Sermon at All Saints Coddington for Pentecost 2016

Isaiah 42:1-9; Acts 2:1-17

“I have a dream.” No one of the generation of most of us here can fail to remember Martin Luther King speaking at the rally against racial discrimination at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington. Believe it or not, it’s now 53 years ago – 1963. “I have a dream.”

It’s come to mind because of the closing words of our second lesson: And it shall come to pass in the last days, saith God, I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh: and your sons and daughters shall prophesy, and your old men shall dream dreams. Quite a few of us, I suppose, now belong to the category of old men.

Prophesying in the Bible doesn’t mean looking into the future: it means looking at the present to see what will happen in the future if nothing changes. And dreams in the Bible are seen as one way in which God can speak to people, and any necessary interpretation of them also comes from God.

Remember Pharaoh’s dreams and how Joseph’s explanation of them was instrumental in his release from prison and consequently the eventual saving of the Hebrew people from starvation. And do you remember also the show-stopper from Joseph and his Amazing Technicolour Dreamcoat: Any dream will do? In a way, that’s right, any dream will do, because, as in that other musical South Pacific: You gotta have a dream; if you don’t have a dream, how you gonna have a dream come true? This is all dating me, isn’t it?

Then there were the dreams given to that later Joseph by which God informed him of his plans for his espoused wife Mary, that she would have a son who should be given the name Jesus.

Of course there are dreams and dreams. Some of the dreams we might have while sleeping could well be ascribed to the devil if you believed in the devil – terrifying nightmares. Others are just pipe dreams, wishful thinking about the lottery or romance or whatever. But the dreams that the outpouring of the Holy Spirit can cause old men to dream are essentially about hope. Even when we’re old and grey, you gotta have hope, a God-given dream of a better future.

How pitiful we would be if we no longer looked for a better world, if we no longer hoped for the coming of the kingdom of God. Some people find it very easy to slip into that vale of despondency, and my goodness, there’s certainly enough in the national and global news to make people incline that way. What is the world coming to? But Jesus said, The kingdom of God is at hand; it’s already within you and among you. Every act of sacrificial generosity, every deed showing lovingkindness, every instance of genuine forgiveness, all the love shared in families and among friends is evidence that God’s kingdom, that is his reign, his influence and his presence, is already here.

But, and what a big but it is, there remains a staggeringly huge task still to be accomplished before it becomes unnecessary to continue praying, “Thy kingdom come.” There’s the abolition of modern slavery, of sexual exploitation, of racial discrimination, of malnutrition, of homelessness, of illiteracy, of war and all the conditions which force people to become refugees. But we can dream dreams; we can be led by the Spirit to be visionaries, people of hope rather than people of despair. Yet what can we, here in little Coddington, actually do about such things? The problems, the needs, are so utterly enormous and by and large not on our own doorsteps.

Well, thank God, and I mean that, thank God for Christian Aid and Oxfam and CAFOD and all the other non-governmental organisations which do make it possible for us to be involved - by giving our money to support their work. “Love your neighbour,” said Jesus, and he told the story of the Good Samaritan to show that our neighbour is anyone in need, even if he or she could be regarded as a traditional enemy. Every now and then we might, like that Samaritan, personally come across someone who needs our help, but most of the people in need are totally out of reach. We can only show our concern, our love for them through Christian Aid and the other NGOs. Well, of course Christian Aid Week begins today, and this year part of its publicity says, “Love EVERY, EVERY neighbour.”

You might have noticed that I’m wearing my new collector’s badge. Actually I’ve only been a door-to-door collector since I retired, but I’m pleased to be able to say, though I wouldn’t say it if she were here, that Jill has only missed being a collector once in the past 54 years.

Nevertheless, she, like most of us, gets worried with these organisations over some of the donated money going astray, over some of the administrative costs and over some of the salaries of the chief executives, but the organisations do provide us with a Spirit-prompted way of doing something to fulfil the Spirit-prompted dreams that we dream. Very often they are the only way, beyond praying, that we can help, that we can love these neighbours in desperate need.

We are also, of course, thinking especially of the Holy Spirit today, Whitsunday, as the Book of Common Prayer calls it, reflecting the ancient English tradition of wearing white for the festival. And for centuries it really was a time for parties and holidays and all sorts of festivities. Indeed I still think it’s sad that the Whit bank holiday was replaced by the Spring bank holiday: it’s taken some of the sparkle out of the festival.

Nowadays it’s considered much more correct to call it, with the rest of Christendom, Pentecost, because it was on the Day of Pentecost, the Jewish spring harvest festival, that what we’re celebrating happened. And what a day that was!

It was fifty days after the Resurrection and Jesus’ disciples and friends were gathered together, when suddenly and without any warning they experienced God with them in a striking new way. It was so new and so dramatic that afterwards they were hard pressed to find words to describe it. It was like a gale-force wind; it was akin to flames licking around them. It was as though they were being swept off their feet; it was so exciting and exhilarating that it seemed they were on fire. It must be, they realized, the baptism with the Holy Spirit which Jesus had told them to wait for. God, the living God, was among them and within them. God with us, the Holy Spirit.

Well, not many of us ever experience the Spirit as dramatically or as powerfully as that. And that’s not surprising, as that day of Pentecost was a one-off occasion. Like the crucifixion, like the resurrection, like the ascension of Jesus, this was to be a never-to-be repeated happening: the initial outpouring of the Holy Spirit of God upon his people. And, following Peter’s sermon, that very day 3,000 were baptized – three thousand. It was the very beginning of the Church. Whitsunday has often been called the birthday of the Church.

But there remain numerous and varied ways in which we can and do know God’s Holy Spirit impinging upon our lives. And the two I want to emphasize today are that he causes us to dream dreams, to have a vision of how this world could be. And then he prompts us to do something about it. In our own locality there are often opportunities to love our neighbours in a practical way. And for the many neighbours beyond our reach, there’s Christian Aid.