When I was General Secretary: Communication for the United Church one of my several hats was to be Publisher of the United Church Publishing House and other materials published by the United Church. My tenure in that role coincided with the Church’s 65 anniversary of Church Union. We decided to publish what we knew to be the first, and suspected to be the last, hard cover coffee table book about the United Church. It was an arduous process as photos were collected and authors were contracted to write various parts. At one point we decided that the lead author simply did not understand the direction we wanted to take and we had to start over. We did manage to remain good friends with that first author I am happy to say. Books are written by authors but often extensively massaged and even at times re-written in part by editors and our editor-in-chief, the late Rev. Dr. Peter Gordon White, brought years of editorial experience and skill to the enterprise. The publisher’s role is seldom directly involved in the production of the book other than to sign off on the initial concept and to review progress to date from time to time. Publishers will often see something in the manuscript that excites them. As Publisher, that is the top dog, you also have the final word on the title given the manuscript. As I read the manuscript I thought of today’s Scripture reading and declared that the book, so extraordinary in so many ways, would be entitled Voices & Visions thus capturing the ideas in today’s passage of sons and daughters prophesying and seeing visions as being at the root of who we are as a United Church. The book was published 30 years ago but the title still excites me today.
Our passage begins with Joel lamenting over a country in ruins, writes Professor Casey Thornburg Sigmon. In previous Old Testament readings this autumn that ruin has been at the hands of a conquering empire. However as Sigmon points out most of this destruction this time will come about, says the prophet Joel, through environmental crises. Earlier Joel had painted a pretty grim picture of a “land plundered and burned, animals crying out to God for water…all earth seems to lament.” The major concern in all that is worship. If Israel does not have resources to bring for sacrifice in worship how will they be able to worship? Resources plundered and wasted now are not present when they might be most needed. Without sacrifices how will the people be able to “offer a sacrifice and repair the relationship with their God?” Care for our resources as a community is critical to what we are able to do to honour our God…whether it be through sacrifice, in which we do not participate, or through other sacrificial ways such as serving and caring for the poor and vulnerable.
In a very helpful twist on our usual understanding of God, that is often transactional in nature: I’ll do this God if you will do that God, Joel asserts that it is not at all what we bring to the altar in terms of material things that matters. From a tradition where one might tear their clothes to show the depth of their grief and loss and a sense of needing God’s presence, Joel says rend your hearts, not your clothes. Goods are important in our relationships with one another but it is our hearts that will restore our relationship with God. One of the blessings of this pandemic is that it has shown us the incredible and overwhelming power of things beyond our control…yes, we can reduce the spread, we can even invent vaccines that are likely going to reduce the medical impact of Covid-19, but the virus in a sense came out of nowhere, even though that is not literally true, and has changed our way of life for this year and perhaps for ever. The virus is forcing us to acknowledge that we are not all equal in this truly wonderful land of ours.
Those of us with a fixed income whether it be salary or pensioned are relatively okay while those who work several jobs, often for minimum wage and who must spend much of that on rent and childcare, are not doing well at all. The infection rate of this virus may almost be predicted as much by our postal codes as anything else—for where we live if we are poor and marginalized puts us in direct contact with so many others who must risk their lives also to survive these times. We have also seen the dramatic need for a nationally defined and funded child care programme—which economists predict will cost a lot of money now but within 10 years will have not only recouped this investment but will then carry forward on a self-funding basis. The pandemic is forcing us to review our historical understanding of the economy, the environment, and society as a whole. Recently a major consortium of insurance companies have demanded that other companies become much more transparent in terms of what they are doing to support the environment and good governance of their respective industries. These are no longer views put forward as public relations efforts but as sound economic concerns that will affect how insurance companies will invest their considerable billions of dollars going forward.
There is much to lament about how we have structured our society. Rending our clothes will achieve nothing. Rending our hearts will. Joel’s purpose was to help the people of Israel avoid the oncoming terrible day, in fearful terms sometimes referred to as the day of the Lord, or the Lord’s reckoning. It is almost as if Joel was thinking of our day. This is the 43rd time that we have worshipped via ZOOM and we will be doing so for some time to come. We are able to do good by bringing mittens and toques and by dropping off food for the food bank. We need a building to collect resources. Yet we do not need a building, as much as we might miss this beautiful space, to rend our hearts. That change happens external to buildings and internal to the choices we make as individuals and most importantly as communities within the country where we live. It affects our relationship to others as well. So we struggle to determine who will receive the vaccine shots first and struggle even further to imagine how the rest of the world, the also poor and vulnerable, will ever receive their fair share. Everything in me wants to be first in line but Scripture suggests maybe I need to think that through a bit farther. To rend our hearts is an act of worship. It is an action to restore and rebuild our commitment to a God who wants us to flourish, to grow and to prosper but to do so in relation to the rest of God’s people wherever they may be.
We have learned during this pandemic, as the people of Israel did during Joel’s time, that it is possible to worship God without a building and even, if need be, without material resources such as the beautiful Christmas decorations that normally adorn our Sanctuary, and the Christmas concert with the wonderful music, baking and goodies to follow, or the pageant led by the children. We now know, these 10 months later, that we are yet able to be the community of faith where God is praised, where we are renewed, and where our service to the community and the world continues. Just as society is viewing itself from a new perspective perhaps that is our responsibility as well as we focus on keeping our priorities the same as God’s priorities.
Sigmon notes in her commentary that the Hebrew sense of the heart differs dramatically from ours. We associate the heart with feelings and use it to adorn Valentine’s Day cards and many texts and e-mails today come with a little red heart or two attached to them as well. In Hebrew the meaning of the heart “implies ‘determination, purpose, or courage’,” and so the invitation to rend your hearts is really an invitation to be open and honest about yourselves, including your weeping and lamentation for what is lost or has yet to be realized. Even in sorrow “we are invited to sincerely commit to follow God rather than anyone or anything else. Where our heart pledges allegiance impacts our actions (our worship in the true sense) in the world.”
The second part of Joel’s words for today speaks to what is the probable outcome if we do rend our hearts. Naturally God will be pleased, no surprise there, but Joel captures that idea in such beautiful language that it rings true 2500 years later. Then, says God, after you have rent your hearts, I will pour out my spirit on all flesh. As early as Joel, God is promising to make us Pentecost people, people who know, understand and embody God’s presence. That gift is the gift that inspires authors and editors, musicians and artists, bakers and teachers, doctors and social workers, lawyers and homemakers, scientists and transit workers, employed and unemployed, young and old, to imagine a new world, a world where voices of youth speak as prophets, and the old dream dreams not only of the past but of a future that is in the making still. The lowest in society in Joel’s day, and ours, were the slaves and even the lowest of the low will have God’s spirit poured out for them. All will know that worship is still possible and the spirit will enrich their lives whether they be weeping or laughing. Being ourselves before God is to receive God’s blessing, always. Amen.