Dreaming of a beloved community

Genesis 41:14-36
Revelation 7:9-10

Joseph wasn’t the only dreamer. There’s a story told of a family in the late 1930s. Like so many evenings mum and dad were at home and Jimmy was playing after dinner. Mum and dad were absorbed with jobs and didn’t notice the time. It was a full moon and some of the light seeped through the windows. Mum glanced at the clock, and said, “Jimmy, it’s time to go to bed. Go up now and I’ll come and settle you later.” Unlike usual, Jimmy went straight upstairs to his room. An hour or so later his mother came up to check if all was well, and to her astonishment found that her son was staring quietly out of his window at the moonlit scenery. “What are you doing, Jimmy?”
“I’m looking at the moon, mummy.”
“Well, it’s time to go to bed now.”
As the reluctant Jimmy settled down, he said, “mummy, you know one day I’m going to walk on the moon.”
He went on to survive a near fatal motorbike crash which broke almost every bone in his body, and his dream came to fruition in 1971, when James Irwin stepped from Apollo 15 onto the moon’s surface, just one of the 12 representatives of the human race to have done so.

In our Bible reading today we heard part of the story of Joseph, after the coat of many colours, Joseph was the dreamer. Joseph dreamed himself, and interpreted the dreams of others. We shouldn’t forget that these dreams of Joseph came true, sometimes almost immediately and sometimes rather longer. The Cup Bearer’s and the Baker’s dreams came to fruition in three days. Conversely, Joseph’s dreams, for which he received his brothers’ ire, only culminated when he became an adult. What is more, the dream that brought Joseph to national prominence in Egypt, Pharaoh’s seven years of abundance and famine dreams, involved the hard work and diligence of the people for it to come true.

Joseph wasn’t the only man to dream. October is marked in the UK as Black History Month, and one of the most famous speeches about a dream was made on 28 August 1963, when Dr Martin Luther King Jr delivered what has now become his monumental ‘I have a dream’ speech, which spoke about all God’s people living in freedom and peace in a world governed by truth and justice. October has been marked in the UK as Black History Month for many years, and it was this that drew me to Dr Martin Luther king’s dream.

Dr King joined over 250,000 of his fellow Americans that day, 28 August 1963, in Washington to commemorate the centenary of President Abraham Lincoln’s ‘Emancipation Proclamation’ to free African-Americans. Dr King was in Washington to argue that the freedoms promised by President Lincoln to the newly-emancipated African-Americans never really materialised, and the March on Washington was an attempt to encourage all Americans to re-commit themselves to the Emancipation Proclamation’s original promise. Dr King’s speech still remains an inspirational call for many to work for an equitable world, in what he called a ‘Beloved Community’. Dr King was sometimes criticised as a ‘dreamer’, and his notion of a ‘Beloved Community’ was denounced as utopian nonsense – something that would never happen in America or the world. Joseph knew a thing or two about freedom and slavery.

We often attach negative connotations to a ‘dreamer’, while giving positive ones to a ‘visionary’. But who decides whether someone is labelled a dreamer or a visionary? The terms ‘dreams’ and ‘visions’ are used almost interchangeably in some sections of the Bible. It all depends upon what you’re looking at.

A man came upon a construction site where three people were working. He asked the first, “What are you doing?” and the man replied, “I’m laying bricks.” He asked the second, “What are you doing?” and the man replied, “I’m building a wall.” As he approached the third, he heard him humming a tune as he worked, and asked, “What are you doing?” The man stood, looked up at the sky, and smiled, “I’m building a cathedral!” The same thing can look very different from depending upon what your perspective is.

It really does make a difference how you look at things. There’s a story told of a woman who accompanies her husband to the doctor’s surgery for a check-up. Afterwards, the doctor took the wife aside and said unless you do the following things, your husband will surely die: every morning make sure he gets a good healthy breakfast, have him come home for lunch every day so you can feed him a well-balanced meal, make sure you feed him a good, hot dinner every night, and don’t overburden him with household chores, keep the house spotless and clean so that he doesn’t get exposed to any unnecessary germs, and to improve his circulation, you’ll need to give him a back massage every night. On the way home, the husband asked his wife, what did the doctor say? She replied, he said that you’re going to die.

It really does make a difference which way you look at things. Nearly 400 years ago the Mayflower sailed from Plymouth England to what became Plymouth Massachusetts taking our puritan ancestors to the New World. This was one of many groups of such pilgrims. One group established a town in their first year. The next year they elected a town council. In the third year the town council planned to build a road five miles westward into the wilderness. In the fourth year the people tried to impeach their town council because they thought it was a waste of public money to build a road five miles westward into a wilderness. Here were people who had the vision to see three thousand miles across an ocean, and to overcome great hardships to get there. But in just a few years they weren’t able to see even five miles out of town. They’d lost their pioneering vision. With a clear vision of what we can become in Christ, no ocean of difficulty is too great. Without it, we rarely move beyond our current boundaries.

It really does make a difference which way you look at things.

When I says it depends upon how you look at things, I don’t just mean whether someone is a dreamer or a visionary. There are at least two ways of look at the issues that Dr Martin Luther King raised, issues which are still around today, which lead us to have a Black History Month. One way is to say that these things don’t need to affect us, because we don’t know any black people but if we did we’d be fine with that; the other way is to look at what goes in our society today.

The reality of 2019 in the UK is that the world remains a very unequal place, and Dr King’s ‘Beloved Community’ seems a long way away. Our own society is marked by its inequality and partiality, and is characterised by:
Young Black British males being more likely to go to prison than university
So-called ‘White flight’ from ethnically-mixed areas to more familiar mono-cultural ones seen as acceptable
Female Black and South Asian workers disproportionately affected by austerity
Some British politicians pandering to the racism of the far right
Roma and Gypsy and Traveller communities experiencing the worst health outcomes of all communities in the UK
Chinese-British students out performing all others academically, yet earning on average 25% less than their White counterparts after they graduate.

We heard the story of Joseph the dreamer, and the dream of Dr Martin Luther King for what he called the ‘Beloved Community’. He didn’t invent the idea of a ‘Beloved Community’. I think that’s what we found in our other Bible reading, from Revelation:
‘a great multitude that no-one can count, from every nation, form all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne.

I believe God has a dream and a vision of a ‘Beloved Community’, where all peoples stand together as equals. Perhaps Black History Month is an opportunity to remind ourselves of God’s dream of that ‘Beloved Community’, and to consider what we can do to play our part in that?

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