Acting on our dreams
Ordinary Sunday 3: 27th January, 2013
Rev'd Dr Hugh Kempster, Vicar of St Peter's, Eastern Hill
One night Rabbi Isaac was told in his dream to go to faraway Prague and there to dig for a hidden treasure under a bridge that led to the palace of the king. He did not take the dream seriously but when it recurred four or five times he made up his mind to go in search of the treasure. When he got to the bridge he discovered to his dismay that it was heavily guarded day and night by soldiers. All he could do was gaze at the bridge from a distance. But since he went there every day the captain of the guards became suspicious and came up to him one morning to find out why he was there. Rabbi Isaac, embarassed as he was to tell his dream to another soul, told the captain everything for he liked the good-natured character of the man. The captain roared with laughter.
"Good heavens!" he said, "You are a Rabbi, an intelligent man, and you take your dreams so seriously? Why if I were stupid enough to act on my own dreams I would be wandering around in Poland today. Let me tell you one I had last night that keeps recurring frequently: A voice tells me to go to Cracow and dig for treasure in the corner of the kitchen of one Isaac, son of Ezechiel! Now wouldn't it be the most stupid thing in the world to search around in Cracow for a man called Isaac and another called Ezechiel when half the male population there probably has one name and the other half the other?"
The Rabbi was stunned. He thanked the captain for his advice, hurried home, dug up the corner of his kitchen and found a treasure abundant enough to keep him in comfort until the day he died.
Anthony de Mello, The Prayer of the Frog, vol. 2 (1989), p. 237
Dreams, intuition, faith, religion; like the captain at the bridge, so many in our society today seem to see these things as ridiculous, irrational, laughable. And yet what treasures they miss out on as a result; treasures right under their nose.
You may well have read the neurologist Antonio Damasio's wonderful book Descartes' Error (1994). In it he critiques the mind/body dualism of our modern world, tracing it back to Rene Descartes and the seventeenth-century rationalists. In his book Damasio posits a "somatic marker hypothesis" arguing that it is our body and our emotions that shape our behavior and decision making as much as our rational thought. We often have a gut feeling about someone or something, and think or act accordingly; we follow our heart, and so on.
Rabbi Ralph Mecklenburger is a theologian with an interest in the interface between neuroscience and religion. In his recent book, Our Religious Brains (2012) he grapples with this post-Cartesian tension between the rational and the intuitive in religious experience. He notes that we often intellectualise our religious activities — we critique the sermon, the performance of the servers, the accuracy of the pew sheet, or the appearance of the person in the pew opposite — but at times something else also happens. He writes (p. 53):
At some point we sense something more, a shift in subjective feeling, a breakthrough, spirituality. At that point some would say, and some would not, that we are sensing God . . .. What is happening neurologically? Emotion is always there, at least in the background, but I suggest that when a surge in positive emotion is triggered by an experience, to the extent that it breaks through powerfully enough to become conscious, we experience the moment as different, special, set aside — the root meaning of the Hebrew kadosh, "holy." This experience associated with religion comes to be felt as spiritual. We become excited or awed, feel connected to community, traditions or even God.
This is real, whatever meaning we attach to it, and for many of us this is why we come to church, or pray each day, or undertake social service.
In the Book of Nehemiah we hear of one such communal spiritual experience. The book is probably drawn from the historical memoir of Nehemiah, an entrepreneur who in the fifth century B.C.E. secured Persian finances and the political will to rebuild Jerusalem that had been left in ruins by Nebuchadnezzar. In the midst of this physical rebuilding there is a spiritual rebuilding of the faith community. The people gather in one of the squares and call for Ezra the scribe to read to them from "the book of the Law of Moses." It is dawn. The scribe stands on a wooden platform, opens the ancient scroll, and begins to read and interpret the text. In essence he is preaching a sermon. People begin to weep as the words are read, tears of grief and joy, the pain of exile and the hope of return.
How long do you think he spoke for? My homiletics lecturer at theological college suggested that an Anglican sermon should last for 12 minutes. In some churches the preacher might go on for half an hour. According to Nehemiah, Ezra spoke for about six hours, from dawn to midday. And I imagine it was the people who insisted that he keep on reading. It was a powerful communal religious experience. Truly kadosh, "holy"; and as foundational as the physical rebuilding of the city that was going on around them.
In today's gospel there is an echo of this experience as Jesus stands to read in his home synagogue. Just as Ezra read from the scriptures, so Jesus took up the scroll and began to read, this time from the prophet Isaiah:
The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord's favour.
You could have heard a pin drop. It was one of those kadosh moments. The ancient words came to life on Jesus' lips. Here the priorities of Jesus ministry are laid out: good news for the poor, release to the captives, recovery of sight to the blind, liberation for the oppressed, an outpouring once again of God's favour on his people.
As we begin a new year at St Peter's, what are God's words to us? What are the priorities that God would set out before us? Last year we worked hard at developing a Mission Action Plan: Growing in God's Love. Most of you should have your own copy, but there are some spares at the back of church. Already this year there are new initiatives underway around the six target areas we identified: worship, incorporation and pastoral care, Christian education and spiritual growth, services to the disadvantaged and mission outreach, stewardship and communication. It is a way forward that I hope everyone can be involved in, and a vision that I am sure will grow and take on a life of its own.
I pray that we will listen to our dreams this year and act on them; that we will foster a spirit of openness to kadosh experiences; and that the God of Nehemiah and Ezra, the God of Jesus of Nazareth will bless us all abundantly in our faith journey this year. Amen.
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St Peter's Eastern Hill, Melbourne Australia.