Six years ago, I began attending a church that worshiped on the streets of Newburg, NY, a city known for its violence, unemployment and drug use. The church was called Ecclesia and we met on a sidewalk, with sawhorses and a wooden board as a Communion table. People came from down the street and from outside of town and together we gathered, sang, broke bread and wrestled with the meaning of the Scriptures.
At the end of the first service, while I was still a stranger, Pastor Steve walked over to me and gave me a cross necklace, just like he gives every new person, and said, “You are called by God.” Just like that. I looked down at the cross, which said “ecclesia”, the Greek word for church, which literally means called out.
It was a bitterly cold January day and yet the circle around the sawhorses was full – there was a woman from the suburbs who showed up because she was spiritual hungry. There were people who were homeless who showed up because they were physically hungry. There was an inspirational man who had been sober for years and there was Ruth, Steve’s spouse, who played the flute for us even though it was cold and we were outside.
There we were, all of us, called out by God, anointed by the Spirit.
In the book of Joel, God says, “I will pour out my Spirit on all humankind.”
When I read the words this week, I wondered, what does that look like? What does it really mean to have God’s spirit is poured out on all of us?
On aging loved ones and curious young ones. On people who work in the service industry and struggle with low-wages and on those who live comfortably. On those who identify as female or male or beyond the gender spectrum.
“I will pour out my Spirit on all humankind,” God says, “You daughters and sons will prophesy, your elders will have prophetic dreams, and your young people will see visions. In those does, I will pour out my Spirit even on those in servitude, women and men alike.”
We are called out by God, all of us. We are called out to prophesy, dream dreams and see visions. At first glance, God’s call may seem intimidating. After all, isn’t prophesy something that happened a long time ago? While it’s often portrayed as a cryptic prediction of the future, prophesy is in fact truth telling, truth-telling about the ways the Spirit is at work in the world.
Prophesy. Dream. Envision.
Tell the truth about the work of the Spirit in the world.
Because sometimes we forget.
Like the Israelites in today’s Scripture. For a long time, they lived as exiled people in a foreign land. When it finally came time to return home, the Israelites found a locust-covered earth, yielding no life, no food, no plants. The soil, dried up; the fields, forgotten.
Like their hopes and dreams.
What would happen to them?
Anxiety haunted them as they pondered their future and hunger gnawed at them as they stared out at their empty barns and wondered, “Where is God?”
Joel writes, “Even the wild animals cry to you for the streams have been dried up and fires have destroyed the wilderness pastures.”
Even the wild animals. Where is the Holy Spirit? In Genesis, after humankind is created, God tells us to kabash or have dominion over the earth. This dominion is not one that legitimates destruction. Rather, as people made in the image of the Divine, we are called to a responsible caretaking that invites creation to life abundant.
Yet, this is not the way of life that the people have practiced, they have cared little for the earth, trampled on the poor and spent the Sabbath thinking of how they come out ahead in terms of greed, money and status. Their practices have drained the earth’s resources, wore down their souls and ultimately brought about destruction.
In the face of this reality, Joel shows up. We don’t know much about Joel’s background. Yet, I find it striking, that in the book that follows Joel – Amos – we are told that the prophet Amos is an ordinary person, who responded to God’s call by saying, “I am no prophet. Nor am I the disciple of a prophet. I [am] a shepherd gathering figs for food.”
Amos was just trying to put food on the table and God told Amos to go out there and speak truth to power and Amos says yes. I like to imagine that, like Amos, Joel was an ordinary person who said, “What is going on is not right. I am going to speak up. I am going to be a truth-teller.”
“Where is God?” the people ask.
Joel says simply: “God is gracious and deeply loving like a mother, quick to forgive and abundantly tender-hearted. God is right here, longing for the healing of creation, saying, ‘Return to me with all your heart.’ God speaks not only to the people but also to the earth, telling the land, ‘Fear not’ and to the beasts in the field, ‘Forget your fear.’” God invites us all – the land, the wild beasts and humankind into life made new.
Even now, it is not too late. God says to us, “Return to me with all your heart.”
For Joel writes, “After that …”
After the destruction of the land. After the dried up hopes of the people. After we experience the death-dealing forces of the world. After that, God will pour out God’s Spirit – literally in Hebrew – on all flesh. It will come down, like the spring rains, and enable the entire landscape to flourish with the most varied beings.
Like the people of Israel, we too look around, hungry for a prophet like Joel to tell us the Good News. Yet, what Joel teaches us is that it is we who are the prophets called out by God. It is we who are anointed. Our prophets don’t only take the form of flute players and pastors, they also take the form of those who tell the story of sobriety, one day at a time, and those without houses who know what it is to do hard things and those who show up at church, who may not have it all figured out, but know that they are hungry for the Gospel.
Our prophets come in the form of carpenters and writers, dreamers and artists, underemployed young people and wise elders who have been written off by society. Our prophets come in the form of inquiring toddlers and brave people who speak up about their mental illness and everyday people who say, “I was just trying to put food on the table, and then God showed up.”
Our prophets take the form of ordinary people, like a couple I read about this week in the New York Times, Kathy and David. Kathy and David have a teenage son named Santi and Santi had a friend who is hungry. So Santi invited him over occasionally to eat and sleep at his house. However, it turned out that the friend had a friend and that friend had a friend.
Pretty soon, there were fifteen to twenty teenagers showing up at Kathy and David’s door for dinner. Sometimes, they would go upstairs and crash there overnight.
Thursday dinner was the big social occasion of the week. They had a big meal with tasty food and no cellphones allowed.
At this dinner, the kids dream dreams, of going to college, even if they don’t know how to apply, of connecting, of having a better future. So Steve and Kathy set up a fund, called All Our Kids, to make these dreams a reality.
At this dinner, the kids share their gifts: Edd reads a poem from his cracked flip phone that is so good one person thought it rom Langston Hughes, but it turned out to be his own, Kesari has this soulful voice that sings out like New Orleans jazz, Madeline and Theyla practiced friendship like it was the highest art form and Jamel loses himself as he talks of engine repair.
They are prophets, all of them.
Prophesy. Dream. Envision.
The Holy Spirit is in our midst, pouring down like the autumn and spring rains of old.
Can you hear Her? Can you see Her?
Joel is inviting us to pay attention, because we are surrounded by the anointed. Joel invited us to pay attention not only to human kin, but to all flesh, all living things. For our prophets also come in the form of Creation itself.
My colleague Rachel McGuire, a clergywoman from Rochester, tells the story of losing a dear friend Roy Hedman, who for her had been a persistent truth-teller and a teacher of God’s tender-heartedness. The October morning that he died, Rachel walks into her back garden and inexplicably there was this bright red poppy blooming up a storm … in October! It was completely unexpected. As Rachel is looking at it, the phone rings and she hears the news of Roy’s unexpected death. She says that, in that moment, it was like, somehow, the tenderness that emanated from Roy reemerged through the cold, through this beauty, through this rose e’er blooming, and reminded her not to give up, not to stare at the dead stumps in the world but to notice the tender shoots sprouting up from the Spirit herself.
In that moment, it is the poppy itself who prophesies of God’s beauty and God’s creative promise. Notice the tender shoots defiantly blooming.
Prophesy. Dream. Envision.
The Holy Spirit is in our midst, pouring out like the autumn rains, sprouting up like a poppy in October, bursting forth like a promising adolescent.
Even now, the Spirit is anointing all flesh, pouring out on each of you and all the world.
In the end, Joel uses language like “pillars of smoke” and “darkness” symbolically to say that yes, there is evil in the world. Yet, even in our darkest hour, God’s love is bursting through. Like a defiant flower in the cold, the Spirit brings forth life even in the most unlikely of places. As the Spirit rains down, kids prophesy, elders dream dreams and young people see visions, until together we all see God’s vision for healing, for compassion, for wholeness for all the earth.
My friends, you are called by Jesus, anointed by the Spirit, commissioned by the Creator.
Go forth to prophesy, dream and vision.
For God’s kin-dom is a-comin’. Thanks be to God!