Joel 2: 23-32
Pentecost 20, Ordinary 30
October 27, 2019
Lincoln Street UMC, Portland, Oregon
When you are standing in the middle of a forest, sometimes all you can see is the trees. And often, just the three trees there right in front of you. In fact, the only way you know you are in a forest is through deduction. Meaning, you see a number of trees all about you, knowing that a forest is made up of trees, you figure, hey! I’m in a forest.
But really, otherwise, you have to take the forest ranger’s word for it, or seek out a topographical map that helps you - with that clever little “You are here” red arrow - helps you see that yes indeed you are currently in the middle of a forest. It’s not like you can see the whole forest in order to be able to identify it as such.
Now, if you have all day, and a good inner compass, you can wander about in that forest for as long as you like.
You’ll encounter - at least out here in Oregon - all sorts of lovely vegetation: fir, of course!, spruce, pine, hemlock, oak, alder, maple, beech, fern, moss, mushroom. You can traipse about from one remarkable plant to the next in complete delight at the wild diversity and wondrous beauty of our planet. You don’t have an agenda or a time clock ticking. You can just be, in the forest with all of its verdant gifts.
And if you have a map, well, that’s okay. Or a trail. That’s fine.
But mostly your day of wandering is about appreciating what you encounter along the way, and not particularly about getting anywhere specific.
All you need to see is what is right there before you. And in the middle of a beautiful Oregon forest, where you have no other agenda and plenty of supplies, that is enough.
But of course, we all know stories where that wasn’t enough.
Where someone, or several someones, wandered off the trail and couldn’t find their way back out. The good stories wind up with a successful rescue - sometimes including helicopter for the dramatics. The sad stories end with huge questions and loss for their loved ones.
Because wandering about in the forest is a wonderful way to spend time, but ultimately one wants to be able eventually to leave that forest and go home -
to enjoy a sudsy bath, a glass of wine and warm dinner. And to be able to leave the forest, you do best with a trail map, a guide book or some very good orienteering skills.
Because that’s what works for us, isn’t it? A good trail map, or at least a really clear set of directions of how to get from A to B. While wandering is fun for a while, ultimately we humans are people of direction.
It’s as though direction gives us another set of eyes with which to see. Like birds who “see” with their inner eye in order to find the same body of water each year as they migrate north and south. A trail map helps us navigate when our horizon is blocked by so many trees. So many details in the way of seeing which direction to go.
That’s what we’re up against when we find ourselves in the middle of change.
It’s confusing and messy, mostly because no one has handed us a trail guide to say - “Well, this turn will take you all day, but the view at the top is gorgeous. And this trail is accessible to all and winds around the lake.”
And without a trusty forest ranger at our side, we are left to sort out the forest for the trees. It starts as a rumble - you begin asking questions. Sorting out what it is that’s bugging you.
You try on all sorts of questions and solutions which begins to look a lot like those Hi and Lois comic strips where Billy, being asked to get his brother from the backyard goes out the front door, all over the neighborhood and eventually climbs over the back fence to tell his brother it’s time for dinner.
Because you are wandering all over, in and out of options, you fall in love with an idea only to have it tarnish after a couple of days or weeks. You have more conversations than you thought was possible about your questions. And nothing, nothing seems to make sense. But you keep after it and after it, and slowly the fog burns off, and you can see again. After time, you begin to learn the forest - its detailed contours - and you can find your own way forward. You gain direction.
So too with social movements. Only, with so many engaged in such a process, social movements are even more messy, clumsy, chaotic, disorganized -
full of so many trees, so densely grown, that there is no hope of seeing one’s way through on one’s own.
Martin Luther - who gets a lot of credit for the reformation of the church - he lived in a crazy time of upheaval. And history has painted a clear picture of him writing his theses and pinning them declaratively to the door, but the truth is so much more convoluted. There were so many Martin Luther’s at the time.
They discussed and ranted and declared among themselves and throughout the area for what felt like ages. His theses were really their theses, and they did not come out of a vacuum, but rather were the outpouring of hours and hours of time spent together in prayer, study, conversation, debate.
And of course, his theses did not miraculously and instantaneously create a new church. In fact, all he wanted to do was clean up the church he was in. (Sound familiar?)
But he - and his compatriots - were in the middle of the forest, and without a trail map. The vision of hindsight, as they say, is 20/20. But when you are in the middle of such foment and upheaval, its difficult to know how to proceed.
Joel’s people had come through such disasters.
Drought and famine followed by locust plagues, they were a people who perhaps weren’t seeking out change, but having change thrust upon them and wondering what they were to do.
And Joel tells them that God promises what - yes food and security, but after that what? Vision and dreams.
God promises that they will find that they can see again, see their way forward.
See a new way to be together.
See their land and their livelihood restored. See the way toward living as the children of God again.
“Wipe the dew off your spectacles and see that the world is moving.” Movement and change is about vision. It is about dreaming. And it is about lifting one another high enough that we can catch glimpses above the trees. It is about taking what you see and describing it in such detail that another can see it too - and maybe even make a map.
“Wipe the dew off your spectacles and see that the world is moving,” said Elizabeth Cady Stanton, a reformer of her own time, reforming the church as well as society - working to bring women the vote and women to leadership in the church.
We each have a role to play - a vision to cast. We are each called to wipe the dew, and share what we see. It is messy, but it is part of the greater picture.
And perhaps we’ll feel uneasy a good part of the time because we have no clear sense of exactly where the change is moving us.
But change, reform, will only happen if we wake up, clear the dew, lift one another up, and speak clearly the dreams and visions that God has placed upon our hearts.
Let us take heart friends. Our church and our nation need us.
Need us to find words,
need us find people with whom to share these words,
need us to hold each other up above the fray from time to time,
need us to cast visions.
“It is I who must begin” . . . and you and you and you. We are the people of the Reformation. We are people of re-formation. God’s gift. Our direction.
This sermon was written by Elizabeth Winslea and delivered on October 27, 2019 at Lincoln Street United Methodist Church. It is published here with the permission of the author. Please link back to this post and credit the author if you reprint or use any portion of it.