Sermon: Dream Angel
Texts: Isaiah 7:10-16; Matthew 1:18-25
Date: December 22, 2019
©Rev. Dee Eisenhauer, Eagle Harbor Congregational Church
“An angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream.” Thanks to the Plains High School chorus in which I sang alto more than 40 years ago, the word “dream” has a tune permanently attached, a forever earworm of the Everly Brothers’ song “Dream, Dream, Dream.” Do you remember it? “Dream. Dream, dream, dream; dream. When I want you in my arms, when I want you and all your charms, whenever I want you all I have to do is dream…Dream, dream, dream…”Catchy. The song really connects with teen desire in that line “I can make you mine, taste your lips of wine, any time, night or day…” I’m sure as our teenaged chorus sang it we were all romantically picturing that special someone whose heart we would have liked to capture. But there’s a wistfulness there, because we can’t make anyone our own, we can’t make anyone fall in love with us. When love is the object, it’s not about coercion but persuasion; it’s not about compelling, it’s about wooing.
What’s true of humans in our relationships with one another is also true in our relationship with God, and God’s relationship with us. God can’t make us do anything. People forget that sometimes because they are enamored with the idea of the Almighty, the All-Powerful God. The “Almighty” notion may actually impede a covenantal relationship with God. Theologian David Ray Griffin wrote, “One of the chief obstacles to hearing the Divine Cry…is the widespread connection of the idea of ‘God’ with that of omnipotence.” That line came from a quotation calendar I have, so I don’t know if Griffin was making a larger point, but I think he’s on to something. People may be less attuned to God subtly crying out to humanity if they are expecting an unmistakable, strong-arm sign that forces obedience. Even God must persuade rather than coerce, even God must woo rather than compel. God can’t make us listen, much less make us obey or follow.
Since God chooses to work through the world and its creatures rather than running roughshod over us, God finds myriad avenues to reach us, to woo us, to invite us to follow. One of those avenues in Scripture is through angelic messengers, another is through sacred dreams and visions. In Matthew’s gospel Joseph gets two for the price of one “woo”—a dream angel. (Dream angel, dream angel…another song for another time.) God has a proposal for Joseph, a path They hope Joseph will follow. Joseph, I want you, all you’ve got to do is dream; dream, dream, dream…
God’s going through the back door of Joseph’s subconscious to make Their pitch to him, perhaps because Joseph has made up his mind about another course of action. The NRSV says that upon finding that his betrothed, Mary, was pregnant, Joseph planned to dismiss her quietly. He was “resolved” to do this just before the dream angel visitation. Just to refresh your memory, in Joseph and Mary’s religious culture her pregnancy was a terrible scandal. Divorce (ending the betrothal) was the clear choice for a pious man. Biblical commentator Brian Stoffregen explains: “Jewish, Greek, and Roman law all demanded that a man divorce his wife if she were guilty of adultery. . . . Mediterranean society viewed with contempt the weakness of a man who let his love for his wife outweigh his appropriate honor in repudiating her. Divorcing pregnant Mary was the right thing for [righteous, faithful] Joseph to do. It would seem that Joseph was convinced that she had committed adultery and his obedience to the law and unwillingness to be shamed himself forced him in good conscience to divorce her; but out of his compassion, he wouldn’t expose her to public shame by dragging her before the courts. Other commentators have suggested that divorcing Mary could mean that Joseph was offering the ‘real’ father the opportunity to raise his child by marrying the mother.” He was resolved, at any rate, to end their betrothal. Truthfully, he probably didn’t think there were any alternatives to either A) dismissing her noisily and publically or B) dismissing her quietly so as not to shame her further and risk her losing her life by stoning.
Joseph is resolved to walk on what he perceives to be the straight and narrow path. But God doesn’t always walk the road the human beings think of as the straight and narrow way. God works around the edges of what humans think acceptable at times. One of the commentaries I read said that a close reading of Matthew’s genealogy, which precedes the story we heard this morning, shows a wide-ranging vision at the very beginning of this Gospel. This is Eugene Boring’s take on it: “This inaugural note of inclusiveness corresponds to the inclusiveness of the whole genealogy, which names five women: Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, “the wife of Urlah,” and Mary. Since ancestry and inheritance were traced through the father’s line, reference to women in a genealogy was uncommon, but not unheard of. Since all of the women mentioned are involved in some sort of questionable sexual behavior, it has often been suggested that this was Matthew’s apologetic response to non-believers’ insulting versions of the story of Jesus’ birth from the virgin Mary. It could well be that, while not apologetic, Matthew is interested in affirming that the plan of God has often been fulfilled in history in unanticipated and “irregular” ways, as was the case in the birth of Jesus from Mary, and that Matthew is interested in showing that God worked through irregular, even scandalous ways, and through women who took initiative, like Tamar and Ruth.”
God is proposing through the angel who visits Joseph in his dream that Joseph also risk a scandal, take some initiative, and follow God in an “irregular” path that veers outside the straight and narrow. To marry pregnant Mary is an alternative he might not have seriously considered as a righteous man. But later in the gospel Jesus says that the Kingdom Way demands righteousness that exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees. [Matthew 5:20]. He’ll have to go along with the spirit of the law instead of the letter of the law—that is, he’ll have to risk following where God is leading off the margins of the page. Giving signposts for the faithful is what the Hebrew law was always intended to do, but it feels safer to most of the faithful to stick with the letter of the law when the Spirit seems to veer off the prescribed course.
Sometimes the Spirit speaks through angelic visitors. Megan McKenna describes angels such as the one that visited Joseph in his dream this way: “Angels, mysteries of God’s imagination, invitations to obedience, and servants visiting earth, are the Creator’s call to each of us to reconsider, change, be transformed.” Surely the angel that visited Joseph’s dream was calling him to reconsider, since he was resolved. I wonder if there are a host of angels whose role in the universe is simply to urge humans who are resolved about a decision or attitude that will restrict creative Divine Love too severely to reconsider. Maybe Clarence (the angel in “It’s a Wonderful Life”), having gotten his wings and been promoted to Angel First Class got assigned to the Reconsideration Regiment of Angels. He had a knack for it, we saw in that movie.
Speaking of movies, I saw the film about Mr. Rogers and the magazine writer who interviewed him for Esquire in 1998 recently. It has a reconsideration thread. It opens with Mr. Rogers talking about his new friend Lloyd and saying that Lloyd was hurt. Then he moves into talking about forgiveness, asking the audience, “Do you know what I mean by ‘Forgive’?” I can’t quote him exactly, but it had to do with letting go of angry feelings one is carrying about someone who hurt you. Maybe the script was drawing on one of the quotes from Mr. Rogers like this one: “Forgiveness is a strange thing. It can sometimes be easier to forgive our enemies than our friends. It can be hardest of all to forgive people we love. Like all of life’s important coping skills, the ability to forgive and the capacity to let go of resentments most likely take root very early in our lives.” The movie’s story has as its central character Lloyd, a journalist assigned to write a profile of Mr. Rogers. Lloyd was estranged from his father, and he seemed resolved to keep him out of his life and the life of his infant son forever. He was carrying within himself an almost lethal amount of anger and resentment that was clearly affecting his attitudes about the rest of the human race. In the course of the story, Mr. Rogers and his puppets function as angels of reconsideration, ultimately softening up Lloyd enough to be able to reconcile with his father.
One of the plot devices is—guess what?—dreams. Lloyd has some strange dreams that serve to help open his mind and heart. The dreams are a mishmash, as dreams often are, featuring a stuffed toy of his childhood, Old Rabbit, Mr. Rogers, and the key Neighborhood puppet Daniel Tiger. Lloyd dreams he has become Daniel Tiger—a vulnerable, battered little creature who has to learn how to manage and express his big feelings. Soon after the series of dreams Lloyd reconsiders whether he needs to spend the rest of his life–and his seriously ill father’s life– carrying the resentment he has cherished for many years.
I looked up the article that sparked the movie—“Can You Say Hero?” by Tom Junod—which was beautifully written. It didn’t have any of the forgiveness story in it. But it did have this beautiful scene at the end in which the journalist visits Mr. Rogers at his apartment at the same time Fred Rogers’ minister Deb is visiting. Fred expresses his appreciation for her prayers and asks her to pray with the three of them. The journalist prays only rarely, but this prayer affects him deeply. “His hand was warm, hers was cool, and we bowed our heads, and closed our eyes, and I heard Deb’s voice calling out for the grace of God. What is grace? I’m not certain; all I know is that my heart felt like a spike, and then, in that room, it opened and felt like an umbrella.” Isn’t that beautiful?
I suspect that Joseph’s heart felt like a spike when he had sadly but firmly resolved to follow the path of righteousness prescribed by the letter of the Hebrew law. I imagine he was resigned, but not at peace with it. And then when God sent an angel of reconsideration into his dream, his heart must have opened like an umbrella. He was able to release his righteous resolve and find courage and love big enough to shelter himself and his betrothed, to cast a patriarchal mantle or umbrella of protection over her and the infant who was to be Emmanuel, “God With Us.” He entered fully into the story of God drawing near, God’s everlasting dream that Yahweh would be our God, and we would be God’s people, faithful and loving, kind and just.
Tom Junod’s description of his heart feeling like a spike is riveting. We’ve just gone through a week of particularly sharp political discourse on the national stage. A number of President Trump’s defenders in the impeachment debate accused the Democratic members of the House of simply hating the President, suggesting that hate was the only motivation for pursuing impeachment. Do you remember when a journalist asked Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi recently whether she hated the President? Her very fierce response caught everyone by surprise. “As a Catholic, I resent your using the word ‘hate’ in a sentence that addresses me. I don’t hate anyone. I was raised in a way that is full — a heart full of love — and always pray for the president. And I still pray for the president. I pray for the president all the time. So, don’t mess with me when it comes to words like that.” I hadn’t realized that Pelosi was Catholic; the reporter who wrote about this exchange in the Washington Post notes that every Catholic child is taught that the word “hate” should never be used in connection to another human being. As Pope Francis said in a sermon last year, “To hate someone is to murder them in your heart.” That’s true, isn’t it? To hate someone is to shape your heart into a spike, a lethal weapon. To carry resentment toward someone, to cherish resentment—especially if it is resentment based in self-righteousness—will eventually re-shape the heart into a spike. Christians cannot be true to the Spirit of our faith if we give in to hatred.
I thank House Speaker Pelosi for her fierce reminder that hate is anathema for all of us who seek to follow Christ. I know I have flirted with hatred for people with whom I strongly disagree about political ideas and actions. I have been tempted to return the vitriol that appears in some discourse online particularly. Such tit for tat doesn’t help anything, and it puts one’s heart into a fiery forge that closes and sharpens it like a spike where it should open like an umbrella to all God’s beloved children.
There is no peace in having a heart that feels like a spike. We lit the Advent candle of peace today. I wonder if God is wooing anyone here today, persuading anyone to reconsider continuing to carry a resentment or harboring hatred in the light of that flickering candle of peace. I wonder if God is urging anyone to forgive someone they love. I wonder if God is enticing anyone toward a dream of reconciliation and unity. God can’t make us be the imaginative, loving, gracious people God dreams of. But God can appeal to the better angels of our nature, stir us through dreams and intuitions to open to grace; to hope, love, joy and peace. Is God wooing you this day, Beloved? Give yourself to dream of peace, peace within us and peace between us, opening the door again for Emmanuel to dwell with us.
 Quoted in http://girardianlectionary.net/reflections/year-a/advent4a/
 Junod, Tom “Can You Say Hero?” https://www.esquire.com/entertainment/tv/a27134/can-you-say-hero-esq1198/?fbclid=IwAR0PWbaFMBSwDtZcfG6chbNyAhutMNm4gmMt25JVJiio95DAhadrfjwZjVg