Craft of Preaching

Dear Working Preacher

Insights, ideas and inspiration related to the coming week's lectionary texts.

Pentecost Dreams

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Dear Working Preacher,

Pentecost is the time to dream.

Come to think of it, maybe every season in the church is a time to dream. After all, we worship a God who not only created light out of darkness but raised the crucified Jesus to life again! But while we should perhaps always be dreaming, Pentecost seems like an unusually good time to go at it. After all, at the heart of the “first annual” Pentecost sermon, Peter quotes Joel to promise that God’s spirit enables all of us to dream -- young and old, male and female, slave and free -- all of us, through the power of the Holy Spirit, have been commissioned to be official Christian dreamers (Acts 2:16-18).

Yet here’s the curious thing. Even though we confess God’s power to create and redeem in our preaching, hymns, creeds, and worship each and every week, most congregations I know are very hesitant to dream. Some don’t seem to dream at all and way too many spend more time trapped in fear than caught up in visions of the Spirit. So what’s going on?

I suspect there are several reasons congregations don’t see themselves as Christian dreamers, and I’d like to address three in light of the passages appointed for Pentecost Sunday.

First, I wonder if somewhere down the road we learned that dreaming is for kids. That dreaming isn’t, in other words, something that responsible adults should do. But, as we already noticed, Peter quotes Joel to say that everyone will see visions, prophesy, and dream. Interestingly, while his list starts with the young, it goes on to include old men as well! Moreover, as Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner, the authors of the mega-best-seller Freakonomics, write in their new book, one of the keys to innovation is to be willing to think like a child and relearn how to question assumptions. Who says your congregation can’t grow? Why do we assume people in the neighborhood won’t come to our church? Where did we get the idea we have nothing to offer our community? These and too many other things “everyone knows” need to be called into question by some active dreaming that invites the Spirit to help us see possibilities we hadn’t seen before.

Second, perhaps some are worried that dreaming can be divisive. What if, after all, your dream and mine are different? How do we decide which dream is “better”? Here we can turn to Paul, who reminds us that there is always diversity and difference in the Christian body -- and that is something to be celebrated! There are, as Paul writes to his beloved and difficult congregation in Corinth, a variety of gifts and likely a variety of dreams (1 Cor 12:3b-13). But there is one Spirit. A plethora of dreams invites a new world of possibilities, but they are mediated by, as Paul says, a commitment to the common good. Each member of the body -- and each member’s dream -- has a role to play. It may be challenging to get there, but the descent of the Spirit at Pentecost was never intended to make things easy; rather, those tongues of flame were sent to set hearts on fire. And if there is some jostling along the way as we discern between gifts and dreams of the Spirit, we will be okay if we remember that we are all members of one Body.

Finally, I wonder if we’re just worried that if we dream we might be disappointed. I mean, if we just stick with the status quo, we won’t be surprised by how things work out. Even if we’re in decline, at least we can see it coming. Dreaming, for some, feels like getting your hopes up. And if things aren’t going to end well, why add insult to injury by getting ourselves even more hurt in the process. If that’s the case in your congregation, perhaps it’s time to remind folks that Jesus refused to leave his disciples mired in fear. Indeed, as John tells us in the traditional Gospel reading for the day (John 20:19-23), Jesus sought them out, finding them even though they’d shut themselves behind locked doors. Jesus has more in mind for us than fear. He wants to breathe upon us the same Holy Spirit he gave his first disciples and set us loose to forgive sin, share the good news, work for the welfare of our community, provide strength to the weak and courage to the fearful, and in all these ways to share with those around us the dream and vision of Christian community. Might we fail? Yes. But rather than let that possibility paralyze us, perhaps we can remember that God seems to have way to wrest surprising victory from what looks like utter failure.

So perhaps this Sunday, Working Preacher, offers a wonderful opportunity to invite your congregation to dream in the Spirit. You’ll know best how to do this. I have suggested using 3x5 cards several times in recent weeks, and you could certainly go that route again, inviting people to share some of their dreams on cards and pass them in with the offering. Or you could have folks talk with each other about some of their dreams. Or you could simply invite them to email their dreams to you, or structure some other time in your congregation’s life for sharing dreams. But however you gather these dreams, make sure you respond to them. Take them to your council, vestry, or board of elders; talk about them as a staff; report on them via the newsletter; and share what the Spirit is sparking in the congregation in your sermons. In this way, the variety of dreams will begin to fashion themselves into a shared vision and the power, hope, and creativity of the Spirit’s work will be felt more widely.

Yes, Pentecost is an especially good time to dream, Working Preacher. And one of the dreams I harbor is that our congregations’ imaginations will be set loose so that we will be able to see beyond the rather oppressive “this is the way it is” to sense and see God’s pouring out of the Spirit onto “all flesh,” including even ours.

Thanks for your good work, Working Preacher. Your creativity, courage, and faithfulness has never been more important. In so many ways, you are both steward and servant of the Spirit that grants holy dreams. Blessings on your proclamation.

In Christ,
David

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