The Sixth Sunday of Easter
Pastor Manisha Dostert
My husband, Troy, reads a lot. And as a result we have lots of books in the house. There are books everywhere. There are books all over the floor. They’re on the ottoman. They’re on the couch. They’re just strewn anywhere we can find some room. We have more bookshelves in our house than we have places for you to sit. Some of the books are mine, but not all of them. Most of them are Troy’s. I even got him a Kindle, and he has 100 books on there, but the thousand books or so that we have in our house are just taking it over. There are times I admit that I look at the clutter, and I think I need to get rid of all these books, and then I remember the name of one of our favorite bookstores in Durham, North Carolina, Books Do Furnish a Room. So I think we’ve got our designer theme set in our house.
One of the advantages of having a spouse who loves to read and is a teacher is that often I learn about the content of a book without having to read it. I’ve come to really enjoy this for the 25 years that we have been married. We celebrated our anniversary this past Tuesday, and guess what we talked about? A book. The book that he is currently reading is called Death and the Afterlife. It was written by a philosopher named Samuel Scheffler. He is the professor of philosophy and law at NYU.
In Death and the Afterlife, Troy explained to me, he tackles the question about how we determine how to have meaning and purpose in our lives. What gives our life meaning and purpose? What to you makes your life meaningful? What makes it matter? Usually we would answer well it’s personal satisfaction or it’s being able to accomplish that which I hope to seek or it’s a sense of belonging or doing something for the good of the whole and so on. Troy explained to me that what Scheffler posited was a thought experiment. He said what if you lived a long life and you died of natural causes? Nothing was going to shorten your life at all. It was all going to be okay. You’re going to live long, but then after you died about 30 days later the whole world would be destroyed. What would change during your lifetime?
Troy said that if that’s the case, actually, meaning in our lives would change dramatically. All of a sudden, for instance, if you happen to be a cancer researcher, you’d be like what’s the point? There is not going to be any life after me, or would you even start to consider having children, or would you want to take care and be a good steward of the earth? There is just no purpose to it anymore. Scheffler comes to the conclusion that what gives our life meaning is not our own lives. It’s not the lives of those we love, but that in fact what gives our life meaning is that there is going to be life after we die. The afterlife, which means someone is going to be alive after you die.
It kind of calls into question why we do the things we do. Apparently, we don’t have careers or kids or seek justice in this world for ourselves. We do it because we believe that life on earth is going to continue, and it’s going to go past our deaths, and future generations are actually going to benefit from what we do even though we don’t know them. It was all very heady for my anniversary dinner. But when Troy was explaining this, what I kept thinking about were all the readings that we just had. All the scripture readings for today. Because in some ways, they were kind of asking and answering the same question. What gives our life purpose and meaning? Why do we do the things we do?
It came up with a very interesting and different response. Almost each and every one of the scripture readings we have have something to do with the future. Have something to do with what is to come, and they all kind of involve a dream or a vision that people have. A dream or a vision of what can be. To understand what gives your life purpose and meaning, you sort of have to think back to what have been your dreams? What is it that you hope to fulfill? What are some of the hopes that you have for the people in your life – your children, your grandchildren? And what happened when they did not get fulfilled as you hoped or expected?
In our first reading from the Book of Acts, Paul has a dream. He has a vision. He sees a man from Macedonia, that’s Greece today, and this man from Macedonia pleads with him, saying, come and help us. So Paul feels like that’s his purpose. That’s what he’s called to do. So what does he do? He gets up out of where he is in Asia Minor, and heads over to Europe into Greece. What’s interesting though is when he gets there he doesn’t meet a man. He meets a woman. And guess what, that woman isn’t even from Macedonia. She is not from Greece. She is from Asia Minor. She’s from Turkey. It’s a very roundabout way to get to see a person, and all of that is to say that your visions and your dreams they are from God, but they don’t always work out the way you think they’re going to work out.
That initial vision is from God in the first place. I think when we’re trying to find meaning in our lives, and we’re trying to find purpose and figure out what we’re supposed to do, it naturally leads us to dream. We dream about going to college. We dream about having a family. We dream about the way our children are going to turn out. We dream about getting the dream job and having a fulfilling career. We dream about retiring in peace, and we all have visions of doing something worthwhile in this world – making a difference. But our visions and our hopes and our dreams are not always on the mark. We thought it was going to be one way, and it ends up being quite different.
What have you dreamt of and hoped for for yourself and for others and found out that your dream didn’t quite come true? When I first felt like God was maybe calling me into youth ministry, I got all excited, and I began to dream. And I had this vision, and it was a vision of my kitchen table. Around my kitchen table were wide-eyed excited high school kids who wanted to come and read the Bible and eat cookies and have ice tea. I was so convinced this was from God. I told the whole youth group, I was like come to my house every weeknight. I’m going to have cookies, ice tea, and we’re going to read the scriptures together, and we’re going to learn about God, and we’re going to have amazing fellowship. It will be so much fun. That night three youth came. I was like, okay, well, let’s see. So I started to tweak it a little. Sometimes I’d provide pizza and everything. Consistently I had three young people come.
Then I thought, okay, I’m going to move it out of the house and take it to Panera, and we had four. About the same time I got a call from the diocese, and they asked if I would help lead a mission trip down to Mississippi and New Orleans to help with Hurricane Katrina work, and I said yes. I told the youth group, and we had 50 young people go with us whose lives were transformed. Every year since then for 13 years I have led a mission trip and watch young people absolutely fall in love with Jesus, and have their lives changed and transformed by that act.
It wasn’t quite the way that my vision said it would be, but God certainly opened up my heart and started me dreaming along the path that made me open to what God wanted to do. Here is what I am learning about life with this god. God gives you these dreams and these vision, and that is enough for you. You don’t need to know anymore. You simply have to hold onto God’s hands and trust that wherever you end up is where God wants you to go. I mean think about those first disciples of Jesus. They had a dream. They thought Jesus was the one, and Jesus was going to bring onto Earth the nation of all nations. He was going to restore the Jewish nation to what it should be and what it could be, which was a place where all were welcome, where all were fed, where the widows and the orphans were taken care of, where righteousness and peace ruled because they followed the rule and the law of the Lord God.
So they followed Jesus, these disciples, only to find out that Jesus was going to leave them. Now, granted, He sends the advocate, the Holy Spirit but that’s not what they had planned, and that’s not how they saw it. That wasn’t the dream that they started with, but it was the dream that God wanted to bring. So I have a new name for God. God is the dream shifter. You start with a dream and you walk with God, and reality begins to look a little different. The Bible is replete with stories of people who dream and follow their dream and everything goes south, or they take a detour or God makes something good out of it that they could have never planned.
Think of Joseph – Joseph who has 11 other brothers and Joseph who is the favored one of his dad, Jacob, and Joseph who has great plans of being able to rule over his brothers. I think he tells his brothers, and what do his brothers do? Well, they sell him into slavery in Egypt. So much for ruling over the brothers. And he ends up actually not just being a slave but he ends in jail in Egypt, and there while he is in jail he finds out that he has a gift to interpret what? Dreams. And Pharaoh has a dream that he doesn’t understand. He finds out that there is a main in jail who knows how to interpret them and up goes Joseph to not only interpret the dream but become the right hand of Pharaoh so that when the famine hits the land Joseph has already figured out how to make sure everybody eats including his brothers.
He says to his brothers, what you intended for harm God intended for good. You can never know where your dreams and visions are going to take you. You can only know that God will be with you wherever you end up.
I think about this as I go and visit our older population. Because they are in a different space and time in their lives. What is purpose and meaning when your body is failing you? Where do you find God working in your life or does God just use able-bodied individuals? I want to leave you with one last story from the Bible, and this is meant for all of us whose bodies are failing us.
It’s about a man named Simeon. He’s very old. In fact the only thing that Simeon can do is he can go to the temple. That’s it. And so he goes to the temple every day. He goes to the temple because he had a dream. It was a dream given to him by the Holy Spirit that he would see the Messiah before he dies. And so when Mary and Joseph show up at the temple with Jesus to present him, Simeon takes the baby, lifts Him up and blesses Him, and says, “My eyes have seen the Salvation of the Lord.” And then he looks at Mary and Joseph, and he tells them the truth. “You will suffer because of this child. A sword will pierce your soul also.”
Simeon makes a difference. He makes a difference by being there, by blessing, by giving a word of wisdom and truth, in love. And in the church, we call that the Ministry of Elders. There is wisdom and power that comes from you when your body is failing, and all you have is your dependence on God.
I remember then, when Troy and I were younger, and we were trying to have kids, and we weren’t very successful, we had had this older woman who came over to our house for dinner. And we were having a nice time, and randomly, all of a sudden out of the blue, she looked at both of us, and said, “God is providing for you, do not doubt.” And it was the words that we needed. We needed someone to say that to us.
I was once in a church that was failing, and we had to make a decision about what we were going to do. Were we going to keep going the way we were doing it, or were we going to try something different? And so we all met in a congregational meeting, and it was a difficult meeting, and sometimes it was a little contentious. There was much thought, much passion, and we weren’t getting anywhere until finally an elderly man stood up, and he said, “We know this God. Why are we afraid? We need to trust God.” And he sat down. And everyone unanimously agreed that we needed to move forward.
Do you know how powerful you are brothers and sisters when you’re weak in body, and strong in Spirit? In the end, none of us can predict what kind of impact we’re going to have in the world or not, and whether we’re going to make a difference. What Scheffler, the philosopher, cannot know without belief in the Triune God is that our meaning is not derived from humanity continuing, that there being lives after us. Our meaning is derived because God is working in humanity, and using us. So we only need faith that God is making all things new through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, and that we are participating in it in whatever way that God feels fit, whether the world continues or not.
So may you not be afraid to dream. And may you know that as you follow your dream, and the dream radically changes and shifts and becomes something you don’t even know or recognize that you are actually being faithful to the God who is changing this world. Amen.