The following sermon was delivered at the 2014 Festival of Homiletics in Minneapolis, Minn.
Joseph was having a pretty bad day by anyone’s standards. At the age of 17, just when one is supposed to be dreaming dreams about the future and beaming with bright hopes of being accepted into Duke University, life is the pits for Joseph, literally. His older brothers don’t throw a football around with him in the backyard anymore or take him to Minnesota Twins baseball games or teach him about dating girls. They don’t love to watch out for their little brother. They love to hate him so they throw him into an empty pit—life is the pits for Joseph! This pit is a symbolic death. It refers to the underworld. In other words, Joseph is having a hell of a day.
Have you ever had one of those days when nothing seems to go right? I’m guessing you might have had one or two of those days at some point in your life and you could testify like poet Langston Hughes, “life for me ain’t been no crystal stair.” I know every day you don’t wake up and participate in the liturgy of Pharrell Williams and say that you are happy and feel like a room without a roof, can’t nothing bring you down, your level’s too high “because I’m happy.” I know this is not your daily mantra. If we are honest with God, our congregations, and ourselves some days are hell (and you might even want to tell somebody to go there!).
Joseph is not at Starbucks drinking a skinny caramel macchiato with whip. Joseph is in a pit. No Internet surfing, no access to email, no Facebook friendship, no Netflix, no Martin Luther’s The Bondage of the Will or Karl Barth’s Church Dogmatics, no texting or tweeting or twerking. Life is the pits!
And he’s only guilty of two things: being his father’s favorite son, the ‘apple’ of daddy’s eye, and being a dreamer.Joseph’s brothers hate him because their father loved him more than them but we’re also told “they hated him even more because of his dreams.” He sits in a pit and outside the pit his brothers sit eating their lefses. Joseph even sends his brothers an ancient near eastern text message: OMG WTP—Oh My God Why This Pit? They sell him into slavery eventually. They’re cold and callous and uncaring and definitely not Christ-like. All because they can’t handle his dreams. Their vision is myopic—“Are you indeed to reign over us? Are you indeed to have dominion over us?”
This is the heart of the problem. Joseph’s dreams disturb the ‘pecking order’ of the family. He dreams of his brothers binding sheaves in the field, “suddenly my sheaf rose and stood upright and then your sheaves gathered around it, and bowed down to my sheaf.” And if one dream was insufficient, Joseph dreams again—“the sun, the moon and eleven stars were bowing down to me.” He may sound like an Oxygen Network ‘Preachers of LA’ protégé prosperity gospel preacher, rubbing in his imminent rise to wealthy dominance as a sign of being blessed and highly favored by God, but don’t take him in the wrong way. He sees the future and his brothers are mad to the bone because he dreams a different kind of world. Joseph, the son of Jacob’s old age, would be in charge and rule over his entire family, including his parents. The younger over the older. The bottom goes to the top. A dream of a different distribution of power. No wonder his brothers want to strip him of his long robe with sleeves thereby stripping him of any hope. I get it because I’m the son of my father’s old age too and my older brothers still haven’t figured out they’re suppose to bow down to me!
Joseph plays it cool. He doesn’t rub it in and say to his bigger brothers “naninanibooboo.” There was no taunting or teasing. Just dreaming. But his brothers love the status quo and hate him because he’s a dreamer. His dream is their nightmare. Not everyone can handle our dreams. Joseph’s dreams get him into trouble and his dreams make them want to destroy him—“we shall see what will become of his dreams.” Everyone can’t handle our dreams.
That might be the case because we dream what some experts on the science of dreams call a “big dream.” Our dreams may be too big or too dangerous. Dangerous because God’s dreams disrupt the way things are, imagining the ‘oughtness’ of life that transcends the ‘isness’ of reality. Dangerous because God’s dreams may threaten the status quo and envision a new way of life.If your dream only confirms what already is, rubber stamping the norm, blessing the political empire of the day, it’s not God’s dream because God inverts our human way of doing things, flipping life on its head. The last shall be first. The least, the greatest. This is why Joseph’s brothers are so mad.
Dreaming is dangerous because it might get you into trouble. It may land you in a pit or in a Birmingham jail or in a grave. Dreamers put their life in danger because others may attempt to kill the dream. The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was a dreamer who put his life at risk. He dreamed a world that disrupted and disturbed the status quo in society. In 1963, a little more than 50 years ago, at the March on Washington D.C. for Civil Rights before the Lincoln Memorial, Dr. King dreamed. “I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia, sons of former slaves and sons of former slave-owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood. I have a dream that one day, even the state of Mississippi, a state sweltering with the heat of injustice, sweltering with the heat of oppression, will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice. I have a dream my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character…” This dream still plays on the iPod of this country’s historical memory.
But not everyone understood that dream. Not everyone understands that dream. Not everyone understands dreams. Not everyone can handle dreams. Not everyone, like Joseph’s brothers, wants our dreams to come true. Dr. King’s dream leads to his death.
Stanford University historian and King scholar, Clayborne Carson, was asked in an interview, “What messages do you think King would want to impress upon Americans today?” Carson replied, “He would want people to know that his Dream was still unfulfilled at the end of his life and remains unrealized even now.”
By looking at YouTube, we may think Dr. King’s rhetorical corpus only includes the “I Have a Dream” speech but he spoke of other dreams throughout his life. In a 1961 commencement address at Lincoln University, King speaks about “The American Dream” and he says, “America is essentially a dream, a dream as yet unfulfilled.” Dreamers know that some dreams will be unfulfilled in their lifetime or even shattered. The Dreamer King was no different as he preached sermons titled “Unfulfilled Dreams”(1968) and “Shattered Dreams.” He believed those kind of dreams were “hallmark[s] of our mortal life.”
If we didn’t know that before, let me share CNN breaking news right now. Life will not always be the best of times; it may be the worst of times. I saw it this academic year as a Duke senior getting ready to graduate, ranked first in her class, was killed in a tragic car accident over spring break. Her dreams and her parents’ dreams, unfulfilled and perhaps shattered like broken glass. Little Nigerian school girls kidnapped causing social media movements like #bringbackourgirls and #stolendreams. Marriages ending in divorce revealing again that fancy weddings don’t necessarily make fantastic marriages; infertility issues with a couple who desires children making them feel like hope unborn has died; betrayal in friendships such that you learn what relational terrorism really means; dream jobs turned nightmares when you find yourself laid off in your mid 50s but still have a family to support.It’s true that “life [maybe] like [Franz] Schubert’s ‘Unfinished Symphony’.” It’s true that our reach may always be beyond our grasp. King was honest and believed that “few of us live to see our fondest hopes fulfilled.”But that didn’t stop him from dreaming. He still had the courage to dream and take the risk to dream, knowing that not all dreams come true and that dreaming can even be dangerous.
So why should we dream? We dream because to dream is to live and not to dream is to die. A spiritual mentor for King, Howard Thurman, a former dean of the chapels at Howard and Boston Universities, put it this way. “[We] cannot continue long to live if the dream in the heart has perished…Where there is no dream,.. life becomes a swamp, a dreary dead place and, deep within, [our] heart begins to rot…[The dream] is the ever-recurring melody in the midst of broken harmony and harsh discords of human conflict…It lives in the inward parts, it is deep within…for as long as a [person] has a dream in his heart, he cannot lose the significance of living.”
To dream is to live and not to dream is to die. Our churches may be dying because we stopped dreaming a long time ago. People don’t always fail because they aim too high and miss the mark; perhaps they aim too low and hit the mark.
Once upon a time, I had a dream. I dreamed that I would be a computer engineer, a technologically-savvy Hewlett Packard employee in the Silicon Valley of California. Clearly that worked out! Look where that dream got me. Right here! My dream didn’t come true because it wasn’t God’s dream but God will preserve God’s dream even through detours. God preserves God’s dream for Joseph by using Reuben to save his life, thus the dream. Joseph is not murdered though that was the initial plan so God may be using unlikely people or predicaments to keep the divine dream alive. And the dream is still alive.
There will be detours in life and sometimes life may even feel like the pits. But God is at work in hidden ways. Your dreams may manifest in ways you never imagined. Your dreams may not have come true as of yet butthey may just be delayed for the moment. Like in Joseph’s case, his dream was deferred but it was not ultimately denied. He kept dreaming and eventually became the second-in-command in Egypt because God’s dreams can’t be stopped. God’s dream will prevail because God is preserving God’s dream for the world and for your life and ministry. God’s dream is not dead because not even Death could hold back God’s dream for the world in Jesus Christ who conquered the pit of hell to be the Lord of all.
Joseph’s story reveals that setbacks may just be setups for comebacks because dreamers don’t die easily. A Harvard Business Review article published at the beginning of this year, urged readers how to have a year that counts and it said, “start with your dreams.” Not your goals or plans or objectives, but your dreams. How do you have a ministry that counts? Start with your dreams. This is bigger than arguing over the color of the carpet in the sanctuary or the latest model of a copier machine that should be purchased or the newest issue raised in the worship committee meeting where we discussed the last committee meeting where we discussed the last committee meeting. Dream the unthinkable, the impossible, the questionable, the unorthodox, the risky, and the dangerous. We have enough paper pushers and machine maintainers and meeting managers and administrative advisors and email extroverts and full-time Facebook folks, but do we have any dreamers here at the festival of homiletics? Those who are determined to “keep alive the dream” in the heart and “hold fast to dreams” regardless of what your church board says?
Is anyone dreaming? I don’t mean daydreaming during this sermon or dreaming of retirement. But dreaming God’s dream for your life and the world. Dreams are bigger than your seminary degrees and your possible upward mobility in your denomination. Your denominational affiliation is not the sum total of your destiny nor should ecclesial powers dilute your imagination of what could be because God is bigger than all of that.
Dreams can be dangerous. And you may have to risk your life or risk the way life is by dreaming it, but to dream is to live and not to dream is to die and rot away. To imagine beyond what we see or experience. To dream even beyond ourselves and dare to dream courageously so much so that it includes the whole world.
I dream a world where [human]
No other [hu]man will scorn,
Where love will bless the earth
And peace its paths adorn.
I dream a world where all
Will know sweet freedom’s way,
Where greed no longer saps the soul
Nor avarice blights our day.
A world I dream where black or white,
Whatever race you be,
Will share the bounties of the earth
And every [hu]man is free,
Where wretchedness will hang its head
And joy, like a pearl,
Attends the need of all [hu]mankind—
Of such I dream, my world
I hope you have a dream though dreams are not always welcomed, just like Joseph, whose name means ‘add’ was an unwelcome addition to his family.Every institution or firm or church won’t hire dreamers as employees. But if you aren’t dreaming, you’re dead. So dream on when the stormy clouds of doubt begin to roll back into your life. Dream on when depression wants to take a summer vacation and recline in your heart and mind. Dream on when it seems like the only person cheering you on is you. Dream on when it’s hard to dance because it feels like the devil is on your back. Dream on because greater is he that is in you than he that is in the world. Dream on because God is not finished with you yet. Dream on because God will do more than we ask or even imagine. Dream on for nothing is impossible with God. Dream on.
I’m signing up for the Dream Team. And guess who’s the captain? Joseph.
The Rev. Dr. Luke A. Powery is the dean of Duke University Chapel and an associate professor of the practice of homiletics at Duke Divinity School. He was one of many featured preachers and professors at the 2014 Festival of Homiletics.