December 18 2022 “The Wisdom of Dreams”
Have you ever had a really thorny problem you didn’t know how to solve, and did your absolute best to figure it out, only to find a completely unexpected possibility opening up that changed your whole understanding? How, and where, do you get wisdom?
In the story from today’s gospel reading, we hear the account of Jesus’ birth—but not from the perspective of Mary or the shepherds. Rather, we have the perspective of Joseph who had to decide what to do when his fiancé turned out pregnant before they were married. He decided to break off the relationship with her, probably because he assumed she had been unfaithful to him. It must have been an anguished time for him. He didn’t want to shame her publicly, but to stay with her seemed to be intolerable for him. And I love what the story says. Just when he had resolved to dismiss her quietly, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and told him to not be afraid, but to go ahead and marry her, because her child was of the Holy Spirit and would save his people.
Joseph had done all he could with his integrity and values and reason. The operating system of logic led him to the inescapable conclusion that the best he could do would be to mercifully end the relationship.
It took a messenger from God appearing to him in a dream, in that vast mysterious right half of the brain, the seat of the unconscious, to give him wisdom. And the wisdom required sacrifice of him. He would have to live with and support Mary and her son and work through whatever he felt about that.
We are in the final week of Advent, this season of hope and waiting and longing in which we are preparing for Christ. As I sit with this scripture, it seems utterly clear to me that we are asked to open our hearts and minds to sources of wisdom beyond those we usually use. For us, as followers of Jesus’ Way of Love, I believe we prepare to recognize the presence of Christ, the presence of God’s own being, by using the full range of who we are, not just our intellect. We are also to use imagination. Listen to dreams. Open our receptivity to wisdom from the communion of saints, and intuition, and even trees.
There are many aspects of our lives where we have been using our best efforts of intellect and reason and have not solved the problems we face. Two in particular stand out to me. First, as I mentioned to you in my article in this past week’s e-news, St. John’s like many churches has experienced our income shrinking even as our expenses rise. I’m thankful to say that we have also received very generous gifts which have bought us some time, but our current mode of doing church can only be sustained another 2 or 3 years before we will have to make significant changes. The same is true of almost every other church I’m in contact with across denominations. ….
And second, most vitally, we know that the way humans have used the earth has caused great harm to it, in a way that is also not sustainable. Our best minds have been working on this problem, but it is not going away. What are we to do?
We are Advent people and Easter people, and this means that we know the presence of God is with us and that there is hope. But to prepare for the coming of Christ, to prepare for life and salvation and change, we need more than logic. If reason alone could have fixed our current problems they would be solved by now. We need a spiritual rebirth, and a wisdom that comes from seeing with the eye of the heart.
Contemporary author Karen Armstrong has recently written a book called Sacred Nature: Restoring our Bond with the Natural World, in which she describes herself as a child growing up in the Worcestershire countryside in the 1940s. She said she could perceive this beautiful, strange and compelling luminosity in the woods and she even made up a word for it, “putch,” that she described to the adults in her life but could not make them see. It was a surpassing radiance in and through everything. Later in the book, Armstrong describes how many world religions and indigenous cultures view the natural world: not as a mechanical resource or a backdrop for human affairs, but as an animate web of connected beings including humans who all share reciprocally with one another. She describes how American anthropologist David Abram spent many years living intimately with indigenous peoples of Indonesia and Nepal. And eventually he began to learn how to perceive the natural world as they did. His senses began to perceive the world around him as alive, awake and aware.
Armstrong says that while it’s essential that we cut carbon emissions and heed the warnings of scientists, we need not just to act differently but to think differently about the natural world. To “consciously develop the remnant of our primordial link with nature,” using imagination, effort, and spiritual practice. She says that “recycling and political protests are not enough.” Instead, she urges us to use spiritual practice to cultivate awareness and compassion for our brothers and sisters the cardinals and ash trees and lichen and rocks.
All this from Joseph’s dream. It may seem I’ve digressed a long way from there, but I don’t think so. We are preparing for the coming of Christ during Advent. But of course, Christ is already here. The sacred union between divine and human, the person of Jesus and the sacredness of all physical life already exists. We need eyes to see this and wisdom to transform the way that we live in compassion for the vibrant life all around us with whom we live in reciprocity. And as we walk forward learning to recognize the Holy Spirit’s life in our St. John’s community, we need more than three-year plans to solve our financial conundrums. We need an openness to the wisdom of the heart and to imagination. We need humility to recognize what we can learn from God’s life throbbing in angels and intuition and trees.
Here is where the discipline of spiritual practice and religious tradition can help us. To become aware of wisdom beyond logic, and to become aware of the pulsing, awake and aware life all around us, I’d like to invite us at St. John’s to experiment with two practices. First, a daily practice of silent prayer in which we still our minds in order to listen to the heart.
There are many ways to do this; I love centering prayer and lectio divina, and I’d be glad to teach any of you how to do this. Dick Howard and Dianne Pizey also know these practices and I’m sure they would teach you as well. Second, to follow the wisdom of new groups like the Wild Church movement, and spend daily time outside, simply observing the natural world with your heart and imagination. Don’t just look up the names of the mushrooms and lichen with your field guide, but seek to perceive their life and how they are in relationship with the ground and the snow and the birds and you. On really cold days, I urge you to go up to a tree and put your cheek on it. You’ll be shocked to feel that it is warmer than the air around you, because it is alive.
Then pay attention to what it means when we leave the light on or throw food away. To what kind of food we eat and where it comes from and how it is nurtured and brought to us. Cultivating a deep inner quiet from which we perceive the connectedness of all things may help us open to the guidance of God sent in angels and dreams, in the words of preschoolers and the art of indigenous peoples, in our own sacred and alive practices of Holy Communion and singing and Advent.
After this sermon Rex is going to ring the singing bell, and I’m going to ask us to sit for slightly longer than usual. During this time, seek not to pay attention to your thoughts, but to your breath and to the life in this space that you share with every other living creature here, the people and maybe a few bugs or bats. May God grant us wisdom and spiritual sight. Amen.