Incarnation of Dreams

As I gaze out from the height of my perch – 7 feet above contradiction – I spy many familiar faces. Yet, what draws me are the faces of those I have not met, you who are visitors and our guests. Maybe you are drawn to wanting to come to a place of worship where you know you will get a good show. I don’t mean to be flippant about the need for a good show on Christmas eve, a time loaded with memories and associations from the past, where your hearts are lifted by the beauty of the music, your spirits resonate to the dignified rhythms of the liturgy, perhaps even where your  minds are engaged by the quality of the preaching – although you may want to reserve judgment on that for a moment. I want to say to you all, visitors, annually returning old friends, spiritual seekers, the Episcopal Church welcomes you!  Whoever you are, what- ever you think you believe or don’t believe, know that you are in good company here. SO welcome all, to Downton Abbey a world of bewildering, yet magnetic traditions.

For the Episcopal Church and in particular this Cathedral of the Holy Trinity, is the closest we shall come in the Phoenix of the 21st Century, to the spirit of Downton Abbey. If you have watched  Downton Abbey, now entering its third season you will have been drawn into a great drama. Downton Abbey, is an intersection in time and place where the ancient traditions moulded over centuries of English life are brought into a tension-filled engagement with the pressures and demands of a changing world.

In this place of tension between traditions handed-on and the demands of life as it is actually being lived, the inhabitants of Downton struggle to find a way of living that gives  new impetus and new energy to the traditions that have shaped them and from which it is impossible to escape.

The Episcopal Church,  the American expression of Anglican Tradition,  a transmission of the ancient catholic faith shaped by exposure to 1000 years of English culture, like Downton Abbey sits in the tension between the traditions we receive, which appear to have been crafted for another age, and the demands of life as we are actually living it in 21st century America.

America as a nation sits in the tension between the tradition known as the American Dream and the challenges of a rapidly changing world. The Episcopal Church, America’s best kept secret, welcomes you to life in the tension where the gritty struggle between faith and doubt, hope and fear, nostalgia for the past and terror of the future, continues producing the pearl that is God’s love for us.

Luke is the great historian of the New Testament. His Gospel places the birth of Jesus in historical time and place, yet it also comes to us across 2000 years of transmission. It depicts an enchanted world where God communicates through angels to shepherds, those who are on the margins of social acceptability. This is an enchanted world where the Creator of the Universe can be born as a baby, in a stable, in the most marginal of circumstances, and not only survive but be visited by wise men from the east.

For much of Christian history this story resonated so closely with the precarious vulnerability of the lives people actually lived, most in a similar rural poverty. It also resonated with the enchanted mindset in which God was experienced to be magically and mysteriously present in every aspect of the material world that surrounded human life. In this world of enchantment, God was never absent and people were never alone.

So how does this story resonate with us whose lives are lived amidst the urban and technological complexities of 21st century America? How does this story communicate to a people whose disenchanted mindset no-longer has room for the magical and mysterious presence of God at the level of material reality? In this disenchanted world, God seems to us largely absent. 300 years of Scientific progress has left us feeling alone, in a lonely, and potentially hostile universe.

It’s impossible for us to return to that enchanted mindset, no-matter how much we might wish to do so. Ours is not a world filled with the magical presence of God – 300 years of scientific rationalism has unalterably changed the way we think. Yet, human beings are still capable of imagination, we still dream.

The birth of Jesus is significant, not in the biographical details of Luke’s narrative, but because it still resonates with the deeper, imaginative dreaming parts of our lives.  The birth of Jesus is God’s dream coming to rest through its incarnation into the limitations of the world of human reality. It’s significance poses us with the question:- so what do we dream  that will not rest until it becomes incarnated in us?

We feel presently, that it is difficult to allow ourselves the luxury to hope and dream the answer to that question. All around us we see the signs of the world we once trusted and relied upon – disintegrating before our eyes.

We pull back in fear, no longer born on by the optimism that technological and economic progress will take us into a better world.  We live increasingly in fear that the Environment, which for so long has been seen by us as something to be tamed and mastered. Yet, as hurricane Sandy has just shown us the environment, now increasingly delivers what seems to us, a revengeful punishment as Sandy, struck at the heart of the country’s most urban and technologically sophisticated region. We seem newly vulnerability in the face of the power of nature.

It’s a striking coincidence that the name Sandy features also in the place Sandyhook. Here, we could be anywhere in America  and so recent events have plunged not only those intimately affected, but the whole nation into a deep collective suffering, the like of which has not been known in several generations.

We all live in this uncomfortable tension between the world that we came to trust and a newly uncertain future. Yet, the message of the Incarnation is that Dreams are nevertheless made real within the context of limitation and uncertainty.

God calls us to embrace the dream that is seeking to incarnate in us. Like God’s dream incarnated in the birth of Jesus, incarnation of our dreams happens within the limitations of our imperfect human lives. Propitious circumstances are not required for the incarnation of dreams.

Dreams are incarnated in us when we connect with our passions and dedicate ourselves to living passionately, with a compassion born from the realization we are interconnected and interdependent within the ebb and flow of a universe that is responsive to our dreams.

Our dreams are the most accurate reflection of the way the divine universe really functions. Life is not a plan – fixed and finished. Life is more like a dream, always evolving and in the process of becoming. Life is fluid ebbing and flowing around and in response to events and experience.

This is how it works. When we make all the resources of our dreams, our loving, our relating, our hoping and longing, our determination and our courage and especially our suffering and our fearfulness available for living, –  the resources of life flow to meet us. At points of suffering and disillusionment the tide ebbs only to gather and return with flowing fullness towards us.

The message of the Incarnation is that God operates within the limitations of human nature and human society. So then must we. When we allow ourselves to dream and give ourselves over to the pursuit of our dream then abundance is the gift of life to us who pursue the courage to live abundantly.

Tell us, what then should we do?

It’s been several weeks since my last sermon blog. I have been enjoying a rest after a solid three-month period of weekly preaching on the theme of discipleship. As I return to writing today, its early Saturday morning and as I settle to reflect on the thoughts concerning the Gospel reading for Advent III what is uppermost in my mind is yesterday’s tragic events in Sandy Hook elementary School.

The airways and internet buzz with analysis and comment. We feel sick to our stomachs as we identify with the grief of the parents, teachers, first responders, and of course, the children all caught up in this whirlwind of suffering. If past events are an accurate guide to the unfolding of analysis and comment over the days, weeks and months to come, the central question will be what can we as a society learn from yet another tragic mass shooting?

Opinion will polarize around two positions. Many will seek to build meaning out of meaninglessness by distinguishing this event to the deranged psyche of one individual. Still many others will seek to understand this event as a generalized symptom of an increasingly distressed society.

Polarizations stereotype real life. Between stereotypes there can never be agreement. Human beings stereotype real experience because this process offers the illusion of explanation and maybe even the more illusive illusion of  understanding. As rational beings, we need both explanations and understandings. These enable us to feel the universe can still be predicted in ways that leave us feeling safe. Our desperate need to feel safe leads us to passionately defend our stereotypes as if they actually provide us with the potential to learn from our experience.

Stereotypes posse a semblance of the real truth of a situation. This is their danger. They seem on the face of things to be the truth. However, they are encapsulations that distort the reality they claim to represent through simplification and generalization. Both the shooter and the shooting have been described as evil – by no less a personage than the Prime Minister of the Commonwealth of Australia. The stereotype of evil is simply a way of saying the motivation and the act challenge understanding. To describe an act as evil closes-off any possibility of comprehending the meaning and restricts the potential for there to be any learning from experience!

To paraphrase Freud, experience that we cannot learn from is experience we are destined to repeat. My own background in Psychoanalysis confirms for me a truth that seems to be hard to learn. The only way we can begin to set ourselves free from the dark forces of our individual and collective unconscious is to allow that which can’t be thought about, and so, continues to be acted out, to become thinkable.

Our current difficulty as a society remains to allow the unthinkable to become thought. We can only allow this process to emerge if we resist our need to stereotype. The result is that we sit with complexity without the comfort of simple explanations. Only then might we begin to really learn from our collective experience.


The Gospel reading from Luke appointed for Advent III comes to us across 2000 years of transmission. We receive it as a stereotype. For us we have a mental picture of John the Baptist, dressed in a coat of camel-hair cursing and  cussing-out the sheep-like crowds who flock to him. We have an image of hordes running out through city gates and traversing the rocky desert terrain to arrive at a place in the wilderness. Here, they yearn to hear what they hope will be John’s simple and uncompromising answers to the complex anxieties that fill their daily lives. Wilderness is not only the location of meeting John, it is also symbolic of where their lives are lived.  The crowds revel, taking masochistic comfort from John’s firebrand style of collective verbal flagellation.

Although the crowds attending John are a mixed lot, Luke offers us an interesting profile of them. Once we get beneath our stereotype of the scene, we note Luke’s profile of the crowd. We see tax collectors and soldiers among the throng representing the powerful amidst the powerless, the exploiters among the exploited.  Within the collective of the crowd, all come together to seek answers to the challenges of their lives.

The crowds who throng to John represent a conquered society disintegrating under the pressures unleashed by the destruction of the traditional checks and balances through which Jewish society has traditionally governed itself. For us this would be the equivalent of an invader abolishing our form of government, straining our society to the point where the mechanisms of  civil society begin to unravel, i.e. the law, organized religion, education, economic regulation, the social contract.

The tax collectors are private entrepreneurs who buy the right to collect the tax owed to Rome. This is a lucrative franchise which allows several layers of middle men to add their inflated commission to the baseline tax. Not only do the people resent paying the tax to their Roman oppressors, but they also resent being additionally exploited by the tax collectors who, after-all are their fellow Jews. Occupation pits Jew against Jew. Likewise, the soldiers are the local thugs working security detail. They are the hired muscle used to intimidate the ordinary people. They practice free-lance intimidation and extortion of their own. Occupation pits citizen against citizen.

Luke identifies John as an Essene-like character. The Essenes, are known to us as a radical sect who sought out an alternative lifestyle in the back-blocks of the Idaho of Judea. We think they are the authors of the scrolls found at Qumran. Whether John was an Essene or not, we can’t really know. However, for Luke and for us, John represents the last of the great Hebrew Prophets. In times of crisis people rush to embrace the prophet’s uncomfortable message only to later disregard it when times improve.

John employs the ritual vocabulary (brood of vipers etc) of the prophetic genre and we can assume this would have been understood as the convention of prophetic speech, by his hears. However, the focus of his preaching is upon announcing the coming of Jesus as Messiah. He calls his hearers to prepare for the Messiah’s arrival. In answer to their question: what then should we do?, John abandons his ritualized prophetic language and addresses each category of questioner before him with surprising intimacy.

To the ordinary people he exhorts them to relationships of mutual support. To the tax collectors he exhorts them to ethical practice. To the soldiers he exhorts them to cease extorting their fellow citizens through force and to be satisfied with what they honestly earn. As we penetrate beneath the stereotype of our image of a first century Judean scene we find the question asked by the crowd becomes our question also – what then should we do?


Earlier this week I had an email from someone who has been attending the Cathedral fairly frequently over the last couple of months. In the email this person, with some sadness, reported that with the exception of the Greeters and the Clergy not one person from the congregation had spoken to them. We need to take this person’s experience to heart and I would like to invite us to wonder together about what this tells us about our community.

Episcopal Churches have an appalling record of welcoming strangers. I have shared with you some common jokes about Episcopalians and money – like: we give till it hurts- pity we have such a low threshold to pain. There are also jokes about the quality of our welcome. All our churches have a sign outside that says: The Episcopal Church Welcomes You!- and the joke is: as long as you are like us. Another rather shocking aphorism runs: Everyone who needs to be an Episcopalian, already is. I don’t believe these witticisms in anyway reflect our actual attitudes at Trinity. In actuality we are a community of spiritual refugees. We are a warm community that welcomes diversity and intends to be a place of welcome for new people. However, it seems that our intention and our practice are out of sync.

So what then should we – the people of Trinity Cathedral- be doing?  The answer this morning is to be a source for God’s expression of welcome to everyone whose path directs them to come through our doors. Through the warmth of our smiles, our readiness to speak to the visitor, our sensitivity that gently allows the newcomer to find their own level of comfort while leaving them in no doubt of our delight they have found their way to worship with us – we provide the human connection. While the visitor to our worship battles with the unfamiliarity and complexity of our liturgical expression, it’s the human connection of welcome that supports them as they explore the experience of being drawn to our Anglican transmission of historic Christianity.

Blog at

Up ↑