Preacher: The Rev. Doyt L. Conn, Jr.
To listen to the sermon click here.
Last Sunday you may recall I preached about Peter and fishing and the 42-inch (or was it 24-inches? : ) brown trout that I caught. And while my awesome fishing feat may be what you remember most about the sermon, it all started with a vision that Peter had; a vision of some animals and a sheet and lunch. And this vision of his, it turns out, changed the world. Today we have Paul and another vision that, it turns out, changed the world. Paul’s has to do with a man from Macedonia inviting him to come to Asia and teach about Jesus.
Today I want to talk about visions, and how they work, and what they have to say about the movement of the Holy Spirit. When I think about visions the words from
the prophet Joel come to mind:
“I will pour out my spirit on all flesh;
your sons and daughters shall prophesy,
and your young men and women shall see visions.” (Joel 2:28-29 para)
And I am willing to bet there is a person or two, or even many among us, who have had visions and vivid dreams, and so today I want to explore how these visions work, and what they may be telling us about the movement of the Holy Spirit in this place.
I think the Native American rite of passage for young men can be instructive on the topic of visions. (I am in no way an expert in this area, but what I do know seems insightful). When a boy reaches a certain age, around puberty, he is sent out into the woods on his own to fast and pray until he has a vision. He then returns to the community and shares the vision, and, after that, takes his seat with the adults.
Two things occur to me about this vision process. First, that it is entirely predictable that if a person goes a long period of time without food and water, he will inevitably have a vision (or you might call it a hallucination). I can understand why sending a boy off into solitude makes sense as a rite of passage to adulthood. Time by himself, in self-reflection, can provide personal insight that can make him a better member of the community. In other words, go figure yourself out and then we’ll consider you an adult. I get that.
But the vision piece? Why would the community consider that core to what makes a boy a man? Which brings me to the second insight I draw from this rite of passage. A vision, as defined in the dictionary, “is an experience in which a person, thing, or event appears vividly and credibly to the mind, although not materially present, and is attributed to divine agency and influence.”
So, what the boy seeks through the vision is the experience of seeing deeper, broader, older, more fundamental relationships of the community. And it is the experiencing of these relationships, with ancestors and the divine agent of creation, that gives the boy the wisdom and understanding needed to be an adult. In other words, what the Native American community seems to be seeking in this rite of passage are adults who include for consideration relationships that are bigger and older than just the ones present with them around the fire.
What these Native American communities have tapped into is not unique to them. Visions are core to the make-up of communities the world over; Christian communities included. In fact, as we witness with Peter and Paul visions have helped define the Christian community itself.
So, let’s get better acquainted with visions; how they work, and what differentiates them from dreams and hallucinations. To begin it is important to acknowledge that visions come forth from the realm of the soul. There are people who do not believe in the soul, and for them visions are nothing more than brain activity gone haywire, with what is seen itself having no particular meaning. And there are many times when this is the case, and the thing perceived is about brain function and are rightly called hallucinations and dreams.
But the brain has a function in visions as well. Its role is as the particular organic mechanism that catapults us from our soul into the soul of God. For it is within the soul of God that the vision unfolds. The prophet Ezekiel, a great visionary and mystic in the Old Testament, quoted God as saying: “Behold, all souls are mine.”
Let me give you an image I use to imagine the soul. Know that the metaphor is incomplete, as all metaphors for the soul are incomplete, because the soul is bigger than our minds can imagine. Our soul is the substance of us that is perpetually connected to God. It is our soul in God’s soul all of the time.
So, here is the metaphor: Imagine you are in a bubble and that bubble is full of water, and it is floating in a sea made up of the same water. The water inside the bubble is your soul, and the water outside the bubble is God’s soul. And the vision happens when you get out of your bubble and swim in the timeless, eternal waters of the soul of God. And it is out there, in the eternal waters of the soul of God that ancestors are bubbles we can bump into, and other people, whether we know them or not, are bubbles we can bump into as well. And it is in this way that in a vision we may glean insights about people we have never before encountered.
It is through the soul of God that Ezekiel was lifted up and transported to the river Chebar (Eze 3:12). It is through the soul of God that Mohammed was lifted up and taken to the Temple Mount in Jerusalem. It is through the soul of God that Mary met the Angel Gabriel. It is through the soul of God that Joseph, in a vivid dream, was given the name of Jesus.
Visions allow us to see relationships across time and beyond the temporal where we connect our souls to the soul of God. And who knows who we’ll bump into in a vision?
Now there are four characteristics of visions I want to touch on today:
They are memorable;
They are broadening;
They are to be shared;
They point beyond the obvious.
So, let’s take a look at these four characteristics of visions one at a time.
First, visions are distinguished from dreams and hallucinations by being memorable and vivid, and at times more real than events of our regular life. I am sure there are people here today who can remember a vivid dream or a vision as if it were yesterday. Visions stick with us, they imprint upon us.They are memorable.
Second, visions are broadening experiences. We see this in Peter’s vision last week and Paul’s vision this week. Both visions draw Peter and Paul into larger, more inclusive community; which makes sense, because all souls belong to God. And since visions occur within the soul of God, they are, by definition, broadening and inclusive experiences.
The third characteristic of a vision is that it often has meaning, both for the person that experiences it, but also people who hear it. That is why visions should be shared. We see an example of this in the book of Genesis. Jacob had a vision of a ladder going up to heaven and angels were ascending and descending. And the take home message Jacob shared from this vision was: “Surely the Lord is in this place” (Gen 28:16b). True for Jacob then, true for you and me right here, right now. Then Jacob said: “How awesome is the place” (Gen 28:17)! True for Jacob then, true for you and me, right here, right now. So, visions are memorable, they are broadening, and they are meant to be shared.
Finally, my fourth characteristic of visions, is that you may have to wait for a long time to figure out what they point to; which is why they must be memorable.
Let me give you an example from my own life. I had a vivid dream when I was a finalist to be Rector at Church of Our Savior, San Marino CA, and I was convinced it meant I was called to that church.
It went like this: I was in blue room. Kristin was there, asleep. The room was light and bright. The door was open, and a large black stallion walked past the door. Then a chestnut mare with an empty saddle walked past the door. And finally, a small Roan carrying a boy walked past the door.
And here is what it meant to me: The room, bathed in the color of blue, represented being held by God. The horses depicted the unleashing of spiritual power: the stallion for growth and infinite creative potential; the chestnut mare, maternal and pastoral, with an empty seat for me; and the roam pony was just like the one I had as a child, challenging, yet familiar. And it turns out that vision had nothing to do with Church of Our Savior, and everything to do with Epiphany Parish of Seattle.
Visions are memorable, they are broadening, they are to be shared, and they may even unfold over a lifetime. But the most important thing to remember about visions is that when they are activated in a person’s life, or, as indicated by the prophet Joel, in the community’s life, it means the Holy Spirit is activating a people to connect to the past, to reach beyond themselves, to share the story, and to let it unfold in their common life.
That was the case for Peter. That was the case for Paul. And that may well be the case at Epiphany, right here, right now…for this is the age of the Holy Spirit, and now is the time for
our sons and daughters to prophesy,
and our old men and women to have dreams,
and our young men and women to have visions…
for this is a sign of the Holy Spirit
being poured upon us by God.