Wild and Crazy Dreams

dream

Matthew 1:18-25

Dreams. 

They usually mean one of three things to people. 

“Dreams” are things that we hope for, or they’re messages that we get when we sleep, maybe even sent from God, or, most commonly, they’re the strange, strange leftovers of our subconscious mind. 

You know, like when you dream about your friend saving your life from a wild puma. But right after that you notice your friend has teeth on their feet. And has to go to the dentist to get them removed. But before you get there, you’re sideswiped by Bill Gates riding a zebra and you find yourself thinking, right there in your dream, “I don’t even like Bill Gates.” 

What does it all mean??? 

Honestly, probably nothing. Or maybe that you like Bill Gates more than you thought you did. Or maybe you just saw him on TV last night. Either way, most dreams are pretty inconsequential. 

Luckily, or maybe unluckily, for us, those inconsequential dreams don’t get recorded in the Bible. Because you know Joseph probably had some weird dreams before this, about Mary turning into a talking camel or something, but this dream in the Gospel reading? It was perhaps less bizarre, but more unexpected, than your average dream. I mean, it’s not every night that the Creator of the universe decides to speak to you about your fiancé being pregnant with, well, the creator of the universe. 

But Joseph’s dream is not where it starts. So let’s go back to the beginning. 

Mary’s pregnant.

Joseph is, to say the least, surprised. 

He could’ve publicly shamed her; it was his right under the rules of the day. He was likely hurt, as any of us would be. Instead of enacting any sort of vicious revenge for her perceived infidelity, though, Matthew tells us that he just decided to “dismiss her quietly.” 

This likely still would’ve been very bad for Mary; single moms have always had a hard time, but it was even worse back then. Women couldn’t really go get a job, exactly, and caring for a newborn, as many of you know is a full time job in itself. Add on top of that the shame and stigma of being dismissed by your fiancé out of perceived infidelity, and you’ve got yourself a recipe for disaster. 

We don’t know what Joseph planned to do, but what we do know is that it very likely would’ve been pretty bad for Mary and for the child she was carrying. 

Joseph has decided to do this, however — to dismiss her. And that is where we pick up the story. 

I imagine Joseph, sleepless, wondering what he’s going to do. He’s going to look foolish. His fiancé has cheated on him and now she’s pregnant. This isn’t a problem we’d wish on anyone. What does he do? 

Finally, he decides to send her away, quietly, and not make a thing of it. Maybe he plans to give her a little money, because he still cares for her. Maybe he rehearses what he’s going to tell his mother and his neighbors about where Mary went. Once he thinks it all through, still stressed but somewhat relieved to have come to a decision, he falls into a restless sleep. And that’s when it happens. 

In a dream, before his cloudy eyes, appears “an angel of the Lord.” We know nothing about Joseph’s dream other than what the angel says to him: “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” 

We’ve all heard this passage a bunch of times before, so let’s be clear about one thing: the name that the angel gives Joseph for what he’ll name the child is a really common name. It’s as if one of us is given the name for a child by an angel in a dream and the angel says, in an angelic voice, “And you shall name him Josh. 

Joshua? 

Jesus? 

Yes, Jesus. Because Jesus, and Joshua, actually, mean, essentially, “God saves.” 

Let me tell you something: we sell ourselves far short when we just accept these stories as holy and “how it happened” and “those stories we had to memorize in Sunday school as kids” without stopping to think about how crazy all of this is. It’s not our fault for not noticing, really: it was presented to most of us that way. The adults who taught us these stories as kids had probably never stopped to think about how crazy it all was either, but really —

“You mean God chose to be born to an unwed, poor mother who belonged to a religious minority in a disputed land occupied by the most powerful empire on earth at the time, and just, as the weird cherry on top of this bizarre ice cream sundae of a story, God also happened to choose a really common name?” Wild. 

Because let’s be clear: I’m not suggesting that you realize how crazy this whole story is just for crazy’s sake. It’s because when you realize that, your whole faith life changes. You realize some things about God and about your own life, namely, that God might be a little crazy, and that is the best news imaginable.

Because — what a year we’ve had this. week. The news has us all spinning backwards six ways to Sunday, with uncertainty and fear and division just about everywhere you look. It’s three days before Christmas and you’re probably not ready and even if you are, chances are you’re not looking forward to all of the family dynamics you might have to navigate, whether those dynamics are small potatoes, like whether Uncle Jim will say something horrible, or very very large potatoes, like whether you’ll even be able to gather everyone for another year, or navigating an illness or an injury or an arrest record. And then there’s church and our life together: we’re a tiny congregation in a culture that increasingly quite frankly isn’t all that interested in church, and we’re about to continue a journey in a little over a week to figure out what the heck God is trying to do with us, here, together. 

Given all of that, I for one am quite glad that we worship the kind of God who takes the long way home, who appears in strange dreams, and who chooses to be born into a terrible situation with a very common name. Because you see, it seems to me that God usually appears when things are getting crazy. 

Joseph falls asleep planning to dismiss his fiancé because she’s pregnant, he thinks, with another man’s baby. 

He wakes up believing that the impossible is real: that God is coming, in the midst of all of this mess, and all he needs to do is to get out of the way. Oh yeah, and maybe rock the baby and change a few diapers. 

“Stay in this,” God says, and history is about to change beyond your wildest dreams. 

The world is about to turn. 

The closing hymn for the day is “The Canticle of the Turning,” which is really just Mary’s magnificat — the song she sings when she’s pregnant with Jesus — rewritten in modern language. Over and over when we sing it, we sing, “the world is about to turn.” That is the message of Advent 4: everything stinks right now, but also, everything is about to change, and it’s gonna be wild. 

So good luck on your last minute Christmas preparations — both the physical ones and the emotional and spiritual ones. If you’re about to go into something hard, know that you do not go alone. And whatever you’re going through, believe this: God is a little bizarre, kind beyond your wildest dreams, actually. 

It’s Advent Four. The world is about to turn, in all kinds of ways. And it’s gonna be wild. Amen.

On Doubt

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Saint John, the forerunner, doubter, and prophet. 

Matthew 11:2-11

You’ve probably heard it before, whether in your upbringing or on TV or somewhere else: doubting is a sin. 

If you hear me say only one thing today, let it be this: doubting is not a sin. Doubting is biblical.

Jewish people have always known this far better than Christians. Their faith, more so than ours, is built on a long, long relationship between God and the Hebrew people, rather than the God-and-me relationship that Christians usually think about when we think about faith. 

Christians, quite frankly, have a lot to learn about faith from Jewish people, especially when it comes to the struggle that is a life of faith. 

As an example, a tweet from this past week on Jewish Twitter: “Atheists raised Christian [often claim]: ‘All religion is based on obedience and fear.’ Meanwhile Jews are like “last Tuesday I had a fistfight with [God] at 3am behind an abandoned Arby’s.” This person continued, “I pray because I believe. I pray for myself, for the present, not because some punishment is waiting in the next life. One of the reasons Judaism has survived as a religion for so long is because of the Jewish sense of community. Do we understand God? Absolutely not…. God left us on ‘read’ from 1939-1945. But we’re in this mess together. 

For those of you who don’t know, to leave someone on “read” is to read, yet not respond to, their text message. And it’s true: the Jewish people have been through it, throughout history and still today. Just this week in Jersey City, a Jewish grocery store was attacked. Violence against Jewish people is alive and well. They have had to ask as a people, more than most of us, “Where is God? Why did God allow this to happen?” 

Doubt is a necessary part of their existence. It is part of any healthy faith. If you don’t doubt, you’ve either had a long long journey with God and come to peace, or, alternatively and most likely, you’re not thinking hard enough. 

Another case in point: John the Baptist, in today’s Gospel reading, sends word from prison to Jesus: “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” 

It’s pretty easy to gloss right over that, but back up. 

John is in prison for ticking off the wrong people while he preached about Jesus. And he, John the Baptist, sends word just to make sure that Jesus is really the Messiah. 

You can’t blame him, really. I mean, if I were in prison because I thought someone was sent by God, and then I was still stuck in prison after that, I’d probably have my doubts too. And John did. 

“Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?”

The Jewish people were still oppressed under Roman rule. And John himself was still sitting in prison. It’s a reasonable question. If Jesus is indeed the one who is to come, why hasn’t anything changed?
That’s not unlike the questions we may ask ourselves, if we dare, two thousand years later. 

Has Jesus really made any difference in the world? The church has certainly made some negative differences, but has the Jesus message really made a difference in history?

We can’t be blamed for doubting. Many of us grew up in Christian traditions that made us feel bad for having any questions or doubts. Christian traditions around the world today are caught up in campaigns of hatred today, looking to be in competition with other faiths, to have LGBTQ+ people imprisoned or worse, and many other atrocities. It’s enough to make some of us occasionally want to abandon the label “Christian” — there’s just too much bad PR. 

Even when I tell people I’m a pastor, I feel immediately obligated to tell them that I’m not one of those pastors, as if they don’t already know by looking at me. 

In her book Searching for Sunday, late author Rachel Held Evans decries the abuses of the church, each with the liturgical refrain, “Lord have mercy. Christ have mercy.” 

But then. 

She begins a list of thanksgivings for the times that we, as a people, have gotten it right. 

“For Ambrose, who defied the Roman Empire by blocking the door of the church until Emperor Theodosius had repented of his violence, we give thanks. 

For the desert fathers and mothers who fled the violence and excess of the empire to inspire generations after them to live more simply and deliberately, we give thanks.

For John Huss, who spoke out against the church’s sale of indulgences, protested the Crusades, and was burned at the stake for obeying his conscience, we give thanks.

For Pedro Claver, the Jesuit priest who devoted his life to serving the black slaves of Colombia, especially those suffering from the leprosy and smallpox brought by their conquerors, we give thanks. 

For Anne Hutchinson, who knew that it was illegal for women to teach from the Bible in the Massachusetts Bay Colony, but did it anyway, we give thanks. 

For William Wilberforce, who channeled his evangelical fervor into abolishing slavery in the British Empire, vowing, ‘never, never will we desist until we have taped away this scandal from the Christian name,’ we give thanks. 

For Sojourner Truth, who proclaimed her own humanity in a culture that did not recognize it, we give thanks. 

For Maximilian Kolbe, the Franciscan friar who volunteered to die in the place of a Jewish stranger at Auschwitz, we give thanks. 

For all the pastors, black and white, who linked arms with Martin Luther King, Jr. and marched on Washington, we give thanks. 

For Rosa Parks, who kept her seat, we give thanks.” 

For all who did the right thing in Jesus’ name, even when it was hard, we give thanks. 

In response to John the Baptist’s doubts, Jesus responds not with a rebuke, but with this: 

“Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them.” 

Right after that, Jesus goes on to defend John, the same one who had just sent word asking him if he was for real, as his messenger. 

If doubts disqualified you from service, the church would be empty. 

Go and tell people what you hear and see: love is here. Community is here. We are not perfect. We screw it up all the time. 

And though we do not understand God, not even a little bit in most cases, we are in this mess together, and we believe, even though we might fight with God, that God is here with us, too. 

Faith is not individual, and it’s not about never doubting. Far from it, in both cases. No, faith is about us being here, together. Struggling together, doubting together, and occasionally, every now and then, stepping up and doing the right thing together. 

And ultimately, it’s about us meeting God, every week at this table, together. And it’s about God, not about us and our shaky faith, bringing in the ultimate victory when all is said and done.

Thanks be to God. Amen.

Advent 2: “Because *You’re* Here.”

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Isaiah 11:1-10
Matthew 3:1-12

In the trailer for the upcoming movie The Last Full Measure, a Vietnam War movie, one solider goes back, under enemy fire, to rescue another solider who had been left for dead. The wounded soldier looks up at his rescuer. 

The wounded soldier, left for dead in a faraway jungle in a war he did not start but had to fight, whispers to his rescuer and brother in arms: “Why are you here, man?”

The rescuing soldier looks back at the wounded one. He smiles for a brief moment in the midst of battle and says, “Because you’re here.”

It happens every year, but it never ceases to surprise us: in the midst of this season of joy and preparation, when everything around us is all “Joy to the World” and shiny and red and green, when we’re happily decorating our houses and buying gifts, John the Baptist strides in with his wild eyes and clothing of camel’s hair and declares the apocalypse: repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.

For the casual churchgoer or anyone who doesn’t have a familiarity with the season of Advent, it really makes no sense. What’s with all the fire and war and end of days stuff? Isn’t it Christmastime?

No. It’s Advent. 

Advent teaches us to prepare to welcome Christ at Christmas. And Advent teaches us to welcome Christ in our lives. But Advent is also about apocalypse preparation — that’s why you got Jesus declaring the apocalypse last week, and that’s why you get old John the Baptist this week. 

There are times in history when the apocalypse seems far away from us, then there are times when it seems just around the corner. Regardless of which situation you think we find ourselves in today, it’s Advent, and we need to talk about apocalypses again.

You might have heard it before: “apocalypse” just means “to uncover.” If you see it like that, quite frankly, the apocalypse happens all the time. 

Apocalypses happen to us collectively: it was an apocalypse when we as a society realized the horror of slavery and decided to end it. The “me too” movement was an apocalypse in its own way: when we realized all of these things that had been happening to women for centuries. Any time we come to our senses as a society, it’s an uncovering. It’s an apocalypse. And it’s terrible and wonderful and scary and justified. And it’s painful and it spells the end of pain that’s happened for a long time. 

Apocalypses also happen to us as individuals. Eventually, the sky will fall for each of us individually. Someone we love will die. Someone we love will be arrested. Someone we love will overdose. Or maybe that “someone” will be us. We’ll finally decide to get our lives together once we hit rock bottom. 

In a personal apocalypse, usually what’s “uncovered” is ourselves. You know this: when things get truly hard, or when we finally find resolve and decide to do the hard thing, we “meet ourselves.” Those terrible personal setbacks and tragedies: they may be painful physically or emotionally or spiritually or all of the above, but we uncover something about ourselves. We uncover who we are after the death, after the tragedy, after the personal apocalypse. And if we learn to look for God, we uncover God, suffering with us, always with us. 

As a congregation, my dear ones, we run in a lot of different directions and we do a lot of different things. We teach kiddos. We teach adults how to get their financial lives together. We feed people. Over the years we’ve resettled immigrants and fixed decks and pulled weeds for our neighbors. We’ve delivered smoke detector batteries and we’ve sung hymns in bars. Many of you have joked with me that pastoring you all is like herding cats, and you are not wrong. I been herdin’ cats for four years, and thankfully I come from a long line of cat herders. 

But we do have a common passion, you know. 

We show up for each other.

And we show up in the midst of someone else’s apocalypse and they say to us, “Why are you here?” 

Why have you entered into this pain that isn’t yours, come back for someone who is hurting in this battle that you didn’t start?

This congregation responds, every time, without hesitation: “Because you’re here.”

We cannot control the apocalypses that will come our way, or each other’s way, or the country’s way. We can’t fight anyone’s personal battles for them, and we can’t control any outcomes. 

But we can keep showing up. 

We can keep showing up in the midst of apocalypses of all kinds. That starts with us showing up for each other, then branching out to people we know, then meeting new people along the way. We do not do this because God needs us – God has plenty of means for saving all kinds of people – but because God invites us to show up in the midst of someone else’s pain. 

This church thing? This caring for other people thing? WE GET TO DO THIS. We get to show up for people broken by life, people for whom the sky has fallen, people experiencing an apocalypse. I would say that that starts with me if it hadn’t already started with you.

Do you have any idea how much you’ve inspired me? You’ve shown me who you are by showing up, and you’ve inspired me to be better. Every tragedy, every death, every injury or diagnosis, every apocalypse, you show up. 

Now I want to hold up a mirror to you: you, Our Savior’s people, are generous, and kind, and are the kinds of healers the world needs. When people need you, and when you need each other, you show up.

As we enter our Forward year, keep that in mind. We are radical joy in action, and that means showing up for each other and for people we have the ability and resources to help. 

The results are not up to us, and the saving is up to God. The poet t.s. eliot once wrote the words I try to live by: “For us, there is only the trying. The rest is not our business.” For us, there’s only the showing up. 

The apocalypse happens every day for someone. Advent just reminds us to keep the apocalypse in mind, and to remember what our role is and what God’s very separate role is. 

And for us, there’s only the trying. For me, if you were to ask me why I’m here, I would simply say to you: “Because you’re here.” So let’s keep being who we are, and showing up — together. Amen.