First Congregational Church of Anchorage : 18 March 2018
There is so much going on in this long section of Joel. It is the moment when Joel looks to the future knowing that it will get better. But he has still not forgotten what happened yet. They are still feeling it, and have it burned in their memory.
There is one issue of style that I would like us to notice. We begin in the middle of poetry, It is talking about animals and fields as if they could speak. Oil from the olive and fruit from the tree will abound. Food will be produced and made in wonderful abundance. After that, the Spirit of God will flow forth like the returning life of the land.
Then the writing switches from poetry into a narrative story. No longer are the images evocative of feeling connected to the physical stuff of the land and the land itself. Now the mood switches to a bad memory. All of these wonderful things are coming, but Joel can’t shake what happened. His people were severely mistreated, and he cannot forget it.
Other people had bought and sold their children, and didn’t even have anything left to show for it. They used the money from selling boys to buy other people, and girls to drink in more numbness. They abused the people just because they could as if they meant nothing at all. Joel, even as he sees a new future, just can’t get what happened completely out of his mind.
But I can’t ignore what Joel proposes. He proclaims that God will return the abuse to all the people who had mistreated the people in Judea that Joel is speaking of. Elie Wiesel was a Holocaust survivor. Philanthropist, political activist and Nobel Peace Prize recipient. He said of a moment like Joel’s:
“Our first act as free men was to throw ourselves onto the provisions. that’s all we thought about. No thought of revenge, or of parents. Only of bread.”
But of course, Wiesel never forgot what happened, and his work in large part revolved around making right what had happened, including prosecuting those who had done such acts of violence. His first thoughts may have been to the food, but he never forgot what happened.
Both of his parents were killed in concentration camps, his father not long before their camp was liberated.
This is what is troubling about Joel for me. It is difficult to read of prophetic destruction by God and accept it as just the way it is. That is not how most of us view God, as a vindictive tyrant bent on revenge. So what do we do with these passages that seem so vengeful?
For now, we do not have to rectify the uneasy nature of Joel. That is not our job or a measure of faith to make it palatable. As much as I might understand why Joel would respond the way, it doesn’t make it easier to digest. I understand that in large part he wants people, especially the people responsible, to feel the pain he has felt. I get it. I get that people look out for their own.
Joel is not concerned about you or me. He is not indifferent to the audience. There is no question as to who he is speaking to and on behalf of. He cares for a particular people, not necessarily for everyone. The people of Judah, which was the southern kingdom of the Israelites, probably sometime after returning from exile. This is a small space, half the size of New Jersey, thousands of years ago. This is who Joel is speaking about. Not us, not even necessarily the people who live there now.
I get that sentiment. I care about people of all kinds, but there are particular people in my life that if it came down to it I would choose first. The question is when that sort of tribalism becomes a zero-sum reality, and when my people only succeed if other people lose.
There are different ways to understand Joel. Do not be bound by what it might seem at first. If, according to Joel, God’s first concern is that the land and the animals of the field should not fear for what people have done to each other, then perhaps even how we think about belonging might reflect that centrality of place and the land.
Joel has described the destruction of the land, and the separation of the land and the harvest as the signal that something has gone terribly wrong. On the reverse, it is the reconnection and relationship with the place itself that signals the renewed life of the people.
We might think of community and communal caring as a set of relationships between people, which in Joel’s situation would explain why he cares primarily for this one particular group of people. But what if the belonging was more about the common places we inhabit?
What if it was about the land and the process of feeding ourselves and thriving with it? Might we, Instead of imagining ourselves as a collection of people interacting purely as individuals and groups, looked at ourselves first in the context of the place we are in. “To be is to be in place.”
Even for Joel, to be and belong is to be and belong in a particular place. It is to even define who we are by the space we share together. Not as factions in competition, but as humans bound to the humus with all the limits and possibilities that come with a place. The theologian Norman Wirzba talks about this way of being in a particular place. He connects it to the experiences of refugees and displaced immigrants.
He says: “To talk meaningfully about something we must be able to situate it within a place context.” Everything that happens in place, even if we do not understand the place at all. We may feel disconnected, but that is never actually true.
He goes on: “Refugee existence and the life of exile are such heinous conditions because they sever the life-giving, livelihood-providing connection between people and their lands. They block people’s attempts to give themselves to a place, and in this giving discover and create a meaningful identity and world.”
This separated reality is why refugee crises are so horrible. No one would willingly give up their place of belonging for a life of disconnect if they had other choices. After Ellie Wiesel was liberated, he was relocated. He did not go back to Romania, but found a new place in France, because that is where the rehabilitation center was for children of the Holocaust.
To know who we are is to know where we are. For many of us, or really, most of us, Alaska is that sort of displacement. We have and are continuing to define how we relate to a different place. For some, it is a more recent experience, but if you are not from Alaska, it is easy to imagine that you might have two places, two contexts that are part of how you relate to other people and our world.
That is in part why boom and bust cycles cause such disruption. People who come in not planning on staying will never order their lives around the place they belong. That form of communal disconnection, especially in a remote space has had profound impacts on this place we call home.
With all the difficult reading in Joel where he is promoting a form of tribalism that devalues those outside that particular group, when read through the lens of a people disconnected from their place of belonging, the frustration and rage begins to make a little more sense. So he says, Land, do not fear, rejoice and be glad. Animals, do not fear. People of Israel, rejoice and be glad. Find your place again.
Current events and recent history alike are full of people displaced. We are here because of it. Where I am from originally, I can name the first person who received it for free from the government after people were displaced. But yet that place is also my place. It defines in many ways how I relate to people.
As we find our own place in Alaska, in Anchorage, it comes with its own stories, most of which we will never know. But we are part of it, and it is now part of us. Hold it personally, and share it communally. Not as a place that simply gives its own resources and wealth, but a home that gives us a place, a context to be in relationship.
And if we ever needed motivation for seeing the living among a place as the source of our relationship to everything, then we can be mindful of texts like Joel, and peer into the despair and rage of losing our place. Maybe that could even teach us how to relate to others who have experienced that pain and anger themselves, who are still feeling it.
Next week we finish reading Joel. It is paired with Mark’s account of Jesus’ arrival in Jerusalem. The final installment will give us a chance to speak back to Joel, and maybe consider how we read our sacred text seriously, which means asking questions and even arguing with what we find.
Jesus was a disruption. If we are still following, Jesus remains a disruption, calling us not to settle, but to demand to be in relationship with what we read, with each other, and even within a place that might not always feel like a safe place to call home. What is planted in the ground will arise in relationship with that place.
As we look forward to the resurrection story, and our own lives rising with Christ, we do so in relationship with this place.
We know God in relationship with this place and with this people. Do not hold that lightly, because in the weeks to come, as with every year, we will be asked to stand firm in the darkness of doubt and pain. May the place we stand be a refuge that holds us together. Amen