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