Remember a few weeks ago when we talked about Micah 6:8 at our café-style worship? “God has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does God require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” I’ve told you about the Plymouth family camp we’ve enjoyed many times at N-Sid-Sen on Lake Coeur d’Alene. One year the morning program was based on Micah 6:8. On the first day we were invited to choose one of these three great virtues, justice, kindness, or humility, to focus on during the week. Those of us who chose humility soon developed a running joke that we were in competition to see who could be the most humble, and we tried to outdo each other bragging about how humble we were. It seems that human beings can find a way to be vain about anything, even about humility.
Before the reading from Joel we just heard, Joel has called for a community response to a plague of locusts which had torn through the fertile land like an army, devouring everything in its path and leaving the land as parched and lifeless as the Dust Bowl of the 1930’s. “Blow the trumpet in Zion; sanctify a fast; call a solemn assembly." All the people are called to fast and weep and beg God to reconsider their plight. Joel calls them to repentance and humility.
And God responds generously and graciously – with abundant rain, threshing floors full of grain, vats overflowing with wine and oil – water, bread, wine, and oil – sacramental gifts which re-establish right relationship between God and the people of God. According to Joel, God also promises, “…my people shall never again be put to shame.” How does shame figure into the story? In the honor and shame based culture of ancient Mediterranean societies, enemies taunted and mocked the people they controlled, which included publically mocking their god.
In verse 17 of chapter 2, Joel describes the Israelites’ concern that their enemies mock them because their God was not powerful enough to turn aside the plague of locusts: “Spare your people, O Lord, and do not make your heritage a mockery, a byword among the nations. Why should it be said among the peoples, “Where is their God?” So saying God sent the locusts is one way to save face and respond to the charge that YHWH was not a great enough god to prevent the locusts. Throughout the Bible, images of God as wrathful and punishing are also images of power. The persecuted and oppressed people of God needed to believe their God could kick butt, even if that meant believing that sometimes God’s wrath was aimed at them. In the honor and shame based culture of ancient Mediterranean societies, God’s people would rather accept an image of God who punished them with a plague of locusts, a God who casts down, but ultimately lifts up; they preferred that to having their enemies believe that their God wasn’t powerful enough to prevent the locusts in the first place.
In the 21st century, most of us don’t live in fear of the wrath of God, the “great and terrible day of the Lord;” “portents of blood and fire and columns of smoke.” But during the 18th century revival movement known as the Great Awakening, ministers such as Johnathan Edwards literally tried to put the fear of God in people. His sermons were intended as a wake-up call for those who, in his estimation, downplayed the sovereignty of God and overemphasized their own worthiness as decent, hard-working, successful citizens. His famous sermon “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” left people in the pews trembling and weeping. Your trust in your own wisdom, prudence, care, and caution is but a self-delusion and will not save you, he warned them. Before God’s almighty power, you are but “heaps of light chaff before the whirlwind” and “dry stubble before devouring flames.” You are like worms that crawl on the earth and are easily crushed underfoot; you are hanging as by a slender thread that is easily singed or cut.
Since Biblical times this idea of the “wrath of God” has been used to demonstrate that our God is more powerful than your god, but also to threaten people and keep them in line, to claim divine right to oppress and ostracize the “other.” Sad to say, shaming in the name of God was and continues to be a means of manipulation and control. But what if the saving power of God is the power to convince you not of your unworthiness but of your innate worth, present within you as you came into being and undiminished today?
As we heard in our reading from Joel, God’s forgiveness and mercy ultimately prevail. Love wins. Abundance rains down from the heavens, and not just material abundance. After God fills the people with good things to eat and drink, Joel says, the Spirit will pour out upon them – male and female, old and young, free and enslaved, all will receive this gift of the spirit. Not just the priests and prophets, but all God’s people will prophesy, dream dreams and see visions.
Joel’s message of raising up the humble and powerless is amplified in today’s parable in which the self-righteous Pharisee is cast down and the humble tax collector is lifted up. The tax collector who prayed for God’s mercy went home justified, while the Pharisee who congratulated himself for his piety did not. The Pharisee seems like a poster child for living a clean, God-fearing life. He prays, he fasts, he tithes. But for all his piety, he cannot justify himself to God. He can’t accept that justification comes from God, not from good deeds or congratulatory self-righteousness. He doesn’t understand the prophetic words of Joel: “Then everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.”
The Pharisee in Jesus’ parable believes he can be saved by calling God’s attention to himself instead of calling on God’s love. If the tax collector in the parable reveals his humility by acknowledging his need for God, isn’t the Pharisee revealing his own insecurity, his feeling that he needs to prove that he really is good enough by impressing God with his virtuousness?
He’s hardly alone. Most of us spend a great deal of time and energy trying to justify ourselves, trying to rationalize our behavior, trying to convince ourselves that we really are good people. Because too many of us, deep down, believe that we’re not good people.
We may have lost our fear of being condemned to suffer eternal damnation and torment, which I believe is a good thing, but often we still struggle with our inner demons, a sense of inadequacy or shame. We might not believe in an external hell, but through self-judgment and self-doubt we cast ourselves into an inner hell, a prison of the mind and spirit.
Like Adam and Eve we run and hide and cover our naked, vulnerable souls – but what if God is about to do something wonderful and we miss it because we’re afraid to look? Instead of trying to prove ourselves to God in order to save ourselves, maybe we should try calling upon God to save us – save us from despair, from shame, from feeling that no matter how hard we try, we’ll never be good enough. Maybe what God is trying to save us from is the cycle of inadequacy and shame, the trap of comparing ourselves and finding ourselves wanting, the desperation to cover every self-perceived flaw by maintaining a façade that cuts us off from vulnerability, from intimacy, from grace.
In 2008, UCC Chaplain Craig Rennebahm published a book called “Souls in the Hands of a Tender God,” about his work with the homeless and mentally ill in downtown Seattle. The title is a deliberate play on the name of the classic Jonathan Edwards sermon. In the true stories of his experiences, Craig shares his understanding of a God of kindness and compassion guiding him to care for the lost and marginalized.
Even as God demonstrates love and care for the least of these, God promises that everyone who calls on the name of God will be saved from having to go it alone. We know from the gospels that Jesus cares about the poor, the suffering, and those who might be called sinners, like the tax collector. But scripture describes Jesus sharing table fellowship with Pharisees as well as tax collectors. When the Pharisee is willing to accept that he doesn’t have to go it alone, he doesn’t have to prove himself to God through his efforts to be holier-than-thou, as soon as accepts God’s offer to love him completely in all his humanity, he will understand that he is justified, and he can stop trying to justify himself. When he gives up his need to appear superior to others, he’s freed up to prophesy and dream and see visions of the culture of God, where all are included and embraced.
I can’t promise that being here today will justify you in the eyes of your fellow human beings and earn you a spot in heaven. But if you came to be lifted up, to find acceptance, love and fellowship, if you came to accept God’s steadfast love, God’s assurance that you are worthy, just the way you are; if you came to be saved from hopelessness or despair, from feeling like you have to go it alone, you might be in the right place. Amen.