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Based on the Scripture readings:
Ecclesiastes 5:3-20
Luke 19:1-10

2008 September 28
Twenty Eighth Sunday after Pentecost
Gretchen L. Elmendorf, Associate Pastor

God's Streets, Not Wall Street

A perceptive Native American saying goes, "Sometimes dreams are wiser than waking." There's been a lot of talk about dreams these days. Of course, our politicians have been talking about the American Dream in their political campaigns. The dream is a buzz word in politics and also in pop culture. It wasn't too long ago, just last spring, that there was a lot of hype about living your "Idol Dream."  Anyone remember? American Idol contestants were promised huge record contracts and lives of luxury if they won. The idea of living in your "dream house" has been big -- the show Extreme Makeover, Home Edition soars in the ratings. Noble versions of the American dream exis:, just saying four words, "I have a dream," conjures up instantaneously the image of Martin Luther King in front of the Lincoln Memorial that memorable day.

But too often the dream is about getting that dream car, dream job, house, vacation, bank account... And that kind of dream's not doing too well. Just a year ago, the headline story of NPR Marketplace was "Priced out of the American Dream." The headlines have gotten far worse, as you know. The Economist headline last week read: "Wall Street's bad dream: A nightmare that seems like it will never end."1 There was this from ABC News: "College Students Drop Dreams Amid Wall Street Woes: MBA Programs Prepare Business Students to Switch Gears from Financials, Explore New Options."2 This one would be kind of funny if it weren't so sad: "Poof! There go Americans' dreams."3

Another headline reads: "The American dream got sold out to China and Japan."4 Another: "This Ain't My American Dream."5 There was an ad in the New York Times the other day: "The American Dream is on Life Support."6 A few days later, the news got more fatalistic: "Working Harder to Fall Behind: The American Dream Is Dead."7

Maybe you're thinking, as am I, what the heck is this "American Dream" all about? Seems tenuous at best. But maybe this economic tsunami on Wall Street and Main Street can help us understand dreaming from another perspective, other than that of an executive financier's vision. Maybe this crisis will help us come to know dreaming from God's perspective.

The Bible has a lot to say about dreams. The word dream is referred to 173 times in the Bible, all but seven coming from Hebrew Scripture.

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I was surprised to see that most of the references are pretty damning:

Psalms 73:20  As a dream when one awakes, so when you arise, O Lord, you will despise them as fantasies.

Isaiah 56:10  Israel's watchmen are blind, they all lack knowledge; they are all mute dogs, they cannot bark; they lie around and dream, they love to sleep.

Jeremiah 23:25  "I have heard what the prophets say who prophesy lies in my name. They say, 'I had a dream! I had a dream!'"

Jeremiah 23:28  "Let the prophet who has a dream tell his dream, but let the one who has my word speak it faithfully. For what has straw to do with grain?" declares the Lord.

If that's not enough, listen again to what Ecclesiastes has to say. It's stunning how these ancient words have a certain relevant ring:

As a dream comes when there are many cares, so the speech of a fool when there are many words. With many dreams come vanities and a multitude of words; but fear God. 8 If you see in a province the oppression of the poor and the violation of justice and right, do not be amazed at the matter; for the high official is watched by a higher… 10 The lover of money will not be satisfied with money; nor the lover of wealth, with gain. This also is vanity. 13 There is a grievous ill that I have seen under the sun: riches were kept by their owners to their hurt, 14 and those riches were lost in a bad venture; though they are parents of children, they have nothing in their hands. 15 As they came from their mother's womb, so they shall go again, naked as they came; they shall take nothing for their toil, which they may carry away with their hands. 16 This also is a grievous ill: just as they came, so shall they go; and what gain do they have from toiling for the wind.

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I wonder if there are any CEO's on Wall Street who have read this verse recently: "a high official is watched by a higher…"

I think there's enough here in Hebrew Scripture to do more than suggest: it is crucial to steer away from materialistically driven dreams. This discipline is not so easy and is completely counter-cultural. Think of all the ads you see every day telling you you absolutely need another item to make you complete, happy. Is it easy for you to tune these out? So persuasive are these advertisers that my son, when he was only in kindergarten, was taught in health class how dangerous ads can be and to avoid them.

Bill Moyers has a fascinating series in his Journal currently, called "Deepening the American Dream." Guests who are leaders of a diverse range of fields in our culture are asked what their vision is for the future of the American Dream. If you go onto Bill Moyer's website, you can read their remarks and watch them on video. I like what Sarah Chayes says. Chayes is a journalist who covered the fall of the Taliban in Afghanistan for NPR and now lives in Afghanistan, helping to rebuild it:

Sarah Chayes says: "I think it has to repose on ethics. You know, morality is something that gets thrown around in the political dialog a lot. And often, morality is taken to refer to what we do in our bedrooms. And I actually think that morality and ethics are much broader than that. And if we don't rebuild our public action, based on an ethical foundation, it's over, the American Dream."

The good news here is that a broad definition of morality and ethics is nothing new to us. You and I, as pilgrims, as sojourners of faith, are building an ethical and moral foundation upon which to base our public action and build our dreams every time we come to church.

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After all, do any of us know a more moral or ethical leader than the one we pray to day by day, week by week, Jesus Christ?

When we come to church, we unlearn what our culture tries to brainwash us with. Enough of dreams of gold. We don't need to bank upon fleeting dreams anymore, which fluctuate like the up and down patterns of the Dow. The everlasting ones that we learn about in the New Testament have nothing to do with acquisition.

All but one are found in the gospel of Matthew. Each of these dreams comes from an angel. What's interesting too is they always point the dreamer in the right direction just when he or she could have gone in the wrong direction and run into trouble. Remember how the wise people changed direction, after visiting Jesus in the manger? "Having been warned in a dream not to go back to Herod," they returned to their country by another route.

Maybe following a noble version of the American Dream is what it's all about for you. Maybe it isn't. But by all means, pray to discover what God's dreams are for you, and by the grace of God, you just may find angels whispering in your ears at night. You might be prevented from choosing the wrong path.

Let me share with you a prayer that can help. I've dubbed this prayer, a kitchen-sink prayer. Have you ever gone to a bakery and seen some very large cookies that seem to have everything in them? These are called "kitchen-sink cookies," and their recipes include just about every ingredient in your kitchen but the sink. "kitchen-sink prayers" are along this same theme, the kind where you put every plea from your heart into one big prayer for God, closing with "may thy will be done." You become transparent before God, you tell God everything, no holds barred, the positive, the negative, your hopes, your fears, and offer it all up in prayer -- with your desires. While my label -- "kitchen-sink prayers" -- might be new, the concept is as old as scripture, at least as old as the first century: "Ask, and it shall be given you; seek, and ye shall find; knock, and it shall be opened unto you." (Mat 7:7)

During this time of crisis in our country, the worst thing that could ever happen is if we let fear or worry or pessimism or even depression stunt our life of prayer, or diminish any hope that God still has a dream for us. The worst thing about the upheaval of an American Dream would be if you lost your own desire to dream, with God's help. -- "Glory to God whose power working among us is able to accomplish infinitely more than we can possibly hope for or imagine..." (Eph. 3:14-21)

In times like these, we pray.

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In times like these, we live out the best dreams by following Jesus.

I love the story of how Jesus spotted Zacchaeus up in a tree, hiding from the crowd, trying to get a peek at Jesus. Jesus did not distance himself from this tax collector/sinner. Jesus couldn't have come closer. He told Zacchaeus to get down off that tree, and invited himself over to Zacchaeus' home for dinner, a very intimate act in the first century. Jesus helped Zacchaeus realize that he didn't need to stay stuck in old patterns, he was not merely a tax collector or a sinner -- he was the son of Abraham and Sarah, a child of God. You know, Zacchaeus was rich, but after he met Jesus, he wasn't dreaming about getting richer anymore. He was dreaming up ways of how to give all he had.

Jesus inspired in Zacchaeus courage to repent of wrongdoings, to turn the other cheek, to love, to serve, and to do what he couldn't imagine doing before -- giving joyfully to the poor. If we follow the ways of Jesus, we come in touch with God's dream. We come out of hiding and find ourselves rising to a higher, more giving, more courageous self, serving one another with love and thanksgiving, growing beyond our wildest dreams.

Praying, hoping, serving, evolving like Zacchaeus, becoming intimate with Christ, that's God's dream and this is how we will build up God's kingdom, together, not on Wall Street but on every street.

Notes:

1The Economist, print edition, 2008 September 18
2By Susan Donaldson James, ABC News, 2008 September 25
3So much for the fairy tale about the little guy buying stocks for a sweet life and a safe retirement. Now that vision is crumbling along with some of Wall Street's giants. Jon Markman, MSN, 2008 September 16
4By Tom Watkins on  www.freep.com 2008 September 24
5Blogs about the American Dream on Wordpress.com. Government Bailouts, "This Ain't My American Dream," 2008 September 23
6That is the question at the heart of this ad, appearing in The New York Times on 2008 September16
7By Lee Sustar, CounterPunch. Posted on www.alternet.org 2008 September 17 

Copyright © 2008 Gretchen L. Elmendorf.  Used by permission.

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