Dreams and Promises

Sunday 21st July 2019
Year C, The Fifth Sunday after Trinity
Holy Trinity, Cuckfield
Genesis 41.1-16; 41.25-37
1 Corinthians 4.8-13

Either the river Nile flooded, or it didn't; either it brought water and nutrition-packed silt, or it brought nothing at all. It might fail for one year or, at the worst, two; but a seven year failure of the river was unheard-of. It must have been an almighty God who could bring this about for his own mysterious ends. He could have freed his Chosen People without any drama at all, without the years of famine, which brought Joseph to be second-in-command only to Pharaoh, and without the famous plagues; but the key is in our Reading where Joseph is the man to foretell what is about to come, not through the power of sorcery nor through his own power but through the power of his God. The narrative is longa and repetitive, emphasising respectively its importance and the need for accurate memorising. It is a story about God making and keeping his promises. This is an unfolding drama which the Jewish People have still not forgotten to this day and which we commemorate every time we celebrate the Eucharist. At the Last Supper the customary re-enactment of the Passover took place but on this occasion Israel was freed from its captivity of unfaithfulness when Jesus declared the New Kingdom in his life, death and Resurrection; and Jesus promised the same liberation to his followers, to us. And so, as we take the Eucharist we are making a short journey to the altar which began when Moses and God's people walked dry-shod through the Red Sea.

All this being said, granted that we are people of the Easter liberation, what can we say of our Christian condition? Are we in a period of fat years, or of lean years? Or, more likely as older people, do we see the fat years behind us and the lean years ahead or are we living with the lean years behind us, now in an Indian Summer?

If Justin Welby came to us and told us he had had a restless night, what would we tell him about our Church? A falling number of people who say they are Christians; falling church attendance; falling Sunday School and children's attendance; falling youth work and teenage interest; appalling child abuse scandals following centuries of sermons about sexual immorality, as if it were far more important than economic morality; public indifference, if not hostility; and the reduction of religion from a public witness to a private preference? None of what I am going to say cancels this terrible list of negative factors. All I can offer is a silver lining to the black clouds.

But it is a massive silver lining: the truth that our Creator God and Jesus God in history always keep their promises and that God's Spirit will never abandon us.

The consolation of depletion is that we do not know why we are where we are. We know where we have failed to an extent but we do not know where the Spirit wants to take us; and if we are too opinionated rather than listening, we are likely to fight' the last 'holy war', failing to learn from our history.

Here, then, is the silver lining. We should always be deeply conscious of the environment in which we live so that we can be more effective people but we should curb our inclination to judge and, even more so, to be thoughtlessly pessimistic. We are neither to be passive nor fatalistic; we are not condemned to ever leaner years in the future with the fat years behind us. We are to be attentive and thoughtful, to study and to pray, to listen more and to judge less.

There is more to interpreting dreams than the kind of accounts we find in our Reading or in fairy stories; we are learning to understand the way dreams work to file and find information, but their limitation is that they are deeply personal exercises in filing and finding; the difficulty of interpretation lies in our effort to understand otherness, difficult in life but even more difficult in dreams. There is also the linguistic problem that we confuse the two meanings of dream: one, the nocturnal filing and finding, the other the day-time declaration of an ideal which is the standard we apply when we think about our fat and our lean years; to what extent do these match up to our dreams?

They never will. All that we can expect is that we are, so to speak, living inside God's dream, not nocturnal but idealistic. We are here to interpret God's will for us and to try to be faithful to it. Never mind the external signs, the warnings, the gathering clouds, we must get on with our own lives in obedience to God, in imitation of Jesus, paying full attention to God's Spirit.

I want to end by returning to the idea of promise which cuts across our personal ideas of how we think our lives should work out. We have been promised, through the teaching, life death and Resurrection of Jesus that we, as his followers, will be united with him in the new, unified kingdom of heaven and earth; and we have no reason, quite apart from ideas of religious faith, to doubt the promise: the Old Testament is a faithful record of how God repeatedly kept and renewed his promise to the Chosen People; and in spite of the necessarily bewildered Gospel accounts of the Resurrection, the Gospel of John and the Letters of Paul confirm, through Incarnational perception, that God will keep his New Testament promises. The Bible is obscure in places but its unity on this point is unassailable. We may doubt the future of the Church, indeed the future of the world, but we cannot doubt that God will realise the ultimate purpose for which we were made.

Finally, another word about Joseph. He was, at times, just a little bit provocative and pompous, a bit full of himself with his coat and his gifts, but he always kept God at the front of his mind, in spite of his might in Egypt. We all have our faults but if we stick to God and the promise, we will be less obsessed with what seems to go wrong. Pessimism, after all, is really a product of pride; it says that we know best. But the whole story of salvation shows that we do not.