“Is There a Place For Dreaming?”
A sermon preached by the Rev. Douglas M Donley
August 16, 2015
University Baptist Church
At the end of the service on Sunday, Deidre Druk pulled from the grab bag a piece of paper that read: “I would like to hear a sermon about dreams and revelations. Any Bible passage with dreams (Jacob, Joseph in the Old Testament, Joseph in the New Testament, the Magi)”. Dreaming and the interpretation of dreams was a constant theme in the scriptures. In Genesis Jacob figures out how to reconcile with his brother in a dream. Daniel is so good at interpreting dreams that he gets a new purple garment as a gift. Ezekiel has dreams and visions that sound either crazy or inspiring, depending on how they affect the hearer.
In Matthew’s Gospel Joseph is told in a dream not to shun pregnant Mary and to flee to Egypt after Jesus’ birth. The Magi are warned in a dream not to report back to Herod about what they saw at the Nativity, but to go home by a different way.
Many years ago, we performed a play here called the Gospel According to Kermit, or was it the last temptation of Kermit? Kermit was instructed to be God’s scribe. But as he’s writing the scriptures, or re-writing them, he sees a comic thread through all of them. He is thrown by God into the swamp where he is to live out his remaining days. But Kermit being Kermit pulls out his banjo and leads the congregation in his own dream song.
Why are there so many songs about rainbows and what’s on the other side? Rainbows are visions but only illusions. And rainbows have nothing to hide…
Have you been half asleep, and have you heard voices? I've heard them calling my name. Is this the sweet sound that calls the young sailors? The voice might be one and the same. I've heard it too many times to ignore it, it's something that I'm s'posed to be. Someday we’ll find it, the rainbow connection, the lovers the dreamers and me
Some dreams deal with the past. This is the archeology of Freud, Jung and other dream-focused psychologists. Carl Jung said dreams are the language of the subconscious. What kind of things are we working out in our subconscious? What unresolved stuff is worked out in the safety of REM sleep? Jung believed that dreams revealed a collective unconscious shared by everyone.
Some have even said that dreams are there to act as a garbage dump to get rid of the thoughts that clog up our minds.
Many dreams are about the future. How many of you have had anxiety dreams? I have had many dreams about being unprepared for something. Being someone who is supposed to have something meaningful to say on a consistent basis, this one comes when the words feel less than profound. It comes out in visions like this. I’m on stage for a play that I had not rehearsed- improv in front of 1000 people. Or taking a test for which I have studied the wrong thing. Or the famous naked dream where you go to some event and forget to put on your pants. All of those are anxiety dreams.
We went on a canoeing trip when the kids were young. We made the mistake of trying to switch positions in the boat in the middle of the St. Croix River. Of course we swamped the canoe. The water was shallow enough that we were able to walk the canoe to shore and dump it—lesson learned. But one of our daughters was so traumatized by this that she spent the next two hours screaming that we not get back in the canoe and go to shore. Her nightmares for the next couple of years were about canoeing. She’s over it now, I think. Like a lot of anxiety dreams they are ones in which we are out of control.
The Biblical dreams predominantly deal with the future. What is God’s vision for us? How shall we move? What shall we do? Prophets receive messages in dreams and visions.
Martin Luther King invoked the dream of a beloved community, based on the Biblical ethics of love and justice and it captured the imagination of generations. The dream is still too far away for many of us. Malcolm X called the American dream a nightmare. The late Julian Bond said, invoking both Martin and Malcom, “Good things don’t come to those who wait, they come to those who agitate.”
Langston Hughes wrote about dreams in his famous poem A Dream Deferred. I think of this poem as racial unrest continues in Ferguson and other parts of the country.
What happens to a dream deferred?
Does it dry up like a raisin in the sun?
Or fester like a sore-- And then run?
Does it stink like rotten meat?
Or crust and sugar over-- like a syrupy sweet?
Maybe it just sags like a heavy load.
Or does it explode?
With all that in mind, what do we do with our dreams and nightmares? Is there still a place for dreaming?
In today’s scripture, we meet Joseph—a dream interpreter in Pharaoh’s court. Joseph’s early dreams landed him in trouble. Already the apple of Daddy Jacob’s eye, he had a dream that all of his brothers would bow down to him. That’s a recipe for getting beat up by 10 older brothers and countless sisters. That’s exactly what happened. Spurned by his arrogance, he was sold out as a slave by his own brothers and sent to another land. He was put in prison because he resisted the advances of a powerful woman. He was promised freedom in return for his dream interpretation, only to be forgotten in prison until Pharaoh needed him. And then when he finally gets the chance to interpret Pharaoh’s dream, he does so with wisdom and a bit of cunning.
He interprets the seven cows and the seven grains as a prognostication about present abundance and future famine. He encourages Pharaoh to begin a tax system that looked foolish at first but became the envy of every other country—taking 20% of grain for seven years as a protection against famine.
One of my favorite undergraduate courses was Energy, Technology and Society. One of the texts was W. Jackson Davis’ “The Seventh Year: Industrial Civilization in Transition.” Way back in 1979, Davis said that we are in the seventh year of plenty. We had better plan for the years of want. We can be like Joseph and predict the future, just by looking at climate change and global warming. The second law of thermodynamics tells us that if we consume energy without replacing them we will run out. It’s time to save for the future, lest our dreams become nightmares. But somehow saving for a drought is deemed foolishness, unless you’re in a drought and wish you had saved more during the seasons of plenty.
But there is another dynamic going on here. Joseph is the dreamer who is an instrument of God. Joseph is quick to say that the interpretation of these dreams are not his power, but God’s power working through him. He uses his wisdom to not only grant himself freedom, but give him a place in Pharaoh’s royal court.
Pharaoh assumes a monopoly on knowledge, but this dream shows his vulnerability. He consults magicians but they are not helpful.
1700 years later, Herod is equally helpless, so he consults with the magi (magicians), gets no satisfaction and is thwarted by another Joseph who flees to where else but Egypt to escape Herod’s imperial military.
Only when Pharaoh consults God through God’s messenger Joseph does he get the truth, inconvenient as it might be. Pharaoh knows many things. He knows how to prosper, how to oppress, how to wage war. But some things are out of his control. He can’t control God. That keeps him up at night. It’s his recurring dream or nightmare.
Joseph, for his part, has nothing to lose. He’s already in prison. He has already lost his best chances at escape. Joseph’s monopoly of the dream landscape undermines the control of the empire. In fact, the ceding of land to Joseph in the 47th chapter secures the land for the Hebrew people in Egypt.
Now this is a quaint story about an old way of understanding knowledge. Dreams are kooky and they demand attention. If we don’t attend to them, they keep coming back—part of our brain’s way of reminding us that there are things we need to pay attention to.
But the story of Joseph’s dream interpretation is a story of the subversion of power. Pharaoh is no longer in control. God is in control. Pharaoh thinks he has all knowledge, but a foreign prisoner becomes the messenger of the truth. Pharaoh cedes control over to him. Pharaoh is not in control.
There is a dark side to Joseph once he gets power. The farmers dutifully give their 20% of grain for seven years to preserve against the famine. It reminds me of state surpluses to preserve us against a recession. But it can be tempting not to save with all of that abundance. Like many politicians, Joseph enacted policies to keep him in power.
For when the grain in the land runs out, Joseph doesn’t give it to the farmers who had given the grain through their taxes. He sells it to them at a profit. When they run out of money, he takes their cattle. When they have sold off their livestock, he takes their land. Now what kind of dream is this? Whose dream? Whose nightmare? And who gets the land forfeited by the Egyptian peasants to pay for the food? Joseph and his family—Israel who has sojourned, gets land in Egypt. Talk about irony.
In Joseph’s hands the scheme makes some serious cash.
Maybe Joseph dreamed of freedom in that prison cell. And he did get released from prison, only to be imprisoned by a system of his own making that kept poor people poor while he prospered. And maybe it planted the seeds of disdain of the Egyptian people against the Hebrew people which set the stage for the Exodus.
Our work is to dream God’s dream. To interpret the signs of the times in light of God’s vision of justice and peace for all people, not just the select people, not just the chosen people, not just the elite, but everyone.
The title of today’s sermon comes from a song by my friend Ken Medema. Many years ago, he wrote a song that had these words:
Well, is there a place for dreaming in the corners of your mind? In a world where dreams are broken down and dreamers hard to find? And do you dream and do you weep sometimes about the way that things should be? Come dreamin’ with me, dreamin’ with me. Admission is free.
Do you dream of another country where there is no push and shove? Where the rich don’t rule and all the poor will be fed and the only law is love? Where a neighbor is a neighbor and there is trust and loyalty? Come dreamin’ with me. Admission is free.
Is there a place for Dreaming God’s Dreams? God’s dreams are the ones that push you to be better. They give you courage. They remind you of grace.
Way back in Seminary, I was living in New York City during one really hot summer. It was the kind of summer when the heat radiated off the pavement. People got on the subway just to luxuriate in the AC which was not so prevalent in old apartment buildings. When it gets that hot, you get testy. You start dreaming about living other places. I was finishing up my summer session of CPE and had just moved into Our Savior’s Atonement Lutheran Church, where me and three other seminarians were going to be part time sextons and part time staff for the church in exchange for un-air conditioned housing. The staff apartment was below the apartment of Erna Julch. Erna was a stodgy German who was the widow of the former sexton. Part of the deal was that she could live there after her husband’s untimely death. That was 27 years before. She had seen seminarians come and go. She didn’t like the changes of the new pastors and she was as lonely as she was crotchety.
I received a call on one of those unbearably hot August days from another member of the church who was not able to get a hold of Erna. She feared the worst and was right. I found the keys to the apartment, got in to find Erna on the floor, having passed away several hours before. It was not the welcome to the church I wanted and it freaked me out. I had trouble going up to her old apartment to ready it for the next tenant, trouble figuring out what my role was with this church who didn’t know me. All the while, I was finishing up my CPE work which is all about beating you down and getting to the root of your blinders and your go-to response to crisis. This pushed all of my buttons.
And then…Erna visited me in my dreams. But she wasn’t the crotchety, hard-of-hearing judgmental person that I had met all of two times before. She was kind and loving. She told me it was going to be okay. She patted me on the shoulder like a kindly grandmother. She told me to get on with my work. It wasn’t necessarily the rainbow connection, but I imagine she was God’s messenger sent to me to get me out of my rut. I imagine God looking at me, sometimes with Erna’s transformed face. Telling me to get up and get on with it.
Is there a place for dreaming? You betcha. It’s where we meet God and are encouraged to do something better.
Ken’s song ends with this refrain:
Keep on dreaming ‘til the morning comes
Keep on dreaming ‘til the night is gone
Keep on dreaming ‘til the last note dies
Keep on dreaming ‘til the humble children rise
Keep on dreaming ‘til there is no fear
Keep on dreaming ‘til the victory is near
Keep on dreaming ‘til hand in hand we walk
Keep on dreaming ‘til the silent voices talk.
Pay attention to your dreams and see how they mesh with God’s dream for you—to be the best person you can be, warts and all.
To speak for the voiceless.
To take a breath and think with wisdom about complex situations, not just giving a knee-jerk reaction that you parrot from someone else.
To be present with the brokenhearted.
To live a life inspired and modeled on God’s dream of Shalom.
To be a hopeful presence when all the evidence points in the other direction. That’s called faith.
Then we’re approaching God’s dream landscape and we cling to an other-worldly hope.
And then we go about doing our part in creating that better world, about which the best of us dream.
And it is good.
For there is an honored place for dreaming! Come dreaming with me. Admission is free.