Hope and Dreams

Except during college football season, I never used to watch much television.  And then the pandemic hit.  I don’t know about you, but in the past two and half years I’ve become a television junkie.  I’m afraid to look at my credit card statement to see how many streaming services I’m paying for.  Sometimes it’s seemed as if I’ve watched every single series on Netflix. 

         Streaming shows are hit and miss, but sometimes you stumble upon one that surprises you.  A month or so ago I watched the The Sandman, a fantasy series adapted from a comic book.  But this is neither Superman or Scrooge McDuck.  The series eerie and noir, based upon the premise that the various components of our human experience, like dreams, desire, and despair, are anthropomorphized into godlike characters.  Following me so far?  The title character—the Sandman, called “Dream” as if that’s his proper name—walks around as a person and is the embodiment of all human dreams.  But at the series outset, Dream finds himself cast into hell, where he must face Lucifer.  Catch that: The human embodiment—the incarnation—of our dreams must battle the Devil.  (Now see why the priest was hooked by this series?)

         The battle sequence is more like a chess match than an actual fight.  Both Lucifer and Dream simply take turns transforming themselves into ever more powerful creatures facing off against one another.  Lucifer, says, “I am a dire wolf” and becomes one.  Dream counters by becoming a wolf hunter.  Lucifer then morphs into a deadly viper, and Dream responds by saying, “I am a bird of prey,” transforming himself into a falcon that can swoop down to kill the snake in its talons.  This escalates exponentially, until Dream becomes a bright cosmos, full of stars and galaxies and life, and Lucifer counters by transforming herself into what she calls the “the anti-life, the darkness that is the end of everything.”  With that, the light of Dream’s cosmos is snuffed.  Dream collapses to the floor, completely spent and apparently beaten.  It appears that the Devil has won, and that Dream—and thus all human dreams—have been dashed.  Lucifer begins to taunt Dream.  She leans over him and asks, “Still with us, Dream?  What can survive the anti-life?”

         Dream quivers on the floor, as if doing battle within himself for an answer, but finally he raises himself up to standing and looks Lucifer directly in the eye.  What survives the anti-life, the darkness that is the end of everything, Lucifer wants to know?  Dream says to her, “I…am…Hope.”  And with that, the Sandman is made whole, and even Hell is illuminated by light.  Lucifer recoils, knowing she is the one who is beaten.  Hope heals dreams.  Hope restores dreams’ power.  Hope recovers dreams even from Hell. 

My goodness, sometimes we can learn a lot from a comic book or a Netflix series!

         Today is the kick-off Sunday for our annual stewardship campaign.  Later this morning we will celebrate with barbeque and fellowship and encourage one another to support the ministry of Saint Mark’s for 2023.  But the most important thing for us to remember today and throughout the next several weeks of this year’s campaign is the theme chosen by our Stewardship Committee, which appears in the Book of Jeremiah just a couple of chapters prior to today’s Old Testament reading.  There, Jeremiah promises us, “For I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord, for a future filled with hope.”

         There may be no more profound claim in all of Holy Scripture.  God has plans—dreams!—for us, and those dreams are marked by hope.  And when God instills hope in us, no power, no discouragement, not even the mustered forces of Hell, can snuff God’s light. 

         Fast forward to today’s passage from Jeremiah, and the Prophet explains how this is so.  Hope, it turns out, is not something God gives us as an external tool or a shield to fend off the things that would dash our dreams.  Nor is hope is a philosophy we must learn, like a schoolbook lesson. Listen again to what God says:

         “I will put my law within you, and I will write it on your hearts; I will be your God, and you will be my people. No longer will you teach one another, or say to each other, ‘Know the Lord’, for you will all know me, from the least to the greatest.” 

         You see, hope springs from the reality that God has entered into our very souls, has written a new covenant on our hearts.  We don’t just know about the God of hope, we know that God as closely and intimately as we know ourselves.  And we trust the promise that because God is within us, God is with us always.

         Jeremiah’s promise of hope reverberates throughout the rest of scripture.  In John’s Gospel, Jesus says that “I am in them—meaning us!—as you, God, are in me.”[i]  In Galatians, Saint Paul says, “It is not I who live, but Christ who lives in me.”[ii]  And the whole sweep of salvation history ends in that hope-filled and misunderstood Book of Revelation, when Saint John the Divine says, “See, the home of God is among mortals. God dwells with them; they are God’s people, and God himself is with them.”[iii]

         Friends, God is not distant and apart from us.  God is right here, among and within us, etching the law of love on our hearts, making plans for us, dreaming dreams for us, preparing a hope-filled future for us.  I hope that gives you chills.  I know it does me.

         Even as that makes our hearts soar, plans require, well, planning, and that requires a most earth-bound and decidedly practical closing message.  God’s dream for Saint Mark’s is that we be a lifeline through outreach for those who live on the margins of society, that we form our children and youth into the stature of Christ, that we provide pastoral care for parishioners in need, that we offer glorious worship and music to draw hearts to God, that we provide community in a world where community is sorely lacking.

         And, so we never forget, part of God’s dream for Saint Mark’s is also that we always ensure that the blessing that is this campus be kept in good repair as the launching point for all of our Gospel work.

          To do all of this—to realize God’s dream for us, to embody God’s hope, to live in the world acknowledging that God has written on our very hearts—we are each called to commit ourselves to the ministry of this place with our time and our talent, and also with our treasure.  Our aspirational ministry budget for next year requires that we increase pledge giving by $218,000, in order to keep pace with our current ministries, offer a modest cost of living increase to our staff, add a Lay Minister for Parish Life to work with newcomers and continuing members so we can continue to thrive and grow, and keep our campus in good repair.  If all who are able will stretch to increase our pledges, and if an additional 10% of our parish families will pledge for the first time, we will meet this goal.

         I believe in God’s dream for us!  So much so that Jill and I have already pledged, and we have increased our pledge over what we’d originally planned to give.  This week you’ll receive a pledge card in the mail.  But you don’t have to wait until then!  There are pledge cards in the pew racks, and there will be pledge cards at lunch.  The world is not easy right now.  Returning to that intriguing Netflix show, The Sandman, metaphorically speaking, there are so many ways in which Lucifer seems to be leaning over us and taunting, “Well, people of God?  What can survive the darkness that is the end of everything?”  But we are the people upon whose hearts God has written God’s covenant.  We are the people for whom God has dreamed a dream.  We stand tall, and scatter the darkness, and say, “God has plans for us, and we have hope!” 

[i] John 17:23

[ii] Galatians 2:20

[iii] Revelation 21:3

Increase our faith!

 “Increase our faith!”  Who among us can’t relate to the disciples’ cry at the beginning of the Gospel reading today?  Up to this point, Jesus has talked about the necessity of taking up one’s cross; he’s told the crowds to care for the little ones among them and forgive those who sin against them.  Jesus has told the Parable of the Good Samaritan along with the story of Lazarus and the rich man, a really tricky parable that seems to be about heaven and hell.  The disciples have listened as long and as they quietly can, squirming if not chafing under how challenging it all seems.  It’s finally more than they can muster, and they now cry out to Jesus, “Increase our faith!”

It’s the disciples’ way of saying, “We just can’t do it.  We can’t succeed at all these things.  It’s too hard.  Either you’re going to have to give us a dose of Gospel steroids, or you’re going to have to get someone else.”

I know how they feel.  I suspect you do, too.  The needs of our community, not to mention the world, are so big.  Relationships with people who are different are harder and harder to maintain.  Bridges more difficult to build.  Balance is a bigger challenge to achieve.  Our collective store of grace is sapped. 

And now to top it all off, you have this new rector who will encourage you to make a renewed commitment to the life of the church, to make new efforts to attend both Sunday school and Holy Eucharist, plus involvement in the weekly community life of this place, plus reengaging the programs and ministries of our parish.

Under the weight of all this, we may also cry to God, like the disciples, “Hold on!  First increase our faith!”  And this makes Jesus’ response to the disciples in the Gospel this morning seem, well, not very pastoral.  I actually like Matthew’s version over Luke’s, in which Jesus says, “If you had faith the size of a mustard seed, you could move mountains.”[i]

Jesus then tells the disciples an odd parable about good servants who plow the ground, tend the sheep in the field, and serve at their master’s table all without complaint.  It is almost as if Jesus is telling the disciples to quit their whining and get to work.

Now, we know that Jesus loves the disciples, and we know it’s not Jesus’ style to respond to a cry for help with a lack of empathy, so what might he mean by his response to the disciples today?  To understand, we could use a bit of help from Metro-Goldwyn-Meyer’s 1939 Technicolor triumph.

When I was a child, The Wizard of Oz aired annually on CBS television.  It was, some will recall, an event!  My siblings and I would watch the movie with pie tins of Orville Redenbacher popcorn, sitting in front of my grandparents’ enormous cabinet television (but always six feet back because of, you know, the radiation). 

The primary conundrum for the characters in The Wizard of Oz, as for the disciples, is that they all have in mind that that they need things they do not yet have in order to accomplish the tasks set before them.  The Tin Man, the Scarecrow, and the Lion are anxious and afraid, and they believe that before they can begin truly living they need greater virtue.  “Increase my mind, my heart, my courage!” they cry in turn to the Wizard.  But instead, the Wizard sends them out to accomplish great and challenging things as they are.

Along the way, though, circumstances require the friends to think clearly, to show empathy, to be brave.  In other words, in the very acts of living and making the journey together, they discover to their surprise that all along they have already had in abundance the things they seek.  They are already ingenious, courageous, and big-hearted.  And they accomplish amazing things, freeing the land from the power of evil.

This, I believe, is what Jesus, in his wisdom, is telling the disciples today: that faith is not something we receive before we live for God and do God’s work.  God doesn’t give us faith to then go do God’s work.  Rather, it is through God’s work that we come to discover the faith that already lives within us, yearning for expression.  It is like the characters in The Wizard of Oz, who learn as they travel and grow in friendship that they have had within them all along the heart, mind, and courage they seek.

When the disciples cry out to Jesus today, they are unable to see that, with Jesus, they have already taught, fed, healed, and followed.  They have already moved mountains!  But because they are focused on all the things they fear they cannot do, they do not realize the faith that is already within them.

The disciples, even with all their anxiety, have faith.  And everyone in this room, simply by virtue of being here, has faith.  That impulse to seek and know God, however dim, however vague, that brings you to this place is the mustard seed of which Jesus speaks.  It is the grain that caused the disciples first to follow.  It is the same grain that lives in me and lives in you.

In his response today, Jesus uses images of plowing and herding and serving at table, because these were the all-consuming ways of life that would have resonated with the disciples.  “Live your whole lives for God,” Jesus says in essence, “and you will discover that the faith you need is already within you.”

For us, sheepherding doesn’t resonate.  But Jesus’ wisdom still does.  “Go into your law office…or classroom…or ER…or business…or garden…or home,” Jesus might say.  “There, live for God.  At St. Mark’s, roll up your sleeves and teach your children, or engage in community, or join in ministries of care for those on the margins of life.  Love with a love that knows no bounds.  In living for God and in doing God’s work, there you will discover your faith.  And though at first it may seem as small as a mustard seed, it will be all the faith you need.” Sisters and brothers, you are here, and that means the mustard seed is already within you.  God’s grace is there, ready to be watered and grow.  It is never too early and never too late.  And you may someday look back on your journey and realize to your surprise that you, too, moved mountains.

[i] Matthew 17:20