Dreams Inspired by Joseph the Dreamer – Matthew 1:18-25

Christmas music has been playing all over the place for weeks now. So, much so that many of us have been developing earworms; songs we simply can’t get out of our heads. Not surprisingly, this story from the anonymous gospel-storyteller that we call Matthew has inspired an earworm in my head. But the song is not what most people would consider Christmas music.  It is a song that I remember from my childhood. It is a song my Granda used to sing when he was in his cups.

It’s an old World War II classic made popular by Vera Lynn:

When I grow too old to dream

I’ll have you to remember

When I grow too old to dream

Your love will live in my heart

So kiss me my sweet

And so let us part

And when I grow too old to dream

That kiss will live in my heart

My Granda could make me weep when he sang that song. I was too young back then to understand the myriad of meaning in this song, but the very idea of being too old to dream, brought tears to my eyes. Perhaps it was just childish of me to have believed that the ability to dream would last as long as life itself. Somehow the very thought of being too old to dream seemed like an impossibility. As I’ve grown older, I can well imagine life without dreaming. Life in the world can shatter dreams and sometimes even rob us of the desire to dream. Over the years I’ve known more than a few people who have given up on their dreams, and others who refuse to waste their time dreaming, and even some who are too weary to even bother dreaming.

So, in the darkness of winter is it any wonder that we huddle together in sanctuaries to summon up our collective courage to dream. Across the stage of Christmas pageants everywhere appears a character whose dreams saved the child whom we long to embrace. The character of Joseph the dreamer appears in the birth myth that we celebrate when the year grows darkest. Scholars remind us that the character of Jesus father, known as Joseph, does not appear in Christian writings until the ninth decade, some 50 to 55 years after the life and death of Jesus of Nazareth. Joseph’s appearance in the anonymous gospel-storyteller’s beautifully crafted Jewish myth is ever-so brief. Joseph wanders onto the pageant stage in a stumbling and bumbling fashion.

The literary character is well suited to the pageant stage; generations of little boys in bathrobes that are just long enough to trip them up has embodied this rather comical vision of a father. For who but Joseph would load a woman great with child upon a donkey to set off unprepared, without so much as a hotel reservation, only to find themselves forced to give birth in a stable, without adequate provisions…wait that part is not in this story. that’s the other story found in Luke.

To our modern eyes Joseph is a bit of a bumbling fool who is hopelessly ill equipped to be a father. Poor Mary. Poor Jesus.  But wait I’m getting ahead of myself. First there was the dream. But then isn’t that just like us, we 21st century audiences, fast-forwarding to the good bits, eager for the heavenly hosts so that we can join in their singing? We are so unlike the first century audiences of this grand literary pageant.  Remember, our pageant writer was a Jew, who created his drama for Jewish audiences; audiences eager to dream, audiences sick and tired of the horrors of life in first century Palestine, audiences who were eager to share in the dream of salvation, salvation from their wicked oppressors, audiences who would have heard the name Joseph and known, like all ancient audiences that everything is in the name.

Jewish audiences knew their own stories and to their ears the name Joseph foretells the presence of a dreamer. Joseph the hero of old; a dreamer of sorts who was pivotal in saving the Jewish people by engineering their escape from famine by enticing them to safety in Egypt. Joseph was a character that Jewish audiences would have known so well, standing proudly in the tradition of their ancestors. This founder of the Jewish people, Joseph understood oppression. First the oppression of his older siblings who sold him into slavery. This Joseph whose life is intimately woven around dreams, who went on to become an interpreter of dreams. This Joseph who had a habit of being visited by angels in dreams. This Joseph who after his father dies becomes the protector of his father’s children. This Joseph who finds it in his heart to protect and nurture his wicked siblings.

A first century Jewish audience would have had no trouble transferring their ancestor Joseph’s characteristics onto the father of Jesus. Angelic visitors would not have surprised these first audiences, any more than Joseph’s eventual flight into Egypt for safety would have; for it is all in the name “Joseph.” The anonymous gospel storyteller we call Matthew was skilled in the art of mixing the extraordinary stories of his ancestors with the hope of new birth. An unexpected, inconvenient pregnancy, in an occupied land, whose people were longing for a saviour. Joseph the dreamer is just the kind of character to safeguard the babe born to realize the dreams of the people.

In our dreams we can see visions not of what is but of what might be. In our dreams we can see a more enlightened version of ourselves.  In our dreams we can travel beyond our abilities to bear the darkness into the light. But have we grown too old to dream? I wonder?

Let me tell you another story about a baby. You can see a photograph of this baby on the cover of your bulletins. His name is Constantin, Constantin Mutu. He was born about 18 months ago in Romania. His parents were Roma people, his father’s name is Vasile and his mother’s name is Florintina. The Roma people, sometimes called Romany,  are an oppressed people. You may know them by the common pejorative, “Gypsy”.

In Romania the Roma were enslaved for more than 500 years.  Violent attacks against them persist throughout Europe. They are excluded from schools, jobs and social services. Like generations of oppressed people before them, Vasile and Florintina Mutu dreamed of escaping poverty by moving to the promised land. Roma families in Romania usually have their babies at home so that the authorities are not able to carry out their policies of forced sterilization of Roma women – their way of controlling the numbers of Roma people.

Florintina had four babies at home. But little baby Constantin required a C-section and so he was born in a hospital. When Florintina returned to have her stitches removed, she was informed that without her knowledge, the doctors had performed a tubal ligation. Devastated by this violation of their rights, Vasile began to dream of an escape. He dreamt of seeking asylum in the United States with their two youngest children and sending for the older children once they were settled. Vasile and Florintina sold their home to pay a man who would arrange to get them into the U.S. through Mexico. Florentiana packed a suitcase with diapers, a change of clothes for each of them, holy oil and dried basil which are Romanian good luck charms.

On the plane to Mexico, Constantin began to run a fever. On arrival in Mexico, the little family, contacted a smuggler who led them to a crowded bus headed for the border. On the bus Vasile, Florentina, and their 4 yearly son Nicolas, were separated from one another and took turns caring for baby Constantin, whose fever continued to rise. At the border, Vasile and Florentina split up to look for medicine for Constantin. When Vasile settled back on the bus, Constantin started crying on his lap.  Vasile stood up, made his way toward the back of the bus, to the two seats where Florentina and Nicolas had been sitting. The seats were empty. Vasile’s cellphone battery was dead. Not knowing what else to do, he paid a cabdriver to take him and Constantin to the foot bridge into the United States, thinking that he could call his wife when they reached the other side.

It was dark outside when Vasile reached immigration. He was taken to be interviewed and with the help of an interpreter, he told the officer that he wanted political asylum and he explained that he had lost his wife and son, and that they were fleeing persecution in Romania. A handful of officers entered the room. They took Constanin, placed the baby on a chair, and shackled Vasile’s hands and feet. Vasile was dragged from the room, while Constantin stayed behind.

Florentina was still at the bus stop with Nicolas. It would be some time before family members in Romania scraped together the money to bring Florentian and Nicolas home. Four month old Constantin, was taken into foster care. Vasile was taken into detention.

Not surprisingly, Vasile sank into a deep depression. He could not sleep and he refused most of the food that he was offered. He cried so much that his cell mates began beating him to make him be quiet. Vasile considered taking his own life. Two months into his detention, he was offered a deal. If he gave up his claim for asylum, he would be deported back to Romania with Constantin. Vasile agreed. He was released from his cell and loaded into a van. He looked everywhere for Constantin and asked the officer where his son was, but was not given a clear answer. At the airport he refused to board without Constantin. Immigration officers told Vasile that Constantin would be handed to him once he had taken his seat. But the plan lifted off and the baby never came.

Months dragged on as Constantin remained in foster care. He was still in diapers when he appeared in federal immigration court in Detroit, four moths to the day after he arrived in Michigan. By the time Constantin was deported he was 9 months old and had spent the majority of his life in the custody of the United States.

Constantin is now 18 months old, he still cannot walk without help and he has yet to say his first word. The Mutu family has returned to travelling through Europe trying to earn enough money to buy a new home. Vasile and Florintina still dream out loud about returning to the United States. Vasile says, “I’d have to get to Canada and from Canada, I could take a taxi to America.” That Vasile and Florintina still dream of escaping their poverty, is a miracle in and of itself

My dreams for Vasile, Florintina, Nicolas, Constantin and his three siblings, also include Canada. My dream is that one day, little Constantin and his whole family will arrive in Canada and we shall give them such an extravagant welcome, that they will decide to stay here and thrive here as together we work to make this vast, rich, empty country a sanctuary for every child; a place where children can grow out of poverty. My dream is that Canada will not only welcome refugees, but that Canada will work on the world stage to alleviate poverty and oppression. In the midst of our darkness do we still have the courage to dream; or have we grown too old to dream?

 When I grow too old to dream

I’ll have you to remember

When I grow too old to dream

Your love will live in my heart

These are dark day all around the world. Everywhere we look there is oppression, injustice, hatred and war. We don’t have to travel very far from our own front door to find pain and misery. There is heartache, loneliness and loss in most of our lives. We may indeed, have grown too old to dream. But we do have LOVE to remember. The visions inspired by a newborn babe laying on a bed of straw, open us to the possibilities of LOVE; the LOVE that we call God. In these visions of LOVE lie the hopes and dreams of all the earth. It is the LOVE that lives in our hearts that fills our dreams with visions of the LOVE that we long for.

I remember after a particularly heartfelt rendition by my Granda, I asked him: “Granda when will I be too old for dreaming.” The question took my Granda by surprise. After a long silence, Granda insisted that I wouldn’t be too old to dream until I became the dream itself.

The dream of LOVE, the LOVE that is God; my dream is that when I grow too old to dream, I’ll have LOVE to remember, and in that LOVE I will be held, tenderly, compassionately, eternally.  In the meantime, dear friends, let’s dream dreams, dreams filled with visions of hope, justice, peace, joy, and in, with, through and beyond it all, the ONE that is God, our LOVER, BELOVED and LOVE itself. Dream.

The Mutu’s story is adapted from Caitlin Dickerson’s story in the New York Times – you can read the full story here  

2 thoughts on “Dreams Inspired by Joseph the Dreamer – Matthew 1:18-25

  1. I was in Church at Holy Cross and I heard this dynamic Advent sermon from Pastor Dawn Hutchings. I encourage everyone to read the full sermon and NY Times article Pastor Dawn has attached and then remember this next time you vote.
    Pastor Jon Fogleman

  2. Pingback: Sermons for the Fourth Sunday in Advent | pastordawn

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