Dreams Are True – September 30, 2018

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Sermon Preached by the Reverend Peter Thompson
St. Paul’s on the Green, Norwalk, CT
Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost
September 30, 2018

Numbers 11:4-6,10-16,24-29; Psalm 19:7-14

Let us pray.
Take our lives and let them be
Consecrated, Lord, to Thee;
Take our moments and our days,
Let them flow in ceaseless praise.

Every visitor to Orlando or Anaheim knows that “a dream is a wish your heart makes” and that “when you wish upon a star, your dream comes true.” If you prefer Judy Garland to Mickey Mouse, perhaps you think more about “somewhere over the rainbow, way up high” where “skies are blue” and “the dreams that you dare to dream really do come true.” The characterizations of dreams made in the songs and movies of the early twentieth century may sound reductionist and trite to our sophisticated twenty-first century ears. However, in describing dreams as expressions of our deepest desires, they fascinatingly reflect the views of the eminent psychiatrist Sigmund Freud, who famously believed that dreams serve as venues for wish fulfillment. Dreams, he claimed, allow dreamers to experience, if only in their minds, what it is like to achieve the outcomes that they want.

Unlike Walt Disney, Freud did not think that every dream experienced in sleep should be realized in waking existence. Some of the wishes expressed in dreams, Freud thought, are quite immoral and destructive, and it is good that they are not translated into physical actions. “The virtuous man,” Freud wrote, “contents himself with dreaming that which the wicked man does in actual life.” Freud also acknowledged that the connection between a dream and its underlying wish can be a convoluted one; the fundamental wish that motivates a dream might disguise itself well within the dream and appear to be something very different. Yet regardless of a dream’s  complexity and regardless of whether, from an ethical perspective, any dream should come true, Freud believed that all dreams depicted events that people at some level wished would come true. For Freud, a dream was the embodiment of desired possibility.

Freud’s colleague Carl Jung disagreed. Jung conceived of dreams not as expressions of a person’s hoped-for future but as reflections of a person’s very real present. “Dreams are impartial, spontaneous products of the unconscious psyche,” he explained, “outside the control of the will. They are pure nature; they show us the unvarnished, natural truth.” Dreams, in other words, do not satisfy longings; instead, they showcase facts. Dreams are not trivial, ephemeral entities that might come true in a hypothetical, idealized world; dreams are significant, widespread phenomena that reveal what is true in this world already.

In the Bible, God uses dreams to converse with human beings. God asks Solomon what he would like to receive in a dream; an angel announces to Mary’s husband that she will bear Jesus in a dream; God tells the Magi to go home a different way in a dream. Even the Bible’s more abstract dreams—dreams involving oblique symbols that must be interpreted by those skilled to do so—contain embedded messages for those in power from the divine. In the Bible, dreams are not useful, more remote ways to experience the fulfillment of one’s wishes and desires. Instead, dreams proclaim what is true; they are instruments of communication.

In this morning’s reading from Genesis, God uses a dream to communicate with Jacob. Offering the splendid image of the dust of the earth to describe the great number of Jacob’s descendants, God tells Jacob that the divine presence is with him and will stay with him wherever he goes. Such a marvelous depiction of the future may reflect Jacob’s long-held desires, but Jacob does not dream of this future directly; Jacob dreams that God is telling him about this future. The primary purpose of Jacob’s dream is not to provide him with an opportunity to express what he wants. The primary purpose of Jacob’s dream is to facilitate communication between Jacob and God, to help Jacob hear the truth that God has to say.

This morning’s second reading, from the Revelation to John the Divine, may not fit strict definitions of the term “dream”— it may not, for example, chronicle events the author witnessed while asleep. Nonetheless, Revelation is a vision rather than a straightforward history: it makes use of dreamlike elements—dramatic, fantastical imagery that would appear out of place in our everyday waking lives. As with Jacob’s dream in Genesis, the book of Revelation seems, at its core, to be descriptive rather than aspirational. After all, how many of us would wish for war in heaven, for a major confrontation between the dragon and the angels? The author of Revelation, I suspect, did not harbor great hope for a violent confrontation between good and evil. Instead, he faithfully communicated to others the truth that was communicated to him—the truth that evil exists and clashes often with the good, even if the good eventually triumphs.

There are indeed happy endings to both Jacob’s dream and Revelation’s vision of a war in heaven, but neither Jacob’s dream or Revelation’s vision are scenes worth desiring above all others. The eventual proliferation of Jacob’s offspring like the dust of the earth is far more impressive than the mere promise of it, while peace without war is much more appealing than peace after war. Jacob’s dream and Revelation’s vision do not depict states of nirvana because the ultimate goal of dreams and visions is not to present a picture of perfection. The ultimate goal of dreams and visions is to communicate the truth.

It can be difficult to accept the truth that dreams provide. When we’re awake, most of us never see a ladder ascending up to heaven; most of us never hear God talk to us; most of us never witness a battle between a dragon and angels. And yet when we sleep, our dreams and visions do not restrict themselves to the rules we would prefer to dictate to them, to the laws of logic and reason that govern uncompromisingly our physical existence. Contemplating the gap between the “real” world and our dream world, we suppose that what we see in our dreams is all just in our head, that if we know what’s good for us we should not let our imaginations go so wild, that if we impose just enough order again our fantasies will all disappear.

Towards the end of J.K. Rowling’s long Harry Potter saga, Harry almost dies in a conflict with Voldemort. Finding himself in limbo between life and death, Harry re-unites in a version of London’s King’s Cross station with his former headmaster and mentor Albus Dumbledore, who had already died. Together they talk through Harry’s current situation and Dumbledore shares with Harry some important information about the past. Altogether, it is an incredibly meaningful encounter. And then, right before Harry leaves to return to the living world, Harry says to Dumbledore, “tell me one last thing…is this real? or has this been happening inside my head?” “Of course it is happening inside your head, Harry,” Dumbledore responds. “But why on earth should that mean it’s not real?”

Dreams happen inside your head and they are real. They violate the laws of nature and they communicate timeless truths. Like the ladder of the angels that traverses the distance between heaven and earth and like the angels themselves who carry messages from God to people, dreams travel the distance between God and humanity. As you lie down to sleep tonight and leave behind the world of reason to embrace the world of dreams, remember that God will speak to you there if you open your mind enough to listen.


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