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Based on the Scripture readings:
Matthew 2
Psalm 29
Luke 3

2010 January 10
First Sunday after Epiphany
The Rev. Dr. Kenneth F. Baily, Senior Pastor

Imagination, Dreams, and Vision

On Friday we celebrated one of my favorite liturgical events here at NHCC: the Annual Progressive Supper. It's a great event, and I love it. And the reason it is liturgical is that the literal meaning of that word -- liturgy -- is "the work of the people," and in the early days that meant any public action of the gathered church. Nowadays, often we mean formal stuff that we do, but not in the beginning.

At any rate, the liturgy of the Supper follows a very familiar form, and for the eight years that I have enjoyed it, it has started at the Parsonage, and my wife and I have learned that the same actions will be practiced, religiously. For example, the first year folks came, my wife tried to hang coats for them as they arrived. She was told, told, that coats were to be placed on the steps, not hung. O.K. We always have a fire in the fireplace, and eight years ago we heard the story of the time that at another venue the smoke from the fireplace filled the house -- some of you know that story -- and this was told as moral tale about the conditions of those involved, and not a single person who told me that story explained that the smoke was a sign of the Holy Spirit -- as would have been blatant in the scriptures -- which reveals how few of us grew up Episcopalian. Anyway, in addition to the robes (I'm sorry -- I meant coats) and the fires, we have the ritual of where to set the wine, where to set the water, where to set the bread -- are you seeing a pattern here -- and then Christine and I have a ritual worry, because by ten minutes after the appointed hour to begin, only four people ever are present (like in worship), and by half an hour the house is packed full, and we have a wonderful time.

About an hour after the meal has started, everyone is comfortable and settled and something unsettling happens each year, just about then: something that we want but we don't necessarily like.

About an hour into the celebration, we are told to break up, move forth, and get to the next thing. We go to the place with the smoke. Which is fabulous, but each year for eight years I have wondered if maybe we shouldn't just have a three hour dinner at the Parsonage and not make people move forth so abruptly.

Except that that is what we do: it's what we plan for and celebrate, and this year, four hours after Back to top the dinner began at one house, it was hard to get us to wrap up at the third house, which if you read it in the scriptures would also mean something rather obvious, but I'll leave that for sermon feedback.

Anyway, I wrestle with this question a lot: when folks are enjoying themselves and eating well and connecting to their neighbors, is it right to ask them to move to the next thing? But frankly, that is exactly the way that God behaves. It's what our world needs of us. It's even our plan, our desire, our commitment. It is our dream.

I said last week that I wanted to return this week to the third of three major ingredients of the Epiphany story; I wanted to return to Joseph's dreams. Really Matthew's five dreams, numbered like the books of the Pentateuch. Because each New Year, if we are liturgically correct, we are called to move ourselves from where we are to where God wants us next. Or, expressed differently by Bill Coffin, "God loves us just as we are but far too much to leave us where we are." So these several weeks of January, we are called to discernment for the programs ahead, attention to the Holy Spirit, and conversation with each other about our imagination, dreams, and vision. And the best way to do that is to start with a model from the Bible because we don't have to invent either the wheel or the way, which are both right there waiting for us to get moving.

What are the dreams of the scriptures? What is the vision of our faith, or more than that, of this home for our faith at NHCC?

In order to explore that I want to define what is a dream, anyway?

Now, I love my Oxford English Dictionary because it is helpful and because it is delightful, which means humorous. And I looked up imagination, dreams, and vision to get a handle on them. So ponder this: imagination is a mental concept of what is not actually present to the senses. Pretty good. Back to top It is also a mental consideration of events not yet in existence. It sounds like the dictionary has a mentalist working for them instead of an artist, but there's more.

Dreams, we read, are a train of thoughts, images, or fancies passing through the mind. They are a vision of the fancy indulged. I printed that out for myself: a vision of the fancy indulged.

A vision, finally, is something which is apparently seen otherwise than by ordinary sight.

So if we are seeking these three things, we're looking for something that is ahead of our immediate senses, fanciful even, and beyond ordinary sight. Which is pretty good, because once we get into the Biblical dreams we can be inclined to disbelief unless we go beyond ordinary sight. Let me tell you what I mean.

The Biblical dreams of Epiphany are hard to believe if belief means taking them literally. But if we take them literally, we miss their point anyway, miss the truth, so look at them with some imagination.

Matthew guides the early part of the story of God's new Moses with five dreams in one chapter, after which he drops the whole idea for twenty-five chapters completely. But here they are:

  • Joseph dreams that it is right to stay with Mary
  • the Magi dream that they can go home by another road
  • then Joseph dreams to go to Egypt, 
  • to come back to Israel,
  •  and then to move to Galilee and even Nazareth.
Read Matthew 2; it will take you three minutes.

And when you read it you will see this: these aren't just dreams to fulfill scripture or move the narrative ahead or even to suggest that we should all follow our bliss or imagination or heart's desire. Yes, they fulfill the five-part grounding that says this Jesus is like Moses, but they each have a meaningful Back to top message, too. In fact, they are almost a program, as long as we are tender and gentle and not too rigid with that. Because look at what they say, literally. Look at their actual words.

In the first dream, when Joseph is intending to divorce Mary, honorably, his dream tells him specifically, don't be afraid. Don't be afraid, Joseph, which means he was. And why not be afraid? Because the Holy Spirit is involved in your life and your decisions. Mark that for memory.

The second dream is to the Magi, who are gifted sages, intellectuals, and pretty capable with conclusions and even directions. And their dream says, you can take a new direction. You can choose not to return to what was and is dangerous to you. Like Herod. Mark that, too.

The last three dreams are all about where Joseph belongs and goes, and why. The first of these calls for him to rise, flee, and protect the vulnerable -- Jesus -- from danger. Protect God from the world? Protect the innocent from injury? Yes. The second of these calls Joseph to rise and come back to Israel. Why Israel? It is the Holy Land, of course.  It is, to be simple, the place where God is and where God's mission is. The last of these three calls Joseph to be safe in Galilee and Nazareth, where he belongs: to have a home.

There is always a danger in making nuanced and multi-dimensional portions of scripture too simple. The associated danger is obscuring their simple obvious center.

The five dreams telling us of Jesus' origins invite us not to fear, because the Holy Spirit is with us, to continue on new directions, because the old ones can be dangerous, and to protect the vulnerable, to stay close to God, and to know that there is a place where we belong. Not to get all that would be Back to top to miss the essential. And to leave it there would be to sentimentalize what is actually a call not to thought but to rise up, in action and new life.

Let me add to those five dreams with the two scriptures that we heard this morning for the Baptism of Christ. If you stick with this, you'll have everything that you need, and I'll appreciate that you hung in there for a long bit of Biblical examination and exegesis, which is never misplaced. Here is what we heard this morning, in brief.

Psalm 29 points out how the voice of God is everywhere. And it exhibits this wondrous imagination. The voice of God is on the waters, and it's moving the cedars of Lebanon and in the fire; it shakes the wilderness, and it is over the flood, and while all of this is beautiful and powerful, it is also, to the ancient ear, rather obvious because it is talking about how the voice of God, the word of God, is the Holy Spirit of God, because wind, fire, and water (remember) are all the symbols of this Spirit, so Psalm 29 says that God's Holy Spirit is everywhere. That's good news.

But now add this. We read the story of Jesus' baptism every year from a different Gospel, and usually we emphasize whether or not John is his Baptist and who can hear God's voice and a dozen other important bits. This year I want to draw your attention to one rather disturbing phrase which is tough on Biblical literalists. It's a description of the baptism, which happens only in Luke, when Jesus is praying. Luke says this: "the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form, as a dove…" In bodily form? This is the only appearance of that phrase at baptism. But I am drawn powerfully to it, and I believe it means something important.

So let me get to my point. I had intended for this sermon to be about what I dream for our parish. Because I have dreams for this place regarding our mission, our worship, our outreach, celebrations, and stewardship. I have dreams about what we can be and even what we should be. I have dreams about the way that we feed each other and the way that we fund ourselves, about things to celebrate and how to pray. I love this place just as it is but far too much to leave it as it is. I have insights about our anxieties for the future and our resources, which are abundant. That was my plan. But as I worked for some days on reflection and preparation, as I kept listing my dreams, all that I could see finally is what God Back to top dreams for us. I kept coming back to these five divine dreams and their meaning, which I cannot embody alone. So while I have a dream, we have a dream together, from God.

Of this I am certain: we are enjoying feeding each other and connecting with our neighbors and performing our liturgy -- the work of our mission. And this is good. But we have set for ourselves -- God has set for us -- a challenge to move on to the next place. Walter Brueggemann, the brilliant Old Testament scholar, asserts it this way: "The world for which you have been so carefully preparing is being taken away from you, by the grace of God."

We are being called forward, this year, by God's dreams. So we should know them.

Typically bylaws are not deep sources of inspiration and light, but listen to the brilliance of the third article of our very own document which articulates our purpose. It says that "our church, called by Jesus Christ, is not an end in itself, but an agency through which the Living God can work in our lives and our world." It says that "we are called by God to worship, grow and serve, in a journey of transformation." That is quite powerful.

Here's why I am drawn to the image of the bodily visit of the Holy Spirit. Because that is what our church is supposed to be. It is supposed to be the bodily form of the Holy Spirit. It is supposed to take the dreams of Matthew -- not to fear, to follow new directions, to protect, to stay close to God, and to know that we belong -- to take these dreams and know that God is everywhere and make them manifest in worship, growth, and service. It is supposed to depend on things not yet in existence and bring them alive. To indulge God's loving fancy, beyond ordinary sight, within ordinary sight. In worship, growth, and service. Actually, that's my dream, anyway. And that is how we feed each other. And that is why it is wonderful to be together. That's how we fill the house with smoke. Back to top Even as it is time to move on to the next thing. Which is what I'll discuss next week. Amen.

Copyright © 2010 Kenneth F. Baily.  Used by permission.
http://www.nhcc.net/sermons/Sermon20100110.htm

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