What is the vision? What is the vision now?
The disciples have been contemplating this question for 50 days. According to the writer of Luke and Acts, the disciples have been sitting in a room in a house in Jerusalem all this time. They are grieving, fearful, uncertain of how to move forward. They are stuck in this in-between space, without their leader. I imagine they had many discussions, but for 50 days nothing moved them from that house. They were disciples without a vision.
And then, in an instant, Spirit enters the room like wind, like flames on their foreheads, and everything changes forever. They spill out into the street, dancing, preaching, praising God, much to the amazement and surprise of all who gather to witness this phenomenon. Some are swept up in the excitement. They tune into the message and realize that, whatever language they speak, they understand exactly what is being said. God speaks all languages.
Others stand back and sneer. How often is it easier to dismiss something as a fad or crazy because it’s different or scary, when perhaps it has the potential to be life-changing?
So on this Pentecost Sunday, when we celebrate the birth of the Church, I want to lift up how one person, especially one person connected to community, can make a difference. One person with vision can change the world. Jesus was that one person, changing the lives of his disciples, of all whom he taught and healed. Jesus continues to lead us even today.
Peter was that one voice on the day of Pentecost, preaching from the prophet Joel. And all the disciples lifted up that message in what turned out to be a plenitude of languages. A new vision, a radical vision: we don’t need the temple priests and scribes and hierarchy in order to connect with God. God speaks to everyone, in every language. Whether you are young or old, male or female, slave or free, you too can prophesy and participate in God’s new vision.
We’ve seen plenty of examples of one individual leader making a difference for evil. Hitler comes to mind. He set the agenda, the Nazis all subscribed to his vision of an Aryan nation, and six million or more Jews and homosexuals lost their lives.
Because of one person’s vision of fear and hate in our own country, immigrants are enduring inhumane conditions at the border or are being rounded up in our communities and flown out of the country. Families are being split up, traumatizing children, and a number of children have even died in these border facilities. On another issue, women have fewer and fewer options in some states when it comes to health care treatment if they wish to terminate a pregnancy, which it is their legal right to do. Voter rights are being suppressed through a variety of tactics. This vision is evil.
One person can make a difference for evil. Or for good.
What is the new vision? How can we catch on fire with Spirit and be a part of changing the world for good? Here are some examples of individuals and their communities working to make a difference in the world. Some are local, familiar examples; others are national or global.
Here’s one that’s very local. Fifty-five years ago, one person, Jane Michael, had a vision of creating a preschool in this building using volunteers and running around to pick up kids in her station wagon. Today that preschool has served at least 1300 kids and their families. That makes a difference.
This afternoon, Kia and friends are going to put on a concert of Jewish music to benefit immigrant rights programs. She had the idea, she wanted to do something, she gathered people around who could make it happen, and it’s happening. Some of you are a part of it. Some of us are going to attend. This makes a difference.
Perhaps you saw the news article in this morning’s paper: US embassies around the world are apparently quietly defying orders. They are going ahead and flying a rainbow flag. Some individual in each location has to take that on. And it makes a difference.
I just started a course called the Self Expression Leadership Program to explore ways to make a difference in our communities. Last night we heard about some of the community projects that past participants have taken on. One man from Alaska was disturbed by the amount of waste in the fishing industry. He decided to ship fish that were going to be wasted to Africa. He got a bunch of other fishermen/women on board with the idea. They ended up feeding 30,000 people. Talk about a loaves and fishes moment! That made a difference.
After the shooting in Charlottesville a few years ago, people were upset that the Confederate flag was flying at a local municipal site. So one young woman climbed up the flagpole and took it down. She didn’t consult with people. There were no meetings to weigh the options. She just did it. She took a stand for justice, and she made a difference.
We may think of Rosa Parks as one individual acting alone, too tired to get up and move her seat on the bus. She was not tired. She was trained. She was connected. She was one face in an organized community of people who refused to accede to racist policies that required Black people to sit at the back of the bus. Adrenaline must have been coursing through her veins because she was taking on the entire system. Is that straight out of Jesus’ teachings? Absolutely.
FDR, one person, became the face of the New Deal, which put people to work in the midst of Depression. That made a huge difference. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, one individual, only 29 years old, a woman, a racial minority, won an election she wasn’t expected to win, unseated an incumbent, and put forward a plan called the Green New Deal. Like FDR’s New Deal, this plan now has everyone talking about how we could put people to work. But this time it’s about jobs that help make the transition to green energy. It is moving the needle. It is making a difference.
People want their lives to mean something. We want to leave a legacy, to think we have made a difference somehow. Maybe our legacy is in the paintings we have painted, the poems we have written, the music we have made. Maybe it’s in our children, for whom we sacrificed much so that they could have a good home, food, clothes, a decent education. Maybe it is in loving God and neighbor deeply and living out that love with acts of great compassion.
Sometimes we are on fire after a life trauma, a disaster, a great loss. The life we knew has gone. Perhaps it is the loss of a loved one, or a flood or tornado that destroyed the home, a car accident, a phone call in the night with bad news. In the prophet Joel’s day it was a plague of locusts that destroyed the crops: fields left bare and ruined, trees stripped of fruit and leaves alike. For Peter and the other disciples, it is the assassination of Jesus, their leader, who had shown them a whole new way to think and live and connect with God. After his death, they took time to ask, “What is the new vision?”
In the past year and a half, I have had to come up with a new vision for my life. Most of you know that my one sibling, my sister Molly, died in January 2018 of cancer. I had thought she and I would both live into our nineties together, toddle off into old age hand in hand. The whole two years that she fought her cancer, I kept thinking that if anyone could beat it, she could—my smart, sassy, funny, energetic sister. Whenever I contemplated the notion that she might actually die, all the oxygen left the room. It was inconceivable.
Until it happened.
I had thought my world would fall apart. It didn’t. The worst had happened, and then … life kept going. The disciples must have experienced something like this, too. The very worst thing had happened: Jesus, their beloved teacher and leader, was gone.
But the sun kept coming up, the days kept rolling by.
The question I kept thinking about in wordless form after Molly’s death was, “What’s the vision now?” If she and I were not going to be there for each other well into old age, what was the new plan? And I didn’t know.
Until a friend mentioned to me that she and her husband were going to sell those five acres adjacent to Catherine’s sheep farm.
Oh! The sheep farm I have been visiting for maybe 15 years now, that makes my heart sing. Where there was once a small parcel of land for sale across the road and I kept wondering for months how I could buy it, but couldn’t make that work. And this would be not just a small parcel but five whole acres, with woods down below and a meadow up above. Doors swung open in my head. Here was a new vision.
So I sold my house, my sweet little house that I had thought I would retire in. Fixed it all up and sold it. Bought the five acres and I will build a house there starting this year. And then I want to start a farm church. It won’t meet on Sundays because this church is my other passion, and I am committed to being here for this community. It may not even meet every week. I don’t even know yet, except this makes my heart sing, and I am giving myself to it. And where I thought my life would be empty and full of grief, instead my soul is singing a new and life-giving song. I did not wish for my sister to die. I would never have asked for such a thing. It was only when the old plan was gone that I was even open to listening for a new vision. And wherever she is now, I get the sense that Molly approves. I carry her forward with me, just as the disciples carried Jesus in their hearts.
The disciples never asked for Jesus to leave. It was the last thing they expected or wanted. But only when he was gone were they open to Spirit arriving in their lives and setting them on fire with a new vision and calling. And they said yes with their whole beings, yes even though they could get in trouble, yes in the face of brutal oppression, yes to life and love and risk and connection. No going back, no regrets.
Following Jesus is not a spectator sport. Those who sneer keep themselves on the sidelines. We are invited to join the throng in the streets listening to the disciples in every language, including English, which didn’t even exist at that time. We hear the Word of God preached into our souls, lighting us on fire to work for justice, peace, love in a world that often heads in the opposite direction.
There is Spirit alive in this world. We can try to dismiss it as nonsense or people being drunk at 9:00 in the morning. Who loses? We do. We shut ourselves off from Spirit alive in this world.
How is Spirit inviting us to be lit on fire? To live lives of meaning? To sing our song not in a whisper but with our whole being? To give our whole selves to something that will make this world a better place for everyone?
Whether we are young or old, slave or free, male or female, or something in between all of those binary distinctions, Spirit calls us to come out in the streets and dance. Spirit calls us to listen with our hearts wide open. Spirit calls us to give ourselves wholly and freely to God’s love. Spirit calls us to dream big, to make our time count, to show up for justice and love. Spirit calls us to be lit on fire.
Light that fire. I dare you.
Despite everything you have lost.
Despite all the risks.
Despite all the reasons to sneer and hold back and say no.
Despite all the fear and logic.
Light that fire.
Say yes to Spirit that makes your heart sing.
Say yes to a new vision.
Say yes to that direct connection to the Divine moving and shaking the world.
Say yes to love.
Light that fire.
And then see what happens.
Your life, your world, will be changed for the better.
This is Spirit right here, calling us to do something that matters, to commit rather than stand back and sneer. At whatever age, with whatever gender, whatever your economic status, bring your whole self to this call, this new vision. Let Spirit light your soul on fire. That’s how we change the world. And we will do it together. Amen.