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Sharing in God’s Dreams, Visions, and Imagination: The Day of Pentecost

The following sermon was preached by Fr. Kieswetter at a (Zoom) service of lessons and sermons for the Deanery of Waterloo. (A separate homily was preached on Sunday morning at St. Andrew’s, about “Pentecost, Hildegard of Bingen, and God as Gardener.”)

Sunday, May 23, 2021:
Joel 2:28-32 [or, 3:1-5; verse ordering differs by Bible]

It’s said that “Joel” was a common name in antiquity. And the book of Joel doesn’t give any dates, nor does it name any bad kings or queens that would help us pinpoint the precise time that we’re dealing with here. The first half of the book talks about invasions and plagues of insects, which, sadly, were pretty common occurrences; kind of like how environmental devastation and violence are, tragically, everyday occurrences in our world.

Some of the televangelists and people holding placards on the street corner will see these as signs, as if we’re the first ones to experience loss and uncertainty. I think back on my relatively short life, and recall all the apocalyptic talk that came out of Y2K, September 11 and the invasion of Iraq, Harry Potter, the year 2012, various astronomical phenomena, and now, the pandemic. So maybe the Book of Joel has something to teach us, about how it’s the norm, rather than the exception, to feel like our world is collapsing around us.

Maybe all of these — and much more (and don’t forget the people who suffer because of our greed, our waste, our weapons, and our apathy) — maybe these are all imbued with meaning. Where each instance is an opportunity for us to open our eyes, look at the world, look within ourselves, and find a new way forward. Which is God’s way forward; God’s dream for the world. And that’s where this reading picks up, after the locusts, after the invasions:

“I will pour out my spirit on all flesh;
your sons and your daughters shall prophesy,
[the old] shall dream dreams,
[the young] shall see visions.”

There will be omens of blood, fire, and smoke, yes. But rather than panic and turn within ourselves, or turn against one another, it sounds like the author is evoking the plagues that preceded the exodus; one of the core stories of faith. These aren’t ends in themselves, but opportunities for change. The groans and birth pangs of a new creation and new community.

The old will dream, the young will see visions… “I will pour out my spirit on all flesh; your sons and your daughters shall prophesy… Even on the male and female slaves, in those days, I will pour out my spirit.” This is a big claim. Because usually in the Old Testament, prophecy is very specialized, kind of like licensed trades in our own day. (Have you noticed it’s hard to get a tradesperson right now?) Usually there was just one prophet who had the king’s ear. (Think of Samuel.) Or maybe Elijah and Elisha; two. The odd story points to a group, or a school of prophets; more people, but still, a unique, unusual group. It’s only here in Joel, and in one episode in the exodus story where this deep connection with God’s Spirit is depicted as a possibility for ‘the many.’ But the early Church seems to pick up on this exception, and makes it the norm, as we read in the Pentecost story in Acts. God’s “deeds of power” are to be made known, and the Spirit is not going to let differences in language get in the way of this. Pentecost is about equipping people to better see what God is doing in, and for, the world. “…[I]n our own languages we hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power.”

Sometimes, especially next week on Trinity Sunday, we speak of the Holy Spirit as ‘that love between the Father and the Son.’ The Holy Spirit unites; adopts us, and brings us into that intimate relationship within God’s very Self. So how tragic and strange it is that in some circles, the topic of Pentecost and the Holy Spirit has become the source of division; a litmus test that divides one church from another, or one Christian from another. You might know of some churches that don’t consider you a full Christian unless you’ve spoken in tongues. Or perhaps a more subtle dig at churches where there isn’t dancing or crying. But doesn’t that attitude put the onus on us — on our goodness, or on our formula — rather than on depending on God’s grace? On God’s self-revelation?. On the thing that God is doing in the world, and wants to clue us into? Joel looks to the time when all will be touched by the Spirit. And the Acts of the Apostles shows the early Christian community speaking in tongues to transcend human divisions — in that case, language — not to create new divisions.

So if you’ve ever battled with something like an inferiority complex for being an Anglican Christian, I’d say that the crucial question before us is not whether we’ve spoken in tongues or not, but whether — like the prophets and dreamers — we are open to God’s action in and around us that leads us beyond ourselves, and into God’s vision for our world.

Rowan Williams, in his wonderful little book, Being Christian, writes that our prophetic calling as Christians means to “challenge the community to be what it is meant to be.” So at times — maybe oftentimes — we will be critical; we will ask hard questions. But it’s not just about being caustic and telling people how to behave, though it might include that. It’s about returning to our core identity and calling, out of which will spring our actions. And sometimes these reminders are quite subtle. Like gathering — in whatever way is safe — to worship. Reading the Bible. Remembering our baptismal vows. And praying. I’ll assume that silence can be an asset here.

And there’s another, more recent, book I’ve read several times with several people already: Alive in God by Timothy Radcliffe. He’s a Carmelite brother, and he describes the rhythm of his community’s day, where again and again their work, study, and social time is interrupted by the ringing of a bell that calls them to prayer. Even if he’s in the middle of a perfect sentence, he has to stop what he’s doing and head to chapel — it’s a spiritual discipline. So he writes, “Several times a day some of us interrupt whatever we are doing and go to sing poetry [the psalms] to remind ourselves of where we are finally headed and to refresh our imagination…”

So: Spirit. Prophecy. Dreams. Visions. And imagination. I hold all these together. Maybe this is especially something for us to hear in these joyless, grey, groundhog days of the pandemic: Touched by God’s Spirit, we are called to share in God’s vision, God’s dreams. We’re called to be people of imagination. Our practices, scriptures, and our God open us up to a world of mystery. And the temptation in our day is to flatten and reduce everything, whether in the name of rationalism, or fundamentalism. (Two sides of the same coin.) But I think there is another, much more reverent, worshipful way: of astonishment and imagination. Where God takes us out of ourselves, beyond our questioning and our fears, and says, “Look, I am doing something new.”

I will pour out my spirit on all flesh;
the young will prophesy,
the old will dream.

The question is not: do we have the secret, the recipe, or even the faith… But: do we have the imagination.

© 2021 The Rev’d Matthew Kieswetter