Mark 8:31-38; Joel 1:5-18
First Congregational Church of Anchorage : 25 February 2018
Katzebue is the most toxic town in the United States. I read that headline and it stunned me. It seemed that it must be an exaggeration when I saw the National Geographic article, but there appears to be quite a bit of evidence to back it up.
I have not been to Katzebue . I know many of you have and do travel there. It just seemed to me that it would be difficult to have such a concentration of toxicity in such a sparsely populated state. Or rather it seems to me that in such a place as Alaska, there would be less willingness to allow such a thing to happen.
However, when I read that the population of Katzebue was 70% Native Alaskan, I realized in part why the concern for the toxic pollution was under-managed.
There is this landfill in north Saint Louis county that is on fire. The Bridgeton landfill was on fire when we moved there, and never stopped smoldering while we lived there. Unfortunately this landfill is one of the places that received waste from a factory working on the Manhattan project during WWII. That is why few people knew that the nuclear waste was there.
Not surprisingly, communities in Northern Saint Louis are historically segregated black communities, and that has not changed very much. But in my time in Saint Louis, I came to expect that sort of reality to be true. Whoever has more power, more influence, can dictate where our toxic mess goes. No one wants a power plant in their back yard, but most of us, including me, expect electricity.
These toxic environmental impacts are the effect of us not wanting to pay attention, to push it under the rug where we can’t see it. The thing is, we really don’t mean to cause harm. None of us want people to suffer, and the thought that we may be in part responsible for the conditions that led to someone being harmed is a painful thing to think about, and besides, what could we have done anyway?
And so people drink in the numbness. But someone lives on that rug, and the less societal power someone or a group has, the more likely they are to be living on a toxic rug.
I remember, when I visited Israel and the West Bank, I noticing the mounds of trash in the West Bank. One of the guides said it was because the Palestinians didn’t care. Later, I asked someone else who lived there what was going on, and they told me it was because the fees and taxes allotted for trash services were controlled by the Israeli government, and they didn’t pay enough in the West Bank for even minimal trash services, and there was no place to dispose of it.
No one wants to hear that the good times are coming to an end. No one wants to hear that tomorrow will be worse than today. I don’t know why you would ever want to hear that. But that has little to do with where tomorrow is headed, or if we are paying attention.
Hard truths sneak up on us all the time. “We should have seen the doctor sooner.” “I never thought they would actually leave me.” Horrible moments are often easier to ignore than to face head on and struggle through, especially if ignoring promises to protect the comfort we currently have for at least another day.
But refusing to wake up in the midst of communal disaster is to miss the moments of grace found in wrestling out the truth, and maybe even wrestling out the very presence of God. Refusing to wake up is to miss the body of Christ itself rising in our midst. Refusing to wake up from the self-induced numbness of our current day is to miss Jesus himself, who was formed in such a world, and who’s own execution was a result of it.
We began reading the prophet Joel last week, and we will stick with it through Lent. It is not a familiar book for most of us. There are few quotes that have found a way into our cultural language. It is also not a comforting part of the Bible, especially for a culture that avoids discomfort at all costs. So if nothing else, your penance this year during Lent will be to deal with Joel.
This unfamiliar aspect is in part the reason I chose to preach a series through Joel. Most of us know very little about it, and in fact, scholars don’t know that much either. The language is not specific to a particular event. There are few historical markers.
What this unfamiliarity does provide is a fresh look at a few preconceived ideas. The imagery is heavy and dense. It is evocative and often uncomfortable. But through all the imagery Joel begins to unfold as a sort of awakening from numbness.
Even the images of God reveal an awakening. There was this time when reality was being ignored, then people had to deal with the mess, and then they, as well as God, began to sober to way of life fully awake. Now a new reality is faced with eyes wide open.
Of course, what I just explained is a hard sell if you read Joel. He is a downer. On the surface Joel is like that person at a party who won’t stop talking about how the Federal Reserve is managed by shape-shifting lizard people.
Everyone generally moans when this friend begins talking. That is, unless this time he is informing you of a fire that is currently engulfing the house.
Joel begins with an image of excessive drinking. But it is not that drinking itself was the problem, or that people should not drink wine. It was the way people were consuming, and how their excessive consumption was clouding their ability to see what was right in front of them.
The Hebrew word Joel uses in verse 5 is asis. It is usually translated as sweet or new wine. A fuller definition would be wine of the same year, or juice freshly processed. The word usage is usually connected to drunkenness. But it also implies something else.
Wine production is a long process. Vineyards have to be maintained and managed, processing has to happen at the right time of year. Fermenting and aging takes space and time. All of this happens in series, in what we might call a supply chain that supplies wine for the upcoming year and the next.
But what happens when people drink more wine than the producers of wine can make? Eventually the aged, or old wine, runs out. At that point, if people are paying attention, less wine has to be consumed while the supply chain catches up. Basic agricultural economics.
But that is not what happened in Israel during Joel’s account. Instead, people kept drinking wine, consuming all the wine from last season, then drinking the wine from this season, even to the point when it was all gone, and it was snatched from their lips.
The willing numbness was cut off. The thing is, people knew all the old wine was gone. They knew something was wrong, but they instead pretended nothing was wrong. This is what I mean by numbness in this case. It is an active unwillingness to accept stimuli; an unwillingness to see what is going on right in front of you.
Farmers had lost their vineyards. Producers could not produce wine, but those who were consuming the wine as their world came crashing down chose numbness over seeing. As their friends and neighbors were warning of impending doom, those who were consuming only drank faster and faster, until the community crossed over the tipping point and it all came to a crashing halt.
All the markers that should have alarmed people were being ignored by a willing numbness to reality. All of the calamity that follows is a reflection of this unwillingness to wake up.
Joel is a downer. However, even though this is a warning tale, it is also a positive story. This kind of prophetic warning holds the possibility of doing something different. Numbness is a choice we make. It is not inevitable. In fact, it takes more effort to ignore than to see.
This not wanting to see is also in the interaction between Peter and Jesus. Jesus sees that his time is running short. It might be possible to ignore the deadly reality of life for those who imagined a different world, as Peter was attempting to do, but the constant and unrestrained consumption within the Roman empire was a powerful and numbing reality.
Peter could see the numbness around him. His own existence as a fisherman would have made him aware of the way Roman expansion had placed crushing demands on his conquered people. He could see that it was causing such great suffering. That is why he was following Jesus in the first place. He saw God’s promise taking hold. But he struggled to admit to himself, or Jesus, that in order to confront the sort of consuming numbness of the day, the way of Jesus could not seek avoidance.
As the biblical scholar Walter Brueggemann points out about this passion announcement in Mark: “There is no more radical criticism than these statements, for they announce that the power of God takes the form of death and real well-being and victory only appear via death. So the sayings dismantle the dominant theories of power by asserting that such would-be power is in fact no-power.”
Instead, Jesus would take his alternate way directly to the center of conspicuous consumption, directly to where Roman control rested, and refuse to be numb in the holy city of Jerusalem. Peter didn’t want to see, but Jesus knew that there was no other way. The reign of God that Jesus was bringing to bare would reveal the consuming numbness of his society, as well as ours, both which refuse to see suffering and struggle as evidence of the Spirit of God struggling in our midst, not the absence of God.
The question for us is whether we will choose to remain numb when everything we see is compelling us to wake up. Numbness is a kind of wall that we construct in hopes that it protects us from something. But instead, it is an isolating cage that only magnifies our refusal to see Christ resurrecting all around us.
When we see situations like that in Katzebue, or Saint Louis, or in Florida, how we respond, or even if we respond, reveals how much the numbness has set it. When difficult times come, our urge to ignore or minimize is an act of numbness to the humanity of our neighbors.
It is not a measure of if we can fix it, but which reality we will see as more genuine and real. Do we see the maintaining of comfort at the cost of others as acceptable, or the Way of Jesus that demands us to believe that God is found in the midst of and even in spite of struggle.
The way of Christ is not passive. It takes not only a willingness to step forward in faith, but to struggle through our instincts towards numbness. When it seems that confronting the willing destruction of creation and the people and creatures that suffer most is a bigger risk to us than doing nothing, then we will know that we are consuming numbness. We will know that we are drinking in destruction.
Joel sees difficult days ahead, just as every generation does, and just as each one of us faces. The question will be whether we choose to awaken to more loving ways of treating people who we may never even know.
Jesus saw difficult days ahead as well, and asks if we are willing to walk through them with him. Only in the constant rejection of a numbness that seeks comfort but trades in isolating death will we see the realm of God coming near.
The Way of Jesus will not be the easy, as it has never been. The question is whether we will awaken and choose to follow wherever the Spirit of God might lead. It makes no guarantees of easier days, but promises that within the struggling with God and with ourselves, grace is found; true joy abounds; salvation comes near at hand, even walks among us.
There is a dying to ourselves that takes place, and in this we awaken. Awake to this new day, and just maybe we will see the resurrection as it surrounds us and calls us onward, seeing clearly, seeking bravely the Way of Jesus before us.