Dreaming Dreams and Seeing Visions

This sermon was a dialogue preached at Oglethorpe Presbyterian Church between myself and Susannah Morris, a member of our youth group. I've broken it up to make it easier to follow along. I went first. Joel 2:23-32 Luke 18:9-14

This morning, Susannah and I want to share a public conversation with you. We are rooting ourselves in Christ’s parable of the tax-collector and Pharisee which we heard from Luke this morning; we root ourselves in our season of Living Stewardship; and we also root ourselves in the words of promise from the prophet Joel, where elders dream dreams and youth see visions.

So Susannah, I want to begin by asking you, what are the visions that youth see?

I know that my response to your question will be limited by my own narrow perspective. But this morning I pray that my words convey not only my vision, but also that of other youth. Our visions are complex, and we usually can’t even imagine what they would look like in real life. I want to share them, though, so that this congregation can be a part of the imagining and their enactment.

When youth of the Church see visions for themselves as individuals, a Christian life is central. We know that how we live out our faith each day in the world is one crucial element, but that our personal experience of God is important, too. In other words, we seek to journey outward and inward simultaneously. We yearn to live so that all whom we encounter—those in our homes, churches, schools, and other communities—may know that Christ is alive through our words and actions. In this journey outward, we seek that all we do might proclaim the Gospel. At the same time, we yearn to know that God’s light is inseparable from us at all times, in our joy and pain, in our words and silence, in our work and play. We yearn to feel this deep connection with God, for we sense that God is the source of all that’s valuable within us. When we journey inward, we seek to discover this God.

We have visions for the Church, too, because you formed us and helped us to know who we are and whose we are. I remember the day I was baptized here when I was thirteen. I got the shivers when Rev. Floyd read the baptismal liturgy, calling me “child of the covenant.” At that moment, I started to understand the incredible vision which the Church has for its youth, a vision which calls us, challenging us, each day. I think the process can also go in the reverse direction, with youth’s vision calling the church into new ways of striving to be faithful. We envision a Church where all voices are welcomed at our table, even those voices which unsettle us, upset us, and scare us. We envision a Church where spoken and unspoken convention do not cause us to exclude others. We envision a Church where we truly worship a Christ whose radical love shatters all human boundaries we construct, not just in theory, but in fact. When we carry out these visions, we believe that the Church will honor God’s work of creation in every human.

Youth long for the healing of our world, for we love it deeply but witness how it is broken. We envision the transformation of our abstract prayers for this healing into concrete prayers of action which express our defiant hope for this world. We pray that, through the work of our hands and the words of our mouths, all people might experience justice, mercy, and wholeness.

We have all of these visions and seek to dedicate our time, talents, and treasure to making them a reality. Yet Joel reminds us that our elders’ dreams are vital reflections of God’s spirit, as well. What are the dreams that elders dream?

I’m going to take the word “elder” with a little broader meaning here: first recognizing that I am your elder, and second noting that we Presbyterians use the word “elder” to talk about a congregation’s spiritual leaders. But in order to answer that question, I feel that I first need to lay out the context of our lesson from Joel this morning. Very little is known about this mysterious prophet, but what we do know we read earlier in the text. Joel arrives on the scene among the ancient Israelites as locusts are destroying the long-anticipated crops. And doing so, he takes it as an opportunity to use this destruction as a metaphor for God’s displeasure with the people. As he does, he calls on the whole nation to repent and return to the ways of God. The story undergoes a shift at the beginning of our passage this morning, when the rains pour down and the harvest arrives and the crops overflow. So Joel’s description of this abundance, where he says, “you shall eat in plenty and be satisfied,” becomes another metaphor for him; this one is for God’s mercy and provision.

But I feel like we walk a fine line when we start to talk about God’s mercy and provision in a material sense. Though we do seek to trust in God as a provider and sustainer, it seems like we can go too far and project our own cravings onto God. This summer, I encountered what some people call “the prosperity gospel” for the first time at a church that I visited. The pastor spoke at length about how he believes that God will reward us richly for our stewardship. In other words, if we give generously, then God will reward us and make us prosperous. I feel deeply uncomfortable when I think about stewardship in this light, partially because this perspective seems to turn our focus from God to the outcome we hope for.

I think I share your discomfort with it; there’s simply too much in Scripture about the blessings of poverty and the dangers of wealth for me to believe that we should seek our own comfort first, even if that would give us the possibility of being generous. And I think that Joel makes that point, too. As soon as he talks about ample rains and abundant harvests and full stomachs as the dealings of a generous God, the image turns dark and apocalyptic. There are signs in the sky and on the earth on what Joel calls “the great and terrible day of the Lord.”

But I think the point is far less traumatic than all that; instead, I think that Joel is trying to say, “This isn’t just about praying the right prayers to stop the locusts and improve the harvest. This is about things far more important, eternal, global.” In other words, when we repent from sin and ask for God’s blessings, we risk getting stuck and focusing on our short-term personal needs, which gets awfully close to making us selfish. And I think this lure can be particularly tricky when we get into a season of Stewardship. The temptation can be simply to present a budget, ask for pledges, and hope – or pray – that the numbers match up. My dream, and I would dare say that our elders on Session share this with me, is that we would be able to say, “God is calling Oglethorpe Presbyterian Church to any number of ministries; this includes our Christian Education, our Preschool, our Food Pantry, Pastor Carlos and our Hispanic Fellowship, and so many others. And it is these ministries, God’s ministries, which we will support with our material goods and our physical bodies.” If that’s how we see our efforts, then even the invitation to join in transforms. It isn’t simply one of nose-to-the-grindstone fundraising. Instead, it’s saying, “God is already doing these amazing things. Let’s – all of us – be a part them, with time and talents and treasure!”

Or, to put it back in the metaphors of Joel, we need to be sure to remember that the world is much bigger than this place; that there are others whose bellies are empty, for whom the harvest has been a disaster year after year. And as we fill our own stomachs, we should always be sure to add a couple of extra leaves to the table so that there’s always room for more to join in the feast.

That, to me, is a dream worth having.

So let’s see if we can put these visions and dreams together for a moment and turn our attention to the parable of Pharisee and the tax-collector in Luke. What do you think the dreams of elders and the visions of youth could tell us about these two?

I think that there’s a challenge in this parable that should stop us in our tracks today and each day of our lives. I don’t know about you, but I identify with the Pharisee, and I start to get antsy when we read this passage. It’s almost like I overhear somebody telling this story about me behind my back. I guess it’s the Pharisee’s desire to live rightly that resonates with me. He believes that he’s overcome the ills of the world…and that he’s living according to a righteous vision, a righteous dream. Yet his shortcomings of arrogance and prejudice seem to completely undermine his good intentions.

Are we so different?

Do the visions and dreams that we just shared really have a chance? Or will they go the way of the Pharisee’s, the victims of our own flaws? Should we even bother to pour out our time, talents, and treasure if this utter self-defeat is the end result?

Marthame: I think you’ve really put your finger on the difficulty of this lesson from Luke. We like to look down at the Pharisees, but the fact is, that in their time, they were the faithful ones. In other words, if you were looking for the most religious person you could find, the Pharisee is probably it. What Christ ends up doing, through his opposition to the Pharisees at so many turns, is to lay bare the heart of faith. Sabbath is important, but not if it means steadfastly refusing to heal on it. Public prayer is vital, but not if it is done for the sake of an audience. And tithing is honorable, but not if it gives you a sense of entitlement to lord it over others, as the Pharisee does in this story.

But notice what happens: as soon as we hear the Pharisee say, “Thank God that I am not like this tax collector,” how many of us breathe a sigh of relief and say to ourselves, “Thank God that I am not like this Pharisee?” As soon as we think we’ve got it right, as soon as we think we’ve freed ourselves from the religious trappings of faith and faithfulness, we catch a glimpse of ourselves in the mirror and realize, “perhaps we’re not that different after all.”

Yeah…In a way, I think we’re all Pharisees, longing to answer God’s call according to the gifts we’ve been given, yet inevitably falling short. But I believe that this parable’s message is ultimately one of hope, not despair. Maybe there’s also a tax collector inside each of us, longing for God to make us whole.

He comes to God with his brokenness, with his deep sense of incompleteness. And while we can’t know for sure, I think that God encounters him in that very place. It is God who heals him; it is God by whose grace the tax collector may raise his head once more.

I think we’re called to act on the tax collector’s voice within ourselves. Even in our darkest moments, we have cause for celebration: perhaps God invites us to offer not only our gifts but also our brokenness, so that in God’s grace God’s light may shine through the rent fabric of our beings and perfect our visions and dreams.

That’s an elegant summary. If we really do believe that we are beloved creations, humble clay molded by divine hands, then we must surely recognize that we are broken creations, too. But perhaps there’s the grace, that the cracks in that façade might allow others to see in and to see the God who is at work in our lives and ministries.

So, my sisters and brothers, here is the challenge that comes before us today:

May we lift up all that we have and all that we are, trusting in God to transform us, even us, so that we may do God’s work in the world.

When our laughter sounds, may God use it to break the darkness of despair.

When our tears flow, may God channel them as rivers of mercy for others.

And when we see visions and dream dreams, may God transform them—and us—to fulfill God’s purposes.