Sermons are part of a conversation between the preacher and the congregation.
You can read most of the sermons preached at Faith in the past few years here. This archive is a blog, which is duplicated on Blogger. You may add comments here or in the blog if you wish.
If you would like to see the readings planned for the next few weeks, click here.
Speaking of Vision
Text: Acts 2:1-21 May 27, 2007
Where are we going? What are we going to do?
Just because our lives are full of uncertainty does not mean we like to be adrift, like dust particles in the sun. We do not want to be aimless. Without something to point at, without a direction. We do not want to wake up years from now and wonder how we ever got here, this spot in life that we never imagined.
We do want to imagine it, our future. Partly that is because we are not very fond of the unexpected (thinking usually that “unexpected” means “in trouble”). But also that is because we know that imagining the future has a lot to do with the way the future unfolds. We are smart and faithful enough to know that picking a destination will not necessarily get us to that destination (or even one nearby), but it will at least tell us how to start out from where we are now.
That is what prophets do. Prophets in the Bible. They create visions, in the modern corporate sense. Mission statements, sort of. A prophet’s job is to use words powerfully to inspire our imaginations, to feed our imagining. A prophet first tells us what is happening at the moment. These things are going great, these things not so great. They are professional clear thinkers. They wonder: how does God look at this state of affairs. God helps them to do this. And taking into account of what is, a prophet then tells us what might be. And having created such a vision, the prophet gives it to us to consider, to focus on, to ponder and discuss and agree or not. What the prophet does is state the problem, which then moves us to act.
A vision of the future is not a blueprint. It is not a plan. When we talk about visionaries—say in business like the founders of Google, or in service, like Paul Farmer who builds health clinics in the most destitute places in the world—we imagine that their vision was clear and specific. But that’s in hindsight. Visions of the future are like sketches, grand and indefinite overall, sharp and clear in places, fuzzy in others, with not all things thought out. A vision is like a map of a territory still unknown. We kind of know where we think we are going and what we hope we’ll find there, but these are uncharted lands and, since the destination is a proposal, not a place, we might arrive at a different spot altogether.
The disciples had gathered in Jerusalem. Up until now, Jesus has been their prophet, among many other things. But now Jesus has ascended in a cloud, leaving them here on earth, in this city. Leaving them to wonder: what now? Where are we going? What are we going to do?
Jesus has left them here on earth, but he had not left them here alone. He promised them just a few days ago that the Holy Spirit would guide them, and sure enough, the Holy Spirit comes to them in something like flames and something like a wind.
The Holy Spirit is good for this kind of job. The Holy Spirit is like a prophet more than like a planner. The Holy Spirit is not mostly a problem-solver. The Spirit is God who like the wind. No one knows where it comes from or where it goes. The realm of the Spirit is not MapQuest. The signs of the Spirit are things that are uncontained. Water, and wind, and fire. Things of movement and un-bounded. It is the Spirit of God who draws creation into being, blowing over the waters in Genesis chapter 1. Full of life and open possibility.
Pentecost, so named because it was the 50th day after Passover, was a harvest feast. The feast more importantly marks the giving of the law on Mount Sinai. It is a celebration because God gives the Israelites a direction. The law is a kind of vision. It is a vision of a world in which people are aligned with God, and therefore by definition a world that is good and without suffering. The law reinforces the hopes of creation.
The events at Pentecost renew that vision in a different time and under different conditions.
By the time of Jesus, Jerusalem was a cosmopolitan city, a center of commerce, political power, and intellect. It drew many people of many cultures from the ends of the earth, at least the ends as they knew it. People from as far away as Mesopotamia (what we now call Iraq, Iran, and Syria); Parthia (or Afghanistan, Kuwait, parts of Saudi Arabia); northeast Africa including Egypt; Turkey, southern Europe, and Rome. If you could sit in a park in Jerusalem in those days, you’d hear almost as many languages as there were people. Much as if you sat in Sennott Park across the street here in Cambridge this Sunday afternoon.
Powered by the Holy Spirit, the disciples speak to the many who are gathered, speaking politely and necessarily in other tongues, as it says, so that those many kinds of people might hear in their own languages. As clearly spoken—or rather as clearly understood—as if the disciples were speaking in each listener’s native tongue. Speaking to others so that they might understand is part of the vision of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost.
And the other part is that many people might become prophets. Quoting the book of Joel, Peter says that the time has come for women and men, young and old, powerful and powerless—all to be prophets. And do what prophets do: name the present and name the future. And that means us, too—spiritual descendants of that crowd in Jerusalem. It is up to us to think clearly about what is going on and to create a vision for what might be. In our own lives, in the world, and in the church. And, as prophets do, ponder the question: what does God think of all this?
This story in Acts has been called the story of the birth of the church. But it is not the church which comes to life here. There have already been gatherings and planning meetings and a Council and a commitment to stay together. They had new members. What was born in Jerusalem that day was the church’s mission. The Spirit plays midwife, but not to the church. What the Spirit brings is not fellowship, but a vision.
What is our vision now, here at Faith church in Cambridge? You are prophets. What do you name here? What is happening here now? What might be? There are no other people in this world who can say. Just you and our brothers and sisters here.
Listen! Says Peter to the crowd. The word he uses means “let me put words into your ears.” In the story of Pentecost, many speak up and many listen. As it was in the earliest church, it is a time of change here. It is important that we take our role as prophets seriously. It is important, as it is from time to time, that we do not forget to replenish our dreams. It is time for us to put words into each other’s ears. Time to imagine our future. To wonder: what does God think of all this? To call on the Holy Spirit, uncontained power of life and possibility. To wonder: what shall we do? Where are we going?