Dreams of justice and peace
SERMON: 2 Christmas A 1 5 20
Jer31:7-14;Ps84:1-8;Ephe1:3-6,15-19a; Mat2:13 -15,19 -23
We take special delight in the appearance of angels in the dreams of Joseph. This is a little different from the appearance of actual, visible angels in Mary's life or for the shepherds and others. This is the dream world. Joseph is sleeping and he receives dramatic encouragement from angels in his dreams.
We need to consider our angels. We need to pray for their inspiration. We need to imagine what that might be. And all of this because there are things going on inside and outside of us that tempt us to be fearful, unloving, skeptical, unchristian. Angels aren't just inhabitants of dreams, of course. We recognize that angels appear in the person of friends and, for that matter, strangers, people helping, showing others what to do, living their lives virtuously.
When we consider our dreams we realize they can present us with images of good things or bad. As enlightened 21st century citizens we recognize dreams as an expression of our subconscious, the collection of stimuli and motivations of which we might not be fully aware. Or--if we are--we recognize as the things that drive us. Many who have engaged in dream therapy, trying to figure out what motivates them and moves them, have learned much about themselves and responded to good effect.
Sometimes a dream might present an image that brings discomfort. It might involve something the sleeping person finds uncomfortable, unappealing or worse. There could be violence, there might be pain. A person who was engaged in dream therapy or analysis would try to figure out the meaning of these unsettling images, to resolve such images in their conscious mind. Perhaps they would become aware of changes they needed to make in their life.
It is much more pleasurable to consider dreams which bring a person happiness or delight.
But often the characters in a dream are unrecognizable to the dreamer. The dreamer usually plays a part of the dream, but it usually seems to take place in the vision of the dreamer.
The first time the angel appeared Joseph was told to accept Mary as his bride because she was pregnant by the Holy Spirit, not some other man, and that her child would be the Messiah, and Joseph should name him Jesus.
We can't tell just what aspect of Joseph's personality or subconscious presented him with that instruction in a dream. We know Joseph to be older than Mary, humble, and kind because we know he was troubled by the social expectation that he would reject her and she would be humiliated. Even before the dream he intended to handle the matter discreetly rather than bring shame on Mary.
But after the first dream Joseph did something quite countercultural: he accepted her as his wife. Was it his generosity of spirit that led to that response to the dream? Was it a belief that the angel in the dream was real, or represented a message from God? After all, that is how dreams were interpreted in those days.
Perhaps most of all, does it matter? Do we care, really, if he was motivated by generosity, or love, or religious fervor? No, not really. Because we can't know, partly, and because each explanation has its own delightful features. That Joseph could arrive at such a decision is as much about him and the kind of person he was as it is about the angelic forces he perceived in his dream.
When we encounter Joseph after his second dream --at least as far as we know--we pay close attention. In this Sunday's Gospel Joseph is hearing from an angel again. He is experiencing a frightening suggestion: that the emperor, Herod, is so troubled and fearful of the potential challenge to his rule by the Messiah that he wants to do away with the infant Jesus.
Having been through all that he has in the previous few days it is not surprising that Joseph's dream would be one of warning. After all, the reason that Joseph and Mary were in Bethlehem was due to the census the emperor was demanding everyone participate in. This in itself was a huge inconvenience, not least because of the season and the difficulties of travel. But consider also covering a few hundred miles with a pregnant wife on a donkey when the wife is ready to give birth.
The angel in his dream warned Joseph and he and Mary and Jesus hastily left their stable and went to Egypt until Herod had died. Then he received another angelic visit in a dream telling him to return to Israel, but fearing the new ruler, Joseph and his family settled in Nazareth.
It would appear that the angels in Joseph's dreams gave him really good advice. That leads us to presume that Joseph was a person endowed not with an active subconscious, but also that he was an inherently good person who was committed to the safety of his family as they moved around for the census, then to avoid Herod, then to avoid Herod's son.
Now we are not unaccustomed to cruelty and brutality in the Bible. It appears so often in history--and so in the Bible--that we have to wonder what is wrong with people. We cannot conceive a reason for Herod to be afraid of an infant except that the prospect of the Messiah appearing during his reign frightened Herod. He was afraid his cruel regime would be toppled by the coming of the Messiah, so he made life as difficult as he could for Joseph and Mary and Jesus. It is conceivable that Herod dreamed of his rule being overthrown by the Messiah, even the infant Messiah.
Effectively Joseph's family became migrants and refugees, for that matter. They were forced to move and flee and relocate on the whim of the government. They were persecuted and they were threatened. It is a miracle they survived and Jesus grew to adulthood. Our response to this kind of exodus story is predictable: we ponder how it is that people could be so blind as to cause or tolerate such ugly and brutal treatment of people, especially the innocent and defenseless children.
These kinds of terrible things happen and these kinds of terrible things are done to people for a variety of reasons based on excuses and rationalization. Herod did it to protect his control over the people. His son did the same. They did terrible things which they justified with Machiavellian philosophy: the end justifies the means. Of course they did this centuries before Machiavelli lived.
But we do know the difference between right and wrong and we know when excuses--even false excuses --are used to justify immoral acts.
Just as Herod let his demons and his fears persecute the people of his realm 2000 years ago, causing suffering and dislocation and fear, so does our government today cause irreparable damage to desperate immigrants seeking safety, peace and freedom in the US. Our border debacle is based on the xenophobic and vitriolic claims of a man whose campaign announcement asserted that immigrants crossing our borders were murderers, rapists and "bad guys." Without an ounce of charity or factual basis, a border wall has been demanded and families have been separated, leaving children in detention camps without their parents or other relatives and parents frantic to be reunited with their kids. This haphazard horror has continued to this day because our government leadership lacks moral bearings. It appears our sense of charity toward our neighbor has been forgotten, our willingness to help others who are in trouble set aside and our values redefined so we treat our neighbor as a criminal. This is a crime in spirit in itself.
When we pray for our leaders during the prayers of the people we name them and their offices and we pray that there may be justice and peace on the earth. This means we need to oppose the demonizing of immigrants. We need to help those fleeing terrorism and violence. We need to stand up for the truth and resist the lies used to justify the inhumane treatment of immigrants at the border.
We need also to demand stronger laws and actions on hate crimes. The recent surge of anti-Semitic attacks and killings remind us of just how much violence and hatred have festered and then grown in our society without adequate law enforcement budgets or intentions to locate and quell the growth of hate groups in America.
As we spiral toward ever deeper hostilities with Iran and invite retribution from powerful adversaries we need also to call on our better angels and resist the temptation to solve problems by force. Violence only begets more violence; it is rarely a solution. To empower ourselves we need to consult our own angels, whether the angels of our dreams or simply the better angels in our midst. We are better, as a country, than our government makes us appear.
Our dream as a nation has been of one that welcomes immigrants, fosters families and children, treats the "other" kindly, and loves its neighbor as itself. This is not how we appear to the world at this time. Our dreams both personal and national need to be realized like Joseph's dreams were realized. He took the actions which his better angels inspired and did not fall victim to fear and suspicion. We can do likewise.
Pray for our country and pray for its soul. Pray for the families left divided at our border and denied decent treatment. Pray for those targeted in hate crimes and pray for those so deluded as to think violence is a solution to their fears. Pray for peace and for leadership which can confront these horrors and correct it. Let us dream dreams of a better world, one not simply delivered to us but one we work for, a world where nations help nations, where brutality is not justified by expediency, where faith, not fear, determines our common goals. Amen
A sermon preached on the second Sunday after Christmas, Jan. 5, 2020,
at St. Paul's Episcopal Church, Poughkeepsie NY, by The Rev. Tyler Jones, Rector.