Awakened By Dreams and Visions
Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago
Our scriptures are full of people hearing voices. People dreaming dreams. People we could easily dismiss with a wave of the hand and a roll of the eyes. People just brave enough, or fed up enough, or foolish enough to cast reality aside and give themselves to trying something better. People who have discovered the world as it is turns on an axis of mystery and grace. People who know that hearing voices and dreaming dreams can lead to an awakening for us all. They don’t hang up the call. They don’t lose the message. They accept the invitation, the opportunity, the challenge, the sacrifice, the grace, the glory.
Mary acts on the advice of an angel. Joseph cleaves to a startling choice he made while he was asleep. Peter rises from a trance to proclaim a vision for a new humanity in Christ. Afterword, Christianity becomes a world religion rather than another obscure brand of Judaism. John “saw a new heaven and a new earth” including all the diverse tribes and nations of earth living together in harmony with God in the New Jerusalem (Revelation 21)
Jesus gives the disciples a new commandment, a new mandate, a new standard by which to measure the effectiveness of their progress toward this impossibly grand goal. One month ago, to the day, on Maundy Thursday, on the night he was betrayed, while he shared the Last Supper, Jesus said, “Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” (John 13:34-35)
They will know we are Christians by our love if we’re crazy, or brave, or fed up enough with the way things are to live in such a way among ourselves that the dream becomes a reality. In the mid-1980’s Alan Paton movingly illustrated an example of what can happen when we begin to live this way in his novel, Ah, But Your Land is Beautiful.
Paton tells the true story of a white South African judge named Jan Christian Oliver in the days of Apartheid. One day, a black pastor friend invited him to attend his church on Maundy Thursday. Given the facts of Apartheid, the judge knew he would be risking his career if he went, but he accepted the invitation anyway. Upon arrival, he learned that it was to be a foot washing service and the judge was urged to participate.
The whole congregation was involved in washing one another’s feet. As chance would have it, the judge was called forward to wash the feet of a woman named Martha Fortuin, who, as it happened, he recognized. She had worked in his own home as a servant for thirty years. Kneeling at her feet, he was struck by how weary they looked from so many years of serving him. Greatly moved, he held her feet with gentle hands and kissed them. Martha began to weep, as did many others in attendance. The newspapers got word of it. Oliver lost his job. But perhaps, he found his soul. He became a child of a new humanity. He discovered a profound sense of solidarity with long lost sister who for years, had served in his midst. Now everything would be different, because it had to be different.
Let’s return for just a moment to Peter’s trance in the book of Acts (11:1-18). This is a staggering story on which the future of the whole church pivots. Peter’s vision on a rooftop in Joppa opened the early Jesus movement to people of every tribe, race, gender, and nation. I wonder, how many of us could play host to such a radical idea without dismissing it outright, let alone use that vision to shape our action and behavior for how we actually live in community?
Peter’s story features a trance, the Holy Spirit, strangers who show up outside the gate were he was staying, and an angel. Any of one of these factors would be reason enough to make the whole idea unbelievable. Yet the first thing Peter and the early Christians teach us about listening to God is that it must begin with a certain readiness, or openness to God’s Word or it simply evaporates. Peter and the early Christian community proved willing to explore the promptings of their hearts and dreams, to weigh and test them together through prayerful dialogue. In this way they dusted their dreams for God’s fingerprints through examination involving the whole community in the re-examination of scripture. They weren’t afraid to wake up and embrace the consequences of what they found, even when it meant profound changes in the way they were living.
Five years ago, Michelle Alexander wrote The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. Less than two years ago Michael Brown was shot in Ferguson Missouri. Once again, the Holy Spirit is at work to awaken us to a new awareness of how racial hatred has taken hold again to poison our society. Like Peter, we have all begun to glimpse the truth. Because all lives matter, we must stand up now for Black and brown lives because they are being singled out and under threat. Many people don’t like to hear the alarm clock ring. It’s time to wake up. Wake up to our own complicity. Black lives matter is not about incriminating the police—that’s too simple. The police have merely done the dirty work of reinforcing white privilege.
The fact is, all this makes me excited and nervous. It makes me nervous as Immanuel sets out this year to welcome Latino friends and neighbors to be part of our congregation. I am excited because Latino outreach has been a persistent hunch, a recurring dream, we heard voiced by many of you at various times and places while we talked together in recent years about Immanuel’s goals and objectives in the Forward in Faith process. It led to the renewal of Immanuel’s mission, vision and values centered in striving to be a living sanctuary of hope and grace. It is a vision rooted in the gospel no less radical and bold than the dream of inclusive community that distinguished the early church. Of all the things I’ve worked on, it feels like the wind of the Holy Spirit is blowing at our back—moving us down this path. There is real urgency and excitement about this mission.
It makes me nervous when we look and see how few examples for inclusive community there are throughout history. Martin Luther King Jr., once aptly described worship in the church as the most segregated hour in America. I’m nervous because at times, we seem to have trouble sharing our building with 75 beautiful smiling children and their families who are part of the Coop school, or the hundreds of families who are part of our playgroups each week. Are we really ready for this?
Probably not. But we move ahead anyway, feeling both nervous and excited, because it’s what we do. It’s what people of faith always do—what they have always done. Perhaps for the same reason that Peter didn’t just go back to back to sleep, ignore the people standing outside his door, or didn’t just shut up and stop talking about it all once he got back home. Because we are people who hear voices and dream dreams that lead to awakening and transformation. We follow the Holy Spirit just a little closer to on the way to living the life God intended as children of a new humanity, citizens of the New Jerusalem, residents of a new heaven and a new earth, one people with God in harmony and solidarity with all the people of God. And all the people say—amen!