While We Sleep
Based on Genesis 28:10-19a, Psalm 139, Romans 8:12-25, Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43
My father worked hard his whole life. Married at 19, three children by age 25, holding down a job as a letter carrier in Minnesota back in the days when everyone sent everything through the Post Office. Back in the days before FedEx, UPS, et cetera, the P.O. was the only game in town. Dad worked especially long and hard from just after Halloween until Christmas Eve. Extra mail volume in the form of catalogs and magazines, holiday cards and party invitations, along with all the usual monthly mail meant that my dad left the house before dawn and returned long after dark. For much of my formative years, my dad carried all that mail out of his mail truck on his shoulder through any weather and 6 months of Minnesota winter. It was no wonder then that on Sunday mornings at church, my dad would most often doze off during the sermon. Not sure that during that time of life, dad ever heard a sermon fully awake – I know some of you can relate.
One of the foundational moments of my spiritual journey was being led to participate in a year-long program of spiritual deepening through the Shalem Institute. Shalem is an organization that teaches contemplative spirituality practices and disciplines to everyday seekers. The full group was made up of some 20 persons from all walks of life and religious doctrines – including one practicing clergy who was a chaplain at Virginia Tech. One of the key components of this program were two whole group week-long retreats.
The whole retreat group gathered in a large room the first morning and proceeded to engage in some opening worship. After that we did the requisite ice-breaker introduction exercise before entering into a time of guided meditation and silence. During this time of prayer, a couple of the folks who lived very busy lives relaxed enough that they fell asleep. When the bell rang and we all came back out of our silent reflection and connecting with God, those that had fallen asleep were chagrined and apologetic. The leader of the reflection time simply said to them, “What makes you think that God needs you to be awake?”
Our scriptures today speak to us about how God is active in all parts of our lives – waking and sleeping. When we are attuned to God in every moment, we should not be surprised that God speaks to us through dreams just like God does through the events and people in our awake time. Let us go to God now in thanksgiving that waking, sleeping, or somewhere in between, God is always with us…
The Apostle Paul continues to speak to the believers in Rome about living a life of adoption by God through the Holy Spirit. In baptism, we are supposed to have died to our worldly-focused selves and been reborn in the Spirit-empowered life. Through this life we are connected to God as God’s beloved children and heirs to God’s kingdom. Along with all of creation we await in patient hope for what we do not see but fully expect – God’s fulfillment of God’s promises for a world of shalom.
Jesus tells another sower parable to the assembled crowds and then interprets the parable for the Disciples. Jesus explains that the parable is about the coming kingdom of God. In this in-between time we live in a world where justice and injustice, evil and good are experienced together. Jesus speaks of the anticipation of the final coming of God’s kingdom where justice shall reign and evil will be once and for all times removed. The fruitful children of God will be gathered with God while those who have chosen to do the works of evil will be relegated to another group characterized by fire, weeping and gnashing of teeth.
Our readings from Genesis and Psalm 139 remind us of the imminence of God. There is no where we can be that the Spirit of God is not already there, sings the Psalmist. God knows all about us and knows what we are about to think and say before we do. In verse 18, after contemplating the thoughts of God, the writer awakes to find that he is still with God and the Psalm ends with asking God to lead us in the eternal way. Jacob, traveling to Haran to find a wife and to escape the wrath of his brother Esau, lays down for a night’s sleep. During this time, Jacob has a dream where he sees the angels of the LORD walking up and down a ramp connecting the heavens and earth. Jacob sees El Shaddai on the ramp and God speaks to Jacob, repeating the promise that God made to his grandfather Abraham. God speaks of guarding Jacob and returning him to this place so that God’s promise may be fulfilled. Jacob awakes, full of the knowledge that God is in this place – that this is Beth-el, the house of God. Jacob builds a pillar of stones and blesses it with oil to mark the sacredness of this place of God-given dreams and promises.
The average person sleeps approximately one-third of their life. Out of that sleeping time, about 25% is spent dreaming – this amounts to about 6 years of our overall lives spent in this liminal state where we respond to things in our brains. Of note, in our awake time, almost 50% of that is spent in daydreams! Dream researchers report that people from all over the world frequently dream while sleeping about being chased, being attacked, or falling. Other common dream motifs include feeling frozen or paralyzed, arriving late, flying, and being naked in public. People of all religious beliefs often report having God direct them through their dreams. Has this ever happened to you? Maybe you had been struggling with an issue at work or in a personal relationship, maybe you were considering a job or life change, maybe you were stuck and in need of direction in your life, maybe you were in need of honest self-reflection. Some or all of these are moments where God might just take the opportunity to guide you.
A dear friend of mine was working away at his job – a good job at a bank. He had a wife and young children, but he had begun to feel that God was calling him to a different vocation. In his dreams, he began to encounter walls blocking his way. At first the walls were relatively low and easy to get over. However, as time went on, the walls became higher and broader – they became impossible to get over or around. My friend would wake up frustrated because he could not get where he felt he had to go in his dream. After one especially frustrating dream night, he mentioned his dream to his wife. She told him that God was telling him it was time to leave the bank and enter the ministry – that God was erecting barriers to his current path to get him to go where God desired him to go. He has been in ministry ever since.
Both the Psalmist and Jacob discovered that there was no place that they could go that God was not with them. Jacob was in the wilderness on his way to Haran to find a wife. There was nothing special or sacred looking in the place he found himself as night overtook his journey. He decided to lay down in that non-descript spot and get some sleep. In his sleep, Jacob discovered the truth that God is everywhere. Though Jacob’s life up to that point had been focused solely on Jacob, God informed him that there was a bigger role in God’s plan for him and his descendants. God tells Jacob that God is with him and would protect and bring him safely back to the land on which he lay dreaming. Jacob awakes and utters the truth, “…Indeed, the LORD is in this place, and I did not know….”
Indeed, the LORD is in this place and every place. Even the times where we cannot feel the presence of God or when our prayers are like the dust of the wilderness – still God is with us. God comes to us wherever God can get our attention. Given the level of noise and distraction in our current lives, it is no wonder that God often comes while we sleep. In sleeping we are disconnected from the senses that normally make the world coherent. We are not distracted by blue screens or activities – we are available and present in ways that only the contemplatives among us understand. Maybe my dad was not just exhausted in church, maybe he realized at some level that God did not need him awake to hear God’s plans. While I don’t promote sleeping through my sermons, I am certain that God will speak into your lives in many and varied ways. In the days to come, while you daydream or sleep, ask God to visit you and speak to you of God’s dream for you. No matter where you are, don’t be surprised when God shows up speaking of God’s dreams for you. Thanks be to God, amen!