Last night I had the most amazing dream: I was sitting in a very, very full sanctuary singing hymns and carols. One dear woman - a saint of the congregation I served in California - stood up and started singing a capella. Other voices joined hers, until everyone was singing a hymn of praise and there wasn't a dry eye in the place. Pure joy. I can hardly believe I had this dream the night before preaching a sermon woven with bad dreams and good dreams alike, a sermon that rests on a vision of peace wherein all the peoples of the world are gathered to worship God in Spirit and in Truth.
Isaiah 2:1-5; Romans 13:11-14
For much of my life, I was not a morning person. When I was the pastor of a small congregation in California, I often skipped mornings in the office altogether, shifting my work time to afternoons and evenings. Of course there were always a few early mornings that couldn’t be avoided. My church had a tradition of gathering for sunrise services on Easter morning, a tradition they finally sunsetted after their bleary-eyed pastor completely flubbed the scripture reading one year. The text was supposed to be about resurrection, but I opened my Bible to the wrong chapter. I proceeded to read a rather esoteric passage in which God releases the Christians from traditional Hebrew dietary restrictions. In a dream, God shows Peter all sorts of animals and tells him to “kill and eat”. When I realized that I had just uttered the words, “kill and eat” to a bunch of people dressed up in their Easter finery, I was suddenly very awake - and very mortified.
In recent years I have refashioned myself into a morning person, but I still detest the moment my alarm goes off. Especially during these months of rising while it is still pitch dark. Sometimes I awaken easily - I silence the alarm, fumble for my glasses, grab my yoga gear and off I go. But other times the journey back to consciousness is accompanied by a deep disorientation. For a fleeting moment, I don’t know where I am. Indeed, I barely know who I am.
It’s been worse these last few weeks. I haven’t had so many bad dreams since I was a little girl convinced there were monsters under the bed. My subconscious is clearly a bit hysterical. It masterfully transforms the raw material of the daily news into nightmarish scenarios. One night, after I’d been lamenting the misogyny that has resurfaced in the public sphere, I dreamed that all the women were dying. As in, all the women. Everywhere. Dying. I struggled to shake off the terror of the dream. It clung to me even as morning dawned and consciousness returned. Another night, an innocuous noise in the house jolted me into a state of momentary panic.
Friends, I spent the last week desperately trying to figure out how to preach on the First Sunday of Advent without acknowledging the elephant in the room. I’m well aware that we’re all weary of politics, and wary of politics in the pulpit. I’m also deeply grateful for the words of my faithful clergy colleagues, who have both spoken powerfully of our calling to be ambassadors of God’s love and justice, and our of charge to stand in solidarity with the vulnerable in our midst. I wanted to proclaim the good news of Isaiah, in which we are promised that in the days to come, all the peoples of the world will stream to the mountain of the Lord’s house, and there shall be peace. But I could not find a way to speak of peace while ignoring our national unrest. I wanted to proclaim the good news of Romans, in which we are promised that salvation is near and that daybreak is coming. But I could not find a way to speak of the dawn without naming the darkness.
No matter how many paragraphs I drafted and deleted, no matter how many angles I considered and rejected, I could not conjure a sermon about hope that did not name the conditions that are causing many to despair.
Maybe you, like me, wish Advent could give us a moment of respite from all the tumult. Maybe you, like me, wish the sanctuary could be a safe place in which to hide away from the drama and trauma of current events. The Church must proclaim the good news - as it is spoken by prophets and apostles, and most especially as it is revealed in Jesus Christ.
But it is awfully difficult to contemplate the Advent themes of hope, peace, joy, and love with any integrity without acknowledging the anxiety, anger, distress, and hostility that is so rampant in our nation. It would be nearly as bewildering as hearing the wrong scripture on Easter Sunday.
Isaiah speaks of a time when God will beat swords into plowshares, spears into pruning hooks. The tools of war retooled into the tools of the garden; the objects that threatened death resurrected as objects that nurture life. It seems an impossible dream.
A Brooklyn playground, a Canadian synagogue, and copies of the Qurans at the Evanston Public Library were just a few of the targets defaced by swastikas within the last week.
I hope and pray that in the fullness of time, God will transform these ugly portents of bigotry and violence into hearts and smiley-faces. And, more importantly, I hope and pray that God will transform the hardened hearts of those who weaponize pencils and paint. It seems an impossible dream.
The apostle Paul writes to the Romans: now is the moment for you to wake from sleep. Perhaps this is a bit insulting; who is Paul to say we’ve drifted off? Yet Paul sounds the alarm, rousing us from our restless slumber. Wake up, he says, for salvation is nearer to us now than when we became believers. God is up to something. This, too, seems an impossible dream, but this is precisely why Paul is so insistent that we open our eyes. If God is up to something, we best be paying attention.
Not only that, we are invited to be a part of it. Somehow, in the midst of the darkness, we’re to be bearers of light. Somehow, in the midst of war and rumors of war, we’re to be makers of peace. Somehow, while discord and disunity drag our spirits low, we’re supposed to go high - all the way to the top of God’s holy mountain.
God’s holy mountain... which doesn’t actually exist yet, except as a prophetic vision. It would be awfully nice to place our trust in something more tangible. We do it all the time; it’s called idolatry. Rather than trust God and God’s impossible dreams, we place our trust in the powers and principalities of this world. I will speak for myself here: part of the rude and disorienting awakening I am experiencing this Advent is a newfound awareness of my own idols.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German pastor and theologian who resisted Hitler unto death, wrote these words: “The world is overcome not through destruction, but through reconciliation. Not ideals, nor programs, nor conscience, nor duty, nor responsibility, nor virtue, but only God's perfect love can encounter reality and overcome it. Nor is it some universal idea of love, but rather the love of God in Jesus Christ, a love genuinely lived, that does this.”
Do we trust this? Do we believe with all our hearts and minds and souls and bodies that our ultimate allegiance must be to Jesus Christ? Do we believe that God’s perfect love can encounter reality and overcome it? Do we have the courage to forsake our favorite idols for the sake of the gospel? Are we so paralyzed by our fear of the dark that we will fail to put on the armor of light?
Will we wake from sleep to behold God’s impossible dreams?
In his Advent Credo, The great Jesuit priest, poet, and activist Daniel Berrigan found it just as important to name what is not true as what is true. He writes:
It is not true that creation and the human family are doomed to destruction and loss—
This is true: For God so loved the world that He gave his only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish but have everlasting life;
It is not true that we must accept inhumanity and discrimination, hunger and poverty, death and destruction—
This is true: I have come that they may have life, and have it abundantly.
It is not true that violence and hatred should have the last word, and that war and destruction rule forever—
This is true: Unto us a child is born, unto us a Son is given, and the government shall be upon his shoulder, his name shall be called wonderful counselor, mighty God, the Everlasting, the Prince of peace.
It is not true that we are simply victims of the powers of evil who seek to rule the world—
This is true: To me is given authority in heaven and on earth, and lo I am with you, even until the end of the world.
It is not true that we have to wait for those who are specially gifted, who are the prophets of the Church before we can be peacemakers—
This is true: I will pour out my spirit on all flesh and your sons and daughters shall prophesy, your young men shall see visions and your old men shall have dreams.
It is not true that our hopes for liberation of humankind, of justice, of human dignity of peace are not meant for this earth and for this history—
This is true: The hour comes, and it is now, that the true worshipers shall worship God in spirit and in truth.
So let us enter Advent in hope, even hope against hope. Let us see visions of love and peace and justice. Let us affirm with humility, with joy, with faith, with courage: Jesus Christ—the life of the world.
May it be so. Amen.