s judgment against the Lord’s people and called them into solemn assembly to repent. Psalm 103 follows up on Joel’s promise of the Lord’s mercy and readiness to remove our sins from us.

The Epistle                                                   2 Corinthians 5:20b-6:10

Like Joel in today’s first reading, the apostle Paul is convinced that the day of the Lord is right now. For Paul, however, the day of the Lord is a day of salvation—and a day in which those who love God serve gladly in every way possible as the ambassadors of God’s great love to the whole world.

The Gospel                                                   Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21

Joel advised the people to tear not their clothes but their hearts: torn clothing without repentance is no better than a costume. Jesus makes a related point: public piety and almsgiving run the risk of being theater rather than theology, if the praying and giving fail to flow from and lead back to love of God and of God’s children.

 

Further thoughts

Using ashes as a sign of penitence goes back to the Old Testament. The tradition of Ash Wednesday for all seems to originate in the seventh century. In a homily composed more than a millennium ago in what the scholars call “rhythmic prose”—prose that has some of the steady beat and alliteration of Old English poetry—the great English cleric Ælfric of Eynsham explains:

On þone wodnes dæg wide geond eorðan
sacerdas bletsiað swa swa hit geset ís
clæne axan on cyrcan and þa siððan lecgað
uppa manna hæfda þæt hi habban on gemynde
þæt hi of eorðan comon and eft to duste gewendað
swa swa se ælmihtiga god to adame cwæð
siððan he agylt hæfde ongean godes bebod:
“On geswincum þu leofast and on swate þu etst
þinne hlaf on eorðan oðþæt þu eft gewende
to þære ylcan eorðan þe þu of come
forðan þe þu eart dust and to duste gewendst.”
Nis þis na gesæd be manna sawlum
ac be manna lichaman þe for-molsniað to duste
and eft sceolan on domes dæg ðurh ures drihtnes mihte
ealle of eorðan arísan þe æfre cuce wæron
swa swa ealle treowa cuciað æfre on lenctenes timan
þe ær þurh wyntres cyle wurdon adydde.

Here is a translation that conveys, a little, both the sense of Ælfric’s words and the rhythm.

On that Wednesday, widely around Earth,
clergy bless, just as is commanded,
clean ashes in church and those then lay
on the heads of mankind, that they may have in mind
that from earth they come and after to dust they go,
just as Almighty God to Adam said
after he had gone against God’s bidding:
‘In struggle you live and by sweat you eat
your bread on earth until you after go
to the selfsame earth that you came out of,
because you are dust and to dust you go.’
Nor is this said of people’s souls
but of people’s bodies that decay unto dust
and after shall at Doomsday through the might of our Lord
all arise out of earth that ever were living.

For Oct. 27, 2013: Proper 25, Year C

The Reading            Joel 2:23-32

The verses that precede this Sunday’s reading tell a grim story of Israel’s devastation by locusts. But then the prophet Joel turns to song: God will restore the people’s physical fortunes. More wondrously yet, God will pour out spiritual gifts on all: men and women, young and old, even the most humbly born, all like true children of God.

The Response            Psalm 65

“Our sins are stronger than we are, but you will blot them out.”

The Epistle            2 Timothy 4:6-8,16-18

This Sunday we read verses from near the end of the second letter to Timothy, and near the end of Paul’s own life. A libation is the ritual pouring of a drink in offering to a deity, and it was part of Greek burial customs. As the voice in 2 Timothy tells it, Paul has persevered—though not by his own strength but God’s.

The Gospel            Luke 18:9-14

“‘All who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.’”

 

Further thoughts

The readings for Proper 25 this Sunday ring variations on a theme of reaping as one has sown—or has not. In prior verses Joel depicted the impact of drought and ravenous locusts: as verse 2:3b has it, “Before them the land is like the garden of Eden, but after them a desolate wilderness, and nothing escapes them.” Joel, seeing this as the Lord’s judgment on Zion’s sin, called upon all the people, from the king on down, to stop whatever they were doing and repent. They do so. Then God promises to give again the plenty that the natural disasters took away. Is this a deal, with the penitence of the people buying restitution for the nation as a whole? No, for greater gifts of the spirit come as well, and to even the seemingly least significant. It is as Jeremiah 31:33-34 said last week: God will make a covenantal relationship with every single individual, just because it’s God’s choice.

The gospel parable is commonly read as a cautionary tale: strutting Pharisee versus humbled tax collector. Jesus’ listeners would have understood that Pharisees were widely admired (if less widely imitated) for their piety and adherence to religious law, while tax collectors were despised sellouts and thugs who lived off the sums they extorted from the defenseless, minus the taxes they passed through to the hated Roman overlords. The parable thus upsets expectations: for a tax collector to be the one coming out right with God is shocking!

The gospel can also be read, however, in counterpoint to the epistle reading. Paul himself was noted from youth as a Pharisee’s Pharisee, and his own writings suggest that he never really got over that; at the same time, they depict a man aware of his own limitations. The Paul-voice looking back in 2 Timothy 4 depicts—perhaps more accurately than Paul himself would dare—the untiring early hero of the Christian faith who has sown in the fields God set before him and, on balance and with God’s help, done it well; his also will be the harvest.

For there is no more wrong with knowing that one has diligently used God’s gifts to good ends than there is in recognizing in others that they can rightly say the same.

For Feb. 13, 2013: Ash Wednesday

The Reading            Joel 2:1-2, 12-17

The prophet Joel, most probably writing in the fifth century before Christ, describes an enormous army assailing the land of Judah. It is an army of locusts: grasshopper-like creatures that swarm by the billions, darkening the sky and devouring every green leaf for miles. Joel tells us it is a sign of the day of the Lord, and calls every living soul to drop everything and turn to the Lord with fasting and weeping.

The Response            Psalm 103:8-14

The Epistle            2 Corinthians 5:20b-6:10

For Joel, the day of the Lord was bringing bad times. Paul also is convinced that the day of the Lord is right now. For Paul, however, the day of the Lord is a day of salvation—and a day in which those who love God serve gladly in every way possible as the ambassadors of God’s great love to the whole world.

The Gospel            Matthew 6:1-6,16-21

 

Further thoughts

The readings for Ash Wednesday are the same each liturgical year, but the preceding Sunday’s readings for the end of Epiphany vary, and the differences set up intriguing shifts in perspective from one year to the next.

A common thread for Year C has to do with light and darkness. Last Sunday we read of Moses exuding light after his encounters with the living God, and we gawked with the disciples as they saw the flesh-and-blood Jesus transfigured into something more like Light of Light, True God Of True God, and we heard the epistle extend the point that going deliberately and mindfully into the presence of the Light of Lights has a way of rubbing off on a person. And well it should: human beings are clearly designed to respond to the Light.

Today’s readings bring us face to face with the dark. We human beings aren’t the Light: we are reckless, feckless, and sometimes mindless. Jesus has to tell us to start doing the right thing because it is right, not in order to look right to all the people we’re sure are either taking cues from us or potshots at us. How easy it is to absorb the light we’re intended to reflect!

Furthermore, we’re mortal. The smudging on my forehead of dark ashes—from bright fire applied to last year’s living palm frond—reminds me that I too am not far from my end, and I tremble and hope in the darkness for forbearance I don’t deserve. The sight of ashes on your forehead should remind me that you are in the same fearful boat as I, that a share of the burden to offer forbearance to you lies with me. Joel’s call quite properly extends this burden to the entire people, infants and all; Paul’s list of difficulties paradoxically reminds us that, to misinterpret Matthew 11:30 (but usefully), this burden truly is Light.

Can any of us really get to stand fully in the Light if all of us can’t?

For Nov. 21, 2012: Thanksgiving Eve, Year B

The Reading            Joel 2:21-27

In the verses that precede this evening’s reading, the prophet Joel described a plague of locusts that came down on the people of Zion as a punishment from the Lord, and he prescribed what the people must do to atone. Now Joel shows the fruit of Zion’s repentance in the astonishing abundance of God’s grace and care.

The Response            Psalm 126

The Epistle            1 Timothy 2:1-7

Whether we agree with leaders of governments at home or abroad, tonight’s reading from the letter to Timothy urges us to make “supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings” for all of them. Not only do their decisions matter: indeed, the salvation of each of them matters to God no less than does our own.

The Gospel            Matthew 6:25-33

 

Further thoughts

It can be a challenge to give thanks to or for those for whom one isn’t feeling grateful. The workers displaced by the imminent closing of the company that makes Twinkies and Ding-dongs doubtless feel no gratitude to the shareholders and board of directors; those who backed Romney most vigorously in the recent elections surely feel no thankfulness that their fellow voters reelected Obama or to Obama himself; parents whose neighborhood schools are being closed or repurposed as charters in Chicago and Florida feel disregarded and disrespected by the school boards making these decisions. The readers of the letter to Timothy must have felt in very much the same position: the Jewish religious hierarchy, still reeling from the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem a few years before, had little love and less patience for the upstart Christians, and the Roman authorities, as Christianity spread and began to seem to draw allegiance away from the Empire, increasingly treated the Christians as a radical fringe in need of suppression, not least on account of the extent to which its internal dissensions tended to become unpleasantly external.

So why give thanks for “the other side”? First, because even wicked rulers tend to be right about something: Napoleon attempted to dominate all of Europe, but he also reformed the French law and education codes to stop wasting the talents of boys not born to noble families. Second, because even good rulers, when they start feeling defensive, tend to get heavy-handed. The Adams presidencies went badly not because John Adams and John Quincy Adams lacked the talent to govern but because their prickly personalities antagonized everyone around them. Third, because administering well, or even half-well, is harder than it appears. For proof, compare a portrait of any president at the beginning of his first term with a portrait of him at the end of his last. Fourth, because giving thanks for them is good for us. It is easy to demonize the opposition, but I find it is considerably harder to keep demonizing the opponent for which I conscientiously give thanks, and I am a good deal more likely to give that opponent credit for accomplishments and openness to ideas when I can bring myself to give that opponent any credit whatsoever; what’s more, it is easier on my blood pressure. Fifth, because giving thanks where it goes against my grain makes me likelier to remember to give thanks where I should, which is at all times and in all places.

Finally, any thanks we truly give is ultimately thanks to God.

For Feb. 22, 2012: Ash Wednesday

The Reading            Joel 2:1-2,12-27

Locusts are grasshopper-like creatures that swarm by the billions, darkening the sky and devouring every green leaf for miles. This is the army that Joel tells us has descended as a sign of the day of the Lord. Joel calls every living soul in Judah to drop everything and turn to the Lord with fasting and weeping.

The Epistle            2 Corinthians 5:20b-6:10

For Joel, the day of the Lord was bringing bad times. Paul also is convinced that the day of the Lord is right now. For Paul, however, the day of the Lord is a day of salvation—and a day in which those who love God serve gladly in every way possible as the ambassadors of God’s great love to the whole world.

 

Further thoughts

Cultures differ in how contrition is expressed, but in most cultures some expression is expected—and healthy.

If I stand on someone’s toe, it is not enough for me to feel sorry. I have to act. The owner of the toe needs to feel me move off it, see my shoulders droop, and hear me beg pardon—but so do I: I must register my error and confess it in order to own it. As we heard a few weeks ago, when Jonah preached that God would destroy Nineveh, everyone from the king on down put on mourning clothes and gathered together to pray earnestly for God’s mercy; the demonstration was toward God, but for the Ninevites themselves the changed clothes symbolize the changed hearts throughout the city. Similarly, Joel calls the people of Judah to assemble publicly and weep partly as a sign for the Lord to whom they turn but also for the people of Judah themselves.

Nor is it enough to go through the motions if I in fact refuse to feel contrite. If I apologize chiefly to impress an the onlookers, or if I apologize for standing on the toe without moving off it, my words will ring hollow. At that point I have offended yet again. Thus Joel counsels the people of Judah that what they should rend is their hearts: torn clothing that does not reflect a spirit of repentance is really nothing but a costume. Jesus makes a related point: public piety and almsgiving run the risk of being better theater than theology, if the gestures of praying and giving fail to flow from and lead back to love of God and of God’s children.

Being contrite, then, is a good thing—in its time. There is a point past which too much contrition is too much. Once I am off the toe and have asked and been offered forgiveness, continuing to apologize and apologize for having been on the toe starts to sound a bit like declaring that I alone have the right to determine how forgivable I am. If I have repented sincerely and been forgiven sincerely, it is time to square my drooping shoulders, give thanks, and turn to doing what needs to be done. Paul’s great laundry list of difficulties and obstacles is neither a boast of his superiority nor a ploy for our sympathies, but rather a sober account of what he and we can surmount thanks to the grace that lifts up our chins, dries our tears, and strengthens us to go back out to bear Christ into the world.