I Dream of a Better World

May 19, 2019 — Rev. Paula Norbert
Revelation 21:1-6


We hear this reading from the Book of Revelation this morning where we are told that God is doing a new thing.  Revelation is the final book of the New Testament and of the Bible.  It’s a promise of hope, of new possibilities, of new realities that we are invited to share as we continue these weeks of the Easter Season.  It calls for faith communities to dream big and boldly, to imagine possibilities beyond our wildest imaginations, beyond the realities and discouragement that we experience every day and become accustomed to over the course of our lives.  And this dream is passed from one generation to the next and perhaps with each generation, we hope to add something to that dream, to do what we can to further the creation of the Kingdom that Jesus spoke about, the dream that God has for all creation.  Let us pray, O Holy One of great dreams, invite us to open our minds to dream of a better world with you, to imagine possibilities beyond our imaginations and to use our gifts when and where we can.  Amen.

The role of imagination in our lives can be a powerful thing.  Some of us worry that we are so over-scheduled these days, especially our youth, that we have little time to cultivate the imagination.  Too many young people seem to have little time to daydream, to play using their imaginations, to just make up their own games and play on their own, to spend an afternoon out of doors and create fun with what they have at hand. And yet, as we grow older, we know how important our dreams can be.  We know that we need to imagine a future with possibilities so that we can try to realize what may be possible.    Even now, major tech companies and other businesses are looking for people who still use their imaginations, who can work outside the box, who can imagine possibilities beyond what has already been done.  They try to create a work environment that will foster creativity and imagination.

In early April, you may have seen some of the stories of the astrophysicist,   Katherine Bouman, who along with a large team of scientists and researchers, was able to capture an image of a black hole in space.  Kate, who is only 29, had already devoted years to the astonishing quest — to help capture the first image of a massive black hole in a distant galaxy, a void so dense no light can escape. Apparently when this amazing breakthrough finally came almost a year ago, the discovery was kept a secret. After the stunning image was revealed to the world a month ago, Bouman’s excitement spilled out at what seemed the speed of light.

“We’ve been busting at the seams about what we’ve seen, but we had to keep our mouths shut,” she said.  Bouman received her doctorate from MIT and has continued her studies at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics.  What she and a large team of scientists from MIT, Harvard, and other universities had seen was the first-ever image of a cosmic black hole 53 million light-years away, a time-warping and light-twisting mystery of the universe whose existence Albert Einstein had hinted at a century ago.  (Boston Globe, April 10, 2019)

Kate Bouman helped develop the algorithms for what is formally called the Event Horizon Telescope project, denoting the point at which light, matter, and other energy fall into the incomprehensible density of a black hole, trapped there for eternity. The image was the real thing, confirmed by test after test on data collected from eight radio telescopes around the globe. Finally, even after exhaustive efforts to prove themselves wrong, the discovery stood.

“It’s incredibly exciting. The goal was to see this thing that was essentially impossible to see, about the size of an orange on the moon,” Bouman said.

What she was able to imagine, along with her colleagues, is truly beyond comprehension, but so many are impressed that she was able to imagine the possibilities and accomplish the research she had begun.

The Rev. Kelly Brill wrote about the way Jesus invited his followers to imagine the Kingdom of God.  Jesus’ three-years of public ministry seemed to have a central focus, which was to describe to people what the Kingdom of God was like.  “The Kingdom of God, sometimes called the Reign of God, is what Jesus describes in parables.  It’s life lived in its most abundant state.  When you look at the way Jesus lived and the stories he told, you can begin to put together, like pieces from a puzzle, what the picture looks like of this Kingdom, this Reign, this abundant life.  It’s a life that is balanced, the way Jesus balanced his – between activity and contemplation, plenty of time for reflection so that his actions were intentional.  It’s a life that is lived in the present moment.  Jesus was neither nostalgic nor did he live in the future.  He stayed grounded, very aware of who was around him, what their needs were, and how he could respond.  The abundant life is the life centered around God, not centered around ego or material things.  The stories Jesus told helped people to imagine what the Kingdom of God was like – what life is like as God intends it.”  When we are closest to God’s reign, these things happen:  we pay attention to the people everyone else ignores, the people at the bottom rungs of the social ladder.  We pay attention to the people who are in need and who are hurting.  We call out injustice and corruption and abuses of power, whether by political officials or by the church.  We feed the hungry, clothe the naked, visit the prisoner.   We do these things, not to get into heaven, but to get closer to the kind of life God has in mind for all God’s people.

Commentator Lou Suarez writes that the author of the book of Revelation is describing not a heaven in the hereafter but a utopian place on earth where God will rule.   An interesting part of this description of the new heaven and the new earth is that God makes a move.  This is not some perfect place on a hill with harps and angels, a place to which we ascend, but a city, a city where God chooses to live.  As we listen to some of the verses of the passage from the Message’s contemporary take on this passage, we hear these words: “Look! Look! God has moved into the neighborhood, making his home with men and women! They’re his people, he’s their God. He’ll wipe every tear from their eyes. Death is gone for good— tears gone, crying gone, pain gone—all the first order of things gone.”  It is wonderful to imagine these words- “God has moved into the neighborhood.”  Much like the story of the birth of Jesus, the incarnation, God has chosen to enter our lives, our cities, and live among us.  The author of the book of Revelation has a vivid imagination and encourages us to use ours as well.  How would you describe the world as God intends it to be?  Would it be like the vision Isaiah gives us, of a peaceable kingdom, lions and lambs lying down together, swords becoming plowshares, spears becoming pruning hooks – weapons becoming garden implements in a world with no more violence?  Would your vision of the world as God intends it be a story of seemingly impossible forgiveness and unconditional love, like Jesus’ parable of the Prodigal Son?

I wonder if we have lost touch with our ability to imagine a better world.  As we get older, it is hard not to get cynical, hard not to become desensitized to all of the stories of pain and suffering, all of the real and imagined fears that fill the news.  We certainly need to know what is going on.  We need real news and we have a responsibility to know what others are facing.  We know that in many ways Jesus was a realist.  He spoke about sin and evil; he spoke often about those who were dispossessed and oppressed.   Many of us are very concerned about climate change.  Just this past week, I saw a news story about the rise in carbon dioxide in our atmosphere, on pace to set a record high this year.  If this keeps up, our global temperatures will continue to rise in the years ahead.  More than two decades ago, I visited glaciers in the Canadian Rockies and at Glacier National Park.  It pains me to hear that these glaciers are rapidly melting. Both the people and animals who make their homes in the Arctic are having to adapt to survive.  It is distressing.  Clearly there are many serious issues to cause us worry.

As much as we need realism, though, we also need hope.   The stories of suffering and pain may awaken us to the problems, but they don’t always help motivate us to act.  When we hear so many stories of despair, we often become overwhelmed or paralyzed.  The problems seem overwhelming, so we just escape into apathy, or we do what we can; we offer small acts of kindness, not really believing that they will  help create systemic change.    What has happened to our capacity for dreams, big, bold dreams?  When is the last time that we imagined a creative solution to a problem, really visualized it, and then decided to make something happen?  We know there are many people who are dreaming today, but their stories don’t always make news.  We need to find them and pay attention to them, so that all of us – but especially our young people – will believe that change for good is possible.

I heard about a book called Enlightenment Now, by Steven Pinker.  I haven’t read it.  Pinker, a Harvard professor, details areas of progress, showing where and how and why things are getting better in our world.  For example, he speaks about poverty.  He writes that extreme global poverty has been reduced from 90 percent 200 years ago to 10 percent today.  And while those statistics are very impressive, we also know that 700 million people still live in extreme poverty – they are real people who are suffering dramatically and we cannot be complacent about them.  When I have met people living in extreme poverty, it has always been  an important reminder that many in the world do not live with even of a fraction of what we do in terms of basic needs…shelter, food, water.

There are dreamers; however, who have already imagined solutions to so many of these pressing issues and are dreaming them into reality.    We know we can do more.  We can stay motivated and hopeful about being a part of the solution.  We need to find and pay attention to the stories of hope.  I want to encourage you to be a dreamer.  Dream something big and bold.  For your life.  For your family.  For our community.  For our church.  We need to work hard to counter the voices that tell you it’s too late, you’re too old, you don’t have time.  Our Christian story is a story of great hope.  If we are not speaking the language of hope, we are missing the abundant life for which we were created.  “Every great dream begins with a dreamer. Always remember, you have within you the strength, the patience and the passion to reach for the stars to change the world.”  Harriet Tubman