When I was a kid I read the entire “Little House” series by Laura Ingalls Wilder—Little House in the Big Woods, Little House on the Prairie, On the Banks of Plum Creek…there are seven or eight of them altogether, I think. I don’t know if they hold the same fascination for girls learning to read in this generation, and I will admit that I only remember a handful of the stories included, but there is one that I think of every time we have a reading from the prophet Joel: the invasion of the locusts that destroys their crops and nearly destroys them.
A plague of locusts is the reason the Book of Joel was written as well.
We don’t often have a reading from the prophet Joel in our three year lectionary cycle. If you come on Ash Wednesday, you hear the first chapter, raising the alarm about a coming invasion of locusts and calling on the people to repent. If you are here on Pentecost, you hear Peter quote part of what you heard today, about the Spirit of God falling on all people—male and female, young and old, Jew and Gentile. It is an option for Thanksgiving Day when we’re in Year B. And then there’s Proper 25 in Year C, which is usually bumped in favor of the standard Reformation Sunday readings. If I hadn’t decided—almost on a whim—to see if I could come at Reformation Sunday from a new direction, you wouldn’t be hearing it today, either.
Joel was not a prophet in the same way as Isaiah or Jeremiah or Ezekiel, someone called to dedicate his or her entire life to speaking the word of God. To be honest, he was kind of a nobody. Joel stepped forward to speak of God’s activity on one occasion in the life of his people and then disappeared again. Perhaps it’s less surprising that Joel appears to so little in the lectionary, and instead surprising how outsized a role it plays in the journey from repentance on Ash Wednesday to the outpouring of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost.
Joel may not have been anyone special, but that didn’t keep him from reflecting on the events of his life through a theological lens. I don’t think you have to accept his interpretation of the plague of locusts as a direct intervention from God to be moved by what he writes in response to this disaster. Yes, the earlier section, that one we hear on Ash Wednesday, is a desperate call for repentance by everyone in the land—from the priests in the Temple to the bride and groom newly married to the nursing infant. No one is outside the call to prayer in that desperate moment.
Our reading today picks up once the locusts have gone. They’ve done their damage. The people are left looking out at a barren land, fields that will not provide a harvest despite all their hard work and fervent prayer. And again the prophet speaks, but this time it’s a word of reassurance. A promise of new fields, new crops. New prophets even—and what strange prophets they will be! Sons—and daughters! The old and the young! Free persons and slaves, male and female! Female slaves will be speaking God’s word!
Can you imagine?!
It’s not just a promise, it’s a challenge. No one will be outside the power of God’s Spirit. No one will be able to say, “Oh, I’m just a…girl, slave, child…” as an excuse for not being involved in God’s activity in this world.
More importantly, no one will be able to say, “Oh, you’re just a…” girl, slave, child. Tax collector. Gentile.
That’s where Jesus goes in that parable he tells today.
One of the key tenets of the Reformation was the idea that we do not earn God’s favor or love or salvation. It is a gift from God, freely given. Martin Luther came to this understanding after he spent countless hours trying to be “good enough” to be counted as righteous. He also saw how the religious institution of the day had been corrupted by wealth and political power and was using that desperate desire to be good enough to swindle people. They played upon people’s guilt and fear, rather than sharing the Good News that through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, they had been set free from the power of sin. They considered themselves somehow more worthy, more redeemed, because they could afford to buy their way into heaven.
They were like a new swarm of locusts, bent on self-satisfaction and destruction. The Reformers stepped out in faith—and risk—and spoke the hard truth. They had lost sight of the truth of the Gospel. The Reformers called those in power to repentance and reminded the people that God’s Spirit was promised to everyone.
A lot of good came from the Reformation, not just for the church but for society.
But there are some problems, as well.
Because Jesus wasn’t just criticizing the tendency to put one’s faith in one’s own abilities rather than trust God.
He was also pointing out that that kind of self-righteousness tends to lead to contempt of others. It’s bad enough to stand up and say, “See how great I am!” But what’s even worse is to then turn to the person next to you and say, “I am so much better than you.”
That is the dark side of the Reformation, as my friend Erik Karas might put it. The Church of the Middle Ages may have responded to the challenge to its power by killing Protestants—but we have to be honest. The Protestants killed quite a few Catholics, too. Contempt flowed in both directions. For many hundreds of years. It’s still around today.
Ask someone in our community what they think of when they hear the word “Christian” and I am not confident you’ll like the answer they give you. “Judgmental,” “hypocritical,” “closed-minded,” “hateful.” We are met with contempt because for too long we treated others as inferior to us. And not just Christian vs. non-Christian. A few weeks ago at Bible study, someone called us out for speaking contemptuously of Missouri Synod Lutherans and Roman Catholics. And don’t get Episcopalians started on Baptists and Unitarians.
Now I want to be clear—I know that some of you are here because you have been hurt by another branch of Christianity. I also know that there are people who aren’t here because they were hurt by us. None of us can claim to be completely without sin. None of us gets the Good News of the Gospel 100% perfect all the time. We all need to be asking ourselves on a regular basis, “Who are we leaving out? Who do we treat as less worthy? Who do we secretly believe is beyond the mercy of God?”
“Who do we really hope goes to church…somewhere else?”
The Reformation is still happening, my dear ones, because we still aren’t perfect.
But, thanks be to God, there are still people who are stepping forward in their own gentle ways and offering a word of hope. God’s Spirit is still falling upon us like rain that brings the harvest.
Later today, I will be conducting the funeral of one of those gentle souls, and I just can’t leave the pulpit with holding her up as an example of how to move through this life driven by love rather than pride. As I will say in my homily later, Beulah’s name will never be in the history books. She didn’t cure cancer, or bring peace to the Middle East, or eradicate poverty. But I do believe that by just loving the people around her in her own humble way, she did more good for the world than we can ever know or imagine. The Tuesday before she died, she met with me at church to make a change to one of the hymns she had chosen.
“I want you to sing Let there be peace on earth, and let it begin with me,” she said. “That’s what we need right now.” In defiance of a world filled with a plague of locust-like contempt, she wanted you to remember to love each other. She wanted her last word to you all to be a call to peace.
She has gone down to her home justified, with the crown of righteousness on her head, having fought the good fight and finishing the race, and I suspect praising God with her very last breath.
Let there be peace on earth. And let it begin with me.