Wake up and dream

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I usually don’t post my sermons because I found that they’re so long that people rarely read them on the blog. But, I had some requests, so here we go.

Text: Acts 2:1-21

Hagar was Sarah’s slave. Abraham and Sarah are characters from the Old Testament. Abraham knew that he was to be a father of a great people. Except something was going awry in the plan. Abraham and his wife, Sarah, were getting older, and they still didn’t have any children, and so Abraham forced Hagar to have his child, Ishmael. Then when Abraham and his wife finally did have a child of their own, Sarah and Abraham forced Hagar and Ishmael out into the desert. Abraham sent his own son out into the wilderness to die. Hagar was given a small bit of water, and that was it.

So, Hagar was wandering in the desert, with no place to go. The sun was beating down upon her. And I imagine her, walking with that sheer determination that a mother has when her child is in danger. But then the water ran out, Ishmael’s cries were getting louder and as much as she tried, she could no longer soothe him and it became clear that her sweet boy was going to die.

Hagar had no idea what to do. So, she placed her child under a bush, and then she called out to God, and pleaded that God would not allow her to look upon the death of her child, and somehow, there in that desert, she received a glimpse of God’s dream, she got a taste of God’s imagination, and she realized that she would become a mother of a great nation.

How did that happen? How did Hagar, a slave, who was forced to conceive her master’s child, stand in that barren desert, with no water and her small child crying, how did she suddenly imagine that she would become the mother of a great nation? I think it was because she caught a bit of the dream of God.

After she realized this, she looked up, and she saw a well of water on the horizon, and she and Ishmael were saved.

The Scriptures are full of stories like this.

There was Moses, who led the people of Israel out of slavery, and into the desert. They were wandering out there for forty years. And yet, all of that time, during all of that nomadic traveling amongst the dry and dusty sand, when the people were looking longingly back to a period when their children were killed or enslaved, Moses was not willing to go back. And in that desert landscape, Moses kept telling them stories about a land flowing with milk and honey.

How could he imagine it? How did Moses have the vision to see milk in honey, when his mouth and nose were full dry dust? I think it is because he somehow caught a glimpse of the dream of God.

And think about Esther. Esther was Jewish, in a land where she was an oppressed minority. Her parent’s died when she was a child, and so a relative, Mordecai, took care of her. When she was a young woman, she became a member of a harem, for a particularly vile king.

The king had gotten rid of his wife because the queen wouldn’t display her beauty (whatever that means) before his drunk friends. The king was humiliated and decided that if he let his wife get away with not obeying him, then it would be license for women in his whole kingdom not to obey their husbands. So he dismissed her, in order that every man would know that he was the master of his house.

Of course, shortly after he did get rid of her, he missed her and started looking for her replacement, so he gathered all of the most beautiful women in the land, of which Esther was one. After a year of intense beauty treatments, Esther was chosen to be the new queen. Yet, from what I can tell of the story, I’m not sure that it was much of a promotion. Esther was the victim of terrible violent threats. She could not reveal that she was Jewish, and she was not even allowed to enter the same room with her husband without the fear of being killed.

And yet, Esther, in spite of the years of racial discrimination, sexual victimization, and physical peril, somehow Esther realized that she was placed in her position at a particular time for a particular reason. She began to understand that she would be the savior of her people.

I wonder how, with her background, with her history, and with the terrible threats that she was under, how did Esther begin to see herself as the savior of her people? How did she have the courage to overcome the years of being violated and threatened? I believe that Esther, somehow, caught a glimpse of the dream of God.

And what about Mary? Imagine her, this young unmarried teenager, looking down at her bloated tummy, trying to swallow back her morning sickness she realized that if anyone found out that she was pregnant, then an angry mob of people would surround her, they would pick up stones and throw them at her, and they would keep pelting those rocks at her until her body was so bruised and broken that she would finally die.

And yet, somehow, as her ankles began to swell and her skin began to stretch, she reminded herself that she was the most blest among all women.

How did it happen? How did these people, in the most disturbing, violent and oppressive circumstances, how did they begin to see living water in the desert, milk and honey in a dry land? How did they begin to see themselves as mothers of great nations, saviors of a people, and the most blessed among all women? How did they leave their lives of bondage, slavery and abuse behind? How did they have the imagination to begin to see themselves as something different? How did they begin to envision a life without gender discrimination, sexual slavery, and racial oppression?

I think it was because each one of them became open to the dream of God. They began to see visions that were far removed from their actual settings, from their present environments, and they began to imagine the most extraordinary things.

When our family wakes up in the morning, often times we ask each other, “Did you have any interesting dreams last night?” And the most fascinating conversations follow. We can usually remember our dreams, and after we explain the long detailed story, we try to figure out what they mean. I don’t know how to interpret dreams. I don’t know the particular symbolism that people have developed around dream archetypes, but it is interesting to wonder what our subconscious has been working hard on during those dark hours. I often realized certain emotions that I was feeling, that I didn’t know existed. Or I realize that my concern about a particular situation, something that I was trying to blow off, looms large in my mind. Sometimes, I allow myself to dislike a person or a job in my dreams that I would never admit to disliking while I was awake.

Dreams are so common. Experts, who have studied brain activity and eye motion, say that we all dream, whether we recall the images or not, we all dream. We all have that ability. I wonder if we have all have the ability to wake up and dream.

Pentecost is such an extraordinary event, full of wonder and miracles, and yet, it is also filled with such ordinary things. The disciples were together in one room, praying, trying to figure out what to do next. They felt quite abandoned and confused. It had not been long since Jesus, who was killed in a brutal public display, began appearing to different people in very random places: on the beach, on a road, in a locked room.

Then, after getting his followers’ hopes up, Jesus gathers some disciples onto a mountainside, and ascends into heaven, leaving the disciples in physical danger, scared and bewildered. Until Pentecost.

On the Sunday of Pentecost, they were all in a room together, praying, and trying to figure out what to do, when suddenly they heard the sound of rushing wind, and tongues of fire appeared on each person’s head. People began to speak in different languages, when they never had that ability before. The old and the young began to dream dreams, and see visions.

And, as God so often does, the Holy Spirit moved in those common, ordinary things—fire, wind, words, dreams, and visions to make something miraculous happen.

When I was in Sunday school, I was confused by the idea of a vision, and so I asked my teacher what visions were. And she told me something interesting. She said that they were dreams that happened when we were awake. I like this idea. Visions are dreams that we have when we are awake.

And perhaps that is the promise of the Holy Spirit which has been poured out upon all of us. The Spirit allows us to wake up and dream. The Spirit gives birth to us, so that we can begin to see ourselves as new creations. We can begin imagining a world where men and women are no longer enslaved, where peace reigns.

Jesus talked a lot about the Kingdom of God. But the metaphor doesn’t make that much sense in our current context. It was a powerful image in the Jewish context that Jesus moved and taught in, but it is a bit foreign to most of us. Most of us are seeped in democracy. We’re more used to the idea of a president, and we chafe a bit when we think of being subjects of a king.

So theologians try to think of other words to use. Often they talk about the reign of God, to at least get past the Patriarchy of it. Or it’s the reign of God. Recently, I heard a theologian use the term the Dream of God.

The dream of God! What a beautiful concept. The dream of God is that the hungry will be full and there will be peace. And here, at this Pentecost moment we have a group of people get a glimpse of the dream of God.

When this miraculous moment occurred, it became clear to so many that the grace of God was no longer just for the Jews, but it was poured out upon men and women, young and old, of every language, of every ethnicity, of every socioeconomic background. That is the dream of God. And the church was formed, by God sharing the dream with a handful of people.

It is the dream that allowed men and women to imagine an underground railroad, so that slaves in the United States could escape to freedom. It is that vision that wakes women up from years of abuse, and allows them to create a way out of the violence. It is the hope that stirs within men and women who suffered from abuse or discrimination as children, and allows them to look into the mirror and see the image of God staring back at them.

Pentecost marks the fact that the dream of God runs through us. It flows through this sanctuary. It is that imagination that so captures a dying church to become a place of feeding and hospitality for homeless guests. It is the Spirit that stirs so boldly within us, until we can begin to imagine living water in the desert, milk and honey in the wilderness. And it is what encourages us to go out from this place, and to live boldly, into this Pentecost Spirit.

To the glory of God our Creator,

            God our Liberator, 

                      and God our Sustainer. Amen.

 

photo by PhotoSock-Israel

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14 thoughts on “Wake up and dream

  1. I really like the image you use of the Dream of God. It encourages a healthy acceptance of the mystery of life and creation. Dreams are ethereal by their very nature, they are hard to pin down and understand, but when one does gain understanding, they can be like a laser right to the core of one’s being. So it seems with the Dream of God. Difficult to pin down and yet, when, for those fleeting moments, we do, we are forever transformed and wells do appear in deserts. I also appreciate your reminding us that Abraham was a tool and yet God used him. Peace.

  2. Carol,

    I appreciate the fortitude of putting your sermon on the blog. Just so you know, some of us read it! Overall I enjoyed it and felt appropriately challenged by it. I did, however, have difficulty getting beyond the rather jaded introduction. You express several significant misreadings of the Sarai-Abram story:

    1. Sarai gave her “servant” to Abram and accused him of being the problem. Let’s give Sarai her just treatment. She’s the instigator here, it seems.

    2. We don’t know that Abram “forced” Hagar to sleep with him, although certainly the “servant” issue implies a potential lack of personal choice. It is quite conceivable, however, that Hagar could have seen this as “her chance to advance”. Anyone who has lived in cultures with polygamy practiced like this knows the politics of the wifely pecking order.

    3. When Hagar became pregnant we read that she “despised” Sarai. Let’s also be fair with Hagar’s attitude. She may have despised Sarai hoping to be elevated to the “most favored wife” status very common in these cultures.

    4. Sarai then blames Abram for her suffering (even though Sarai had instigated the whole matter).

    5. Sarai then “mistreats” Hagar so that Hagar runs away.

    6. Abram (now Abraham) then undergoes circumcision at age 99 with Ishmael age 13 certainly an act of love and commitment.

    7. Eventually, after Isaac is weaned and a feast is thrown, Sarai (now Sarah) tries to “force” Abraham to get rid of Hagar and Isaac. Abraham is distressed about this but God says to give in to Sarah.

    The story really is almost one of a cat fight between two seemingly jealous women and what God does through and in spite of this.

    What happened subsequently was due to each person in the story’s wrestling with obedience to God – sometimes well and sometimes not so well – and their treatment or mistreatment of one another. And that’s what it is for each of us. As we obey and walk into God’s will (my choice for replacing Kingdom, Reign, etc) we find amazing things revealed. But that will is too often hindered by mistreatment, jealousy, etc.

    We all experience unjust circumstances of sorts. What we do with what we are given is as much of a character issue as it is a God issue.

    I enjoyed the rest of the sermon but had trouble connecting because of my stumbling around with the disconnect at the beginning. Thanks for your thoughts.

  3. “The story really is almost one of a cat fight between two seemingly jealous women and what God does through and in spite of this.”

    Glen, we certainly read it differently! I don’t see it as a “cat fight” at all.

    Hagar didn’t like Sarah because Sarah forced Hagar to have sex with Sarah’s husband. That sounds pretty reasonable to me.

    Anyways… I don’t care what was going on between Sarah and Hagar. Bottom line–Abraham is the father. He allowed his son to be sent out to die with the words, “Your slave-girl is within your power, do to her as you please.”

    I don’t like this at all. I find it even more difficult than the second time that it happened.

  4. WTF? A cat fight? I always thought Abraham to be a dick as he sends his son to the desert. I am in awe at what we will attribute to God as divine action. Abuse is abuse regardless is it arrives in a profane package or a divine one.

  5. Carol,

    Thanks for taking the time. I don’t think it’s a matter of reading it differently as much as it is a matter of enculturating the word in its original context. It never says that Abram forced Hagar to bear his child. That’s a cultural inference born out of a largely western mindset. Polygamous societies tend to read this as it is written and understand the tension inherent in such relationships… even in patriarchal societies.

    Ryan,

    “WTF?” Abraham a “dick?” God the divine “abuser”??? Such a childish attitude doesn’t even merit a response!

    And we continue to struggle with understanding why there is such division in the church… It is, at it’s core, a faith issue. It almost appears that there are such fundamental difference between the new age approaches to reading scripture and the Reformed faith that the two cannot long abide.

  6. I guess that I read this differently than you (Carol) and others.

    I don’t think I agree with Glen’s characterization of the relationship between Sarai and Hagar as a “cat fight”.

    I do agree with his criticisms of Sarah. Sarah came up with the whole idea in the first place, and then got upset when the results were something that she didn’t like.

    God was apparently OK with this, or at least was willing to correct the situation by giving Ishmael his own nation.

    Then later God is OK with casting out Hagar and Ishmael.

    This latter point hits home for me. I’ve been out of work for 9 1/2 months now. People keep telling me things about God having a plan for me, and that God will provide for me in due time. I’m expected to patiently wait and work and I will magically find myself on the path that God had in mind all along. And I’m doing that, and praying.

    It seems that God had a plan for Ishmael as well. And God was OK with Hagar and Ishmael being cast out, because God planned to provide for them. And He did.

    Abraham was clearly troubled by the decision to cast them out, and prayed to God about it. God told him what to do. I often wonder what the person who chose to lay me off (who I know to attend church) might have thought about that decision. I know that my former manager is still conflicted about the situation, even though she was not involved in the decision.

    So in light of that, I don’t see what Abraham did wrong.

  7. BTW – the rest of the sermon is wonderful.

    As one who has had both a dream and a vision that I believe to be divinely based, I agree that it is magical. There’s a sense of joy, and awe, and “uh oh. now what do I have to do?” that goes with it – a reflection of God’s presence and choice of your future path.

  8. How is a “cat fight” enculturating it in its original context? Not really arguing the interpretation, but more care with the way we understand how a text is enculturated seems to be demanded here.

  9. Mark,

    Good constructive comment.

    I do lift up the fact that my comment was only that it is “almost” a cat fight. I do not mean to detract from all of the other tensions inherent in the story but I do find it a reasonably important side story, and one that bears keeping in mind. I also raise it as something of a corrective to what I see as a misreading of the actual story line.

    I am still struck by the western assumptions we bring to such issues of “patriarchy”. As one who has spent the last 9 years in patriarchal cultures all of which also practiced polygamy even in the Christian church, perhaps I am oversensitive to such matters. But that understanding does bring an added appreciation to the stories which we often do not fully understand.

    I’ve seen women’s faces burnt by acid thrown by the junior wife so that the number one wife is no longer attractive, making way for the junior wife to ascend. My children attended school where a western teacher hung herself because her Thai boyfriend (a married 50+ year old man) refused to elevate her to the senior wife position. I’ve lived with some of this reality and realize just how much a part of the culture it is. This is real everyday stuff in my life, not some romantic story.

    It bears importance in understanding the struggles in such societies and gives a depth of understanding to the text. I continue to be amazed at how much better less complex/developed societies understand the scriptures.

  10. Glen,

    Thanks for the added perspective.

    You said, “It never says that Abram forced Hagar to bear his child.”

    I think in the sexual act itself, he does.

    It’s not clear to me in the story that she is really elevated to wife status. Yes, Sarah gave Hagar to be his wife, but she’s still identified as the “slave-girl” and Sarah has free reign to abuse (“deal harshly with”) her.

    I know my own perspective comes to this story. I think that’s why identify with Hagar so much in it.

  11. Drew,
    I used the term “cat fight” advisedly. Again suggesting that it was “almost” a cat fight. The tension described as “almost a cat fight” is endemic and amply attested to in anthropological descriptions of polygamous (and even polyandrous) societies. Biblically I would casually mention the tension between Rachel and Leah (the purchasing of Jacob for the night with mandrakes). This tension is real in such societies and needs to be a part of any faithful consideration of the text.

  12. Carol,

    I would agree that the issue of “servant” or “slave girl” implies a certain level of disempowerment. No argument there. However, I simply have difficulty with the assumption:

    “and so Abraham forced Hagar to have his child”

    being so forcefully placed on scripture when it is not clearly stated or even implied. It is an argument from silence. I’d have been more comfortable with lifting up the possibility that Hagar may not have been a willing participant to the marital struggle between Sarai and Abram. From scripture itself we are left in the dark and can only assume certain things. You and I having had vastly different experiences will tend to assume different “realities.”

    Having lived in polygamous cultures I am aware of the tensions that exist in such relationships first hand. And they are not the garden variety cute little loving American-Mormon style experiences that we have sometimes been hearing about on the tv recently.

    Also, please note that my comments regarding number 1 wife and junior wife etc. have nothing whatsoever to do with actual marital condition. It is a societal referent used in many polygamous societies to refer the the actual behavior not the legal status, since normally speaking, especially within the church, polygamy is outwardly prohibited.

  13. Technically Hagar was a concubine, not a wife…she was to bear a child to Abraham but the credit would still go to the real wife, Sarah…but when Ishmael was born, Hagar wouldn’t give Sarah the credit–she “despised” her. As property, she could be dealt with however the owner saw fit, and Abraham passed that responsibility off to the “real wife.” There is real injustice in the story, though we may all disagree as to who the perpetrator of the injustice is. (FTR, I wouldn’t say Sarah is innocent by any means, but is also not the one with enough power to change much in the situation.)

    I appreciate Glen’s perspective, and have also lived in places where polygamy was an accepted practice. From my own experience (not as extensive or as wide ranging or in the same contexts as Glen’s) I would just caution us against assuming that polygamy today is the same as polygamous practice/concubinage in the biblical context. Many things about the cultures are different and make the correlation almost as difficult as comparing marriage in 21st century America to marriage in the Bible…different in many ways, to be sure.

    Carol, I appreciated your sermon and found it lovely to read and to imagine in your voice. I hope I can hear you preach in person one day! You made me think, you made me wonder, you led my imagination into new places. Thanks!

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