Weekly Seeds: Repay the Years

Sunday, October 23, 2022
Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost | Year C

Focus Theme:
Repay the Years

Focus Prayer:
Redeemer, you have counted our days and the costs of our lives. Validate the days of despair and wanting with the fullness of life. Amen.

Focus Reading:
Joel 2:23–32
23 O children of Zion, be glad
and rejoice in the LORD your God;
for he has given the early rain for your vindication,
he has poured down for you abundant rain,
the early and the later rain, as before.
24 The threshing floors shall be full of grain,
the vats shall overflow with wine and oil.
25 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.
26 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.
27 You shall know that I am in the midst of Israel,
and that I, the LORD, am your God and there is no other.
And my people shall never again
be put to shame.
28 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.
29 Even on the male and female slaves,
in those days, I will pour out my spirit.
30 I will show portents in the heavens and on the earth, blood and fire and columns of smoke. 31 The sun shall be turned to darkness, and the moon to blood, before the great and terrible day of the LORD comes. 32 Then everyone who calls on the name of the LORD shall be saved; for in Mount Zion and in Jerusalem there shall be those who escape, as the LORD has said, and among the survivors shall be those whom the LORD calls.

All readings for this Sunday:
Joel 2:23–32 and Psalm 65
Sirach 35:12–17 or Jeremiah 14:7–10, 19–22 and Psalm 84:1–7
2 Timothy 4:6–8, 16–18
Luke 18:9–14

Focus Questions:
1. What does it mean to be repaid?
2. Can time ever be repaid? If so, how? If not, why?
3. How do you restore what is lost?
4. What needs restoration and repair in your life or community?
5. How might God be calling you to participate in restoration and repair in someone else’s life or in your community?

By Cheryl Lindsay

Imagine living in an extended time of crisis. Actually, if you are able to read this, you don’t need to imagine, you can remember. The acute period of the pandemic came suddenly with little warning. Our lives, in virtually every detail, transformed within days. If you had leadership or responsibility for anything and anyone, you probably have a story about the conversations you had with others to seek wisdom and the internal deliberations that disrupted and distracted you from every other thought and your rest. We remember receiving notices of changes that were going to happen more quickly than thought possible before they were necessary.

Remember the fear of those days…and our responses to it. As I recall, universities and colleges seemed to act first. My memory may be influenced by having my beloved niece in college across the country at the time. She, along with countless others, were sent home for the semester. Those institutions expected the crisis to last. The physical doors to the church closed but we were hopeful (and anxious) from week to week in the beginning even if some of us suspected this might last for a few months. Only a few dared to speculate that the crisis might last for a couple of years. The idea of a global public health crisis lasting that long was too much to consider.

We were reminded that almost exactly a century before the world contended with a pandemic virus that is the root of what we now know as the flu. The world shut down then too. Some of us discovered old bulletins and correspondence that informed us how our predecessors responded to the crisis in their time. We may have come across those materials before, but this time we read them with new eyes, heard them with new ears, and received them with new understanding. I’m reading this passage of Joel differently now, on the other side of the crisis, then before. COVID-19 and the plague of locusts are not the same, but the experience holds similarities.

The prophet Joel ministered during an era of profound and communal crisis:

The word of God came to Joel in the heat of an emergency. What prompted Joel to preach and then record his words was an invasion of insects, a devastating plague of locusts. So widespread and so death-dealing was their assault that every aspect of human life was put in jeopardy, especially the daily offerings in the Jerusalem temple, which were ordered to maintain communion between God and the people.

David Allan Hubbard

Life is different during a crisis whether that experience affects us individually, familially, communally, or globally. The adjustments forced upon us can impact us in diverse ways internally or externally. Our capacity and willingness to change makes a difference in how we respond to those adaptations. Our desire to control our circumstances may make us more proactive or may make us deny the new reality confronting us. Our role in the community also impacts our response to the crisis.

My sister is a physician. Every so often, we’ll be at a public gathering and someone will experience a medical crisis. My sister does not have a choice; she has to respond If there are others on the scene to help, they can quickly determine who has the experience and expertise to take the lead, but those medical professionals don’t get to deny the reality. Their oath requires them to act.

In the early days of the pandemic, I joked (mostly seriously though) that we pastors were forced to become public health experts in addition to all the other roles of our calling. We were tracking infection, hospitalization, and death rates on a daily basis. We were developing plans for re-entry without any date certain. We considered masking, temperature taking, and physical distancing. We figured out new ways of pastoral care, we became tech experts and video producers of live and recorded worship. We crashed Zoom, and we cursed Zoom (if you remember the Sunday morning it went down…you know what I’m talking about). Some much happened in such a short period of time, it’s easy to forget, but we are called to remember.

The pandemic was for us what the locust invasion was for the children of Zion–devastating, life-altering, traumatic, and soul crushing. The locusts decimated the land and threatened the entire food chain by extension. The people weren’t prepared for it, like the famine experienced in the time of Joseph. They did not have stores of grain set aside to tide them over until new crops could be grown. What would they feed their livestock? How would they survive? The crisis was real and life-threatening.

But it passed. It does not last forever. The Holy One has responded to the cries of lament arising from God’s people:

It is significant that in the face of the devastating locust plague, Joel does not enumerate the sins of the people. He does not blame the people for the catastrophe nor, in Deuteronomic fashion, link the catastrophe to the people’s infidelity to the covenant. Joel is also not interested in the question of theodicy; he seeks neither to explain nor justify God in the presence of the destructive plague. Instead, Joel simply asks the people to turn to God in supplication. Openness to lamentation with God is the proper response to such catastrophes. In the shame of their suffering, the people had turned away from YHWH. Joel’s call to return is not to indict the people for their sins but to renew their faith in God through visible acts of devotion.

Ronald A. Simkins

The focus passage follows the time of lament and is on the other side of the crisis. Joel encourages the people to celebrate their survival and the rain that has come. The rejoicing moment does not ignore the recent trauma but deals with it forthrightly. The words spill over with the promise of abundance that the early rain shall bring. Further, Creator declares that the cost of the crisis will be repaid to those who now find themselves on the other side. The certain hope of reparation encompasses restoration, redemption, and repair. New crops will flourish due to the abundance of rain and their coffers will overflow. What was lost will be more than replenished. In some ways, it seems a reversal of the Joseph narrative when the vision led him to store grain for the years of drought. This time, the provisions come after the period of want. Yet, in both, the people are satisfied and receive the compassion of God.

Crisis, some more acute than others, often come in cycles. In this case, the Holy One claims responsibility for the locusts, “My great army, which I sent against you.” Certainly, the biblical narrative is rife with instances of God’s accountability, judgment and justice portrayed as natural and personal disasters. But the manner in which a swarm of locusts entirely consumes all available plant life in their wake seems reminiscent of a massive forest fire ignited by a spark of lightening, Natural sciences tells us that those fires, while deadly and devastating, have a purpose in the circle of life. While the fires consume the territory, leaving immeasurable costs in its wake, they also renew the land in a manner not possible through any other means. The forest fire is a natural occurrence and so is the swarm of locusts found in this text.

They clear the land and prepare it for the cleansing rain to come. They make room for new life and a fresh start. Recognizing that does not diminish the losses that resulted from their destructive force, but remembering does call us back, even in the midst of rebuilding after a crisis, to trust a God who can create some good even in the midst of tragedy, who abides with us in the valleys and quarantines, and who ultimately promises to repay the years.

Reflection from Voices of People of African Descent:
The 33rd General Synod adopted a Resolution to Recognize the United Nations International Decade for People of African Descent (2015-2024). As part of its implementation, Sermon and Weekly Seeds offers Reflection from Voices of People of African Descent related to the season or overall theme for additional consideration in sermon preparation and for individual and congregational study.
“A heavy account lies against us as a civil society for oppressions committed against people who did not injure us,” wrote the Quaker John Woolman in 1769, “and that if the particular case of many individuals were fairly stated, it would appear that there was considerable due to them.”

As the historian Roy E. Finkenbine has documented, at the dawn of this country, black reparations were actively considered and often effected. Quakers in New York, New England, and Baltimore went so far as to make “membership contingent upon compensating one’s former slaves.” In 1782, the Quaker Robert Pleasants emancipated his 78 slaves, granted them 350 acres, and later built a school on their property and provided for their education. “The doing of this justice to the injured Africans,” wrote Pleasants, “would be an acceptable offering to him who ‘Rules in the kingdom of men.’ ”

Edward Coles, a protégé of Thomas Jefferson who became a slaveholder through inheritance, took many of his slaves north and granted them a plot of land in Illinois. John Randolph, a cousin of Jefferson’s, willed that all his slaves be emancipated upon his death, and that all those older than 40 be given 10 acres of land. “I give and bequeath to all my slaves their freedom,” Randolph wrote, “heartily regretting that I have been the owner of one.”

In his book Forever Free, Eric Foner recounts the story of a disgruntled planter reprimanding a freedman loafing on the job:

Planter: “You lazy nigger, I am losing a whole day’s labor by you.”

Freedman: “Massa, how many days’ labor have I lost by you?”

In the 20th century, the cause of reparations was taken up by a diverse cast that included the Confederate veteran Walter R. Vaughan, who believed that reparations would be a stimulus for the South; the black activist Callie House; black-nationalist leaders like “Queen Mother” Audley Moore; and the civil-rights activist James Forman. The movement coalesced in 1987 under an umbrella organization called the National Coalition of Blacks for Reparations in America (n’cobra). The NAACP endorsed reparations in 1993. Charles J. Ogletree Jr., a professor at Harvard Law School, has pursued reparations claims in court.

But while the people advocating reparations have changed over time, the response from the country has remained virtually the same. “They have been taught to labor,” the Chicago Tribune editorialized in 1891. “They have been taught Christian civilization, and to speak the noble English language instead of some African gibberish. The account is square with the ex‑slaves.”

Not exactly. Having been enslaved for 250 years, black people were not left to their own devices. They were terrorized. In the Deep South, a second slavery ruled. In the North, legislatures, mayors, civic associations, banks, and citizens all colluded to pin black people into ghettos, where they were overcrowded, overcharged, and undereducated. Businesses discriminated against them, awarding them the worst jobs and the worst wages. Police brutalized them in the streets. And the notion that black lives, black bodies, and black wealth were rightful targets remained deeply rooted in the broader society. Now we have half-stepped away from our long centuries of despoilment, promising, “Never again.” But still we are haunted. It is as though we have run up a credit-card bill and, having pledged to charge no more, remain befuddled that the balance does not disappear. The effects of that balance, interest accruing daily, are all around us.

– Ta-Nehisi Coates, “The Case for Reparations”

For further reflection:
“Because with true friends, no one is keeping score. But it still feels good to repay them – even in the tiniest increments.” — Emery Lord
“If a person seems wicked, do not cast him away. Awaken him with your words, elevate him with your deeds, repay his injury with your kindness. Do not cast him away; cast away his wickedness.” — Lao Tzu
“‘I promise I will repay you.’
‘Oh yeah?’ she asked, looking at him, with his bare feet and plain, dark clothes. ‘With what?’
The smile stayed on his lips. ‘Jewels, lies, slips of paper, dried flowers, memories of things long past, useless quotations, idle hands, beads, buttons, and mischief.'” — Holly Black

A preaching commentary on this text (with works cited) is at https://www.ucc.org/what-we-believe/worship/sermon-seeds/.

The Rev. Dr. Cheryl A. Lindsay, Minister for Worship and Theology (lindsayc@ucc.org), also serves a local church pastor and worship scholar-practitioner with a particular interest in the proclamation of the word in gathered communities. You’re invited to share your reflections on this text in the comments below this post on our Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/SermonSeeds.

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