Sunday, December 19, 2010

A dream of angels

Revised and Updated.

A sermon for the Fourth Sunday of Advent, Year A
December 19, 2010

I heard this story once:
A woman woke up one morning a few days before Christmas and told her husband, "I just dreamed that you gave me a pearl necklace for Christmas. What do you think this dream means?" "Oh," her husband replied, "you'll know the day after tomorrow."

The next morning, she turned to her husband again and said the same thing, "I just dreamed that you gave me a pearl necklace for Christmas. What do you think this dream means?" And her husband said, "You'll know tomorrow."

On the third morning, the woman woke up and smiled at her husband, "I just dreamed again that you gave me a pearl necklace for Christmas. What do you think this dream means?" And he smiled back, "Come and see."

So they go to the living room and the man reached under the tree and presented a small package to his wife. She was delighted. She opened it gently, carefully saving the paper. When she opened the box there was…a book! The title? "The Meaning of Dreams."
So, have any good dreams lately?

Of course, we're dreaming of whatever will be left under our trees and I hope all those dreams come true! But more than that, I wish for you to have another kind of dream, the dream of God. I hope that you experience that dream most of all.

Not all our dreams are good ones. I imagine painful relationships. I relive things I’ve done wrong or imagine myself in terribly embarrassing situations: I am standing in a pulpit, for instance, with nothing to say wearing nothing but a barrel. These are the nights I spend wrestling with God like the patriarch Jacob.

There are other dreams that refresh and renew with great places and amazing encounters; of flying through the sky and meeting wonderful creatures and interesting people. These are like the dreams of Ezekiel who dreamt of angels coming and going with no barriers between heaven and us.

It’s strange, really, but for all our amazing medical knowledge we are only now learning about the importance of sleep. Once I had to have a sleep study. I am not sure how much good it did. They hooked me up with wires on my body, on my head and even in my hair, they put on a mask which made me look like a jet fighter pilot in pajamas. They put me in a room decorated like a Motel 6 except that there was a two way mirror across from the bed and a camera pointed down at the person in it. And then they told me to sleep normally!

Once I got past the idea of being watched while sleeping, I slept…but not very well. I had to take a nap after the sleep study. You know what they told me? I snore. Well, heck, I knew that! Just ask my wife!

There is one thing we do know about sleep: we need it as much as we need food, shelter and clothing. Without proper sleep our bodies get sick. Not only that, our brains need our bodies to to sleep. But more than rest, our brains need to dream. If we don’t regularly reach the level of sleep where dreams happen, we go a little crazy.

Writers, artists, scientists, mathematicians, inventors and composers all tell us that often their deepest insight happens while they are sleeping. We need sleep because we need to dream.

Today's gospel lesson is about a dream. Not Mary's dream, but Joseph's. Of the four Gospels, only two tell us about the birth of Jesus, Matthew and Luke, and they are very different in how they tell the story. Luke’s Gospel has the shepherds. Matthew has the Magi. Luke has the stable and the holy family going to Bethlehem. Matthew has the flight into Egypt and Jesus is born at home in Nazareth.

I have the sense that Luke’s Gospel talks about the nativity from the standpoint of the women: think about Elizabeth and Mary. But Matthew frames the story in terms of the men: Joseph, the wise men, and Herod. So in Luke, the angel appears to Mary, but in Matthew, it’s Joseph who has the vision. And that’s what we hear today.

When Joseph went to sleep that night, he had a problem. When he woke up, he was changed—toward himself, towards Mary, towards God. What happened?

Mary was pregnant before they were married. Joseph’s had decided what to do. There was no sleeping on it, he would quietly send her back home to her parents. Disgraced, yes. Sad, yes. But honorably and quietly. So he went to sleep knowing that he was doing the right thing in a hard situation. But when Joseph woke up, he was determined to take Mary in and to get married any way and be father to this baby. So what happened?

What happened was that Joseph dreamed that God would enter the world. In a vision of angels, Joseph learned that God would be born to his wife. Truly, the stuff of dreams! But to move from dream to reality, Joseph had to trust. He had to trust God, but perhaps more important, Joseph had to trust Mary. And Joseph could not trust Mary without first listening to his dream.

Joseph dreamed of the salvation of the world. And for Joseph, the way of salvation meant trusting someone else. We who think of success in terms of self-reliance, and who think of mental health in terms of independence and finding one’s own voice may find this hard to understand: but Joseph discovers that true salvation comes through someone else.

That is Joseph’s lesson for us. Like Joseph, sometimes, we are supposed to trust God and then get out of the way. Trust that God is working through our spouse or partner, and then get out of the way. Trust that God is working in our children, and then get out of the way. Trust that God is working through our community, our parish, our peers, then get out of the way.

The thing that jumps out at me every time I revisit the Christmas Gospels is this. God trusts in Mary and Joseph to act faithfully. Think about that. God, the One who made heaven and earth and all that is in them, will risk the salvation of all creation on the response of a young girl and an old man; a teenager and her geezer husband.

All it would have taken for God’s plan to be stalled was for the girl to say “uh, no!” and for old man to ignore his dream. But God is a risk-taker: God has faith in us to have faith. God dares us to listen to our dreams and act.

Joseph dreamed of God’s salvation being born in Mary’s baby. Mary dreamed of a world where the poor are lifted up, the hungry fed, and God fulfills their dreams through the birth of Jesus, his life and ministry, and his cross and resurrection. God also fulfills their dream as we listen to their dreams. Where would we be if Joseph and Mary had ignored each others dreams? Where would the world be if we ignored theirs?

Sometimes it’s hard to sleep. And I don’t just mean that we snore. We have too many worries, too many questions and too few answers. Some wag once observed that "I never sleep comfortably except when I am at a sermon." But remember, we sleep so we can dream. And God gave us each other so that we will have someone to tell our dreams to, so that we will have people who will believe our dreams.

The dream of God is that we see the world as God does, full of hope, possibility and life. That we cherish the world as much as God does. That we see and treat each other with the same dignity, and love and compassion as God treats us. The dream of God comes to us when we least expect it and when we most need it. The dream of God becomes reality in sacramental community who takes the dream of God and brings it home, to work, school, to the streets of Easton and to our relationships.

In order to bring the dream of God into reality, we have to trust. We have to trust God, and we also have to trust each other. We have to listen to each other and pray together. We have to remember that no one of us has the whole picture, but that God’s dream is spread out amongst us all. Just as Joseph’s dream and Mary’s dream are incomplete without each other, so our vision of God at work is incomplete if we stay isolated.

You are not only the dreamers of God but you are like the angels who bring the vision to people who crave God’s love, God’s peace, God’s purpose and God’s salvation. The dream of God is meant to be lived. Listen for angels and listen for the dream of God in those you love and when you live God’s dream, it will seem to the world like a miracle.

1 comment:

Mike said...

Andrew, this is a fantastic manuscript, and I trust it preached just as well as it reads! Not only do I like that wonderful joke at the beginning (I'm going to steal that one of these days!), but also I appreciate how fully you develop the theme of dreaming God's dreams. Desmond Tutu published a little book a few years ago called "God's Dream" (or something like that), in which, as I recall, he talks at great length about God's dreams for the world, and how we are called to take part in them -- as Joseph does in this text.

(I also appreciated it as one who, after his own sleep study, is now saddled with a CPAP machine!)

Blessings to you and your congregation this Christmas.

Mike Poteet