Tuesday, May 22, 2018

Dreams and Visions


"Dreams and Visions"

Rev. Paul Mitchell

Vashon United Methodist Church

May 20, 2018  

Ezekiel 37:1-14  Acts 2:1-8, 14-18

Sadao Watanabe

Pentecost is a big dream and a bold vision that is contrary to the seeming disintegration of creation. Things fall apart – or at least it seems that way. Both in the history of our faith and in our current public life – things seem to fall apart.

Last week I spoke about the dreams of God – specifically the dreams of the Mothering God, who we come to know better through ways in which ordinary mothers emulate the qualities of forgiveness, generosity, hospitality, inclusion, and justice. I trust that God is dreaming health, meaning, and peace for us. But she doesn’t simply dream for us and then walk away. Nor does she dismiss us and do it all for us. Yes, God is present for us. Yes, God heals us. Yes, God redeems us from the pit. And…, she empowers us. The Holy Spirit conveys the empowering aspect of God. We tend to focus our understanding of that aspect of the triune God - ruah in Hebrew, pneuma in Greek – both feminine words in those gendered languages – on a handful of festival days in the cycle of the church year: All Saints Day, The Annunciation, The Baptism of Jesus, the Transfiguration, … and Pentecost.

Since we are not a doctrinally or creedally focused denomination, many United Methodists are a little tepid on the Trinity in general, and the Holy Spirit in particular. Understanding of the Spirit has been a matter of division rather than unity from the very early days of the Jesus movement.
What is this Holy Spirit thing?
How can there be one and three?
Who is in charge, anyway?
We tend to try not to think about it too much, since the interior life of God is purely a matter of speculation from our human perspective. And yet, the universal transpiritual experience of the Divine bears witness to something fundamentally interdependent. The Trinity offers a window into possibilities that transcend a monocular view of God. Perhaps, we might legitimately speculate that there is an internal Divine conversation in which one proposes, one responds, and one listens. And might not that exchange swirl and spin, generating and emanating the continuing energy and life of creation?
In Ezekiel we have before us a vision of dry bones – of a people exhausted and hopeless, having been overrun and trampled by the forces of exploitation, violence, and empire. God’s covenant people found themselves time and again facing overwhelming powers that divide and manipulate – leveraging the entropy that seems to determine the fate of creation. Ezekiel’s valley of dry bones is both a snapshot and a metaphor – both a documentary and an interpretation – of the circumstances of his people. They are breathless and eviscerated. They have no spirit and no power. They have no dream and no vision. They are, perhaps, at peace in a way. They have expended themselves. There is a kind of peace in no longer being expected to bear the burdens of love and justice. “Let things lie” – so they seem to say – “leave well enough alone. We are tired and have left behind our vigor and our youth.”
But, the Spirit does not comply with their resignation. The Spirit disturbs their remains, inflates their lungs, enfleshes their frames.
In the Acts of the Apostles, we have before us a vision of wary and yet hopeful witnesses to the resurrection. They are not quite as desiccated as those in the valley of dry bones – they have witnessed rising from death. But they are undoubtedly and rightfully anxious. They too find themselves disempowered, dispirited, and disembodied. In just a few short weeks they have moved far beyond the timid, cowering few gathered in a locked room. Miraculously, the good news of God’s unconditional love and expectation of justice have spread like wildfire beyond the eleven to encompass God-fearers of many cultures and languages. As divided as they appear, as diverse and in as much disagreement as they must be, given their diversity and their local contexts, the wind/breath/spirit fills their sails with a common breath and ignites in them a common tongue – a tongue of fire – a zeal and warmth that is dangerous to those who would divide and conquer. They felt their hearts strangely warmed. Suddenly they can understand one another’s speech – but only because it is the speech of love and justice. Only because it is the breath of the Mothering God who dreams of health, meaning, and peace for all her children.
Into this gathering from all the known world, she moves Peter to speak – to invoke another prophetic vision – that of the prophet Joel. We know little about Joel. Scholars cannot definitively date his time and place. He refers to no specific crisis of the covenant people. But the imagery is vivid. The people have experienced a swarm of locusts that have descended upon them and devoured everything. Their livelihood, their crops, their flocks have been decimated. Perhaps even their children have been snatched away by inhuman forces of greed and consumption. Nothing is more evil that to take children from the arms of their parents. And yet, just as God will redeem and restore crops and fields from the mindless forces of nature, so Joel testifies that God will redeem and restore health, meaning, and peace to the people from the callous forces of evil and empire. And as the Mothering God, YHWH will not abandon her children. She gives us dreams and visions, and she empowers us with her Spirit to live into those dreams and visions.
Hebrew poetry – which constitutes much of the speech of the prophets – does not “rhyme” phonically as we often expect poetry to do in English. Instead, Hebrew poets prefer to rhyme visually and metaphorically. In the prophecy from Joel that Peter paraphrases, YHWH declares,
“I will pour out my Spirit on all humankind. Your offspring will prophesy, your young people will see visions, and your elders will dream dreams.”
Joel is proclaiming an equivalency between youth and age. We might gather from this that God will call upon both young and old to foresee and imagine what could be, together. The passage from Joel imagines dire and foreboding circumstances – omens and portents – but also affirms that God is more powerful and present than the forces of destruction and division. What might we construe from all of this? There is danger in conflating the individual witnesses from their various contexts. Trying to construct a perfect image is idolatrous. It imagines that we are somehow more able to convey God’s dreams and visions for us than millennia of prophets, psalmists, apostles, and evangelists. But we can faithfully construct a harmony – a song sung in different languages, but conveying a message that is clear and compelling and consistent with the forerunner and foundation of our faith.
This seems more than a little overwhelming, doesn’t it? Sometimes it makes me feel exhausted and hopeless, breathless, and eviscerated. I’m feeling especially defeated by the venomous and divisive political climate of our time. We can only do what we can do – but we must do what we can do. And I think there is something we can do. We can find someone with whom we disagree, and together seek common ground. Much of our language of division and debate is a matter of perspective – of people earnestly and genuinely seeking to find health, meaning, and peace in their disparate contexts. I was recently reminded of the intentional friendship that developed between Supreme Court Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Antonin Scalia. There could not be a more polar pairing in the political world. And yet, because of their shared commitment to the common good, they knew they must seek to understand one another – not to gain a personal or partisan advantage, but to become more human – to seek the common good.
I’m not suggesting that we seek unity above all else or at any cost. Unity can easily become uniformity – which is tyrannical and idolatrous. Diversity and difference are valuable assets in a fallible world. With only one point of view, we would most certainly be tragically wrong at some critical point. With a broad and inclusive field of vision we can collaboratively scan and correct for error – but not if we never even try to see the world from another point of view. Perhaps we can only see the world as God intends when we focus on the common good.
Beloved, that is a dream and vision worth pursuing with every breath. Find someone with whom you genuinely disagree – who “speaks a different language” – and befriend them. Engage them in civil discourse – not to gain a personal or partisan advantage, but to become more human – to seek the common good. That’s a first step. A further step is a dream and vision that has been tugging at me recently. What if we were to build circles of relationship with Christ at the center that intersect our community around significant issues for the common good? In that, the grace of God will go before us, connect between us, and move beyond us to bring about a more beloved community. Start small. Start here. Expand your circle. Embrace difference. Include a stranger. Make a friend. Become love. Let your heart be strangely warmed.
Step by step, let’s put the world back together again.

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