Dream a Little Dream With Me!
Sermon given by Rev. Dr. Katy E. Valentine
Dec 29 2019
Given at a church in Northern California
Reflection on Matthew 2:13-26
I love our story today. It has everything a good story should have – baby Jesus just having been visited by the magi, foreign astrologer-priests; a tyrannical ruler; a flight in the middle of the night, and lots of dreams. Today (and every day), we are invited to see where we find Christ in the story and in our lives.
Have you ever found God in your dreams, or even in your daydreams? A few nights ago I woke up from a startling dream. In the dream, I was at a conference, and went into the bathroom, one where there are many stalls and people coming and going. I look into the mirror and see a large pimple on my left cheek, and I lean into the mirror to inspect it. Suddenly, I notice a small hole in my cheek, and sticking out of the hole is the tip of a matchstick. With some horror and alarm, I take the end of the matchstick and I pull it out of my cheek, where it slides out easily and unbroken and unlit. I tell a few people at the conference about it, hoping to find an answer; someone suggests that it may have been placed there by international enemy forces while I was asleep. The dream continues a little bit before I wake up in relief.
Joseph is also someone who dreams throughout our Christmas story, much like his namesake in Genesis. And like this same namesake, Joseph has an ability to interpret and take action from his dreams. All I can say is … I’m a little jealous of his clarity of actions. Ban angel comes and tells him what to do, and he does it – he’s got no matchstick in his face to figure out. So I’ve got to wonder if maybe the story leaves out some of the details of the dreams, and especially how Joseph felt about all of these actions.
Let’s explore the action in the story first. The angel first says “Rise and take the child and his mother” – there is some urgency in this sentence, because the verb “take” is in the command voice – it is not a suggestion but an urgent command. This same phrase is repeated 4 different times in the story – “Rise and take the child and his mother.” When we have repeated repetition, the story is asking us to pay special attention to what is happening. “Rise and take the child and his mother and flee to Egypt.” And in the next verse, Joseph does exactly that: “Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother by night, and went to Egypt.” Now I have to admit, there is a lot of trust that Joseph places in the commands in this dream – he upends his own life, plus Mary, and they retrace the steps of the Israelites who fled from Egypt but going the other direction. Here, Egypt is a place of safety rather than oppression. I wonder if his dreams actually had the feeling of a nightmare (and this is pure speculation) because nightmares have a way of getting our attention and getting it quickly – it’s a way for God to work through our psyches to give us an urgent action.
Later when it was safe, the angel made the exact same command “Rise and take the child and his mother” but this time to go back to the land of Israel. Then of course Joseph does exactly that: “Joseph got up, took the child and his mother, and went to the land of Israel.” All of this seems straightforward but if any of you have worked with your dreams, you’ll know that they rarely present themselves as obvious and with a direct action attached to them. After all, based on the content of two dreams, Joseph uproots his entire life along with Mary and Jesus, moves to a foreign land, probably learns two new languages, demotic and Greek, and then back to Israel. Unlike in the Gospel of Luke, Joseph does not seem to be from Nazareth but from Bethlehem originally. He not only has had to flee for his life and that of his child to another country, but then when he returns, he can’t go home because of fear.
I wonder how Joseph felt when he had this dream – Scared? Confused? Wondering if it was a legitimate command or not? The Bible rarely tell us about the rich interior and emotional life of people, but Joseph is a rare exception earlier in the story; when he hears of Mary’s pregnancy, it tells us that he did not wish disgrace her so he resolved to put her away quietly – he seems like a reasonably understanding and empathetic but traditional Jewish man. He wants a wife who’s a virgin so they can settle down in Bethlehem. Little does Joseph know, this is not what is in store for him. The first time the angel appears to him is here, and of course, it’s in a dream, telling him to take Mary as his wife, and that the child will be called Jesus and will save his people from their sins. The quiet life Joseph had imagined is vanishing bit by bit …. He ends up in a very different place than where he started. But God is present in the journey.
All of us have had times in life when we ended up in a very different place than we expected to be. For me, I expected my advanced doctoral studies to lead me to a traditional teaching position in a college or seminary. Like Joseph, I had a plan in place about what life “should” look like. I wish I had the opportunity to be like Joseph before my enlightenment from the angels and just “set aside quietly the things that I thought might be disgracing” so as not to embarrass them! … but God persistently has had other plans for me. And, unsurprisingly, when I have paid attention to the dreams I have at night, I have been led away from this traditional academic life full of respectability. God had something different in mind for me. And yes, there have been some Herods in the wings wanting to stop a way of doing ministry that is not the typical path, but fortunately for me there have been many more angels waiting to have my back.
I find my safety of Egypt in all of you, my community, and in my spiritual practices. Now let’s circle back to that matchstick dream. It’s not one that is as straightforward as an angel telling me what to do with urgency and no room for error. When I pause to consider the matchstick dream, I felt the unmistakable message that a spark has been “hiding” in plain site, and that the spark of Christ is ready for me to lift my own voice … those of you who know me will find it funny to believe that I hold my voice back. But we are always being called to speak what are our deepest truths. The match emerged from me completely unlit. Perhaps the angels are telling me it is ripe to be lit and set aflame – and that powerful words can be dangerous, and they can bring out all the King Herods of the world. But like Joseph, God does expect me to take down Herod by myself; I only have to be faithful to my dreams.
It would have been a lot easier if God has just empowered the magi or Joseph to take down Herod and stop this insanity at the root rather than speaking through the potential misinterpretation of dreams. But God values choice, and God gives Herod the free choices as much as anyone else. The order to kill all the infants under the age of two speaks to the madness of King Herod and the vulnerability of people subject in terrible ways to the whims of those in charge, and we don’t have to look far in our world to see similar circumstances. Ironically, when Joseph, Mary, and Jesus escape from this tyrannical ruler, they themselves end up being the foreigners. Jesus ends up having his formative years in Egypt as a foreigner, being supported by the wisdom of the Jewish community there, and entering into interfaith relationships with all of those around him.
We’re all aware of the opportunities we have to meet the foreigner in our midst with kindness.
But I also think this story is calling us into something else – to anticipate being a foreigner in a strange land. The Camp Fire in 2018 displaced 50,000 people, 30,000 of whom lived in Paradise, just up the road from me. Evacuees literally became foreign and displaced travelers in their own land. Like Mary and Joseph, they fled from a type of Herod that took the form of a heartless corporation, and they found a community that scrambled to make a place for them at the table. Just two days ago I drove through Paradise for the first time in months, and I was amazed at how much change has happened in the past half year as rubble is cleared and space is made. We’re not sure yet exactly who can return and who can’t; some displaced people will choose to make a new home for themselves in the land that they fled to.
Joseph and Mary didn’t know how long they’d remain in Egypt, and like the evacuees from the Camp Fire, they had also been through some trauma. Setting in new places is hard, even when they are welcoming. And even when Joseph gets the go ahead in his dream to return to the land of Israel, he still experiences fear. The son of Herod is king after him, and even with the instruction in the dream, Joseph fears returning to his home in Bethlehem. For those in Paradise and the surrounding area who are considering returning home, I know that it is fear-inducing. Life will never be the same for them. Joseph, also, envisioned a very different life for himself than he ended up getting, and he also experienced fear. Some people return to the home they were called to, but some people, like Joseph, will go to a new town and begin there.
The Chico Disciples church housed the Paradise Disciples Church for about half of the year in 2019. Though close in distance, the two churches are very different in tone and worship style and theology. Even within our denomination, we can have churches that “do” church very differently. In the midst of the Camp Fire, none of that mattered. One church needed a place to worship God, and another church had the space to accommodate them. In the midst of that year, Pastor Jesse lent a hand and provided his bass musical skills to the Paradise band because their bass player had relocated; Pastor Jan needed an office and got my old office space; someone from the church needed a place to stay, and set up a trailer in the church parking lot; the Paradise church monitored and provided food for the free health clinic that takes place in the church each Sunday afternoon, easing the burden of the Chico church who was dealing not only with the aftermath of evacuees but also a flooded building and asbestos removal; and the two churches came together in common worship several times, respecting each other’s theology and worship styles, because Jesus didn’t say that that was the most important thing.
I imagine that when Joseph and Mary went to Egypt, they also encountered a very different way to “be” Jewish; different worship styles in synagogue, a different language(s) (Hellenistic Greek and Demotic Egypt). Joseph, Mary, and Jesus surely knew what it was like to be foreigners in a strange place.
The story of Joseph listening deeply to his dreams means that he lived a very different life than he had thought he would. While Christmas is sometimes thought to be full of warm fuzzies, it is actually a story of living the unexpected in sometimes life altering ways. Christ is present in dreams that are hard to interpret and in mad kings who use their power to kill. Christmas is about learning to appreciate the unexpected directions that God has in our lives that helps us live into the Christmas story in deep and meaningful ways. Sierra Christian Church, faithful ones, God has dreamed dreams through you and in you. God calls you to be the foreigner and to receive the foreigner. I can’t wait to see what comes alive in your dreams in the coming year.
A little bonus! The reflection I offered before communion.
On Christmas Eve I played my harp at a local memory care center. I played for the folks who are largely mobile and verbal but can no longer live alone. It was the best way to spend an hour on Christmas Eve. The old ladies shushed one another so that they could hear the harp. One asked me 4 times what the instrument was called, and she’d been waiting on it all day. She left her dinner three times to come and sit by it. The others sang loudly when I had singalong songs. One woman insisted loudly in the middle of every song that it was too high and could I play it in another key. One woman stopped and introduced every single person to her son who was there to pick her up for Christmas Eve. No one complained when I hit a wrong note. It wasn’t perfect: it was Christmas.
Just like Joseph, none of these people anticipated 20 years ago that their lives would take a turn and that they would need a memory care facility. Yet this place is there and makes dignified living possible, and treats their residents with care. While they ate their Christmas dinner, it was a little bit of communion as they experienced a little bit of the harp and I know that the healing hand of Christ was there at the table with us.
Now that you have made it to the end of the sermon (congratulations!!), I'd love to know your thoughts! Just post below in the comments section. When is a time that you have felt like a stranger in a strange land?
If you enjoyed this take on dreams, you might also enjoy this video on interpreting your dreams.