Sermon: Designated Dreamers
Text: Psalm 126
(Gary W. Charles, Cove Presbyterian Church, Covesville, VA, 12-17-2017)
“I don’t dream. Other people talk about their dreams, but I don’t dream. I don’t do it when I’m asleep and I don’t do it when I’m awake.”
It is amazing the things that stick in your memory years later. A middle-aged, tired, no-time-for-games migrant worker on the Eastern Shore of Virginia spoke those words to me in the summer of 1978. I was working for the Virginia Council of Churches and my job was to plan fun and games for exhausted laborers when they returned from a dawn to dusk day of harvesting cucumbers, tomatoes, potatoes, and green beans.
One night during my second week there, I decided to mix it up and do something other than outdoor sports or films or board games. I gathered the migrants into an old tobacco barn that doubled as our recreation hall and asked each person to turn to their neighbor and tell them about their dreams. This migrant worker put a quick end to my evening exercise. After he had his say, he looked at me with clear expectations and not a bit of hesitation, said, “Now, boy, let’s have some fun.”
For some reason, I always remember this particular migrant worker when I read T.S. Eliot’s poem that begins:
Because I do not hope to turn again
Because I do not hope
Because I do not hope to turn
Desiring this man's gift and that man's scope
I no longer strive to strive towards such things
(Why should the aged eagle stretch its wings?)
Why should I mourn
The vanished power of the usual reign? [Ash Wednesday]
The poem begins where that migrant’s life had settled. He had learned in many and more traumatic ways than I will ever know that it can be dangerous to dream, painful to dream, even deadly to dream. So, he had willed himself not to dream long before I met him.
That was a long time ago. This is a much different time and setting, far nicer than a roasting tobacco barn in the stifling humidity of a Virginia summer. So what would happen if, unlike my migrant friend, you were to play along with me today? What would you say if I asked you to turn to your neighbor in the pew and tell them about your dreams? (Fear not, I am not going to do so.) When you let your heart run wild and entertain what seems like a galaxy beyond your grasp, about what do you dream?
Psalm 137 was written during the Jewish exile in Babylon. It is a song that sounds much more like the tired, dream-free, migrant worker. Looking around at the unfamiliar and hostile environment of Babylon, the exiled Psalmist cries: “How can we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land?” In other words, how can we dream here? How dare we dream here?” Psalm 137 is written for those who lament what once was until there are no tears left to shed.
You can almost hear the exiled Psalmist when you read the second stanza of Eliot’s poem:
Because I do not hope to know again
The infirm glory of the positive hour
Because I do not think
Because I know I shall not know
The one veritable transitory power
Because I cannot drink
There, where trees flower, and springs flow, for there is nothing again
Psalm 137 speaks to that kind of despair; heart wrenching despair, soul sapping despair; despair that numbs the mind and crushes dreams. It is despair not unfamiliar to some of us even a week before Christmas in this mandatory season to be jolly, when some are anything but jolly, because there will be an empty seat at the Christmas table this year.
Psalm 126 was written after the exiles returned to Jerusalem from Babylon. It opens with the memory of a dream come true: “When the Lord restored the fortunes of Zion, we were like those who dream.” Written after the exiles had returned to Jerusalem, this Psalm celebrates that God has turned the despair of the exiles into inexplicable joy. It is a joy that will be revisited years later on a dark night of Bethlehem when angels will sing, “For unto you is born this day in the city of David, a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.”
Notice, though, that the Psalmist is celebrating in the past tense, “we were
like . . .” Their dream had come true. They left Babylon and went back home, but home was nothing like their memories of it. They came home to a charred Jerusalem with orphans begging on the streets, Solomon’s magnificent Temple in ruins, houses ransacked and overgrown with unruly vines. How would they pay their bills? Where would they gather to worship? Who was around to lead them through this horrible homecoming?
Their wistful dreams now seem more a nightmare, and so they dare not dream again. Instead, the Psalmist becomes their designated dreamer. The Psalmist dreams aloud, saying: “Restore our fortunes, O Lord, like the watercourses in the Negeb. May those who sow in tears reap with shouts of joy. Those who go out weeping, bearing the seed for sowing shall come home with shouts of joy.”
How could the Psalmist look out at his beloved city in ruins and hope for such a divine possibility? How could he still dream when his disillusioned people stare him down and say to him: “We don’t dream”? What does the Psalmist know that lifts him out of the pit of his people’s despair and sets him high on the peak of confident hope?
Eliot’s poem ends:
Teach us to care and not to care
Teach us to sit still
Even among these rocks
And spirit of the river, spirit of the sea,
Suffer me not to be separated
And let my cry come unto Thee.
(“Ash Wednesday,” from Collected Poems 1909-1962 by T S Eliot , copyright T S Eliot 1963, Faber & Faber Limited)
Eliot and the Psalmist are able to see beyond their despair, see beyond the headlines that deaden our hope and stifle our senses, see beyond all the ways the world never seems to change. Elliot and the Psalmist each recall a time “when we were like dreamers.”
These two poets are joined by another dreamer, who lived in such poverty that no self-respecting Innkeeper would invite his parents in for a stay. He taught words of wisdom but most of the powerful and elite ignored his every word. He climbed a splintered piece of wood and still could pray, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” Jesus could even dream of the day, when Peter, who denied him three times at his greatest hour of need, would become the rock of the church.
Maybe our greatest Christian joy in this season to be jolly and in every season, if not our most profound Christian duty, is to be “like those who dream” on behalf of those who simply can no longer dream. Maybe our highest calling is to be “designated dreamers” in a world that tells everyone with monotonous regularity to “stop dreaming” and to “get real.”
When Jesus told his followers to be peacemakers, to love enemies, to feed the hungry, to care for the sick, to clothe the naked and to visit those in prison, he was dreaming – not daydreaming, but divine dreaming, seeing the world that God would have us see, seeing the world that God would have us pray for and work for.
You and I might take pity on the migrant worker who would no longer allow himself to dream or we can appreciate his plight and be for him and his sisters and brothers, his designated dreamers as we work to ensure fair wages, decent living conditions, health care for all, and humane treatment for all who labor.
You and I might take pity on those poor nameless souls living in homeless shelters, sitting with signs on street corners, or making a home out of cardboard under overpasses or we can refuse to settle for unhoused sisters and brothers in America and be their designated dreamers to bring about decent and affordable housing for all God’s children. You and I might take pity on those who cannot read a sentence, much less a job application, or we can refuse to accept illiteracy today and to be their designated dreamers as we insist on nothing less than excellent public schools for children of every age.
How dare you and I dream of such unimaginable progress in a world like ours, a world that crucifies dreamers, even One born in a manger? I will tell you how, because Easter always casts its shadow over Advent and Christmas, Lent and Holy Week, because the good news has been leaked – the good news that the tomb is empty, the dream killers did not win and never will. You and I can dream because we follow a Dreamer who invites us to take hold of those crippled by the world, those beaten into silence, including abused women, those stripped of any hope for more than another lousy day, and on their behalf and to the glory of God, to live “like those who dream.”