Mamma Mia: Climate Apocalypse

Origins of ABBA

In April of 1970, remember that date, two Swedish couples went on vacation together in Cyprus. According to Wikipedia, what started as singing for fun on the beach ended up as an improvised live performance in front of the United Nations soldiers stationed on the island. From there, the group started playing small shows together with mostly negative reviews. Three years later, the group officially named itself, ABBA, each letter in the name, A.B.B.A, pertaining to the first letter of each of their names. Soon, they had hit songs peaking the charts. S.O.S. Dancing Queen, Gimmie Gimmie Gimmie, Money, Money, Money – a lot of songs with the same three words,  take a Chance,  and the one in the title of this Sermon: Mamma Mia

Origins of Earth Day

April of 1970 was not only the origins of the ABBA, but it also so happens to be the same month that first Earth Day was celebrated! This was five years after the 1965 landmark report “Restoring the Quality of Our Environment” U.S. President Lyndon B. Johnson’s Science Advisory Committee, which warned of the harmful effects of fossil fuel emissions,

So there we go April 1970 – Mamma Mia: Climate Apocalypse. 

While it would be tempting to leave you there, I’ll choose to instead preach a sermon on our passage today in Joel, with the help of ABBA and the environmental movement. 

The Book of the 12

Joel is an interesting little book tucked into what we in our Christian tradition call the “Minor Prophets.”  Hosea, Joel, Amos, Obadiah, Jonah, Micah, Nahum, Habakkuk, Zephaniah, Hag-i, Zechariah, and Malachi. All our favorite books of the bible, that we are most likely to mispronounce.  I feel like many of us, including myself only know the story of Jonah and perhaps some of us who are passionate about justice issues appreciate a little Micah 6:8 – 

In the Jewish tradition, these minor prophet books are thought of in a slightly different manner. In fact, they are brought together into one book – “the book of the 12.” In the Hebrew bible, you would have a scroll for the larger prophetic texts – a scroll for Isaiah, a scroll for Ezekiel, a scroll for Jeremiah. And you would have all these minor prophets, who’s name came from Augustine, on one scroll, and which was instead called the book of the 12. 

As a result, there are some good reasons to think about the individual book, Joel, more like a part of one book – the book of the 12. And One of the best ways I have heard this described, is a bit like the 2008 film, Mamma Mia. If you have seen the film, great, if not, not to worry, hopefully this analogy can still be helpful. Mamma Mia is a movie that takes a bunch of individual ABBA songs, and tries to make one movie out of it. As you go through the movie, a different ABBA song will pop up, continuing the events of the movie. It’s not like a musical, where the songs are written to be part of a larger story. But the opposite. Here are a bunch of random songs, and a story is designed from these many songs.

In the movie, they use the best love and break-up songs from ABBA, which were written over a 10 year period, to make a story about a woman who is trying to figure out which of her mother’s lovers is her dad. 

Hosea, Joel, Amos, Obadiah, Jonah, Micah, Nahum, Habakkuk, Zephaniah, Haggai, Zechariah, and Malachi are all different prophetic texts written at slightly different times in Judah and Israel’s history.  They were all placed on the same scroll, and as a result of that, slowly, over hundreds of years edited together. And after hundreds of years of this, it became difficult to separate the books. They reference each other and their stories get a little warped as well.

Similarly, in the movie Mamma Mia, the songs get edited together in the form of a movie to tell a story too. 

In early visions of these texts, Hosea went right into Amos – there was no Joel. At the end of Hosea, there is an open call for repentance, with the hope that Israel will return to God. Then you would open up Amos, who consistently called for the destruction of Israel, which may have been a little jarring. So, writers added Joel, right in between. 

As a result, the final version of Joel is quite aware of what happens to Hosea and Amos. As a result, it’s really hard to read Joel without the other books. Joel quotes Amos 1:2 and 9:13, even though Amos comes after Joel, not before.

In Mamma Mia, they change some of the song lyrics to in include some of the names of the story, so make the story make more sense. This type of thing is happening in Joel and throughout the book of the 12 as these stories were copied and moved to new scrolls. 

And as a result of the book of the 12, I am unable to read Joel, without some of the other texts.

Cycle of destruction and restoration

I say all of that to bring to light a trend throughout the book of the 12. Over and Over again, there are calls for God to Restore Israel, like in Hosea, and then calls for destruction, like in Amos. A continuous cycle of destruction and restoration. This same thing happens inside just the Book of Joel, who in chapter 3 calls for first:

A: The restoration of Judah and Jerusalem, 

B: Punishment and Slavery

B: More Punishment and Slavery, and back to A

A: which is once again the restoration of Judah and Jerusalem. 

It’s a bit of a whirlwind – over and over again how these books call for Israel and Judahs restoration and destruction. It makes me wonder if those experiencing these cycles of destruction and restoration thought something like – Mamma Mia – here we go again.

Cycle of environmental degradation and new growth

The cycle in this passage today, and throughout the book of the 12, is also an ecological one. Locusts come and destroy crops, Then God restores the land. It’s almost like the seasons. We have the cycle of spring bringing new life, that grows all summer, but in the fall dies off and stays dormant again till the spring. Growth and destruction

Even the earth has these cycles of natural climate change, that bring us in and out of ice ages here in North America. 

And now we find ourselves in climate change made from our own devices. And it will be terrifying to see what will happen. Or how it will happen. Though I sense farmers are acutely aware of the effects of changing climates already, as well as people who live on coasts, people who live in areas that are affected by hurricanes.

From Joel, 

    that the swarming locust has eaten,

the hopper, the destroyer, and the cutter,

    my great army that I sent against you.

My guess is that Hurricane Ian feels like a great army attacked Florida. 

Or  recent flooding feels like a great army attacked Pakistan.

These cycles of destruction in society happen over and over – 

Gun violence

Covid outbreaks

Another black man killed by cops

Another transgendered person killed

Momma Mia – again and again

I think it is clear through these prophetic texts that the writers have a disturbing understanding of God who is the giver of  destruction, and restoration. 

This image of God continues to be a popular one today. 

Like ridiculous claims of Hurricane Katrina as God’s punishment on the LGBTQ community. 

Is this how God works?

I wish I could say knew for certain how God works – I have some fun ideas

But unfortunately, your new pastor does not know these things for certain and relies deeply on tradition, experiences, and hopefully a little reason.

Why good things happen to bad people

Why bad things happen to good people

But I remain unconvinced that any of us know why these cycles happen. And that is distressing. It would be easier to blame God like the authors of Joel.

These question as to why bad things happen create another kind of  cycle that is underlying these prophetic calls for God’s destruction and restoration- a psychological/spiritual component. 

Like the prophets, we too are trying to figure out why things happen. And when we do not have answers it is distressing. I am sure many of you here are familiar with having something happen to you that has no explanation. In the hospital this is a common experience. Someone has a heart condition, a mental health condition, a chronic condition, and there is not always clear answer why. 

These questions are all consuming to those who experience chronic health issues. It is really painful to not know why. 

Why are the fields destroyed? Why do the hurricanes destroy communities? Why was the harvest this year a good yield? And why was the previous year terrible. Why am I sick again? Why did my loved one die?

These questions function as another cycle, again and again humans have been asking for millennia, what these writers of the text are asking deeply -why do bad and good things happen. And I believe they kept asking, and we keep asking, because it is painful to not know why. 

In the history of Israel and Judah, Empires kept coming and placing them into captivity – Assyria, Babylon,  Persia, Greece. Rome. Mamma Mia.  Over and Over, empires keep coming, destroying. Why God – why?

An easy solution is to point to a puppet master God moving all the pieces. Like in Joel, God sends destruction, and then sends restoration. And perhaps God is a puppet-master version of God – how am I to know for certain?

Perhaps this obsession with answers, by the writers of the book of the 12, actually points to the struggle that humans have in coming up with answers. We as readers get to witness the struggle that the writers must of had with the cycles of destruction and restoration.

I wonder, if perhaps we can join in this struggle – but instead of jumping to easy answers, we are invited to continue with the editing process that has taken place in the Jewish tradition for centuries – the process that brought these 12 books into one. Like ABBA songs into one movie. An invitation to join in the uncertainty as to why bad things happen and the struggle of making sense of the destruction and restoration that these writers clearly were dealing with.

I find myself in that very struggle to understand the divine, and I find myself in this sermon trying to enter this same struggle to understand why, as the writers of the book of the 12 did. 

Uncertainty like this can cause a lot of emotional distress and we as humans have different options as to how to handle it. I remember meeting with a patient in the hospital, who was headed towards death, and was not willing to talk about anything that wasn’t positive. God will heal me, God is in control, if I just have enough faith. And how am I to know if that isnt the case. However, oftentimes, when people say they are experiencing no fear or negative thoughts around something tragic, it generally means that they are deeply experiencing them but do not want to go there. Which is fair enough – it is scary to go there.

I believe there is another way God can work in these spaces beyond controlling destruction and restoration. Another option, could be to recognize the grief and fear that can be involved in death or other experiences of distress, and share that with others. To connect with other. And maybe, just maybe, God will work through other people around you. This,  I believe, is a beautiful way that God can move -Through human connection in times of distress.

Last week Chaska and I shared in the bulletin a bit about our journey toward parenthood and the our struggle to get there. It is tempting, when going through any struggle, to quickly try to make meaning out of the situation by saying, “maybe God is causing this.” Or perhaps, it is simply that infertility sucks, and how God is going to move in this situation, is through the connection and care from the community. I have felt a lot of Care and empathy through the many stories that many of you have shared with us since we shared with you. 

It really sticks  to going through something distressing, and to not know why these terrible things happen. It stinks less when we are going through it together. God moving through the body of Christ. 

Today, we find ourselves facing the unknowns of climate change – and what seems like the brink of our own destruction. And because of the scientific methods, we know that it is of our own demise, and not from a puppeteering God. This places a new kind of responsibility on humanity. 

And so I am holding the question – what does restoration mean in our context of 21st century United States, facing a climate apocalypse? From our passage from  Joel, 

for God has given the early rain[a] for your vindication;

     has poured down for you abundant rain,

    the early and the later rain, as before.

      The threshing floors shall be full of grain;

    the vats shall overflow with wine and oil.

What does this text mean for us, when we have cause our own ecological destruction

What is strange about our context, is that currently, in many places in the United States, we have been living with the vats overflowing, and the stores full of grain. These Vats we have hoarded have been a part of our destruction.

Maybe, If we are the body of Christ, then it is up to us to participate in the restoration, share the vats of wine and oil.

If we are the body of Christ, then it is up to us to participate in the restoration, by joining with the writers of the book of the 12, and caring for each other amidst the grief of uncertainty. 

And perhaps we will taste a bit of restoration, a bit of salvation, amidst the unknown perils we will face together. And I pray that whatever the future may hold, that humanity will find a way out of exile, like these prophets in the book of the 12 called for.

Go,  joining with the writers of the book of the 12, in this old old struggle, towards meaning making, and restoration with God. 

– Phil Yoder