Sermon preached March 29, 2009
Scripture Readings: Jeremiah 31:31-34; John 12:20-33
A couple is asleep at home one night, when, in the middle of the night, the man cries out, “Hello!” He wakes everyone in the house up while he remains sleeping soundly. When asked about it the next morning, he recalls dreaming about greeting an old friend. As the couple prepares for bed the next night, the man’s wife says to him – “Honey, if you meet an old friend tonight we all hope you will just wave.”
A man goes to a psychiatrist. “Doctor, I keep having these dreams.” Doctor: “Tell me about them.” “Well, for the last several nights I have been having this dream that a group of beautiful women come to my home and they want my attention. They want me to hug them and kiss them. But all I do is push them away.” Doctor: “What would you like me to do about that?” “Break my arms.”
Dreams. Today I want to talk a bit about dreams, not night dreams but those daytime dreams that we all have, those dreams about how we would like life to be – our lives, the life of the world. If you are an adult, think for a minute about what dreams you had for your life growing up. What did you want to be? What was your definition of success? Did all your dreams happen just as you wished? If they did, it would be remarkable. Most of us know what it is like to have dreams that don’t come true, dreams that are disappointed, dreams that shatter. To have our dreams disappointed, frustrated, shattered is a wilderness experience.
Langston Hughes was an African-American poet of the early twentieth-century, a time when being black in the United States could often be difficult. Hughes penned one of my favorite poems about dreams, a poem I first encountered in high school.
Hold fast to dreams
For if dreams die
Life is a broken-winged bird
That cannot fly.
Hold fast to dreams
For when dreams go
Life is a barren field
Frozen with snow.
Hughes encouraged dreaming, but recognized that sometimes dreams would go, would be denied, disappointed, deferred, shattered.
What happens to a dream deferred?
Does it dry up
Like a raisin in the sun?
Or fester like a sore - -
And then run?
Does it stink like rotten meat?
Or crust and sugar over - -
like syrup sweet?
Maybe it just sags - -
like a heavy load?
Or does it explode?
Hughes knew what it was like to have dreams be disappointed, deferred, denied, shattered. In one of his poems about living in the United States he would write: “Let America be the dream the dreamers dreamed… America never was America to me.”
Most of us do not know what it is like to be African-American at the beginning of the twentieth-century, but we have experienced our own disappointment in dreaming. We have had dreams deferred, denied, shattered. Some of our dreams have died, and we have felt life as the broken-winged bird that cannot fly. Some of our dreams have gone, and we have experienced life as that barren field, frozen with snow. There may have been times in our lives when we feel life is like that raisin in the sun, dry and shriveled. These are wilderness experiences.
The First and Ten men’s group has been reading Rabbi Harold Kushner’s book Overcoming Life’s Disappointments. In the chapter read for this week, Kushner was describing some of the disappointments that can occur in relationships – some hope to marry and never do; some hope for children within their marriage, and are unable to have them; sometimes children are born and they are born with some serious disability – physical or mental (Kushner experienced this himself when he and his wife were told their three-year old son had an incurable syndrome that would distort his appearance and significantly shorten his life) (I was at a meeting this week in Washington, D.C. and has the chance to speak with someone I have worked with on other national United Methodist committees, though I did not know him well. As we had more time to talk this week, he shared with me that his middle child, a son now 26, is autistic and has never spoken. He loves his child, but don’t we dream dreams for our children that don’t include such difficulty, such tragedy?). Kushner continues his list. Some dream of marriage, some dream of children, and life often conspires to thwart their dreams. But I suspect that many citizens of the land of broken dreams and disappointments are there because they did get married, they did have children, but they saw the joy and optimism of act 1 turn into the bitterness and frustration of act 2. (81-82).
Reading Kushner I could not help but think of others I have known. I thought about Teresa and her family – Teresa in her early twenties when her life was cut short by a drunken boyfriend with a gun. I officiated at her funeral and cannot help wonder how her family has managed to cope with her loss in the years since. I remember officiating at the funeral of a two-year old who was born with a genetic disease which kept her life so brief. I heard her parents ended up divorcing.
Dreams disappointed, deferred, denied, shattered, need not rise to that level of tragedy to be painful. Harold Kushner writes: Every disappointment, every rejection, every dream that doesn’t come true leaves a wound in the person’s soul. Major setbacks… leave permanent scars. Small disappointments… leave smaller wounds, but wounds nonetheless (50). I remember finishing my Ph.D. and hoping that I might be given the opportunity to teach at a seminary or college. I had only two preliminary interviews and nothing ever came of them. A dream died and it left a mark.
We all know what that is like, to have a dream be disappointed, to have it shattered, to have it denied, to have it frustrated. As human beings we have had more than one dream pass through our hands like sand. From one angle, life can be seen as a series of small deaths, a series of dreams that have died. The poet T. S. Eliot asks a poignant question in one of his poems. “Where is the life we have lost in living?” (Chorus from “The Rock” in Selected Poems, 107) We can lose life in the living of it. We experience small deaths as dreams die and life is a broken-winged bird that cannot fly. I was reading from the Biblical book of Lamentations this week as a part of my personal devotion. In the introduction he wrote to his translation of Lamentations in The Message, Eugene Peterson writes: Suffering is a huge, unavoidable element in the human condition. To be human is to suffer. No one gets an exemption. We all travel into the wilderness of broken dreams, disappointed dreams, shattered dreams. Some are more devastating than others, but we all know life as a broken-winged bird, life as a barren, frozen field, life as a shriveling raisin. Some of our dreams are not just dreams for ourselves, but also dreams for a better world, and we know how often those dreams are frustrated, how slow positive change in the world can be. At the meeting I attended this week a woman shared that her husband, a native of Zimbabwe, was traveling in South Africa and was in a store when it was robbed. The thieves led her husband and another man into a back room, bound their hands behind them and made them lie face down on the floor. For some reason, this time the thieves did not kill these men – and such killing is all too common in South Africa. The world does not live up to our dreams for it.
Yes, this is pretty difficult stuff, sad, difficult. Not long ago a study was released saying that the fastest growing religious group in the county is those who claim no religious affiliation. I know that some of these people have experience with churches. There are many reasons for why people leave churches, but maybe one of them is that we have not always been very honest about life. Maybe the church has not been honest enough with people about the hard realities of life, the wildernesses, broken dreams. It is a part of life. No one is exempt, including people of faith. We need to be honest about that.
But for Christians there is also another reality the reality of God, the reality of the God of Jesus Christ. This God is a God of new life. This God is a God of open doors. This God is a dream weaver. This God is a God of resurrection. The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will make a new covenant…. I will put my law within [people], and I will write it on their heart; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. The God of the Bible, the God of Jesus Christ is a God of new life, of re-created hearts. No we cannot avoid small deaths, dreams deferred, denied, shattered, hearts broken with broken dreams. We need to hear some of the context of the words of Jeremiah 31. Here are some words from the previous chapter which sets the context for the hopeful words about a new heart. “Your hurt is incurable, your wound is grievous…. Your pain is incurable.” Broken hearts and broken dreams are real, but so too is the God who mends hearts, who works with us to pick up the pieces of our broken dreams and weave new ones.
If we are honest with ourselves, sometimes when our dreams are broken and reconstructed the results are quite wonderful, and even better than if we had our original dream come true. Small deaths are difficult and painful. Resurrection can be remarkable. That is a little bit of what Jesus is getting at in John 12. “Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.” The gospel writer uses these words of Jesus to help frame his coming death, but the principle has wider application. Sometimes we dream too small. Sometimes our dreams are really dreams others have imposed upon us, and they don’t represent our best selves. One last time, allow me to quote Harold Kushner. “Sometimes the most useful dream is the one that calls us to give up on the dream we have been chasing” (94). Sometimes the death of one dream, the closing of one door, is the only way we get to another open door, the only way we are able to create an even better dream.
I sometimes think back on the disappointment I felt in 1994 when I completed my Ph.D. and did not even come close to getting a teaching job. We returned to Minnesota where I went back to the work of a church pastor. I think of all the wonderful people I got to know in that appointment on the Iron Range. I am so glad they became a part of our lives. I was appointed as a district superintendent, and that was a remarkable learning and growing experience. I have had great opportunities to get to know United Methodists from around the world by serving on denominational committees. We are together, working together to make FUMC the best church it can be in this day and time, and this is meaningful work and you are wonderful people to work with. None of that would have happened without a dream disappointed and the hurt of that.
Not all new dreams are necessarily better than the dream that has died. Often times we should not even compare. Sometimes our loss is so great, comparing an old and a new dream is just not appropriate. The good news of Christian faith is not that we can avoid disappointed dreams, but that God is a God who helps us pick up the pieces of our shattered dreams and puzzle together new ones. God is a God of resurrection, of new life after the death of old dreams. God is a God who helps open new doors when other doors have closed upon us. A few years ago I came across this wonderful wedding blessing written by Robert Fulgham (the everything I needed to know I learned in kindergarten person). Part of the blessing goes like this: May your dreams come true, and when they don’t may new dreams arise. The truth of life is that not all our dreams come true. The truth of God is that new dreams can arise.
Rabbi Alexander Schindler was a much-loved and well-respected rabbi in New York. He and his wife retired to Westport , Connecticut a few years ago, and when he retired he was presented two priceless gifts – a Dutch-made diamond encrusted Torah pointer made in the 1800s and a silver Torah crown. Rabbi Schindler’s daughter Judith is a rabbi in Charlotte, North Carolina and she recently shared her family’s story in the Charlotte Observer. Apparently, Judith Schindler’s parents, like a number of others invested money with financier Bernie Madoff, and like others, they now find that the money they invested with Madoff is all gone. Rabbi Judith Schindler’s mother must now sell the priceless retirement gifts and her Connecticut home because of money lost in the Madoff Ponzi scheme. Rabbi Judith Schindler reflected in the newspaper about all that had happened to her family, but instead of focusing on the loss, and focusing on anger and bitterness, Rabbi Schindler encouraged readers to look at life from another angle. “No matter who we are and what we face, as an organization or as a family, we need to open our eyes, see our resources, and rebuild.” (Dannye Romine Powell, Charlotte Observer, posted March 10, 2009). I hear the Spirit of God in this story – the Spirit of the God who is a God of resurrection, of new life, a God who helps us pick up the pieces of our shattered dreams and build new ones.
Yes, life will break your heart sometimes. Dreams will die or fly away, leaving us feeling broken-winged. We will know this kind of wilderness. We are also invited to know the God who is there after every broken dream, to help weave a new one. We are invited to know the God who after every small death in life, is there to bring resurrection. We are invited to know the God who keeps dreaming a dream for the world of justice, peace, beauty, reconciliation and love and who invites us to dream it too, even though it is frequently frustrated. We are invited to know the God who when hearts harden, offers us new, soft hearts for living life more fully.
Even in the wilderness of broken dreams, God is there to weave new ones. Even in the wilderness of dying dreams, God is there as a God of resurrection. Amen.