Those Who Dream
December 17, 2017
Rev. Kristin Stoneking
Epworth United Methodist Church, Berkeley, CA
Well here we are, eight days out from Christmas. I confess to you that my good intentions of a peaceful and paced Advent have given way to many activities, days that are packed, even in the margins, and well, this week, even some grinchiness. It’s been a challenging week in the Campi-Stoneking household. On Monday, I was trying to do a little clearing of clutter, in keeping with our theme this Advent of the Uncluttered Heart. I dutifully took two boxes of items down to the thrift store, pulling into the drive-thru drop off. The attendants were trying to figure out how to get a very old and very large television out of the trunk of the car in front of me and motioned for me to go around. Which I did. But as I was doing so, realized that I was really too close to their debris pile, and as soon as I pulled out onto the street, heard, thump, thump, thump. I got out of the car, and sure enough, there was a nail embedded in the front left tire.
Well, these things happen, so I took the car in, got it fixed, got it back the next day. All in all, not that bad. But then the next morning, I went out to get in the car, and there was another nail I hadn’t seen in the back left tire! So, same routine, except I didn’t have the time in my schedule to take it in, so Elizabeth did so. Everything seemed fine. But then the next afternoon, got back in my car, and at some point, the windshield had cracked! I felt the grinchiness creeping in.
Elizabeth for her part, was trying to maintain or actually regain Advent peace, and searched for an app that would remind her of the calm and joy she was longing for…she found one and began to try to download it. All she got was the spinning wheel of limbo. Tried again, same result. Tried again, same result. With each attempt, she was growing more frustrated. And the name of this app? Happify.
We began to think of a new version of the twelve days of Christmas: three failed downloads, two flat tires and a crack in our windshield.
But of course, these are really minor annoyances in the great scheme of things and the reality is that these things point to greater blessings in our lives: that we have a car, that we have resources to get it fixed, and perhaps most importantly, that we have each other to navigate this with support and even laughter.
The third Sunday of Advent is the Sunday that calls us to focus on Joy. The call to Joy was woven through the liturgy that Danica and Aaron led for us this morning while lighting the Advent candles. Yet, in my experience, December, and Advent and the time of year we call “the Christmas Season” can be for many anything but joyful. We’re coming up this week on the longest night of the year, the shortest day, the darkest time. The lack of sunlight alone can pull us into corners of despair. For some, December calls to mind loved ones who have passed on and are no longer present for the gatherings and traditions. Their absence can bring back pangs of former grief.
This time of year can also come with so much pressure about how things “are supposed to be.” The depictions of fully functional families gathering under sparkling lights and sharing delicious, perfectly cooked food sets an expectation that bears little relation to reality. In my experience, families are messy. Mine is often literally messy, especially when we get too busy—we struggle with shoes and backpacks and bags and coats and papers that greet us and the visitors who walk through our door. But families can also be emotionally messy, too. When what we want or need from a family member just is not available. Or when past hurts or regrets interfere with the present.
Where in the world did we get these ideas of how things are supposed to be? We are inundated with stories that further this idea—in movies, especially Hallmark made for tv movies, and advertisements. The stories we get are sanitized and stylized. They’re like a staged house for sale. And why do staged houses sell better than houses that contain the furniture, things and photos of the actual people who’ve lived there? Because they are the setting for the stories we’ve been sold and told that say that our worth is tied to being able to make these stories a reality.
Our scripture today from Psalm 126, begins with these words, “When the Lord restored the fortunes of Zion, we were like those who dream.” This Psalm is about the Israelites who have, after 70 years, been returned from exile. Imagine what this must have been like—the Israelites, against their will have spent more than three generations in Babylon. When they were in Babylon, they longed for return. The familiar words of scripture echo their song, “By the waters of Babylon, where we sat down, and there we wept, when we remembered Zion.” Their pining in exile for this lost place is expressed in many of our psalms and scriptures.
Zion, the place the Israelites left and long to return to, pre-occupies their thoughts during their exile in Babylon like an obsessive rumination. But once they return, the Psalm says they are like “those who dream.” To long for something lost is quite different than to dream. That which they always believed they wanted more than anything has become their new reality and now they are faced with a new challenge. They realize that their longing for something they didn’t have must turn to dreaming for what could be. Upon return, they realize that the past that they knew, that they had focused on, can never be recovered. They’ve been gone for 70 years and what they thought they were coming home to wasn’t exactly what they found. Things were different than what they thought they were “supposed to be.”
You see, the generation that returned had never experienced Zion themselves. They had been brought up on the stories of this place, refracted through the lens of time and longing. What they found was not what they expected. If they are to truly embrace the restoration that is being offered to them, they must be willing to move into the future with a new dream, and all that dreaming requires: faith, hope, creativity, resilience and a willingness to let go of that which was expected or is “supposed to be.”
To long for something that is lost or cannot be actually requires no agency; it is a passive place even while it takes energy. Longing for the past may be a stop in the process of grief, but if one stays there it can also be a stuck place that prohibits agency. The interesting thing about the word “Zion” is that it evolves as it is used in scripture to signify not just a geographical place but also a kind of spiritual well-being. To be spiritually well is to let go of clinging to the past and to be present to what is. This is the clutter we are called to clear away. And as we become uncluttered, Christians are called to dream. To imagine not just a time and place of sufficiency in all of its dimensions for ourselves, but for our whole community and for the world. And this is the place of joy.
In Advent, we are invited to be those who put aside longing for the past, or what is supposed to be, or what cannot be, and dream of real joy. Real joy comes after we've been willing to allow God to deal with the brokenness in our lives. To be honest about the messiness and loss and grasping that keeps us stuck. We can't really express the joy of being restored and found, unless we are first able to name the fact that we've been lost, our sense of security compromised, and sometimes even our fortunes or resources of time and attention squandered on things that have no ultimate value. In so doing, we are pulled into a new story. Not a story of unmet expectations of how things are supposed to be, but a story that calls out the best of each of us, and asks us to put ourselves aside for the sake of the world.
Twenty-two years ago in 1995, my first year as a pastor of a local church after seminary, Christmas Eve fell on a Sunday like it does this year. I remember that cold morning, I was serving in Lawrence, Kansas then, waking up and not wanting to get out of bed, knowing that a long day was ahead. Elizabeth and I had our radio alarm set to National Public Radio, and a story came on, maybe you’ve heard it. It’s John Henry Faulks’ Christmas Story. He originally did the story in 1974 for the radio program Voices in the Wind. If you haven’t ever heard it, I encourage you to google it. It’s a story not of Christmas perfection or of restored fortune. It’s a story of cold and biting poverty and surprise generosity, of racial harmony and respect, of gratitude and real joy over a Christmas dinner that included striped candy and an orange for dessert. It’s not what you’d expect.
As the story ended that morning, both Elizabeth and I had faces wet with tears. We’ve made listening to this recording part of our Christmas Eve tradition that we now share with John and Paloma. It’s a story not of perfection but of the seeds we believe can be planted and watered with our tears, so that, as our Psalm for today says, all may come home rejoicing, carrying the sheaves.
The Good News is that we all have been given a new story. It’s also an old story, actually, but it comes to us new and fresh every year. We will not get what we expected, but what will come to us will be even beyond our wildest dreams. A baby, who is both God and us, is born in a barn. Through the love he has for us and for the world, he helps us to let go of that which holds us captive, and to be like those who dream, not a dream based on a sanitized and stylized version of what is supposed to be, but a dream of freedom from regret and the tyranny of longing for that which cannot be. A dream of real joy. He showed us that this dream happens when we let go, when we enter with faith into spaces that don’t match what we think they are supposed to look like. When we embrace the gift that is unearned, and simply grace.
May we be like those who dream, confident in the love that surround us and pulls us always, now, to make that story ever fresh. To join with the gift that was given to us and be, ourselves, gift to the world through our love and our service, our friendship and our generosity, our willingness to let go and to risk entering unlikely and out of the way places. May this be our dream, and may this be our joy. Amen.