Hope in the Last Days
Rev. Thomas Cary Kinder
United Church of Strafford, Vermont
May 31, 2020 Pentecost
[This sermon was recorded as three Teachings for the On Line Pentecost service. You can watch the video recordings of this sermon at the end of this text and you can see the entire On Line Service by clicking here.]
First Pentecost Teaching
Hope in the Last Days: Dreams and Visions
“In the last days it will be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams.”
So said the prophet Joel in what appeared to be the last days almost three thousand years ago, and so said the first church on Pentecost, and here we are again hoping for the fulfillment of this prophecy in these last days.
Pentecost was a Jewish harvest festival that celebrated the covenant God made with Noah and all people after the flood.
That covenant says that God wants the continuation of life, so when last days come we can believe that God will pour the Holy Spirit upon us. The Spirit will fill our children to take to the streets and prophesy. The Spirit will give our elders visions and dreams to help us find our way.
I had a dream this week that Christina and I were standing in our garden when suddenly the foundations under the hills collapsed. A moment before everything around us had been green, and a moment later the hills had crumbled into a rubble of rock and dust, as barren as the freshly dug garden where we stood.
I was terrified, but I turned to Christina and started raising questions: who else could be left alive, how could we find them, where could we find food and water, how could we survive this time? I wondered if any horses survived because I kept coming back to the thought that we needed to search to gather the human remnant and work together.
Paul Hawken’s 2007 book Blessed Unrest offers a beautiful vision in response to my dream. He acknowledges that the foundations of the world are collapsing, and that the result could be a pile of lifeless rubble, but he lays out a prophetic vision of what is happening in the world in response to these last days, and what he describes is exactly what you would expect if Joel’s prophecy came true. The creator of the universe is pouring out its spirit into people of all ages, genders, cultures and walks of life.
Hawken believes there are as many as two million organizations working toward a common vision today. The vision is mostly unstated, but it amounts to a civilization that operates by the laws of love and compassion, the Golden Rule, justice and equity, the sacredness of all creation.
The Spirit within hundreds of millions of people around the world is giving them this vision and inspiring hope enough in its possibility to gather together and work to make it real. Our little church is part of that movement, and as we look around we see that many others in our town and region are part of it, too.
One of the most hopeful stories in Hawken’s book says that the Spirit can move in unexpected places to help people grow and change.
Hawken describes doing an exercise with a company that produces pesticides. He challenged the chemical engineers “to design a spaceship that could leave earth and return in one hundred years with its crew alive, healthy and happy.” It would need to be “an ecosystem that would provide food, clean water, medicinal plants and fiber for a century.” They needed to envision the society, as well. The spaceship could be as big as necessary but what happened on the spaceship stayed on it for a century.
Their spaceship was five miles in diameter. It needed artists and spiritual leaders as well as growers and engineers. It needed weeds, fungi, bacteria, insects, small animals, “everything their company poisoned on earth for a profit…. Of the several thousand products this company made, none were invited along on the trip.” They created a diverse ecosystem within which a socially just and equitable society practiced organic agriculture and designed all objects for disassembly, reuse and recycling…. After the exercise, a group of employees began an organic garden at headquarters and several engineers quit their jobs.”
Dreams and visions are powerful instruments of the Holy Spirit. They can change the direction of lives and whole civilizations. Today we see the danger our dreams are in, and we see the Spirit moving people to protest and prophesy in the streets. We see people like Gus Speth having visions and figuring out the details so we can change direction as quickly and carefully as possible. (You can read his dream and vision in the Valley News.)
How can we each work with the Holy Spirit that God is pouring out on us now to help us save all life on earth? I’ll take that up in the next teaching, but here’s a hint. The answer to every question is prayer, and the answer to every prayer is the Holy Spirit…
Second Pentecost Teaching:
Hope in the Last Days: As the Spirit Gave Them Ability
“When the day of Pentecost had come… All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.”
The Spirit gives us dreams and visions of the realm of God on earth, and then the Spirit gives us the various abilities we need in order to move society toward the fulfillment of the vision.
The problem is that things get in our way. Mainly we get in our way. Our true self is aligned with the Spirit that created us, but we also each have an ego or false self. The major problems of our world are products of the human ego.
The Holy Spirit is our name for the force of life in the universe. The Spirit wants sustainability, harmony and balance, it wants a sufficiency of the things necessary for life to flourish. It wants these things for all life, not just for an elite or for one species. The ego is not always hostile to those values, it can work for them, but most of us enter adulthood with an ego that is primarily concerned with satisfying the self’s desires for things like control or approval or material pleasure. The true self needs to gain mastery over the false self, and often that comes through painful withdrawal from the ego’s addictions, or through the ego’s realm falling apart.
Pentecost might not have happened if those disciples had not had their egos crushed. They had betrayed, denied and deserted Jesus. Then they believed Jesus had risen from the dead, a belief that could get them ridiculed or thrown out of the synagogue and possibly crucified if they continued to do what Jesus did.
It was the end of their ego life, the end of the world as they knew it, and that is when they were filled with the Holy Spirit and gained the new abilities they needed.
We are going through a similar process now of being humbled by our powerlessness and our complicity in creating a world that is teetering in its last days. The cracks in our egos can be what lets the light of the Spirit in to spark our truest, best, core self. So what can we do to help this happen?
I found a book on my mother’s shelves after she died in 1988. The title appealed to me, Practicing His Presence, because I had been intrigued since I was a boy by the idea of praying without ceasing and living a life in constant connection to God.
Part of the book was written in the 1930s by a missionary in the Philippines named Frank Laubach. It describes an experiment he was trying of turning to God and opening to the Spirit’s guidance and gifts as many minutes a day as he could be.
It is fascinating to read because he could be someone in our Heartfulness Contemplative Training Circle discovering the transformative power of meditation and mindfulness practice.
Laubach was an obscure middle-aged missionary and the abilities the Spirit gave him through this practice enabled him to become a best-selling author and world-famous worker for peace through the abolition of poverty, injustice and illiteracy.
He wrote, “Obstacles which I once would have regarded as insurmountable are melting away like a mirage. People are becoming friendly who suspected or neglected me. I feel like one who has had his violin out of tune with the orchestra and at last is in harmony with the universe.” pp 16f
“Each minute I meet calmly as though it were not important. Nothing can go wrong except one thing. That is that God may slip from my mind if I do not keep on my guard. If He is there, the universe is with me. My task is simple and clear.” p 25
“The most important discovery of my whole life is that one can take a little rough cabin and transform it into a palace just by flooding it with God.” p 28
One of Laubach’s later books was entitled, Prayer, the Mightiest Force in the World. It is fascinating that at the same time another person who was working for world peace and justice said the same thing. Gandhi said his greatest weapon was silent prayer. He said when a person reduces their ego to zero, they become invincible.
As Laubach said, our task is simple and clear. We need to open and surrender our self so the Spirit can give us the ability to meet these last days and find a way through them.
Will it be enough, though? Will we save humanity and save the earth? Will we survive these last days? I will address these questions in the third and final teaching for today.
Third Pentecost Teaching
Hope in the Last Days: At this Sound the Crowd Gathered
Joanna Macy and Chris Johnstone wrote in their book Active Hope, “When a change wants to happen, it looks for people to act through. How do we know when a change wants to happen? We feel the want inside us. There is a desire, a tugging at us to be involved. But that doesn’t make the change inevitable, because standing in our way are all those who say we’re wasting our time, that it isn’t possible, that it will be too hazardous. For the change to happen through us, we need to counter those voices. A shift can happen when we break through a resistance that has been holding us back.”
Frank Laubach was a missionary of the mainstream Congregational church but felt that a change wanted to happen through him. In 1930 he began to experiment with contemplative practice.
He wrote to his father, “I am well aware of the probability of criticism because it is ‘mysticism’…. But then what a stupid world this would be if one never did anything different for fear of criticism!” p 29
The disciples who were sitting together when the day of Pentecost arrived were followers of a teacher who had been arrested, ridiculed and executed as a revolutionary. They knew they could be, too, if they called attention to themselves.
Yet “all of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability…and at this sound the crowd gathered…”
Some in the crowd were amazed, but some sneered and said, “They are full of new wine.”
The Pentecost story challenges us to risk ridicule and attack. This week we were reminded that people can be hateful toward anyone who promotes the values that the Holy Spirit asks us to serve: love of neighbor, compassion for all, the care for creation as sacred, the pursuit of oneness, sustainability, justice and peace.
Pentecost asks us to forget what may happen to us if we let the Holy Spirit fill us and lead us, but we naturally want to know, will it be enough? Will it enable us to save humanity and save the earth? Will we survive these last days?
If anything can give us the abilities we need to fulfill our dreams and visions for earth, it is the Holy Spirit, the highest power in the universe, the force that created all life.
We have a cloud of witnesses saying yes, the Spirit flowing through willing, open hearts can work miracles. Thomas Keating writes in his masterpiece on Centering Prayer, “When the presence of God emerges from our inmost being into our faculties, whether we walk down the street or drink a cup of soup, divine life and love are pouring into the world. The effectiveness of action depends on the source from which it springs. If it is coming out of the false self, it is severely limited. If it is coming out of a person who is immersed in God, it is extremely effective.” (Open Mind, Open Heart 20th Anniversary Edition p 55)
Paul Hawken asks if we would recognize the movement of the Spirit if we saw it. If we were in the street at Pentecost, would we have recognized that this was the beginning of the greatest force for change that the world had ever seen, or would we have thought they were drunk?
If we were part of one small community in a movement made up of two million groups, would we believe that with the Spirit flowing through us we have the dream, the vision, the ability and the people we need to save the world?
If the Spirit had been preparing you all your life to contribute to its movement in this moment of history, serving with your particular share of its gifts, its voice, its love, would you recognize it as your chance for the greatest meaning and purpose life offers?
The goal of life is called divinization in Christian tradition, being transformed to have the heart and mind of Christ, becoming more and more purely aligned with the Spirit of life living in us, serving it, living in its flow.
Frank Laubach said his only fear was forgetting or shutting himself off from that flow. The Tao Te Ching says “If I had any wisdom my only fear would be of straying from the sacred way.”
We know that life on earth is endangered. We know that what is needed now is as many people as possible letting the Spirit flow through them. We know that people and resources will gather around a community that is full of the Spirit’s power.
Change wants to happen. Will you be one of the people who helps? Will you open to the Spirit as much of every hour and day as you can and let it work its miracles through the gifts it has given you?
Let us pray in silence as you consider whether you will say yes to what the Spirit wants to do through you in these last days…