For those of us who have been around the church for any amount of time, we have become quite accustomed to the season of Lent. We dutifully find a Lenten discipline: buying that book we are going to read, ridding the house of chocolate, or purchasing new athletic gear for the exercise we plan to take up. Or if we are feeling particularly uninspired, we may ask our friends and family what they are giving up for Lent this year, in the hopes that something will inspire us too. We do all these things because we feel obligated. We take up a discipline because that is what we are supposed to do, not because we particularly want to take up the discipline. Lenten disciplines have sort of become the second-chance for New Year’s Resolutions. Whatever failed then might have more luck if we do the discipline in the name of Jesus. Then we can feel doubly good because not only did we give up red meat for Jesus, but we also lost four pounds. In that way, Lent is great!
The challenge with that kind of engagement with Lent is that our practices become more about giving up something for the sake of giving up something instead of giving up something because that sacrifice will drive us into the arms of God. When we choose a Lenten discipline, we choose that discipline not out of habit, or out of peer pressure, or even in the hopes of the secondary benefits (like losing weight or finally getting through our pile of books). To get to the true heart of Lent, we choose our Lenten disciplines out of a sense of urgency – out of a sense that something needs to change and something needs to change now.
That is what the prophet Joel was trying to say to the people of Israel in our Old Testament lesson today. You see, “Tradition held that on the Day of the Lord, God would come to vindicate Israel, to judge the nations that had opposed and oppressed her, and to reverse the status quo in favor of the people of Jerusalem”[i] The Israelites had come to believe that the Day of the Lord would be a day of celebration and vindication. Any sacrifices they made or disciplines they assumed were because they were anticipating a reward. But Joel tells them that their very identity as the chosen people of God is what brings them up short. Instead of favor, they will receive a harsher judgment than anyone.
As a parent, I tend to read a lot of parenting blogs and articles. One of the on-going conversations is about whether children should receive compensation for their chores. People make arguments that children should never be given money for chores, because paying children for chores teaches them that they should only participate in the life of the family if they will receive something in return. Instead, many critics argue that chores should be presented as work that is simply expected of all capable members of the family. In doing chores out of membership instead of reward, the critics argue that children learn a sense of pride and belonging. Their argument is similar to Joel’s: favor and belonging in God’s eyes comes with expectations, not prizes.
But Joel’s critique of Israel goes even deeper. Joel reminds the people of God that not only do they need to repent, they also need to repent with their whole heart. Joel says they are to rend their hearts, not their garments. The rending of garments was a ritual practice of repentance. But Joel insists that God does not simply want ritual repentance. God wants the kind of repentance that is felt deep in one’s heart. They are to “approach God in sincerity, rather than by ritual; to beseech God’s mercy through genuine mourning for sin, rather than by cultic rite. Joel calls for true repentance, the complete turning away from destructive patterns, selfish, inclinations, and self-righteous expectations. God wants the whole person, not some outward sign…”[ii] To rend one’s heart was not simply an emotional response. As one scholar suggests, “Since the heart was considered the seat of thinking and willing, [a commitment of the heart] implied total dedication.”[iii]
That is the kind of discipline we are invited to take up this Lent. Disciplines that reflect on the ways that we have separated ourselves from God, the ways that we have become so wrapped up in ourselves that we have pushed God away, and the ways that we have simply neglected our relationship with God – those are the disciplines that will create meaning and substance. When we think about rending our hearts, our disciplines will make space in our lives for us to stop in our tracks, to turn around on our current paths, and to journey back to God’s open arms.
The good news is that we do not do this work alone. In fact, Joel insists that God not only wants the whole person, God wants “the whole people, the whole city of Jerusalem, indeed, the entire nation. This is not a call to the pious, or to the willing, or to those who are expected to make offering to the Lord, but to all.”[iv] When Joel says to gather the aged, the children, the infants, and the newlyweds, he means that even those who normally would not need to repent need to come into the fold. God is interested not simply in a personal relationship with the people, but with a communal one.
This year, I invited the parish to join me in the solemn practice of playing Lent Madness. Most of you have wondered why I invited us to play together, especially in something that seemed so silly. Some of you complained that the process seemed too confusing, or just were not sure why we needed to do something as weird as a sports and saints hybrid. Part of my motivation in getting us to do a discipline together is that I know how hard isolating Lenten disciplines can be. When we set a goal of praying or reading scripture for an hour a day during Lent, no one should be surprised when we fail ten days into the practice. Perhaps we fail because we are doing the practice out of a sense of obligation to be holy. Perhaps we fail because we have not really done the hard work of rending our hearts – searching for the ways that we are deeply separated from God and need to return to God. Or perhaps we fail because we were too prideful to repent in the context of community.
Now I am not insisting that you play Lent Madness. I am simply suggesting that sometimes our piety is so about ourselves that we forget the community of saints sitting right beside us who long to rend their hearts too, but cannot seem to do the work alone. Together we can do the hard work of rending our hearts. We can do the hard work of repenting, of truly turning back to the God who longs to be in communion with us. We can do the hard work of being a vulnerable, loving, supporting community. Our encouragement in all this work comes from Joel too. Joel affirms for us that for God is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and relents from punishing. Joel even conjectures, “Who knows whether God will not turn and relent, and leave a blessing behind.” The expectations are high. The work is hard. The community works together. Because our God is gracious and merciful. And who knows whether God will not turn and relent, and leave a blessing behind? Amen.
[i] David Lose, “Homiletical Perspective,” Feasting on the Word, Yr. B, vol. 2 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2008), 3.
[ii] Lose, 5.
[iii] Dianne Bergant, “Exegetical Perspective,” Feasting on the Word, Yr. B, vol. 2 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2008), 5.
[iv] Lose, 5.