How many of you have been to Yume Wo Katare? It’s the ramen shop of dreams over in Porter Square. If you go there, you can eat a big bowl of ramen and announce to everyone else the big dream of your life. I know for some folks, homemade ramen is the best. It’s not my favorite food ever, but I was thinking this week that I really wanted to go over to lunch at Yume Wo Katare, because talking about our dreams was on my mind.
I’ve been working a theory of mine that after we grow up, it’s easy to dream poorly, if at all, and hard to keep dreaming well. (I know – poorly/well, bad/good – sounds a little judgey maybe, but I’ll get back to that.) Anyway, I’ve been thinking about how we do or don’t dream for the future, and I thought this week, it’s about time I think about this over a big bowl of ramen.
I had plans to take someone out to lunch, but then I found out that the ramen shop was closed for lunch most of this week. So I had to go somewhere else and figured I’d go back by myself for lunch on Friday, when I had the day off.
But Friday came along and my day started with this really irritating fail of a customer service experience. And then you know those days when one bad thing happens, and then it’s like somehow the thread starts to unravel. Well, it was turning into one of those kind of days. Plus, we had this fall monsoon going on, and I thought: you know, the last thing I want to do right now is bike over to Porter Square in the wind and rain to put down money for a little field experiment on dreams.
So instead, I do what we all do when we don’t the energy to show up for real life. I just went on the internet.
I started searching “what is your dream” and after wading through a lot of self-help advice about accomplishing anything in the world you might want to do, I found some interesting video projects where people are asked just this question – what is your dream?
Unsurprisingly, the kids are great at this. They talk about that amazing careers they want to have, the good they want to do in the world, the puppies they’re going to own. My favorite was the kid, maybe 5 years old, who said: My dream is to be a babysitter.
The adults have it tougher – a lot of adults when asked the question pause, they laugh sometimes because it’s a hard question. What do you dream? A lot of us can only think of having a little more time off, maybe a little more money, or a job we like a little more.
It’s hard to dream. It’s hard to dream that our lives can get better, that things can change, that the world can get better and change for the good.
This is why in this season of Light in the Darkness, in the weeks leading up to Christmas, we’ve been looking at the dreams of the Christmas story. How the hope and the news of Jesus’ birth interrupts the dreary status quo and the challenges of Jesus’ father Joseph, his mother Mary, our own disappointments, and dreariness, and even out nightmares as well.
And today, we’re going to come alongside the grown-up Jesus himself, and listen to Jesus’ dreams, and see if we can dream with him his big dreams for us all.
Listen to the words of Jesus:
Mark 4:26-32 (CEB)
26 Then Jesus said, “This is what God’s kingdom is like. It’s as though someone scatters seed on the ground, 27 then sleeps and wakes night and day. The seed sprouts and grows, but the farmer doesn’t know how. 28 The earth produces crops all by itself, first the stalk, then the head, then the full head of grain. 29 Whenever the crop is ready, the farmer goes out to cut the grain because it’s harvesttime.”
30 He continued, “What’s a good image for God’s kingdom? What parable can I use to explain it? 31 Consider a mustard seed. When scattered on the ground, it’s the smallest of all the seeds on the earth; 32 but when it’s planted, it grows and becomes the largest of all vegetable plants. It produces such large branches that the birds in the sky are able to nest in its shade.”
You can learn a lot about someone when you ask them about their dreams. A friend of mine told me of this odd job interview once. His prospective employer asked him about his big dreams. He was like, I don’t know if my dreams are actually that big. And my friend described his kind of modest but really important dreams of doing good work in his profession – benefiting the local company and its customers. And then he talked about a couple of particular innovations in his field that he thought would serve people now and maybe even for a generation or two to come. And the interviewer sort of nodded, OK – good enough answer.
And then the interesting part was that my friend said, you know out of curiosity, would you mind if I asked as well, since this question is on your mind. What are your big dreams? And then this prospective boss, was like sure, I can share. My big dream is: and then he proceeded to describe running this whole other kind of company and getting impossibly rich and famous in the process.
And my friend wasn’t quite sure what to say. He was pretty sure this prospective boss of his wasn’t joking, but he wanted to check, so he asked: really, I’m interviewing to work with you in this industry, but you hope that somehow you’ll break into this other industry entirely, one you have no experience in, and not only that, but that you’ll rise to the top of the food chain and become rich and powerful in the process?
And the guy was like: well, I wouldn’t put it that way, but sure, more or less.
My friend’s one takeaway from this big dream of his prospective boss was to make sure to find another job with a different boss. One a little more grounded, one – how do I say this politely – a little less full of himself.
Jesus’ Big Dream
I love that when Jesus grew up and talked about his dreams, not only did he not have these grandiose, self-centered notions of what his life would become. Jesus actually didn’t talk much about himself at all. He told stories about people growing things. Farmers scatter seeds, women knead yeast into bread, investors make loans, and they all smile as things grow and grow and grow.
Jesus said this is his dream, that people will grow and grow something good, something Jesus called The Kingdom of God.
The Kingdom of God. This is Jesus’ name for his biggest dream.
It’s the biggest topic of his teaching, in the stories we’ve read today and in many, many others. In contrast to a kingdom like the Roman Empire Jesus and all who knew him lived under, the Kingdom of God isn’t a single place with borders and armies. It’s more like anywhere on earth where things are going God’s way, it’s the spaces where people and maybe all of creation is saying yes to God’s good freedom and life.
As I’ve taught before, some modern scholars have noticed that this kingdom language is kind of archaic and patriarchal – we don’t live in a feudal age anymore. And they’ve suggested that a world like kindom – dropping the “g” and emphasizing the family of God – might capture the spirit of Jesus’ original teaching better. So I’ve taken to writing kingdom with little brackets around the (g) to remind me of both meanings.
I’ve taken a stab at defining this kin(g)dom along these lines – it’s the places and spaces and community where the life of God is flourishing. And Jesus tells us that his role (still now), the role of baby Jesus all grown up, died, resurrected, and present to us and all the world now by his spirit is to keep inviting us forward into growing with Jesus the places and spaces and community where the life of God is flourishing.
This Christmas, I want us to dream with Jesus of this Kingdom of his. I want us to imagine and welcome with Jesus this kindom he’s growing among us. I’d love for us to dream again, and dream the dreams of Jesus.
I want to share just three things we learn about Jesus’ big dream in the hope that we can come alongside and dream with Jesus about this same Kin(g)dom flourishing in our lives and our times.
The first thing, maybe the most obvious thing we can see about Jesus’ Kingdom is that it’s the littlest smallest thing that has within it the capacity to become so very big. Jesus thinks aloud – what’s a good way to describe this dream of mine?
And he says, Oh, it’s like a seed, the most common and most tiniest of seeds where Jesus lived. The mustard seed.
Jesus’ big dream is a tiny, dead looking thing you bury in the earth and then… wait for it… nothing. And the next day more nothing, and more nothing after that. Until eventually the tiniest sprout pops out of the ground, and then the tiniest leaf, and then week after week until it’s that giant shrub of a mustard plant.
All good flourishing that we grow with Jesus is like this, small, sometimes even dead-looking things that slowly burst into abundant life.
I’m reminded of a conversation with a friend of mine recently who was wondering when she’d be able to pursue big dreams again, and how she can participate in the big work of God that needs to be done in the world. She works part-time, and she’s got real little kids at home too. And she was saying she spends so much of her week trying to make sure these kids eat, and sleep, and use the potty. And she’s like there’s important work for justice to be done out there. When do I get to be part of it?
But even as she was saying it, another friend asked – what about your work? What about all you’re growing with these kids right now? And this is a parent who isn’t just trying to help her kids be happy and successful, but is doing what she can to raise kind, resilient, courageous, just, generous kids. This may seem small, but it is beautiful work. Vitally important work of God.
Anything adults do with youth is like this. It rarely feels big and glamorous. But it’s the mustard seed growth of Jesus. Did you know that about forty percent of the world’s population is under 25? Over a quarter of the world’s people are under 15 – we’re a young world! So if we’re not tending to kids and youth, loving and nurturing them like the human gardeners we are meant to be, than there will be no good, strong adults very soon. No trees. Anything we do on behalf of the welfare of youth is mustard seed, God’s work of flourishing.
And I’m going to warn you, I’m going to make a gendered comment here, only because as progressive as Cambridge or Massachusetts may be, so often it’s still women and moms doing the lion’s share of love and presence and work for kids and youth.
So dads, and not just dads, but all men, dads or not, our kids and youth need us too. Just as the work of loving and growing kids is not just for parents, but for all of us, it is also not just for women, but for all of us. When we are present with kids and youth on their turf, when we listen and nurture, and love and care and hold and teach, we are doing some of the holiest and most important work we’ll ever do in our lives. All of us.
Much of the best and most beautiful things that make Jesus smile, that are at the center of the renewal God is doing today in the world are small and humble things done with great care and love and purpose. The prophet Zechariah in the Bible once asked: Who dares despise the day of small beginnings? Jesus thinks of his big dreams for the way of God flourishing on earth and says, it’s like a mustard seed. Small, humble, sometimes looking like it’s got no potential, no future. Oh, but don’t you dare despise this day of small beginnings. Because when God grows it, what big good it will do and be!
Dreaming Beyond Ourselves
This is the second thing Jesus says about his dreams of the family and Kingdom of God. Not just that it starts small and grows, but that it grows to produce tremendous flourishing for life beyond itself.
Jesus’ dreams are never about himself. And so dreaming with Jesus means getting outside ourselves as well.
That’s why my friend at the job interview with the potential boss who seemed all caught up in his outsized version of himself didn’t wait around for an opportunity to work there, but just moved on. Because good dreams, solid, bankable dreams aren’t ever just about us, but about the flourishing of others and the flourishing of the world around us. Good dreams find our joy and purpose and success tied to the joy and purpose and success of our environment and our communities.
Jesus said, this is what the mustard seed does. It doesn’t just grow up and make mustard, and mustard greens, great as they are. It also contributes in a significant way to its whole interconnected ecosystem. “It grows and becomes the largest of all vegetable plants. It produces such large branches that the birds in the sky are able to nest in its shade.”
I mentioned that I’ve noticed that when we grow up, it’s harder to keep dreaming. Because life gives us struggle and disappointment. And then when we dream, it’s easier for our dreams to become just about getting by, a little more money or free time, a little less discomfort for ourselves.
This is why I so admire people who stay the course as grown-ups using our time and talents for flourishing beyond ourselves.
I think of a friend of mine whose business has grown beyond what he saw coming. So he could cash out now, make a ton of money, and let someone else pull apart and do what they want with this company he’s built. Win for him. But he’s not doing that now, because this business is doing some great things for his employees and his suppliers and his customers. The whole human and environmental ecosystem around the business is better for its growth.
And I know that brings him joy, to be part of mustard-plant flourishing, for this bigger and bigger tree to make space for the birds of the air to nest in its shade. Life is real God-dreamed life not when it sucks up the oxygen just for itself, but when it makes space for more and more life.
So these are the dreams of Jesus in our world. For small beginnings, small things that look more like death than life, to be tended to and nurtured, and so to flourish into great life that makes more life. For God to grow the good and true and the beautiful that leads to justice and mercy and health for other humans and all creation.
In a holiday week that’s become so much about me and mine, at a time of the year where the pressures of nostalgia for personal happiness are so high, I can think of a worse Christmas word. Dream with Jesus, friends, have hope in God today, to grow what flourishes out of the small things and small people and small dreams you have access to. Make it not only about your own happiness, but about a whole flourishing system around you. And God will be with you in that.
But there’s one more aspect of Jesus’ big dream, the most radical and subversive part of it, actually, and the part that has the most to do with the original Christmas story, that I have to mention as well.
This last aspect of Jesus’ big dream is that Jesus’ dream is radically different. Jesus contrasts his dreams with imperial corporate dreams of market share or dominance. They’re really entirely different from anything like an American dream too. Jesus’ dreams are humbler and healthier and better and ultimately way more robust than all that.
See, Jesus in his little story about mustard seeds and the Kingdom of God is actually riffing off of some other, very different stories about big trees in the scriptures.
The ancient prophet Ezekiel, for instance, has this to say about the once mighty Mediterranean super-power of Assyria:
Ezekiel 31:3-6, 12-14 (CEB)
3 Consider Assyria, a cedar of Lebanon:
beautiful branches, dense shade, towering height;
indeed, its top went up between the clouds.
4 Waters nourished it; the deep raised it up,
because its streams flowed around the place where it was planted.
From there, water trickled down to all the other trees of the field.
5 And so it became higher than all the trees of the field.
Its branches became abundant; its boughs grew long.
Because of the plentiful water, it grew freely.
6 All the birds in the sky made nests in its branches;
all the beasts of the field gave birth under its boughs,
and in its shade, every great nation lived.
Does this sound familiar so far? It should, because it’s the exact language Jesus used to describe his dream of the mustard seed.
Assyria, though, is a little different, and its end is different as well.
12 Foreigners, the worst of the nations, cut it down
and left it to lie among the hills.
All its branches fell among the valleys,
and its boughs were broken off in the earth’s deep ravines.
All the earth’s peoples departed from its shade and abandoned it.
13 On its trunk roost all the birds in the sky,
and on its boughs lie all the beasts of the field.
14 All this has happened so that no other well-watered tree would tower high or allow its branches to reach among the clouds. Nor would their leaders achieve the towering stature of such well-watered trees. Certainly, all of them are consigned to death, to the world below, among human beings who go down to the pit.
So, that’s kind of a different outcome than we get in Jesus’ story. An ironic one – it’s good poetry – the birds that used to nest in this great tree’s shade now roost on its blackened stump, while beasts take naps around its moldering branches. The beasts and the birds have found a way to press on – the tree, not so much.
Ezekiel is telling us how history works. Proud, greedy empires that reach and overreach to dominate and extract from others will think they are the biggest, baddest, greatest force on earth, the best in the world, blessed by God, but in the end they will lose their power and fade from history. People and institutions and nations that seek to win at others’ expense, rather than collaborate in a mutually beneficial dream of flourishing, will fall and die.
Ezekiel can speak in the past tense of Assyria, and he’s sending a not so coded message in the present to the empire of his day, Babylonia.
Centuries later, in the book of Daniel, the exact same language about trees is used, this time about the Babylonia and their even bigger successor superpower Persia. And like Ezekiel, Daniel is probably speaking in not-so-coded language to the contemporary Greek Ptolemaic and Seleucid empires that followed the Persian defeat by the Greeks.
In Jesus’ prophetic tradition, the big tree with the birds nesting in its shade is an image of people and institutions and nations so full of themselves and their own aspirations that they fail to love or serve anyone but themselves.
Here’s what I think Jesus is up to in quoting all this. Jesus is saying: I’m dreaming of something different than all that.
Permission to Dream
Jesus was not some pie-in-sky country dreamer. Jesus was born into a hard time and hard place that was reeling from a century of hard, scary, violent times.
Some eighty years before Jesus’ birth, the high priest and king of Jerusalem, crucified as many as 800 Judean men, slaughtering their wives and children as well, while he and his concubines got drunk and watched for sport. Some 35 years before Jesus’ birth, the Hasmonean king Herod, in allegiance with the growing Roman empire, solidified his rule over Judea by laying siege to Jerusalem, starving the whole city, for four months. After gaining power, he murdered all his enemies and taxed the region heavily to pay for his opulent lifestyle and his endless building projects that only benefited the ruling elite.
Hard times. Jesus’ contemporaries, Jesus own mother we heard last week, longed for a break from all this, for a break from the violence, corruption, and rich-get-richer while poor-get-poorer policies and practices of this age. They wanted safety, relief from the chaos of bad governance, the freedom to flourish in their communities.
Sound familiar? We may not know the stories of the Babylonian, and Assyrian, and Seleucid and Ptolemaic and Hasmonean empires. But we know what this old full-of-its own dreams tree looks like. We know the marketing claims of our own times’ imperial and corporate giants that their growth will be for our benefit. You know, after they sell all of our data and impoverish our workforce. We know the narcissists in our lives that only care about themselves.
Even our church, in our early days, could get caught up in dreaming that we were the most important thing in our city, like we were the center of all that God was doing.
But Jesus, with his dreams of the family and kingdom of God, says it’s not going to be this way. We’ll honor the small people and small things and small beginnings, and we’ll insist on true flourishing. On life and growth that leads to benefits for a whole system and community, not just for the dreamer.
Jesus says, my family, my kingdom will be built around generous people. People who devote themselves to their own inner growth and health and maturity, while refusing to judge and insult others. People who trust God with our own anxieties rather than working them out on other people. Jesus says, the big thing I do on earth is going to be through people and institutions who do justice by always including others in their own success, rather than walling off from others in fear.
Jesus’ Kingdom looks nothing like the national powers that he or we have known. His kin-dom looks nothing like the profit-driven businesses or the shallow narcissists that grab our attention. It’s deep, it’s expansive, it’s just, it’s generous – the plant so large that the birds of the air can nest in its shades, the dreamers so generous that new life can flourish in our growth.
Friends, it’s alright to dream again. Whatever is hard in your life or your times is not the whole of your story. Our faith tells us that Jesus is a dreamer of good and flourishing things, and that Jesus is a gardener, growing what’s good and abundant, life that begets more life, even out of the smallest, hardest, dried up looking seeds.
There’s room for each of us and our dreams in the dreams of Jesus.
An Invitation to Whole Life Flourishing
Look for the mustard seeds among you this Christmas. Notice and celebrate and invest in the small people and moments and ideas and organizations that have promise to lead to real flourishing.
Spiritual Practice of the Week
Say to yourself, and to Jesus, I am the mustard seed, we are the mustard seed. Grow in me, grow in us, your flourishing new life.