Stuck on an Escalator

A sermon preached at Southminster Presbyterian Church in Boise, Idaho on October 27, 2013.

Joel 2:23-32

Luke 18:9-14

The Book of Joel is best read in one sitting. I invite you to look through it this week. It opens with a story of destruction. Locusts invade and destroy the land. Crops fail. Fire burns. A drought dries up the land.

And people are called to return to the Lord, to return with all of their heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning.  (2:12)

And God promises restoration. They will again have grain, and oil, and wine. They will be satisfied with enough. They will have rain, and good harvests, and no more plagues.

This part of the text ends with this promise:

Then afterwards
I will pour out my spirit on all flesh;
your sons and your daughters shall prophesy,
your old men shall dream dreams,
and your young men shall see visions.
Even on the male and female slaves,
in those days, I will pour out my spirit.

If this passage sounds familiar to you, it might be because of Pentecost. In the early chapters of Acts, this is the passage Peter quotes as the Holy Spirit is given to the new church.

But Joel wasn’t thinking of Peter and the early church. He was thinking of his own audience. And he wanted them to not be trapped in the mess they saw around them.

You walk through the fields, day after day, and instead of seeing your growing crops, you see the stubble of plants that will never produce a harvest, and you despair of ever eating fresh food again.
Looking at the shriveled up vines, it is hard to imagine ever having a new vintage of wine in the cellar.

It doesn’t matter how many times you hear God promise a future with hope if all you can do is look around you and be trapped by loss in the world around you.

Joel wants his audience to dream up the world they want to see, even when it isn’t the world they can see right now.

And so, after the description of the desolation, and the promise of a future with hope, he tells them they need to dream, to have visions, and to be open to the Spirit being poured upon them.

Because if the future is only up to us, it might just be one of despair. But If we see the world with God’s vision, with a future with hope kind of sight, we have other options.

Here’s a video that illustrates what happens when you are paralyzed by the world you can see.

Okay, that video is a little extreme.

But think of the times we’ve been stuck, afraid of the unknown future because we couldn’t imagine doing something differently?

Even when Peter quotes Joel, he’s calling people to envision a new way of seeing the world, a world where Jesus of Nazareth has lived, and died, and been resurrected, sending his followers to all corners of the world to share a message of hope and mercy and salvation. And that was most certainly a new way of seeing the world—a scandalous and heretical idea of God becoming flesh and living among us.

It may be the dominant way we see God today in our Christian-ish culture. But it was radical and new to Peter’s audience.

And to see it, a world beyond what they could imagine, they had to look to God, and pray for God’s Spirit to descend upon them to give them the vision.

Because our vision is limited most days. We see things the way they are and assume that is how they should be. And that’s okay, most of the time. But there are times when that kind of vision leaves you stuck on an escalator.

Today is Reformation Sunday, and while I am hesitant to celebrate a schism of the Body of Christ with too much joy or glee, it is worth noting. We are approaching the 500th anniversary of when enough men and women started imagining a future with God’s imagination instead of human vision, and they walked off the escalator. Martin Luther, John Calvin, Ulrich Zwingli, John Knox, Margaret of Navarre, Catherine Von Bora and many others looked at the church as they saw it then and didn’t see a future with hope. They saw graft and fraud. They saw the Word of God kept in the hands of a few. They saw Grace being monetized and restricted.

We, as Presbyterian flavored descendants of the Reformation,  believe the Protestant Reformation was a period of people tuning in to what the Spirit of God was dreaming for the people of God.

And it was a reformation not just for the people who left, but for the medieval church as well. Because dreams and visions spread, even to people stuck on an escalator.

Our passage from Luke’s gospel follows immediately the passage we heard last week about the persistent widow showing us how to pray. And Jesus immediately tells a story of two people praying in the temple.

Luke opens the parable with the observation that Jesus told the story to some who trusted in themselves.

And I wonder if that is a continuation of what Joel was talking about. In whom do we trust? Whose vision is going to lead us? Ours? Or God’s?

If we trust our own visions, then we are obligated to believe that our visions are better than the visions of others and we thank God for not making us like them.

If we, instead, trust there is a greater vision than we can envision, the pressure is off our shoulders. We aren’t the ones on whom our hope rests.

And thank you, God, for that.

We are, however, the ones God will use in this project to bring about new and more hopeful realities. We pray, not that we are better than others, but that even though we are people who make mistakes, God will bring the Spirit to us so we can dream dreams and see visions of a world we can’t quite see when we look around.

You may remember the story from Atlanta, GA this past summer when a troubled young man walked into a school with a gun and with a plan to shoot and kill people. Instead of meeting someone who saw the world in the same despairing way he did, he met a woman who could dream a new reality that was not easily visible.

Antoinette Tuff calmed him. She told him that he wasn’t alone in having troubles. Her husband walked out on her after 33 years, she said, and she had a “multiple-disabled” son. She soothed that man holding an assault rifle by telling him, “We all go through something in life.”
“I’m sitting here with you and talking to you about it,” she told him when he mumbled something about no one wanting to listen to him.
As she persuaded the young man to surrender, she said: “We not going to hate you, baby. It’s a good thing that you’re giving up, so we’re not going to hate you.”
She offered to act as his human shield, to walk outside the school with him so police wouldn’t shoot.
She even told him she loved him, cared about him and was proud of him as he began to stand down.

I suspect it would have been easier that day to cry and panic, to remember the many (too many) shootings we’ve seen in recent years, and decide she knew how this was going to play out, with death, with trauma, and with desolation and loss.

But she helped him envision a new reality, one where someone cared for him, where someone was listening to him, a world where he had better choices, a world where the solution wasn’t only in his hands.

We are in the midst of our stewardship campaign, and the act of creating a budget is an act of dreaming and seeing visions. We’re trying to get a youth program off the ground, we’re working on getting a new community breakfast started—both projects because members of the church came to Session committees and said “I’ve got this dream…what if we….

Supporting the financial work of the church is an act of faith that we are dreaming dreams and seeing visions, the old and the young, the men and the women. It is an act of faith that there are even more good things to dream and vision than we can see now.

And as we learned when the Spirit came upon Israel after exile, when the Spirit came upon the church in the Pentecost story, when the Spirit came upon the church in Reformation, it wasn’t a time of abandoning all they knew and loved.

It was a narrative of continuation. Where the dreams of one generation meet the visions of the next and the two together respond to God to usher in the hopes of the future.

It is a sacred privilege to be able to dream and see visions together. There is nobody I’d rather be walking off a stuck escalator with than you! Thankful for you and your faithful response to God’s call, and looking forward to seeing what God is dreaming for us next!

May it be so. Amen.

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8 thoughts on “Stuck on an Escalator

  1. I loved this till you started talking about the Reformation, but I think I’m going to forget that, both because I nitpick you too much unfairly, and also because I needed badly hear to today what you said about Joel. Needing to look at the world differently is a message that everyone needs right now. Just look at it differently. Make yourself open. The kingdom could be at hand. Bookmarking to reread.

      • yeah, it’s fine. quick summary: the attitude you’re talking about (anger about abuses) as a cause was confined to a relatively small group of people, many of whom were university professors / urban elites. Most scholarship today about piety suggests that pre-Reformation piety was largely popular, and that the key to a Reformation is that the political authorities saw in the anger of the professors and the elites a lever for their political ambitions. But I am not a church historian in the specific sense of being a theologian and the way I write history doesn’t involve discerning the actions of the Holy Spirit in history.

        Like I said: GREAT SERMON ON JOEL!!! Hugs.

  2. re: Reformation Sunday, I’m reminding myself that one of mom’s favorite hymns was “For All the Saints” and she always called me after church to report that it was sung, but that this year, if they have time for such things in heaven, she’s singing it with the saints. Or she’s so involved in praising G-d that they don’t have time for Reformation Sunday.

  3. I thought of mine too but we didn’t sing For All the Saints. Something was missing. Thanks for the message on Joel.

  4. May I quote you on this paragraph: “she helped him envision a new reality, one where someone cared for him, where someone was listening to him, a world where he had better choices”

    I am writing a blog post today about communication and conversation. This is essential in success whether it be spiritual, personal or professional. Talking to others, confiding in others, listening to others will bring life’s gifts.

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