Sermon for the 20th Sunday after Pentecost October 7, 2018
Alice J Stewart
In our reading today, the prophet Joel calls for repentance after devastation, illustrates a vision of promised abundance, and suggests a mystical union with God in the future.
Have you noticed the same message Joel speaks is a lot like other prophets? Have you noticed the same message, God’s same plan for salvation, seems to have a hard time getting into our collective heads. What is it about this message that’s so difficult for us… especially for us today?
Let’s review the basics for just a moment. We start with the commandments to love God with all our heart, with all of who we are, and to love our neighbors as ourselves. From this comes all the law, the Torah, all the hundreds of rules we break, and from this comes the prophets trying to get us back on track starting with commandment number one.
If we can just get those first two commandments right, the scriptures promise us that God will shower us with forgiveness and love. He will shower us with his love made manifest in abundant life in the natural world. He will shower us with his abundance in our lives in the form of food and other survival needs. He will shower us with his breathtaking abundance in our spiritual lives.
And if we don’t get those first two commandments right, to love God and our neighbor, then we turn our hearts from the author of all of life. And when we turn our hearts away from the author of all of life, something along the lines of starvation can happen to us, and environmental destruction can happen in the world around us. Maybe that’s what happened in our reading from Joel today.
We’re not told in Joel what Israel did to get sideways with God, but Joel does tell us how to get back on track. We turn our hearts. We open our hearts with actual feeling, with vulnerable intimacy with God. We don’t make a mere show of repentance and still remaining hard-hearted.
The mystery of our love for God somehow having an effect on the abundance of life on earth in real terms is one we don’t think about very often. We’re so separate from the astonishing vibrance of our growing food. A full pantry, or a well-stocked grocery store has little to connect us with God and his abundant life. It’s hard to open our hearts to God and give God love and thanks when we’re trying to find the Brussels’ sprouts on aisle ten at the No Frills. But what if our love for God does have an effect on life on earth? What if our hearts opened to God is a really important ingredient in the cosmic soup? Joel seems to think so.
Throughout the scriptures we see that when we turn our hearts to God, life is abundant. And when life is abundant, our bodies get fed. Joel says God will fill us with food that is so abundant and rich that it overflows with more than just the basics of meat and bread and vegetables. It overflows with all the sweetness of life: sweet figs, healing and healthy oils, wine to gladden the heart and the spirit.
When we turn our hearts to God, when life is abundant, when our bodies are fed and healthy, then God promises to fill us – even the least of us – to overflowing with his Spirit. He promises to pour out his Spirit upon us, so there is little boundary between us and him. So that our eyes see what his see in visions and our ears hear God’s own voice in prophesies.
This is the relationship God wants with us. This is the purpose of the law, the prophets, and repentance. This is the love-relationship God wants with us and for us together. And it all begins with those first two commandments. Love God with all we are and our neighbor as ourselves.
The assumption is that we love ourselves. This assumption might have held true for ancient Israel, but it doesn’t hold true for us today in the Western world.
A few years back, the Dalai Lama was speaking to a group of people here in the West about Buddhism. He began his talk with the basic assumption of Buddhism: Everyone wants to be happy. His talk didn’t get much further than that. He was baffled to learn that there was resistance to this basic assumption in the West. It took him many years to begin to understand that there’s a cultural worthlessness that we suffer from in the Western world. A pervasive personal shame from which we suffer.
This isn’t the public shame of the Israelites when Israel was embarrassed because the other nations thought they were so pathetic their own God wanted to kill them off. No, we in the modern Western world are infected with a private shame, and even the narcissists among us suffer from shame and worthlessness.
In her TED talk on Shame, researcher Brene Brown says that shame is “highly, highly correlated with addiction, depression, violence, suicide, and eating disorders.” She explains that “guilt” is feeling bad about what we’ve done, but “shame” is feeling bad about who and what we are.
If there is any disease more destructive in our culture and to the Gospel than apathy, it’s the belief, at the core of our psyches, that we are unworthy. We’ve confused the word “earn” with the word “deserve.” There’s nothing we can do to earn love. But every last soul that’s ever lived deserves love. Is worthy of love.
When we believe that we are unworthy of unconditional love, we are utterly incapable of opening our hearts to God. We close the door to God’s saving abundance. We shoot our selves in the proverbial foot when we believe that we are unworthy of love. Addiction. Depression. Violence. Suicide.
When we believe we are unworthy, we can spend all our lives asking for forgiveness, and never allow ourselves to be forgiven. When we believe we are unworthy, we can spend all our lives wanting real loving connection, and never allow ourselves to be loved, either by God or our neighbor.
How do we remove shame, this insidious feeling of worthlessness, within ourselves, and within our culture? I’m not sure we do. I don’t think we can. It’s too deeply ingrained. I think the best we can do is to recognize it for the lie that it is. To remind ourselves over and over that this is unworthiness is a lie, even if we fall for it a hundred times a day. And we can help each other to do the same.
You are worthy. You do deserve love. Love and life and abundance are gifts. Gifts you are worthy of. It may take a lifetime to fight this lie we tell ourselves, but let’s start fighting it today. …and I mean that literally.
Exercise #1: You are worthy. Exercise #2: I am worthy.
Researcher and faithful Anglican, Brene Brown, says that when shame is overcome, it’s not replaced with narcism or arrogance. When shame and worthlessness are overcome, they’re replaced with a willingness to be vulnerable.
If we don’t believe we are worthy, and if we are too terrified to be vulnerable, we push love away. We reject God and our neighbor. If we believe the lie that we are not worthy, we harm ourselves literally, emotionally, and spiritually.
And it is a lie. We are worthy of God’s love, forgiveness, abundance, and Spirit. Today and tomorrow as we thank God for all of his blessings, let’s remember that we are thankful for more than just God’s glorious abundance. We’re are also thankful for the truth that God has made us worthy of that abundance.
We are thankful for the unearned gifts and we turn our hearts to God. We are thankful, and we turn our vulnerable hearts to our neighbors in love. We are thankful, and we are filled to overflowing with God himself: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.