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October 10th, 2021

Dreams and Reality
By Rev. Dr. Kristin Philipson

Psalm 126

October 10, 2021 – Thanksgiving Sunday

Do you remember what it feels like to dream?  I don’t mean to quietly problem-solve or to stew over a thing in our minds or to worry or to fret or to project-manage but to dream – to leave what is and to go and live for a while in what could be.  Or let me put it to you this way: do you remember what dreaming felt like before you’d made the acquaintance of Reality?  I can remember sitting in a classroom in a small desk, its wooden top filled with the grooves of initials made by previous occupants.  I can remember the harshness of the fluorescent lighting and how I would stare out the tall rows of windows to the world beyond.  Beyond those windows I imagined there was nothing that couldn’t be done, nothing I couldn’t do.  I can still feel the cool of the car window, my forehead pressed against it, watching the landscape whirring past, dreaming about what it would be like when I could plot out my own direction and where I’d want to go and what I’d want to see.  The future was always bright in my dreams.  Humans would clean up our act and the world would be green and peaceful.  I remember the wildness and freedom of dreaming in the years before Reality walked up and began to critique the image – you might want to tone it down here, Reality would say, use more muted colours there, temper your expectations.  Do you remember what it was like to dream before you’d made the acquaintance of Reality?  
    Psalm 126 is a poem written by a poet who knew what it was to dream.  The poet had grown up in a land that was actually described as flowing with milk and honey.  His people’s backstory was epic.  They were descended from nomads who had been enslaved in Egypt, but (the story goes) their God heard the cries of the enslaved and saw their affliction and toil and oppression and their God freed them from captivity, and led them, after 40 years of wandering, to the land in which they had been settled now for many generations.  The poet’s history was the stuff of legend – despots foiled, seas parted, a promised land.  Dreaming came easily to him and his people, until they were met with Reality.
    It was the time for Thanksgiving, a festival the Hebrew people called “First Fruits.”  Every year since before anyone could remember, between the time when the first blades of wheat sprouted green shoots to when the tall stalks were ripe for harvesting, the Hebrew people would gather a portion of what their field produced and make a pilgrimage to the temple in Jerusalem.  It was their way of offering thanks to God for God’s presence through all their life – the whole ritual was written down in the Book of Deuteronomy: “When you have entered the land the Lord your God is giving you…take some of the first fruits of all that you produce…and put them in a basket…and set it down in front of the altar of the Lord your God…and you shall rejoice in all the good things the Lord your God has given to you and your household” (Dt. 26:1-11).  The Hebrew people had done exactly that, every year since they’d arrived in the land, every year the feast of thanksgiving played out in the same way – every year, except for this year.  This year when the people went to fill their baskets they were met with an awful Reality: no green shoots had pushed through the soil in the spring and no stalks waited for harvesting in the fall.  The poet watched his people make their way to the temple empty-handed.  “When the Lord restored the fortunes of Zion, we were like those who dream,” he wrote.  But now they were acquainted with Reality.
    It happens to each of us, sooner or later, that our expectations are upended, that that on which we thought we could always count disappoints us, surprises us; that the world is all of a sudden not what we expected.  Blessing doesn’t materialize in the way we had anticipated and we stand, baskets empty.  Not all the time, but some of the time, it happens for us that it is hard to see and name the good things we have been given; they’re not apparent to us, like shoots that haven’t yet emerge from the soil and it’s our confidence that’s shaken.  When your hopes have been dashed, well, you don’t want to set them up so high again.  You’ve become acquainted with Reality and now your eyes can’t not see it; you can’t not see the reality of the passage of time and of mortality and you can’t not see the reality of challenge and you can’t not see the reality of pain.  That’s why the Hebrew poet had to look backwards – “Then our mouth was filled with laughter and our tongue with shouts of joy; then it was said among the nations, ‘The Lord has done great things for them.’”  
Thanksgiving when I was a child was always the same, every year it was the same, the same, the same – I couldn’t imagine any other Reality.  My parents would host our extended family and my mom would mash the potatoes and the cook the turkey and make the gravy in an enormous black and white speckled enamel pan, but the rest of the meal was potluck.  One person would bring a broccoli salad and someone else would bring sweet potatoes drizzled with butter and brown sugar, and my great aunt would always bring the most delicious cornbread, still warm when she arrived.  The kids would escape to the basement and the adults would laugh and the drinks would get refilled and we’d all have to undo the top button on our pants or skirt because of how much we’d eaten.  It was always the same, always the same, always the same but I remember the first year my great aunt wasn’t there and someone else in the family had to bake the cornbread.  Reality decided to drop in and pull up a chair at the table.  It’s our confidence that’s shaken and we yearn to have it back.    
My paternal grandfather met with Reality when he was very young.  He was only eleven years old when his father died and his mother had to move him and his siblings from the farm where they lived into town so she could find work cleaning houses.  Now there happened to be living in town at that time a woman who ran an ice-skating club.  I think she must have been acquainted with Reality, but her confidence wasn’t shaken.  She met my grandfather and invited him to join the skating club – I don’t think he’d ever skated before.  I think she saw the sadness in him but I think she also saw something else.  I think she thought the club would be good for him – and it was.  In Alberta in the 1940s ice skating shows were big entertainment in small towns and my grandfather got paid to put on ice shows and got paid to perform and he got paid enough that he could afford to go to University, which otherwise would have been impossible for his mother to afford.  Reality is not just that which shakes our confidence there is kindness in Reality, there is hope in Reality; Reality is infused with grace.
    I have a clematis plant in my garden.  It is special to me because it was a gift from my mother-in-law and I’ve had it now for more than a decade but this summer it looked like it had died.  It was just this mass of decaying and spotted leaves and dried stems and really, I had no illusions but I thought, well, let’s just try.  I pruned it down to its original stalk and when I was done all that was left was just one leaf dangling from a single stem curled tightly around the trellis.  Now I know you are all well-acquainted with Reality, but what do you think?  What do you think could happen?  This morning I counted upwards of thirty clusters, three leaves each – close to a hundred new leaves and right at the top of the vine, three new buds.  Reality shakes us, but reality is infused with an amazing grace.
    The year that their baskets were empty at the festival of first fruits the Hebrew people worried that there might actually be something – some state or some circumstance – that could undermine or overcome the love of their God.  But what the poet encouraged their faith, a deep trust that there is nothing – no state of being, no circumstance – that can undermine or overcome the love of God.  The poet sings of grace, not of a world cut off from Reality, but of the realness of God’s constant presence and care through all the Reality of life.  The poet told the people to look back at what God had done to help them to see what God was doing.  “Those who go out weeping, bearing the seed for sowing, shall come home with shouts of joy, carrying their sheaves.”
    We reap what we sow, that’s how the saying goes.  Plant peas and you will not harvest potatoes.  Plant carrots and you will not harvest corn.  But with humans it is not always so straightforward.  You go out into the field and in this particular season all that you have to plant are a bucket of tears, or a pile of regrets, or a mass of disappointment.  You dig the holes, push your index finger right into the earth past your knuckle, plant the sorrows, one by one, cover them again with earth.  Now according to our saying we can expect to see only one thing take root in the future – more of the same.  You reap what you sow.  We carry deep hurt, some of us, so deep we don’t think it possible to feel anything else and we don’t feel anything else, maybe for a number of years, and then it happens – alongside that feeling there is something new, a green shoot pushes up through the soil.  The impossible becomes possible.  You know, we don’t always reap what we sow.  How do you explain it?  The grace that permeates all of Reality?  The creative force inside each of us that is working, working, working, turning the soil of our hearts?
We have all met them, people who dead inside who find life and people who are hungering who find nourishment and people who are lost and are found.  The passage of time is real and our mortality is and the challenge and pain of living are real.  But also real is our courage and our rising and our recoveries and our learning and growing and possibility and our ability to change and do differently.  Healing is a part of Reality and opportunity is a part of Reality and forgiveness is a part of Reality.  We are accompanied, we find, through all of life by a strange grace.  We are not alone, begins the United Church of Canada’s New Creed; we believe in God who has created and is creating.  We bring even empty baskets to the table, because we carry in them the hope that they will be filled again.  I hope this tempers Reality for you and may this Thanksgiving see you grateful for dreams and dreaming, to leave what is and to go and live for a while in what could be, a new Reality.  May those who sow in tears reap with shouts of joy.  In life, in death, in life beyond death, God is with us.  Reality is infused with grace, and for this we are truly grateful.