The Dangers of Dreaming

Genesis 37:1-36
© Stacey Steck

I suppose it takes the right combination of personal characteristics to qualify as a real dreamer. Martin Luther King, Jr. of course comes to mind, what with his oft-quoted speech invoking his dream. You need to think big, always be optimistic, and be able to persevere, all of them attributes of that great dreamer. Perhaps in light of our story from Genesis, we might add the phrase, “blissfully (or youthfully) ignorant, to that list of characteristics, for Joseph surely exhibited one or both of those forms of ignorance. I would like to give him credit for simply being genuinely enthusiastic and apolitical, but I think he really was ignorant of the response he would receive from his brothers, especially as far as he was down the pecking order in the family. Yes, his father loved him most of all, but he was still number twelve of twelve, a position the early church might assign to a kind of fulfillment of God’s purposes, but which in Joseph’s day meant if he inherited anything, it would be very little. Maybe his subconscious knew he had very little coming his way, and that the only way he’d be on top was by tattling on his brothers, or putting them in their place in his dreams. And so, in a manner of speaking, using his ignorance like a shovel, he digs his own grave, so that his brothers may toss him in. Dreaming can be dangerous.

The twelfth chapter of Genesis turns a corner in the first book of the Bible, moving from the account of creation and the genealogies of people who lived to be eight hundred years old, to the beginning of the more focused story of God’s relationship with a certain people. God tells Abraham to pack up all his belongings and head out of the adventure of a lifetime, and from there, a whole series of twists and turns unfold and we see a few themes emerge: the faithfulness of God’s promise of land, and family, and blessing that was made to Joseph’s great-grandfather, Abraham; the continuing peril of that promise, through sterility, questionable choices, and dysfunctional family dynamics. In these stories of the patriarchs, we see the promise kept alive by God whose grace overcomes all these obstacles, despite the unworthiness of the major characters, and who chooses the promise bearers we probably would not have chosen, either for being born in the wrong position, or for their bad behavior. We have even seen God exclude threats to the promise, putting Lot, Ishmael, and Esau on the margins. In this great story, you get the simultaneous feeling that of course God can make the promise come true, but also that you don’t know how long God can hold out, with all the ways the people in the story try to screw it up.

And so, once again today, God’s promise lurks in the background: there are now twelve sons, a movement toward the promised great nation; there is a threat to the promise: the brothers taking matters into their own hands and the first-born Reuben’s failure to save his brother, putting his inheritance status with his father at risk; and finally an ambiguity about Joseph, on one hand that like all his ancestors, he will be chosen despite not being the likely candidate, but also another possible case of God’s expulsion of a threat to the promise. Today’s story ends on a note of uncertainty, and it takes a long time for the story to reach its conclusion. It is as if those who put together the story in Genesis want us to feel the years of unresolved stuff that Jacob felt, before he will be reunited with his beloved son. Perhaps it was a reminder of just how tenuous was life in the desert back in the day, and how blessed by God they were to make it out alive when the tension finally gets resolved.

The backdrop to the whole story, of course, is the fulfillment of God’s dream, not the ones Joseph dreamed, but the one which God dreamed way back in the beginning, a dream of shalom, of peace and human well-being originally planned for the Garden of Eden, but relocated under Plan B to the promised land of milk and honey, and under plan C to Jerusalem, and under plan D to the new Jerusalem with its streets of gold and rivers of life. Behind the whole biblical story is God’s dream for us of safety and security, of vineyards and houses, of laughter and authentic community. Unfortunately for us, it often seems to be a dream deferred, a dream of which we catch but glimpses, but a dream with such power that it keeps us striving for it. It is a dream that frequently gets mixed up with our own competing dreams, but a dream that exists independently of us, even if we are its main characters. Joseph’s dreams may have been part of God’s dream, but it is on that larger dream we must keep our attention fixed, just as did those who chronicled the story of that dreamer Joseph and his scheming brothers.

There is a curious aspect of Joseph’s dreams that should give us pause, and that is that the story doesn’t actually tell us they come from God. Usually, the Bible says something like, “And God came to so and so in a dream, and said…” Or, “An angel of the Lord visited so and so in a dream, and said….” Here, all we are told is that Joseph had these dreams, and it is only because we know how the story ends that we know that Joseph’s dreams coincide with God’s dreams. Perhaps Joseph’s father Jacob didn’t tell the family story very well or very often, so that his sons would recognize that it seemed to be God’s preference that the youngest would be the promise-bearer, or perhaps he did tell it well, which is why they wanted to kill him. In either case, the ambiguity of the text leaves us to wonder if Joseph’s dreams are, in fact, in harmony with God’s dream, and it is the same ambiguity that lingers with us today as we dream a future for Thyatira, as we seek to discern God’s vision, God’s dream for us. It took many, many years before his family saw that Joseph’s dreams were in synch with God’s, that they came from God and not their brother’s insecurities about being the twelfth of twelve, and it took one of the longest tales in the Bible to reach that same conclusion. In the meantime, like Joseph in his pit, and later on his way to Egypt, we must live on faith that even if our dreams don’t come in a voice that sounds like God’s, that God’s dream will be the one that is realized.

It is that ambiguity which makes moving forward with our dreams a dangerous proposition, both in announcing them, but also in living them. You see, just as it took Joseph’s family quite a while to become convinced that his dreams were aligned with God’s dream, it may be quite some time before we receive confirmation that we have indeed discerned well, and that we are on the right path. I have only the slightest doubt that we could choose some wrong path, and it probably wouldn’t be long before God corrected us. But I have greater confidence in the possibility that we will choose the right path, but be diverted because of our ignorance and the interpretations by others of the dreams we announce. Will we have the stamina, like Joseph, to survive the pit, to survive slavery, to survive prison, to rise to a position of confidence and trust, all long enough to be the blessing God wants us to be? Remember how the Joseph story ends: He goes to Egypt, dreams a few more dreams, becomes Pharaoh’s chief economic advisor, and ends up being responsible for staving off starvation for thousands of people, not only in Egypt, but in his hometown as well.

All of this is to say that when the time comes for us to name the dream God has dreamed for us, to speak it out loud, to shout it from the rooftops, there will be some danger that will accompany us. It may be that we will ruffle feathers by seeming to place ourselves above others. But so be it. It may be that we will incur the animosity of others, even fellow Christians, by the audacity of our dreams. But so be it. It may be that we will be thrown into a pit, naked and hopeless, by those who feel threatened by what God has asked us to do. But so be it. We will face opposition if our dreams are in harmony with God’s dreams, but those are not the most dangerous threats. More likely, the more challenging threats will come from within. You see, it may also be that we will lose our nerve, and abandon the plans we will have made. May that not be so. It may be that we will derail our dreams with a house divided, as Jacob’s house almost succeeded in doing. May that not be so. It may be that we never climb out of the pit, but abandon hope and the dream of shalom for the safety of the what we can easily see and touch. May that not be so. But perhaps most perilous of all is being afraid to dream at all, for fear of all these threats, for fear of failure, for fear of conflict. May that not be so, for when we can no longer dream, we will have truly lost something, for we will have lost sight of God’s dream, the dream upon which millions upon millions of people depend, and the dream upon which our ministry with them rests. When we can no longer dream, it will be because we have forgotten that despite Joseph’s blissful and youthful ignorance of the danger of sharing his dreams, or maybe even because of it, those dreams came true, and the story of God’s dream continues in the world and in our lives. May God bless our ignorance and help us to have the courage and faith to persevere in seeing God’s dream come alive in our community. Amen.

Wiping the Mud From Our Eyes

John 9:1-41
© Stacey Steck

It wasn’t exactly a day at the spa, was it? The mud on that blind man’s face wasn’t applied by a well-manicured, Swedish massage therapist to treat some newly formed wrinkles. It wasn’t made from the bottom of a river especially known for its curative powers. It wasn’t washed off with sparkling mineral water and a clean white towel. No, this mud came from street and spit, smeared on by calloused hands. It stayed on, growing dry and crusty, while the blind man made his last stumbling and careful journey in darkness to the communal pool of Siloam, probably enduring some mocking along the way for looking so silly, where he himself would wash it off in water dirtied by countless other citizens. No white towels in Jerusalem that day. No, it wasn’t exactly a day at the spa, but oh how refreshing!

We wonder, of course, at the things this man must have seen for the first time, how he would even have been able to find his way back home, so different now was his view of the world. He had, after all, been born blind, and never seen Jerusalem’s streets, its faces and markets, its dirt or its water. He wouldn’t even have known his parents if they came walking up to him in the street. Sure, he had familiar touchstones, smells and sounds, habits and traditions to guide him, but he was now in a completely new world full of new opportunities. He would need teachers and friends to help him make sense of his suddenly wide-open community. He would need the people in his life to adjust to the new man in their midst. He would need to reassess the direction of his life and to make decisions for himself that he’d never made before. It would all be a process, to be sure, but one he was glad to be undertaking, for not only did he have his sight, but he also had the beginning of his vision.

One of my favorite sources of wisdom is National Geographic photographer DeWitt Jones who says that a key component in vision is our perception of the world. “When I believe it, then I’ll see it,” is his point of view, distinguishing himself from the more skeptical whose perception is limited by the belief that “I’ll believe it when I see it.” That’s worth thinking about in light of this morning’s text which deals with believing and seeing and indeed vision. There is, of course, a great deal of difference between sight and vision, even if we often use the words interchangeably. Sight refers to the biological processes of the eyes and brain interpreting the reflection of rays of light bouncing off of objects. Sight has to do with color temperatures and wavelengths and corneas and optic nerves. Vision, on the other hand, refers to the capacity to see things both for the way they truly are and the way they could be. Vision is about seeing patterns and possibilities, and things the eye can’t see, like hope, grace, and love. Sure, we can see with our eyes concrete expressions of those abstract things, but it takes vision to integrate them into our lives. It takes the light of the world illuminating them for us to see them, but there they are in plain sight.

If you’ve watched any of those forensic police shows on just about every night on television, CSI or the others, you’ve seen the investigators with their special ultraviolet instruments that reveal what cannot be seen under normal light. In a similar way, it is Christ’s light that gives us vision to see what cannot be perceived with even the best set of eyes. At our awakening to Christ’s presence in our lives, we are fitted with a kind of Christ-o-vision goggles that allow us to see what went unnoticed before – the Spirit’s movement, the power of prayer, the need for spiritual discipline. This is the vision the man born blind began to develop even as his eyes were taking in all they could handle.

This distinction between sight and vision is of course, the content of the great debate which follows the man’s trip to the Pool of Siloam. The Jewish leaders are stuck on the man’s sight, while Jesus is focused on his vision. Even the man himself took a little while to come around to knowing the difference, although surely he must have begun to be aware from the beginning. We are told that in the end he believes that Jesus is the Son of Man, and that he worshipped Jesus, an act of response as much to vision as to sight. The Jewish leaders on the other hand, never catch the vision and remain, in the words of the story, blind. They are without the vision of the Kingdom even though they think they control it. We can’t always keep our eyes on the prize either, when we are a little self-absorbed, or pigheaded, or pursuing our own ends, but their lack of vision is a chronic, rather than acute, condition. And it is with chronic lack of vision that Jesus is concerned.

Over the last several weeks, you have probably heard the word vision used more frequently at Thyatira, as in, “we are seeking God’s vision for Thyatira.” We have embarked on a process of careful listening to God that we might discern more specifically how we are to be in the future, as we have been in the past, “a living legacy of love, faith, service, and patient endurance.” This morning’s story is one of those Biblical texts which gives inspiration to our understanding of our mission. It has something to say to our efforts to discern God’s vision for our congregation, an effort in which I hope you will all participate, and it is on that subject that I would like to say a few more words, words which I hope you will see also apply to our individual lives as well as our life together.

First, I think it will be important for us going forward to keep in mind the distinction the Gospel story makes between sight and vision. As we seek a directed use of this congregation’s abundant resources, it is tempting to take a look around us at the needs which exist and simply choose one to address, perhaps the closest one, perhaps the most pressing one, perhaps even the one most people agree upon. There is no lack of need in any corner of Rowan County. There are families living in poverty, and children caught up in human trafficking, and gangs shooting into homes in the middle of the night, and all the rest of the needs which could fill a very long list. And we could make a significant impact on all of those needs if we put our minds to it. But I would submit to you that if we stop at assessing the needs and then choosing, we will have only exercised the power of our sight, and failed to apply our vision. For even though the choice we could make might be a worthy one, it may not be the one God wants us to choose, or the one which best uses our gifts, or the one which glorifies God to the greatest degree. It will require our vision, in addition to our sight, to discern the vision God has for us.

You see, vision is being able to see things through the eyes of faith, to see beyond the everyday into the eternal. When I speak of God’s vision for our church, I am referring to something of the same species, but understanding God’s vision as that destination to which we are being called to journey together, the dream of God realized for our church. It will take our eyes of faith to perceive God’s vision for us, and we will need our sight to help us along the way, but we journey together towards God’s vision for God’s people. The same is true for each of our individual lives, that God has a dream for each of us according to the purposes for which we were called into the Kingdom. It is the journey of a lifetime to live into that dream, and a journey which cannot be undertaken without both sight and vision.

Unlike many of the other healing stories about Jesus, there is a period of time between Jesus’ action and its results. Frequently, we read the stories of those upon whom Jesus lays his hands as being healed immediately. Jesus touches a leper in Luke 5 and “immediately the leprosy left him.” A hemorrhaging woman touches Jesus garment in Luke 8 and not only does Jesus feel just then power being drawn from him, but “immediately her hemorrhage stopped.” Something different takes place in our story tonight, something I think applies importantly to our efforts at discernment. Once Jesus has spat upon the ground, and mixed up the mud, and applied it to his eyes, the work is not finished. The man does not yet have either sight or vision. First he must go and wash the mud from his eyes in the Pool of Siloam, and then he will have both. Jesus does his part and asks the man to do his. John is clear that the man does not receive his sight until he washes. Something is required of him to complete what God, through Christ, has begun.

This is not so much different than Thyatira’s process of Vision Discernment. It is not like God couldn’t simply and suddenly impart to us the vision, the dream, and relieve us instantly of our blindness, and maybe it will happen more quickly than any of us think. But I believe that we will be like the man born blind who needed to do his part too, and we are at the point where God has smeared mud on our eyes, and we are making our way to the pool at Siloam. When we get there, when we wash the mud away, we will begin to see clearly how to live our common life together, just as the man was able to see how to live his life in a new way, both practically and spiritually.

We can only speculate why Jesus sent the man off to the Pool of Siloam to do his part, instead of healing him on the spot. The story doesn’t say. But I like to think it was Jesus giving the man a little transition time, a chance to look forward to the possibility of a life transformed, a taste of hope, so to speak. You see, it wasn’t a day at the spa. It was a life changing experience, in more ways than one. In our case, I like to think that God is giving us the time and the space to come to terms with what it will mean to be more focused in our ministry, to give us a taste of hope. There is value in the waiting between the alpha and the omega. If we could absorb all there was to know about God in an instant, I daresay our hearts and brains would explode. But God’s grace gives us both sight and vision at the rate we can accept it. May this time of wiping the mud from our eyes be the blessing God intends it to be. Amen.

Bringing the Bread

Luke 24:13-35
© Stacey Steck

I’ll never forget the first time I purchased bread and juice for a communion service. I was guest preaching at a church where it made sense for me to wear one of those black shirts with the little white tab clerical collar, like Roman Catholic priests often do. And I get this call to pick up the elements on my way to church because the regular person can’t do it. And so there I am at the grocery store walking down the aisle with a loaf of bread in one hand, and a jar of grape juice in the other, and getting a range of looks from the other customers somewhere between “Something is just not right here” to “What kind of Messiah does he think he is anyway?” I guess for some people, the elements just grow on trees and magically appear on the Communion Table on Sunday.

Actually, of course, someone buys them and prepares them, whether on the little trays and in the little cups, or some other way. But even before that happens, the reality is that someone grows the wheat and the grape, and someone harvests it, and someone else works in the factory that produces the final product, and someone else drives the truck to bring it to my store, and someone else takes my money and puts it in a bag at the store, but all of that process, and whether it is done justly or not, well, that is another sermon entirely. What I want to focus on this morning is just who brings the bread to the table, and what that means for us as we enter a season of trying to discern just what God has in mind for us here in Mill Bridge.

This morning’s story from the Gospel of Luke will hopefully be instructive in that regard. Here we have probably the most famous of the post-resurrection, pre-ascension appearances of Jesus, on the road to a village called Emmaus. There is a lot of interesting and spiritually enriching stuff in the first part of the story, about how the two despondent disciples are joined by Jesus on their journey, how they experienced what happened in his life and crucifixion, how Jesus “interpreted to them the things about himself in all the Scriptures” as they walked along together, but I want to focus on the second part of the story, what happened when they arrived at their destination. You see, that is where many of us are, perhaps not all of us here this morning, but many of us have heard the story, read the Bible, been to Sunday school, in a sense we’ve had the experience those two disciples had on the road, and we’ve arrived at our destination. Not that our journey is complete, mind you, not that we are perfected, but that the walking phase has landed us somewhere and what happens next is really important too.

So Cleopas and the other unnamed disciple and Jesus arrive at Emmaus, and Jesus acts like he is going to continue on his journey. Somehow I doubt that, but that is what it says. To me, it seems more like he is fishing for an invitation to dinner, seeking to plumb the depths of these two disciples’ understanding of hospitality and grace. You see, in those days, it was pretty much expected that you would invite a traveler to join you for a meal after dark, that you would even give them a place to stay for the night. And so we could even imagine Jesus heading right through the door, but he plays it cool and they take the bait and invite him in. And so they sit down at the table together, and Jesus takes the bread he finds there, blesses it, breaks it, and gives it to them. Maybe you’ve heard that series of words before. Took, blessed, broke, gave. It is the formula Jesus always uses for these types of meals. Feeding of the four thousand? Took, blessed, broke, gave. Feeding of the five thousand? Took, blessed, broke, gave. Last Supper? Took, blessed, broke, gave. Our last celebration of the Sacrament here at Thyatira? Took, blessed, broke, gave. Later this morning? Yes, you guessed it, Took, blessed, broke, gave. You’ll hear that formula each and every time you come to the table because its pattern is not only what Jesus actually did at meals, but because it is the pattern of his own life. You see, God took him from heaven, blessed him, broke him on the cross, and gave him to us. And that must be the pattern of our own lives as disciples, because the meal, and the life of Jesus, and our lives together are bound up in bread, in wine, in God.

“Then their eyes were opened and they recognized him.” You’ve heard those words before too. I use them almost every time we celebrate the Sacrament, not because there aren’t any other options, but because I think it is the very point of the whole exercise, that in the experience of this sacrament we meet Christ again, he is made known to us again, we experience his grace anew, our eyes are opened yet one more time to the mystery and the glory and the joy of the Lord. How does our story this morning conclude? “Then they told what had happened on the road, and how he had been made known to them in the breaking of the bread.” Jesus reveals himself not only as the “bread of life,” but in the midst of the bread itself, the stuff on the table, the wheat turned into loaf, the staple food for all humanity. Thanks be to God!

But how did the bread get there? Did Jesus, like a good guest invited to a dinner party, stop at a bakery on the way, and pick up something that complemented the rest of the menu? No, it was there waiting for him in that house at Emmaus. This is an interesting feature of all the feeding stories in the Gospels except at the end of the Gospel of John at the breakfast on the beach, that in none of them does Jesus bring the bread. In this story? Someone else brought it. Feeding of the four thousand? The disciples had it with them. Feeding of the five thousand? A little boy had five loaves and two fish. Last Supper? Made ready by someone else in the Upper Room. Our last celebration of the Sacrament here at Thyatira? I’m pretty sure it wasn’t Jesus getting the table ready for us. Later this morning? Yes, you guessed it, no Jesus there either. You see, someone else always brings the bread that Jesus takes, blesses, breaks, and gives. Jesus never brings the bread. That is our job, our contribution to the feast, our part in having our eyes opened that we might recognize him.

Now, that is not an open invitation for everyone to bring a loaf of bread to church the next time we have communion, although if you would like to contribute that some month, please come talk to me. But it should tell us something about how we approach the table, how we approach God, how we approach one another, with a gift to share, with something to contribute, with something that will play a part in helping us recognize Jesus or make Jesus known, recognizable, present. If it is not a nice loaf of sourdough bread, what is it? Well, we already brought our confession. That’s a start. We’ve prayed and sung and we’ll make an offering. That’s all good. But of course what we are called to give is more than what we come to church once a week to give. We are called to give our whole lives to be taken by God, blessed by God, broken by God, and given by God to a hungry world whose eyes need to be opened. And so the bread we are called to bring to the table is really nothing more or less than our generosity, our willingness to give every minute of our lives, every ounce of our strength, every stray thought, every idle moment, every material good.

Or we can just bring real bread.

A few years ago, a member of my church in Minnesota, Chad Ruble, died, and in the months following his death, his wife Mary shared with their friends her journey through the grief process. And I remembered that she had posted on Facebook something she had found on an internet support group, a sort of open letter from a widow to those who might be wondering what it was like in the first days and months following the death of a spouse. One of the sections of this letter acknowledges the very common experience of dealing with people who are eager in some fashion to help. And so, this is what one young widow writes, in the section called “Practical Things You Can Do”:

“I understand that a lot of you find it hard to cope with my emotional pain. Hate to see me hurting so. If you can’t help me emotionally, you can help me practically.
  • Don’t ask me what you can do to help. I have no idea, I am overwhelmed.
  • If you are an organized person offer to manage my bills. Collect the bills as they come in and let me know when they need to be paid, and make sure I do. Time has no meaning for me right now. It’s only when the cut-off notices come that I realize I need to do something.
  • Get copies of photos I don’t have from family and friends and put them in an album for me. It will be one of the most precious gifts you could give me.
  • Bring me some meals that I can just put in the microwave.
  • Find out what sort of bread, milk, toilet paper, etc. I use and bring me them to me. I have no idea I need them until I run out, so don’t bother asking me if I need anything.

“Don’t ask me what you can do to help. Find out what sort of bread I use and bring it to me.” It is that simple. Christ will take that bread and bless it and break it and give it and your eyes will be opened and you will recognize him.

As you come to the table this morning, I invite you to do some reflecting on what God is calling you to offer that will allow you to recognize Jesus Christ as we commune together. It doesn’t have to be much, because God doesn’t really need very much. Sometimes all it takes is a loaf of bread. Amen.