Broken Dreams – Epiphany 5, 2015


January 8, 2015
Rev. Jeremy Smith
Broken Dreams – Whole Hearted sermon #2
Psalm 139

The day was November 12th of 2008, the Saturday after the 2008 Elections were over. Think back to it. I don’t know what you were doing that day, but New Yorkers on a Saturday morning were in for a surprise. People were handing out free copies of the New York Times newspaper on the streetcorners. The headline read “Iraq War is Over” and had pictures of soldiers coming home. Remember this was 2008. Other sections read that the Universal Health Care Act passed and health care is free for all Americans. Minimum wage was raised. Schoolteachers’ pay now on the level of doctors. Even more importantly, the college bowl system was remade into a playoff system. Finally, the American policymakers who enabled America to torture prisoners were tried as war criminals.

There was some confusion. The more discerning of people noticed that the paper was dated a year into the future. At the top of the paper, you know the Times’ typical headline “all the news that’s fit to print” was replaced by “all the news we want to print.” And on the back there was a disclaimer that yes, this was fake. This was a complete fake version of the New York Times, written by some pranksters who distributed 100,000 copies to New York that day.

But to some who received the paper, they didn’t get that it was fake at first. And for a moment, in the videos I watched covering this event, I could see in their eyes joy, happiness that the war was over, relief that their health concerns would be taken care of, tears of gladness that the world would be a little bit better. Maybe for the first time, the news for them was good, news that they wanted to read, stories that they wanted to hear. Many of their dreams had come true.

Today, six years later, we can look back on those dreams and the mixed bag they were. We have better health care but it’s not universal yet. Minimum wage has been raised in a checkerboard fashion across the country. Iraq has not been “won” whatever that means. Teachers are still woefully underpaid, and those tasked with oversight of torture by American hands are not behind bars but are on television. But the BCS ranking system–we got that done.

The dreams of that issue of the Fake New York Times have not fully come to pass for America six years later. The same could be said of us, can’t it? What dreams did you have six years ago? Dreams of a new home, a new career, a promotion, world travel, a family, a first child, another child. Dreams of marriage being extended to you? Did you have any inkling of what came in the past six years? For many of you, you had not found First Church as a new faith community, seven more today. That’s a dream we celebrate indeed!

But there are many other dreams that have not come to pass.
Dreams of a full recovery after surgery or illness.
Dreams of overcoming “that incident” in our marriage.
Dreams of finding love again. Dreams of our children finding their way again. Dreams of reconciling with difficult loved ones in our family.
It wasn’t until writing this sermon that I realized Christmas marked six years since I last saw my younger sister before she estranged herself from our family, a wound still open in my life.
We know what it’s like to live on the boulevard of broken dreams, don’t we?

What do we do as people of faith when our dreams don’t turn out the way we had hoped? To what do we turn?

When people lost their way in biblical times, they re-read their history and shared stories of God’s presence in times of the past. When people lost their way in biblical times, they shared wisdom and reset the rules of the community to guide them…this entire Bible is stories of people whose dreams didn’t come true the way they expected. And it’s equally about a God who is with them at every moment and loves them at every intersection no matter which way they take.

But most of all, when people lost their way in biblical times, they turned to music. The psalms are full of those songs of lament, disorientation, sadness, railing against God.

I hear two tunes, two different understandings of God in Psalm 139. And both offer help to people when their dreams fall short.

The first tune is in these lines:
“Is there anyplace I can go to avoid your Spirit? to be out of your sight?
If I climb to the sky, you’re there! If I go underground, you’re there!
If I flew on morning’s wings to the far western horizon,
You’d find me in a minute – you’re already there waiting!”

What I hear is the cry of the Psalmist who knows there is nowhere that God is not with them. Amen brother or sister psalmist, you got that right. I’m with you. Whether our dreams do well or fall flat on their faces, you are with us. Absolutely.

Adam Hamilton, pastor of Church of the Resurrection in Kansas City, tells the story of when his two daughters were small and were bothered by a thunderstorm or a bad dream, they would wake him up (as pastor’s daughters, they probably picked his side of the bed when it was Saturday night, knowing he was preaching the next morning). Adam would pray with them, and sing to them, and within a few minutes they would be sound asleep. It wasn’t that he had made the thunder stop, or that had he taken away the memory of their frightening dreams. But somehow knowing he was by their sides, they were no longer afraid. Many of you can relate.

(reference: Hamilton, Adam (2010-10-01). Why?: Making Sense of God’s Will (Kindle Locations 890-894). Abingdon Press. Kindle Edition.)

So this first song of God’s presence is a great comfort: knowing God is by our side, even if the hurt has not been taken away.

But then we get to the end and the key change emerges.
“Like an open book, you watched me grow from conception to birth; all the stages of my life were spread out before you, The days of my life all prepared before I’d even lived one day.”
In the NRSV it’s got a little different language: “In your book were written all the days that were formed for me, when none of them as yet existed.”

Oh. So, God, you knew my dreams would fall flat. You knew these things would happen. They were foreordained, foregone conclusions. Some call this God’s will. God willed these things to happen or not happen. It was God’s will that this bad thing or other happened. Or if not God’s will, God knew it would happen.

In some ways, this is a great comfort. To know there is a greater plan when our lesser plans fall short. To let go and let God in times where there’s no clear path. To choose, in the words of one of my favorite poems, to trust the slow work of God. There’s a great mystical assurance found in acknowledging the One greater than us is in control.

But in John Wesley’s time, the founder of Methodism, had a problem with one understanding of this. One of the thinkers with the biggest impact in his day (and still through today) was John Calvin who talked about God’s will as unchanging, God knows what will happen, and knows who will be saved. By knowing everything beforehand, God has pre-destined who is to be saved, whose dreams will come true. God’s will is concrete, unchangable, and we are just along for the ride, knowing only at the end if we were unwittingly on the right path.

This didn’t work for John Wesley or for his brother, the hymn writer Charles. They saw God as working with each human being through the course of our lives. So much of Wesley’s writings pays close attention to the actual changes that occur: the emergence of faith in Jesus Christ, growth in love, falling back into our old way of living, repenting and getting back on the right path. A large part of his preaching and theology deal with the grace-filled stages of this process and how God works in them. None of this is decided from all eternity–one only has to look at how God used commandments, prophets, and then Jesus Christ to help humanity along–to see a God with a changing approach. It is worked out in interaction between the individual sharing their dreams and God sharing what is the best path for them.

I find much more power and strength for the journey from a God who walks with us to the depths or heights and nudges us along the way to the right path. That feels more intimate and heartfelt than just using my mind to figure out what God’s will is and live into that.

Marjorie Suchocki, former dean of Claremont School of Theology, illustrates this difference through a familiar children’s fable about a rivalry between the wind and the sun. Which one would be able to remove the coat of that man down there on the road? The wind thought that it could, and so it blew and blew and blew with great force. Unfortunately, the strength of the wind was such that the man just drew his coat more firmly around himself. Then it was the sun’s turn. The sun just beamed its rays down upon the man until finally he grew quite warm—and removed his coat. The wind worked coercively, trying to force its will upon the man, but the sun worked persuasively, luring the man’s cooperative action. To be able to elicit the willing cooperation of another is a far greater power than simply to force the other to do as one wishes.

 

I think our dreams are much stronger when we work with God instead of against God’s will or even in submission to it. Like a choose-your-own-adventure book, we may take longer to get on the right path, but if we identify the pages in the book (the times in our lives) when we have to listen to God’s presence, that still-small voice, I think we can find our way together.

In closing, my hope for us is that our dreams, broken or realized, form the foundation of how we will handle the rest of our life.

Every summer it’s a tragedy whenever forest fires ravage the California area due to lightning strikes or idiotic hikers. But in some areas, all is not lost. Some forest fires are good for forests. They remove moldy dead wood from forests and in fact some variations of pine cones only release seeds into the soil under higher temperatures. Odd that nature would do that, but it’s another form of nature seeking equilibrium that I find fascinating. A burned forest comes back stronger, often, a few decades later than it might have been untended.

So too with us. In our lives, we’ve been burned. We’ve lost a loved one, a job, our favorite car, our self-esteem, our health, indeed our dreams. But with being burned comes opportunity. Not because God willed it, not because God caused our shortcomings, but because God is there with us in the moment, coaxing us to the best possible path, offering a dream of something new, an aroma that causes us to follow the scent. And we find our beckoning God not by listening to a preacher and believing what he or she says, but by our own commitment to the journey through prayer, study, deep listening to one another and to God’s creation, and live out these ideas in service and mission to our variety of communities.

John Maynard Keynes wrote: “The difficulty lies, not in the new ideas, but in escaping the old ones.”
May we take the pieces we need from our broken dreams and leave the rest behind.
May we find renewal after being burned that we might otherwise have left to moss and mold.
May we seek the God who is a companion on the journey.
May we, in the words in Charles Wesley’s hymn find ourselves at a place where (quote)
“Our nature’s turned, our minds transformed, in all its powers.
And both the witnesses are joined, the Spirit of God with ours.”
Glory be to God. Amen.

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