Sermon of the Week:
Those Who Dream–Keep Awake
First Sunday of Advent
Keywords: Dear Hank and John, Ryder the Aussie, Apocalypse, Keep Awake, Advent. #pcusa
Permission to podcast / stream the music in this service obtained from ONE LICENSE with license #A-733469. All rights reserved.
So, I want to give you all a bit of an update about our new-to-us dog Ryder
and talk a bit about a podcast that I listen to from time to time
a podcast called Dear Hank and John, hosted by the Green Brothers:
Author and Biologist Hank Green and young adult novelist John Green.
Some of you may have read one of John’s books
or follow Hank on Tiktok. More about them in a moment.
Ryder is our rambunctious one-year-old Australian Shepherd,
and I introduced him to you all back in the Spring in one of our sermons
when we were looking at this image in the Bible
where Jesus calls himself the Good Shepherd
and where the Psalmist says The Lord is My Shepherd, I shall not want.
I promise, we didn’t get Ryder, the Australian Shepherd,
just for the sermon illustrations.
But some of you have been asking me how he’s been doing
and the answer is that he’s doing just fine, thank you. Great, in many ways.
He’s a bit older now, a bit bolder, and he’s certainly made our house his home.
He fits in nicely with our other pup Annie.
He knows which chairs are good to lie around in.
He is such a lover, and he will lie for a spell in your lap
spread out awkwardly, all 40 pounds of him.
He will sometimes bark to tell us the neighbor dogs are out,
so if you hear him during the service, well, he can’t always help himself.
And, yes, I get frustrated with him from time to time.
He’s still really young, and he can be a lot,
particularly when we’re out on a walk and trying to get some of his energy out.
Oh, like most dogs, he LOVES to go on his walk.
See the sights.
Smell the smells.
And maybe, more than most dogs,
Ryder loves the squirrels.
He’s obsessed with the squirrels.
If they come close to our path, he’ll watch them, closely,
and more often than not, he’ll let them know we’re coming
with a bark or two or three
and a potent lunge on his leash.
At this point, let me ask:
Have you noticed, lately, that there are a LOT of squirrels this year.
Even before we brought Ryder home,
we noticed the extra squirrels in our neighborhood
and we had guessed that, well,
maybe that was because the pandemic had such an impact on driving, you know:
fewer cars on the road, people staying home for weeks,
and fewer cars meant fewer obstacles for the squirrels,
meaning maybe more squirrels,
meaning squirrels more for Ryder to see
as we try to go on a peaceful walk around town.
So that’s been annoying, if I’m honest.
I try not to get grumpy with him. I understand that he’s young, and that he’s learning.
And sometimes he gets it. Sometimes he’ll heed my ‘leave it’ command.
But he’s inconsistent, at best.
It is one of two things that he does on these walks that frustrate me so.
The other one is the way that he will try to eat all of the stuff that is on the sidewalk
as we mosey our way down the street.
Sometimes these are leaves, or worms,
but really he’s just pushing those things around looking for the good stuff:
Maybe Ryder secretly wants to be a squirrel or something,
because he eats those acorns like the best of them.
So that’s the detail that might help explain this story.
I was out walking Ryder and Annie this week on our last walk of the day.
Sometimes I take them out alone, after dinner, for that walk,
and we go a bit further than normal.
On these walks I often put in my earbuds and turn on something to listen to
so I can maybe take my mind off all the squirrel lunging and acorn eating
that I’m sure we’ll encounter.
That sounds so negative.
Let me stress that we love Ryder so much and
I love walking around with both of our dogs…
these are small potatoes
in the overall joyful collection of gifts that Ryder brings to the table.
But on this walk I fired up my podcast app
and started on the most recent Dear Hank and John[i]
because they’re silly and they try to answer the most interesting and innocent questions
like do planes that go from Chicago to India go over the Pacific or Atlantic oceans
(Answer, by the way, is that some of them go over the north pole)
and those are just the kind of mindless topics
that will take my mind off of Ryder’s scavenging
after I had worked the last two walks that day
to try to rid him of some of that.
He and I both needed a break.
And turning on that podcast mainly worked,
though I was thinking to myself how puppies can be hard
and how he’ll hopefully grow out of some of this
and how I’ll hopefully work to help him grow out of some of this, if I can,
and why are you still hungry after all that dinner you just had…
I was thinking all of that
when Hank and John started talking about something spectacular.
They were answering listener mail, and someone had written in to bring up
something that John had mentioned in an earlier episode,
an episode that I didn’t listen to,
where John was complaining about all the acorns on the ground in Indianapolis
so many acorns
he couldn’t walk outside, barefoot, because he’d step on them. Ouch.
And the writer mentioned to them that this was probably due to this being
what’s called “a masting year.”
Now, some of you might be botanists, and may know all about masting years,
but I had never heard of it.
And it kind of blew me away a bit.
Here’s how John talked about it:
Every few years all the Oak trees in an area
coordinate with one another to produce a ridiculous amount of acorns,
way more than the squirrels are able to eat,
so that the trees will have a better chance of reproducing,
then the next couple of years,
the trees will go back to normal production
and the squirrels will only get most of the nuts.
This also means that the squirrels have a really good year during masting
and then populations go down until the next masting year.
And this is one of the things about masting that kind of blew my mind (John Said)
when I read more about it…
(a) we don’t really know what is causing this exactly,
(b) it seems like large groups of Oak trees are able to communicate and coordinate
because there is no other explanation
for the varying distance between masting years
and (c) they seem to do this maybe, possibly,
at least in part
to control the population of mammals that eat lots of acorns.
They can’t have the same amount of acorns every year
because then they’ll all get eaten.
So we have to have some big years
and some little years
so that they can’t eat all of them in the big years
and then the (squirrel) population goes down in the little years.
Right, but it would be easier to understand if the trees were like
“yeah, so every three years we lay down a lot of acorns and then we go every two years”
but they don’t.
They don’t do that.
It’s much weirder and potentially more mind-blowing than that.
[The time between the years is irregular]
So that is why there are a gajillion acorns in Indianapolis right now,
and it also means that the oak trees are talking to each other…
Trees are amazing. (John continued)
They are evidence that the rule of life is not,
as we were told as children,
that only the strong survive and you must only compete to survive.
They are evidence of the fact
that collaboration and cooperation is also essential
to any form of life surviving.
But the side effect is that you definitely have to wear shoes outside all the time…
I was floored by this three-minute conversation,
after which Hank and John went on to talk about soccer and who knows what.
So what does all that tell me.
Well, first, it tells me that maybe I need to go a bit easier on pup Ryder.
There are all these extra squirrels out there, and all these extra nuts
and that’s not his fault.
It’s the Oak Trees.
That’s a big one.
Every day this week, since hearing this explanation,
I’ve enjoyed our walks so much more,
maybe because I’ve been a bit less critical of Ryder, a bit more understanding,
a lot more patient.
Just from knowing a bit more about what nature was doing all around me.
But that also tells me
that sometimes things are happening all around me
that I don’t have a full grasp of at all, you know.
That there is so much detail going on, everywhere you look.
Even in something as simple and ordinary as my evening walk with our dogs
there’s so much more going on,
Oak Trees talking with each other, coordinating and collaborating,
dropping a bunch of extra acorns this year
so that, next year, or the year after that,
after a few more lean acorn years
there will be fewer squirrely scavengers for them
so that some of them will make it,
to go deep down into the soil
where they’ll germ and take root and, if it all goes right, survive.
And behold, a new Oak Tree will blossom.
How amazing is that?
So, it was kind of as if something was revealed to me,
that I gained some new insight, some new understanding,
that re-oriented myself to my pup and my evening walks
and maybe to the beautiful trees that line our city streets.
Something like that is wonderful, when it happens,
a moment of insight, a eureka moment,
where things are a little bit clearer, a bit more relatable.
I don’t pretend that this answers everything about Ryder and his walks.
He and I still have more work to do together.
We need to have a talk about leaving those squirrels alone.
But I have more to work with, now.
And I’m more hopeful about the possibilities.
Something like that, in a way,
is what is intended by this biblical genre that we call apocalyptic literature.
That word ‘apocalyptic’ kind of weirds us out, I know.
Most of us associate apocalypse with the Book of Revelation,
which is a famous example of this sort of literature,
but there are other examples, some found other parts of the Bible,
like the book of Daniel, here and there in the Gospels,
and there are some examples from the time period that aren’t in the Bible too.
This type of writing draws heavily on symbolism,
and vivid imagery, to make its point,
and if you’re a fan of books and movies like The Lord of the Rings
or if you watched Game of Thrones, you’ll note that there are similar themes going on
in many modern-day fantasy and science fiction and steampunk and futuristic works.
And like all good stories, these are not meant to be simply make-believe,
they’re meant to convey a point, to share meaning through these symbols and vivid pictures.
They’ve inspired artists to paint some of the most powerful works of art.
They’ve led singers to create songs like the hymn we’ll sing in just a bit,
My Lord, What a Morning!
The word ‘apocalypse’ literally means to ‘take the top off,’ or ‘to reveal’
and if you can imagine a pot on the stove that you would take the lid off of to see what is inside
that’s another use of this verb, in the Greek:
You’d apocalypse the Instapot to get a good look at dinner…
That’s one reason that the name of the last book in the Bible, Revelation, is what it is,
because it was believed that, through that Apocalypse story, as told by John of Patmos,
something about God would be understood in a new way.
Now, we don’t time to get into that this morning.
The book of Revelation is an allegory about the Roman Empire,
and its oppression of the people,
and how God was working to make the world right,
to end the tyranny and the brutality of the emperor,
to bring peace to the land,
how eventually war and suffering and tears will be no more,
because God will make it so…
And even in that briefest of summaries you can see how incredibly powerful
that kind of message would be, could be,
to a people who were yearning for things to get better, yearning for the return of the savior.
Yearning for a new tomorrow.
That is the stuff of dreams, we might say.
The vision of a better world.
The hope of a new tomorrow.
We could pause here to recount some of what leads us to dream those dreams
but I don’t think we would need to look very far for that.
Here I’ll just offer the reflection of Dr. Marcia Riggs,
professor of Christian Ethics at Columbia Theological Seminary,
who wrote this about our reading for today:[ii]
This Advent season begins amid pandemic and protest.
We were not prepared for the dramatic shifts in our ways of living
as COVID-19 began its trek across the globe.
Many physical bodies have been ravaged and lives taken by this fierce virus.
Families, churches, schools, and employees have been scattered
from their gathering places into physical isolation.
Likewise, Black Lives Matter protests erupted in cities…
as Black women and men died again at the hands of police violence…
To begin Advent amid pandemic and protest
is a befitting point of departure for 21st century people of God.
We are reminded that to be the people of God
requires an ethical posture of attentiveness, to ‘keep awake.’…
As we light the Advent candle of Hope,
we keep awake by dreaming,
by envisioning how we will live out God’s promise to be with us.
We expect God to be with us
and to meet us on the other side of this pandemic and protest.
For the other side of pandemic and protest is not a return to ‘normal’;
it is living the hope of God’s continuing revelation of justice.
We do not know the day or the hour,
but we do know
as the African American poet Langston Hughes says:
Hold fast to dreams
For if dreams die
Life is a broken-winged bird
that cannot fly.
Dreams help us picture a world made new, a world put back together.
But Jesus also urges us to keep awake, to not get lulled into the sleeping-state
but to be attentive to what is real, all around us,
what is happening, all around us.
As people of faith, we believe that God is moving and shaking all around us
that God is there with us, during our most difficult days,
helping us make it through,
mourning as we mourn,
weeping as we weep,
even as she works for the day where crying and pain and hurt will be no more.
We can, and are, inspired by our dreams, by the visions of a better world that God gives us.
But we also must wake up, and carry those dreams with us in our day to day.
The fancy word for that time between the times is ‘liminal space.’
The leadership of The Kirk has been talking a lot about liminal space these days
the time between what has been, and what is coming next.
We all feel like this is an in-between time, don’t we?
And in such liminal space, anxiety goes up, certainty goes down,
and we all want something solid to grasp on to.
Sometimes that yearning to find something solid
leads people to grab the wrong thing, the easy fix, the unjust solution
just to get back to normal.
But we can avoid that if we latch on to the power of something bigger, something truer
a vision of what might be
the hope for a better day tomorrow.
We can avoid that if we stay awake,
and attend to the reality that is in front of us,
(learn the lesson of the fig tree now!)
grounded in the values that we’ve learned from our God
to love our neighbor, to seek justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with our God.
How long does the liminal space last?
The day or the hour, no one knows.
But the promise is that God walks with us,
and God will inspire those who keep awake
to do the true and the right and the loving thing
as we wait for the coming of our Lord.
God’s ultimate dream is to be intimately connected with God’s people,
to come down and dwell here, among us.
And so we share that dream, and because we understand it
maybe we can look around at this world of ours
and see something happening that we hadn’t noticed before
moments where people do a good deed for one another
moments where people stand up against racism
and for integrity and honesty
moments where forgiveness and reconciliation are possible,
because people decide that a peaceful future requires it.
May we, dear friends,
be people known to share God’s ultimate dream for our world
and also people who carry that dream into our waking hours
and may that vision of what might be
inspire a new reality to unfold in our lives
for our good
and for the good of the whole world.
May it be so.
[i] Dear Hank and John, Episode 266 “Doin’ My Work, Jerk.” https://dear-hank-john-a5cf29b8.simplecast.com/episodes/266-doin-my-work-jerk (accessed November 23, 2020)
[ii] “First Sunday in Advent: Those Who Dream…Keep Awake” Commentary for A Sanctified Art. Available at sanctifiedart.org (accessed November 26, 2020). The Langston Hughes citation is found in Hughes, Langston. “Dreams.” The Collected Works of Langston Hughes. Available at https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/150995/dreams-5d767850da976