“Those Who Dream … Keep Awake”
Rev’d. Tanya Stormo Rasmussen
The Congregational Church of Hollis, U.C.C.
29 November, 2020
First Sunday of Advent, Year B
Isaiah 64:1-9
Mark 13:24-37

What do you picture when I say the word, “Dreamer”?  A mental escape artist?  Someone with a faraway look in their eyes, and a rosy view of everything?  A visionary with energy and hope that propels them to try to change the world?  Someone out of touch with reality (or, reality as you see it)?

This Advent season, we’re going to be thinking about what it means to be Dreamers.  What it looks like to live as “Those Who Dream.”  Because, as we’ll discover, the prophets, the psalmists, Elizabeth, John the Baptist, Mary, Joseph, Simeon, Anna, the shepherds and the magi—all of them were dreamers.  They were open to, they discerned, and they engaged with God’s dreams for the world.  During Advent, we’re invited to enter into the mystery and wonder of God’s dreams and pray that those dreams will shape our lived reality.

Advent is the beginning of a new Church Year.  And each Advent, we revisit some familiar narratives—including accounts that may begin with disillusionment, even despair, but develop into stories charged with suspense, expectancy, transformed vision, and hope-filled recognition of a deeper reality.  Through these stories, Advent is for “the dreamers in all of us: those who dream of a deeper connection with God, and those who dream of a better world.  It’s for those who dream of comfort and for those who have given up on their dreams.  It’s for those whose dreams have been crushed and for those who show us that dreams take time.”[1]

Of course, this Advent is unlike any we’ve seen in our lifetime.  2020 has been an unimaginable year.  Not only because of the pandemic that has us in our separate homes as we gather to worship, or the side-effects of the isolation that’s required to keep the most vulnerable among us safe(r).  But also because of the global climate, social, and political reckonings that are shaking the very foundations of our nation, straining many of our families and long-held friendships. It’s worth reflecting on what function dreaming might play in helping us to navigate these times.

Some of you know that I am the second-eldest of eight children, born across ten years.  That meant having playmates—and adversaries—every which way you turned, especially for the younger ones.  There are aspects of childhood (and being human, more generally) that are stressful for any person—but especially, I imagine, for a middle child of eight.  My dad called one of my middle siblings a “dreamer.”  She always had her nose in a book, and often was checked out of dinner-table conversation because she was “off in her own little world.”  She would regularly break down in tears, especially if she was shaken from her reverie.  I remember my mother scolding her for being late to school one day because, as a neighbor reported it, she’d stopped to observe a hill of ants at work for a good long while.  As an adult, my sister functions quite well in the world.  And, apparently, dreaming about how the world might be different, along with observing ants at work may have helped pave the way for her success as the Human Resources Director for an international corporation.

For some, dreaming helps them to escape reality.  There are some who dream by curating an artificial reality, pushing false narratives, deceiving others and themselves.  This is Herod’s story.  It’s not new.

On the other hand, dreaming can help people survive: Consider the story of the magi, who went home safely by a different route; and of Joseph and Mary, who became refugees in Egypt with their infant, Jesus—all of them escaping Herod’s fear-filled wrath, and all because they were alert to their dreams.  To this day, there are migrants who dare to follow the hope-filled guidance of their dreams, holding tight to the hopes of their ancestors while envisioning a better tomorrow for their children and future generations.

Dreaming can help to transform reality: this is the story of Zechariah and Elizabeth, resigned to their childlessness – but suddenly, in their old age, discovered God’s penchant for new possibilities as they gave birth to John, who would become famous as the Baptizer.  Or the shepherds, who dared to embrace the vision they saw of angels appearing to them—among the lowest on the human social pecking order—and believed, as they hastened to find and worship the newborn Messiah, that the Sovereign God of the universe chose to announce Emmanuel to them before all others, despite what they’d been taught to understand about themselves and their place in the world.  Or Martin Luther King, Jr., or contemporary voices in the Black Lives Matter movement, calling for nonviolent resistance to the status quo, speaking up and continuing to struggle for a just and equitable world after God’s own vision.

As the artist of the “Tear Open the Heavens” image we saw projected during the readings of today’s scripture, Lauren Wright-Pittman notes, “Sometimes, our dreams are small because to dream big feels frivolous.  Sometimes our dreams are small because to dream big might threaten our [comfortable or complacent] reality.  Sometimes our dreams are big because our lives depend on it.  This Advent, how can we harness the power of dreaming?  What can we learn from dreamers who came before us?  How can we narrow the space between reality and God’s dream—a dream imaged in the flesh of the Christ child?”[2]

In Advent, we remember that God’s original and ultimate dream is to share a relationship of intimate and ongoing communion with us.  And deep in our human hearts and souls, we harbor the same dream.  We long for God to dwell among us.  Isaiah expressed the anguish of that dream being disrupted in our first reading: “O that you would tear open the heavens and come down…”  He and the people of Israel were suffering not only humiliation of defeat at the hands of an oppressive regime that mocked and belittled them, but they were staggering under the weight of the shame they felt because they knew they’d been unfaithful to God; that they’d spurned God’s love in pursuit of more selfish desires.

It’s interesting to notice how Isaiah portrays God’s response to human unfaithfulness in very human ways.  It’s as though the people perceived God treating them as an angry, vengeful parent or partner might – by giving their child or spouse a prolonged “silent treatment.”  And then, they argue that the silent treatment is what’s to blame for further bad behavior … was it because they cannot stand to bear all of the responsibility for their unfaithfulness?  (Isn’t that just so typically human–the inclination to find someone else to blame or find fault with, when confronted with our own hurtful behavior?)  “Do not be exceedingly angry, O LORD, and do not remember iniquity forever,” Isaiah ultimately pleads on behalf of the people.[3]

But the notion of God’s justice as fearsome and vengeful didn’t end with Isaiah.  I’ve even heard it from a number of people in recent months describing the pandemic, and catastrophes brought on global climate change: “Clearly, God is not happy with us,” one person quipped.  “I believe this is God’s way of telling us to get our act together,” someone else suggested.  “I think God’s just had it with us,” yet another individual observed, “She is pissed off.”

Personally, I don’t believe in an angry, vengeful God.  To me, that is incompatible with Love, and love’s power and creativity is far more expansive than the small-mindedness of vengeance and vindictiveness.  I’m more persuaded by the often-repeated descriptions of God in the Bible as “merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness.”[4]

But, you may be wondering, what about the imagery in Mark’s gospel, where Jesus describes the end times?  It’s true: there are some harrowing depictions of much suffering and desolation in Mark Chapter 13.  But if you read the passage (or even the entire chapter) again, you’ll see that none of the destruction or persecution or suffering or desolation is attributed to God’s intentions or activity.  It’s all human activity, one individual or group against another, ignoring and forsaking the image and presence of God in their own neighbors, which leads to profound suffering.

After suffering, we heard, there would be disruption in the normal rhythms of things; “the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will be falling from heaven, and the powers in the heavens will be shaken.”[5]

“This passage in Mark is sometimes referred to as the ‘Little Apocalypse.’  The Greek meaning of apocalypse is ‘revelation’—an unfolding or unveiling of things not previously known.”[6]  I want to point out that in every one of the past twenty centuries, Christians who have read apocalyptic writings like this one in a literal way, have been convinced that they are the ones inhabiting the end times.  There have been believers in every generation, even our own, who have scanned the heavens waiting for the Son of Man to come riding down in the clouds – despite what we know scientifically to be true about the nature of the universe and clouds and the ability to ride them and make an appearance to the entire planet at the same time.

In other words, what’s been said here in Mark’s gospel was never intended to be understood as a script of actual events to unfold.  But it is a poetic description of the very human experience of significant turmoil, confusion, and disorder in our world – especially when we indulge our inclinations to seek first our own kingdom and power and glory.

Finally, note that Jesus concludes the passage by encouraging his followers to “stay awake.”  Keep alert.  Watch for where you see God at work in the midst of unexpected, nightmarish upheavals.  Because when you remain alert even as you dream, you will notice things that others miss.  You will see the hand and activity of the God who is with us, doing a new thing.

What in our world right now feels to you like a ‘Little Apocalypse’?  What’s disruptive, disorienting, threatening, unsettling?

And now, amidst all this turmoil, what do you think is being revealed?

I think it’s hope.  That’s what I see.  And the more wakeful and alert I try to keep myself to hope, the more evident it becomes, everywhere I look.

The Rev. Dr. Emilie Townes, Dean of Vanderbilt Divinity School, said this about hope at a conference on ‘Migration and Border Crossings’ in 2019:

“Hope means we have opened our eyes, hearts, minds, souls, very spirits
and now see and feel and touch and smell the joy and the agony living in the fractures of creation

   that is the irony of hope
for in our yearning for it,
we often walk far away from it as we try to come home to it
  we often live into the small and narrow spaces of life that stunt our growth,
and demand far too little of us,
because far too little is expected from us
    or far too little gives us comfort
hope is one more piece to the fabric of the universe
one more way to signal this restless journey we are on
one more sign that Emmaus is not the end of the journey
but its beginning

you see, I don’t think hope is the end product on the assembly line of our lives
no, I think it is simply a part of the journey
part of the way in which we come to know God’s way in our lives with a richness that ripens and ripens and ripens…

Friends, Advent is an invitation to Dream.  And to keep awake.  And to hope.  Let’s embrace this holy mystery.  And let’s discover God-with-us.  Amen.

[1] Rev. Lauren Wright Pittman, “Those Who Dream” Sermon Planning Guide for Advent – Epiphany, Year B.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Isaiah 64:9

[4] Exodus 34:6; Numbers 14:18; Nehemiah 9:17; Psalm 86:5, 15; Psalm 103:8; Psalm 145:8; Joel 2:13; Jonah 4:2.

[5] Mark 13:24-25.

[6] “Those Who Dream” Sermon Planning Guide, “Guiding Q’s”, p. 5.

© 2020 The Congregational Church of Hollis, UCC