Moving Toward Life
Joel 2.28-29; Acts 2.14-18
Second Sunday in Epiphany
Plymouth Congregational Church, UCC
The Rev. Jane Anne Ferguson
Our scriptures texts today come from two vastly different books separated chronologically by at least three centuries, the Hebrew scriptures book, Joel and the New Testament book, the Acts of the Apostles. However, the prophetic writer of Joel in around 250 BCE and the gospel writer, Luke, who also wrote the book of Acts, most likely between 70 and 90 CE, were both addressing communities in profound change. The small agrarian community of Joel had just experienced an extensive locust plague interpreted in those times as harbinger of the last days before the cataclysmic coming of the Lord. They were most likely enduring food shortages, attacks by Phoenician and Greek slave traders, and a great deal of fear for their survival. Joel’s prophetic poetry speaks to them of a past time of separation from God and then the coming of the time when God would bring abundance and would pour out God’s Spirit upon them.
After [those catastrophic times] I, [the Holy One,] will pour out my spirit upon everyone; your sons and your daughters will prophesy, your old men will dream dreams, and your young men will see visions. In those days, I will also pour out my spirit on the male and female slaves.
Bible, Common English. CEB Common English Bible with Apocrypha - eBook [ePub] (Kindle Locations 35739-35740).
The second chapter of the Acts of the Apostles is more familiar to us. It is the story we read each year on Pentecost Sunday fifty days after Easter, the story God’s gift of the Holy Spirit upon his followers, a gift promised by Jesus. The power of God’s Spirit descends on the disciples and friends of Jesus who have been waiting fearfully together in Jerusalem for what was next after Jesus’ resurrection and ascension. Spiritual chaos wonderfully breaks loose as these faithful ones begin to speak the good news of Jesus to all the Jews from around the known world gathered in Jerusalem for the harvest festival of Pentecost. They are speaking in all the different languages of the visitors! How can this be? These people must be drunk! Yet Peter begins to preach reassuring the people of God’s presence and of the saving grace of Jesus.
Peter stood with the other eleven apostles. He raised his voice and declared, "Judeans and everyone living in Jerusalem! Know this! Listen carefully to my words! These people aren't drunk, as you suspect; after all, it's only nine o'clock in the morning! Rather, this is what was spoken through the prophet Joel: In the last days, God says, I will pour out my Spirit on all people. Your sons and daughters will prophesy. Your young will see visions. Your elders will dream dreams. [And I would add to Peter’s list, our non-binary, gender fluid siblings will imagine the most amazing possibilities for new life.] [Upon all my people,] I will pour out my Spirit in those days, and they will prophesy.
Bible, Common English. CEB Common English Bible with Apocrypha - eBook [ePub] (Kindle Locations 42293-42302).
This weekend we celebrate the legacy of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, the civil rights leader who galvanized the hearts, minds and actions of all those working particularly for the rights of our Black sisters and brothers from 1955 to his death by assassination in April 4,1968. Standing on the steps of Lincoln Memorial in DC on a hot August day in 1963 – yes, 60 years ago this summer – Dr. King called us to dream big with the Spirit for justice, love and the end of racism. We still work to answer that Spirit call. In 1968 he was about to launch the Poor People’s Campaign, radically acting and hoping to end poverty in our nation. But before he could launch this movement he was assassinated. Now just shy of 60 years later Rev. Dr. William Barber II and Rev. Dr. Liz Theoharis have answered the Spirit’s call to end poverty in our nation by launching and co-chairing the Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival.
Inspired by these spiritual leaders and change agents, how will we dream big, bigger than we have before here at Plymouth for God’s realm of justice and love in the world? The people of Joel’s time were called to God’s dreams and visions in a time of extreme change. Peter and the other disciples and friends of Jesus were called to God’s dreams and visions in a time of extreme change at Pentecost. So was Dr. King. Dr. Barber and Dr. Theoharis have been called in our times of extreme change. How will we here at Plymouth answer Spirit’s timeless call to dream God’s dreams and share God’s new visions, to prophecy for justice and love?
The pastors got an email from one of our members this weekend sharing that the reputation Plymouth has in the Interfaith Council community of Fort Council is one of action and involvement in social justice. Thanks be to God! I am so grateful for this and for all of you on the frontlines, as well as those on the frontlines of caring for our community internally through Stephen Ministry, Congregation Visitors, leading in our Christian formation programs, caring for our building and numerous other gifts of volunteer time. We do well in frontline work.
What about our soul work? I believe, it is also time to up our soul work game in growth to keep pace with Spirit. This work does not focus on numbers of people or money, though eventually that can be part of the growth. I am talking growth and transformation within where we can encounter God’s visions and dreams that deepen our worship of God and makes God’s realm visible in the lives of people individually and collectively…..by Inviting, Transforming and Sending. (To quote our mission statement!) I believe it’s time to pay more attention to Transforming, to the transformation of our hearts and souls as people of God. Not so we can navel gaze, but so that we can up our dreaming game in Inviting and Sending.
In her book, Emergent Strategy, Shaping Change, Changing Worlds, adrienne maree brown, challenges those of us who aspire to be change agents in our world to move toward life by creating more possibilities. She writes "What we are all really asking…is how do we, who know the world needs to change, begin to practice being different?” [i] We know the world needs to change. We know as followers of Jesus, as seekers of truth and justice, that all creation is in a world of pain, to use an urban dictionary idiom. How do we practice being different in this world that needs healing change?
We listen. We each learn to listen to Spirit within. We learn to listen to Spirit together in community as She works in subtle ways through our frontline work inside and outside the church. Listening to God’s Holy Spirit may sound daunting to some, but I can assure you it is something we all can learn. And that each of us is consciously and unconsciously already listening. The fourth century desert father, Evagrius Ponticus, “wisely said, “If you want to know God, learn to know yourself first.”[ii] Twenty-first century author and spiritual director, Nancy L. Bieber writes, “When we avoid places in ourselves where fear dwells, we limit our knowing of ourselves and our freedom to become who we can be.”[iii] So first we listen to ourselves, our fears as well as our dreams. This is holy listening and God is with us here. This is not a mysterious, woo-woo process, it is a process of slowing down to be with our selves. To reflect, even daydream, as well as to meditate and pray. If individual fears grow overwhelming, there are many people to accompany us professionally, therapists, pastors, spiritual directors. And we accompany one another in lay pastoral care, in prayer and study groups, in coffee hour conversation. Spirit is always present guiding us. Listening to Spirit will lead us to our practices of being different so that we can BE God’s change in the world, live God’s dreams and visions.
Perhaps you are wondering about tangible ways a faith community can work to be different in our world. Let’s start with communication. We are church together in a contentious and duplicitous world. A world full of rumor, half-truths, triangulating gossip. How can we practice being different for change in this world? How do we practice more direct and transparent communication with one another when conflicts arise as a way of being different in our world? We are church together in a world where it has become okay to be harsh, even mean to one another in a disguised effort to be direct. This comes out particularly in written communication because we do not have to be face to face. How will we invite just and kind communication when times are tough in our community? Practicing different communication in our faith community would empower us to advance peace-filled communication as a difference in our world.
We live in a changing time of involvement as we have come out of the isolation of pandemic times. We are all re-evaluating how we want to spend our time and where. I recently spoke with a member of our church who worked for Volunteers of America. She told me how volunteer patterns are changing in every non-profit agency. People want to be involved in something vital and hands-on and often commit to one event at a time, rather than a series of board or committee meetings. How do we practice transforming our ways of inviting volunteers into meaningful, community building projects that will be life-giving? The days of filling boards and committees with warm bodies are gone.
We have made a step in this direction through our Ministry Match online survey. It has been enormously helpful in starting the conversations to get people involved with their gifts in Plymouth’s programs and outreach. If you haven’t taken Ministry Match, go to plymouthucc.org/ministrymatch. It will only takes 3-5 minutes of your time and you will learn where you can best get engaged at Plymouth and how to get more information on those places of connection. Getting in engaged is also a way to do deeper into connecting within and listening to Spirit.
These are two ways to jump start deeper transformation in our community as we listen deeply to Spirit, in the quietness of our hearts, in the dialogue of study groups, here in worship, as we care for one another and fellowship together, as we serve one another and serve our neighbors in the world. Spirit is already revealing in our minds, in our imaginations and hearts, new dreams and visions for making the realm of God that Jesus preached and lived visible and viable here and now.
If we listen, we will be led! Even – especially - when we think we do not have enough people, money, resources, blah, blah, blah, I could go on and on. When we think there is not enough, our ears can be blocked to Spirit’s call and abundance. But we must keep listening! We may not see a way forward immediately, but I can assure you that listening together to God, a way will be made. Let us stop reacting against this painful, recent past that we have just all been through together in our pandemic, divisive times and be present to the fertility and fecundity of God’s emerging future for our beloved community.
Listening to the Spirit’s call we will focus on what is possible, not what is wrong. Listening we will focus on forgiveness and grace with one another. Listening we will dream holy dreams and see visions of God’s new life like Drs. King, Barber and Theoharis. We will all be prophets of holy change in a world that so needs the justice and love of God. My dear friends of God, the Holy Spirit is being poured out upon us all, now, always and forever! May we listen, pay attention, and receive Spirit’s abundance and blessings. Amen and Amen.
©The Rev. Jane Anne Ferguson, 2023 and beyond. May only be reprinted with permission.
[i] adrienne maree brown, Emergent Strategy, Shaping Change, Changing Worlds, (AK Press, Chico, CA: 2017, 164).
[ii] Nancy L. Bieber, Decision Making and Spiritual Discernment, The Sacred Art of Finding Your Way, (Skylight Paths Publishing, Nashville, TN: 2016, 32.)