Reading: Joel 2:23-28, selected verses
I will repay you for the years that the swarming locust has eaten, the hopper, the destroyer, and the cutter, my great army, which I sent against you.
You shall eat in plenty and be satisfied, and praise the name of the Lord your God, who has dealt wondrously with you. And my people shall never again be put to shame.
You shall know that I am in the midst of Israel,
and that I, the Lord, am your God and there is no other.
Then afterward 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 want to speak a little about the last point of our parish mission statement: Listen and respond to each other.
It’s hard to turn that into a Ministry Moment because in many ways it feels like that’s been the core work of the past almost-three years. It’s been part of everything we do.
Starting from spring 2020, asking, What’s most important to keep doing, to hold ourselves together, somehow? – to today: How do we build and sustain the different spaces of worship and fellowship and formation we need – online and in person, masked and unmasked, kids, youth, adults and elders, separately and together?
This reading from Joel is the Old Testament reading assigned for this Sunday. It sounds a lot like other prophetic texts – including Jeremiah, whom we’ve been reading most recently.
There’s a sense here of recovery after disaster. I hear echoes of last week’s text from the book of Jeremiah – the promise that God’s conquered and exiled people will return and rebuild, and that God’s ways will be planted in their hearts.
But close listeners and readers may notice that the disaster behind Joel’s writing isn’t an invading army. It’s a locust swarm.
What is a locust?
From the website Safehaven Pest Control, surely a reliable source: “Locusts are grasshoppers that develop gregarious tendencies.” “Gregarious” is a fancy word for “social” or “tending to swarm.”
Basically, locusts are something that grasshoppers turn into under certain environmental conditions. They become huge groups that travel across the landscape, eating all the plants. (Anybody remember that chapter in Little House on the Prairie?)
Old Testament scholar Robert Alter writes, “Plagues of locusts… were known catastrophic events in the Near East. Vast swarms of the voracious insects would eat everything in their path, leaving the fields bare of produce.”
Locust swarms are still an issue. There were some terrible ones in East Africa in 2020.
Joel is a short book, three chapters, and beautifully written. We don’t know a lot about its context or date. I think it’s clear that this writer knew the other great prophetic writings, because he’s intentionally evoking texts that predict invasion by enemy armies as an expression of God’s judgment or rebuke. Only for Joel, the army has six legs.
Joel chapter one, verse six: “A nation has come up against my land, vast and countless; its teeth are the teeth of a lion.”
Alter says, “In biblical poetry, warriors are often compared to ravening lions. Here, the gnawing insects are tiny… but the effect of their vast voracious numbers is as devastating as the rending fangs of a lion.”
A few verses later Joel describes the impact of the swarm: “The field is ravaged, the soil mourns… the farmers are shamed, the wine-makers wail, over wheat and over barley, for the field’s harvest is gone, the vine withers, the fig tree droops. Pomegranate, palm, and apple—all the trees of the field are dried up; surely, joy withers away among the people.”
Joel explores the ripple effects too: the livestock starve along with the humans; the Temple is empty, for there is no food to make offerings.
Joel may hit closer to home for us than Jeremiah or Isaiah’s predictions of invasion and conquest. The enemy here isn’t Babylonians or Assyrians. It’s bugs. Just a thing that happens sometimes. Like a viral pandemic… and its many ripple effects, including inflation and stock market woes.
Joel doesn’t minimize the costs. But he also casts a hopeful vision for a future beyond this catastrophe, as he speaks for God: “I will repay you for the years that the swarming locust has eaten, the hopper, the destroyer, and the cutter, my great army, which I sent against you.”
There will once again be enough. The people will know that God is among them, claiming them, caring for them.
But we are talking about renewal, not just restoration. God’s Spirit will be poured out upon young and old alike, irrespective of gender.
And that divine Spirit will open people’s eyes and hearts and minds to new ideas and possibilities: Your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, your elders shall dream dreams and your young ones see visions.
If that sounds familiar it’s because Peter quotes it in the Pentecost story, which we read every year, to describe the work of the Holy Spirit.
Okay, enough Bible; bring it back, Miranda.
This year we’re returning to the discipleship practices we named together back in 2016, to dwell with them a little month by month. Our current practice is Abiding. A fine Bible-y word that means: staying put with intention.
Abiding means patiently nurturing a community of trust, solidarity, fidelity, and love.
Abiding means cultivating and sustaining friendships across differences of age, circumstance, and conviction, while respecting and learning from our differences.
Abiding means taking care of each other, in formal and informal ways, and in good times and bad.
It means sharing our struggles and sorrows as well as our joys, and allowing our companions in faith to care and pray for us.
Abiding means listening and responding to each other… and to God at work among us.
When we wrote all this down in 2016, we had no idea what a challenge to our mutual abiding awaited us in 2020. And 2021. And 2022.
But here we are. A different “we” in many ways. We have lost people; we have gained people. We’ve all changed.
But there’s so much that I’m hopeful or excited about, for St Dunstan’s in 2023 and beyond. And a lot of it is about abiding.
There’s our Aging Together group that’s meeting on Zoom… and a brand-new group sharing ideas for raising faithful kids.
There are plans afoot to explore the power of lament, and to dive into the challenge of our feelings of grief and helplessness about climate change.
We’re working on plans for continued learning and restorative actions with respect to our Native neighbors.
We’re continuing and building our programs for kids and youth – including calling our next Confirmation cohort! So exciting.
2023 WILL be the year that we undertake some long-delayed wondering together about how to use funds set aside from our 2018 capital campaign to do something for our neighbors in need.
And we have some interesting and important work to do, exploring how to be a church with both online and in-person members.
That may feel normal at this point, but there is a lot still to figure out. to do it well for the longer term. But what a holy project – I know God will bless it.
All that said: Do I wish we weren’t presenting another deficit budget? Sure. There are big forces at work creating financial crunches for lots of churches; we are not alone in this. And we are OK in the short term. But your parish leaders are not just assuming things will keep working out.
I am – we are – committed to spending some real time and energy in 2023 and beyond exploring pathways to greater long-term financial stability for St. Dunstan’s. That will likely include both ongoing conversation about this congregation’s capacity and willingness to give, and exploration of possibilities outside this congregation… which we can’t yet begin to imagine.
Your Rector and your parish leaders are mindful about these budget deficits. And: I feel like we’ve been discerning clearly where God is calling us.
I don’t think we’re being reckless, in investing in the things we’ve been investing in, as a parish.
I think we’re being faithful. And I can see the fruit of that faithfulness everywhere I look.
So I am trusting in the restoration and renewal that I see happening.
I believe that God’s spirit IS being poured out upon us, beloved friends. And that we know that because we see our young ones prophesying, speaking God’s words with holy joy, and our youth casting visions, and our elders dreaming dreams.
Let’s keep dreaming – and planning. Listening and responding. Abiding, in faith, and in hope, and in love. Amen.