Unification News for January 1999

Dream the Dream, Talk the Talk, Walk the Walk

by William Denn -- Albany, NY

This is from a sermon given Dec. ’98 at the Albany, NY Church.

There is only one God. But there are several major world religions. Each describes its understanding of God, but these descriptions differ substantially from one another.

There is only one Jesus, but there are over 400 denominations of Christianity. How do we know we’re following the correct denomination? There are substantial differences among them. My view is that we should respect the different views to be found within the Body of Christ, while we carefully, prayerfully examine our conscience and choose the one which feels and appears right to us! In today’s sermon, I will examine one man’s method for resolving this contradiction.

Joseph, the fiancé of Jesus’ mother, belonged to a religion, a belief system in which babies should only be conceived by properly married husband and wife. To do otherwise violated the laws of Moses, the great deliverer, the man of God par excellence. To conceive a child out of wedlock violated the will of God as Joseph had heretofore known it.

Joseph was a righteous man and wanted to do God’s will. However, for him, God’s will seemed to change in the course of one night’s sleep, through one dream. Disturbed to discover his fiancé pregnant by someone other than himself, he went to bed believing that he should "divorce her quietly."

How noble! He wanted to protect her from disgrace and a possible execution by stoning. He would accomplish this by marrying her but then quietly divorcing her. Marrying her was to protect her, divorcing her would have been to protect himself -- from a bad marriage, and to exonerate himself from responsibility for an illegitimate child not his own.

But that careful and painfully thought-out plan was challenged by one dream. The passage, from Matthew 1:18-20, tells that in his dream, an angel told Joseph that he should not be afraid to marry Mary because the baby she conceived was from the Holy Spirit of God. Joseph’s religious views were challenged by this dream. He awoke that day and revised his religious view based on the dream of the previous night.

How many of us here today have the courage to change our fundamental and deeply-held view based on a dream? How many of us have the faith necessary to do that? Do you believe that God can communicate to you in a dream?

Joseph had to answer this difficult question. I hope you don’t think that this was an easy decision for him. If you do, then you deny him the great courage he showed and the risk he took.

It can be risky to follow our conscience, to acknowledge God’s will as it is expressed to our personal heart of hearts. For Joseph this dream and its message obliged him to challenge a deeply held viewpoint regarding morality at the most intimate level of his life and destiny. His decisions had great personal and historical consequences.

Joseph’s decision to honor that dream angel forever shaped his destiny. He denied common sense, altered his religious code, and took a leap of faith. To do otherwise would have betrayed his religious inspiration. But it was a choice only he could make. God never forces us to do His will. In so doing, Joseph assumed the honor and position of the earthly stepfather of the Messiah.

What makes this kind of personal deliberation especially painful is that, what feels right to you may not seem right to me. We don’t directly experience one another’s dreams. Joseph had no one to blame or praise for his decision other than himself. Ultimately, the most important decisions you will make are between you and God.

Sometimes we would like to escape making important moral decisions by escaping into convention and orthodoxy. The problem with this approach is that God sometimes asks us to be unconventional and unorthodox. This was certainly the case for Joseph.

A mob leader, accused of capital crimes, was convicted largely on testimony from his own friends and accomplices. The cops weren’t so surprised; they see that kind of thing often. Everybody is trying to save their own neck when the law finally grabs them and the loud clang of jail cell doors strikes fear into their hearts.

The investigation went well for the police. They were even able to infiltrate the gang and hire one of the mob lieutenants to be a snitch, an informer. The arrest was only a little more difficult. The snitch set up a meeting, so police knew for sure that the mob leader would be there. Surprise was on their side, and resistance to the arrest was minimal.

One of the arresting officers sustained a head injury which required care. Fortunately, someone at the scene was able to give quick care and the arrest ended quickly. In fact, it went so well that no overtime was needed. The arresting officers appreciated that, because it was a holiday and everyone wanted to get home to their celebrations.

A careful examination of this arrest and conviction revealed more than the crimes of individuals, however. The failures were those of society itself. Some people complained that to say this was nothing more than a bleeding-heart liberal effort to exonerate criminals for their wrongdoing. But in this case, I think it was absolutely true. Society failed completely!

One of these bleeding-heart liberals researched the mob leader’s life and found a sad story. He was an unexpected child, born into difficult circumstances: poverty, a bad neighborhood, a lack of social and economic mobility. As a youth hew showed intelligence and sensitivity, but without opportunity he ended up doing manual labor and odd jobs, whatever it took to pay the bills and get by.

Who knows what would have happened if caring people of responsibility and affluence had recognized his potential and encouraged it with nurturing and higher education. But that didn’t happen. Street people recognized his potential and responded to him with as much loyalty as they were capable. However, this quickly took on the appearance of a gang, as it was largely composed of uneducated, street-savvy hustlers (i.e., unsavory types of people more skilled in just surviving than in art, or academia or the professions).

Government officials were not altogether clear about the socioeconomic forces at work here, but then again they didn’t really care. Nobody likes gangs -- not the police, not civic and not religious leaders. After all gangs are hard to control. Gangs are a threat to law and ordernot the police, not civic and not religious leaders. After all gangs are hard to control. Gangs are a threat to law and order -- they endanger society and breed unrest and possibly violence.

Prison officials looked forward to the scheduled execution, not because they were vicious people, but in the hopes that civil unrest and rioting by the street people might be avoided. They were surprised, however, that after the execution, the prisoner remained the focus of attention for the street people. Even more surprising was that some businessmen and respectable people became involved in the issues surrounding the executed prisoner’s life and gang activities.

Even years later, his imprisonment and execution became a cause célèbre. In fact, this executed prisoner became famous, and generated so much interest for people that we celebrated his birthday Friday, 2000 years after his death. Of course, I’m referring to Jesus Christ.

We now look back at the events surrounding Jesus with two kinds of vision. One vision is through the rose-colored glasses of nostalgia and romanticism. The other vision is through the rearview mirror of hindsight. We glorify a baby’s birth in a cold, dirty stable by pictorially representing it with winged angles and a supernatural star hovering over it. In our warm comfortable homes, we are not so sensitive to the pain and embarrassment that the Holy Family must have felt.

Like the residents of all small towns, people living around Jesus must have been aware of his unhappy origins. They knew or guessed that he was technically illegitimate. Mary showed before it was time. People talked. He was from a poor family. Did they know his first crib was an animal feeding trough?

I point out these sad facts to illustrate the challenge faced by the contemporaries of Jesus. It is never easy to transcend the relative morality and thinking of the day. God’s ways are not man’s ways. God sometimes asks us to be heroic in ways that others do not understand.

God asked many people to go beyond their relative Old Testament thinking to embrace a Jesus they did not fully understand. Only a few could do it. How sad! How different history might have been if people had been more courageous in meeting the challenge God gave them.

How different from past history the future might be if we could be courageous in listening and responding to the voice of God in our lives. Let’s be bold and faithful people of God, who allow God’s angels to visit our dreams. If we do so, we must be willing to take the risk of walking alone on a road less traveled. We may look like lost souls to those who do know the route we go, but to do so is to invite Christ and his angels to be our traveling companions. I wish you a Merry Christmas, a Happy New Year and God Speed on your journey.

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