Carlos E. Wilton
Point Pleasant Presbyterian Church
September 8, 2013, 23rd Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year C — Non-Lectionary sermon
Genesis 37:17b-27; Acts 2:14-21
“They said to one another, ‘Here comes this dreamer. Come now, let us kill him
and throw him into one of the pits; then we shall say that a wild animal has devoured him,
and we shall see what will become of his dreams.’”
A week and a half ago, a very significant anniversary passed, for our nation: the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. Now, that title may not mean much to you: there are protests in Washington all the time. That protest, in particular, went down in history because of one speech given that day — August 28, 1963 — on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. It was the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech.
In the waning days of the 20th Century, a poll of over a hundred scholars of public address ranked it the most significant speech of that century. A few days ago, Jon Meacham wrote in Time magazine: “”With a single phrase, Martin Luther King, Jr. joined Jefferson and Lincoln in the ranks of men who’ve shaped modern America.”
It’s not what everyone thought at the time. An FBI agent by the name of William Sullivan, head of the Bureau’s domestic spying operations, wrote this in a memo to FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover:
In the light of King’s powerful demagogic speech yesterday he stands head and shoulders above all other Negro leaders put together when it comes to influencing great masses of Negroes. We must mark him now, if we have not done so before, as the most dangerous Negro of the future in this Nation from the standpoint of communism, the Negro and national security.
An extraordinary thing — which I just learned the other day — is that the most famous part of that speech wasn’t in the manuscript. Dr. King was winding down his remarks when the gospel singer, Mahalia Jackson, sitting on the platform behind him, shouted out: “Tell them about the dream, Martin!”
Dr. King had spoken of dreams on numerous occasions before, so I suppose it wasn’t entirely new, but his riff on the phrase, “I have a dream” has truly gone down in history. The most famous of those improvised lines is this: “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”
If you have any doubt that this was a deeply religious address (a sermon, really) — or that the Civil Rights movement was a deeply Christian movement — then just listen to where Dr. King went, a few lines later:
I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places will be made straight, and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together.
Words of the prophet Isaiah, quoted by the most significant Christian prophet of our time. Dr. King continued:
This is our hope. This is the faith that I will go back to the South with. With this faith we will be able to hew out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope.
He was a dreamer, Dr. King. And, as a dreamer, things did not go well for him. Then, as now, dreamers make the powers that be — the powers that fear change — deeply uncomfortable. They are not afraid to dream of a better tomorrow, for all God’s children. As a consequence, those who fear change sometimes do desperate things to try to bury the dream.
That’s nothing new. We’ve only to look at today’s Old Testament lesson to see it in action. Joseph, son of Jacob and Rachel — he of the coat of many colors — has a dream he’s not afraid to share with his twelve brothers. It’s a dream that predicts he will not only rule over them one day, but will also save them. His brothers respond:
“Here comes this dreamer. Come now, let us kill him and throw him into one of the pits; then we shall say that a wild animal has devoured him, and we shall see what will become of his dreams.”
Joseph’s brothers think better of those words. They don’t kill him, in the end. But they do throw him down a cistern, then sell him into slavery, and finally stain his coat of many colors with the blood of a slain animal, so Jacob and Rachel will believe a wild beast has killed him.
Of course, you know how the story turns out. Through a series of amazing adventures, Joseph ends up in Egypt, running the entire country as Pharaoh’s right-hand man. In a time of terrible famine, the sons of Jacob come and bow down before him, begging for food so they will not starve (thus fulfilling Joseph’s dream). Only then does this mighty Egyptian official reveal who he truly is: their brother Joseph, who has every right to exact a terrible revenge upon his brothers — but whose heart has only forgiveness for them.
This past week, I read a deeply insightful reflection on Dr. King and his legacy by Jim Wallis, of the Sojourners Community of Washington, D.C. Wallis points out that there is something missing from the famous “I Have a Dream” speech. It is the phrase, “I have a complaint.” He continues:
There was much to complain about for black Americans, and there is much to complain about today for many in this nation. But King taught us that day our complaints or critiques, or even our dissent will never be the foundation of social movements that change the world — but dreams always will. Just saying what is wrong will never be enough to change the world. You have to lift up a vision of what is right.
It occurs to me that this is an apt reflection for Rally Day, as we think about why it is that we have Christian Education programs in the church. There’s something we need to teach our children — something they cannot learn in even the finest public school — something other than English or history or mathematics or computer science, or any of the multitude of subjects that compete for students’ attention. It’s something other than even the stories of the Bible — although anyone who learns those stories, truly takes them to heart, will be well on the way to attaining this rare and precious quality.
You know where I’m going with this. That rare quality is the ability to dream: to dream big, as Dr. King and so many other great prophets have. To dream not the “American Dream” of individual achievement — although that is a beautiful thing — but to dream God’s dream for the human race, a dream of a world made new, through the grace, and mercy and resurrection power of Jesus Christ.
It’s a dream expressed by the Apostle Paul, who writes to the Corinthians:
So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!
We need more dreamers like that, today. We don’t need complainers. There are plenty of those out there, already. There’s a whole culture of complaint, that threatens to drown us all in its bitter swill.
Think of the last social gathering you were in, of people who know each other fairly well, but not too well — the sort of informal gathering that takes place at an office water cooler, or in the stands at a Little League game, or in the supermarket line. It’s a pretty fair bet that part of that conversation included complaints. Maybe the complaints were about something trivial and transitory — the length of a checkout line, or the call of an umpire, or how many times the drawbridge goes up (even after Labor Day). Or, maybe they were about larger matters: an entire political party, or the editorial position of a TV news network, or the way our economy continues to squeeze the middle class.
Before I came here as pastor, I used to work as director of admissions and student services for a theological seminary. My work took me to a national conference for student services professionals. At the conference, I attended a workshop led by a distinguished dean of students from some university or other. He was remarking on the fact that, wherever you go in American higher education, on any college campus in the country, there’s one gripe you’re certain to hear from the student body: complaints about the food in the dining hall.
As a man whose job it was to try to make the life of students more comfortable, the dean shared how, over the years, he had seen many special university committees work hard on improving the food in the dining hall. Some of those committees he’d even led, personally. They polled the student body to find out what they wanted, then made significant improvements. The food just got better and better. Yet, over all those years, he had observed a very strange thing: the students never stopped complaining about how bad the food was.
“I have a theory why that is,” he told the group of us, gathered in his workshop. We were all ears. “When a group of students comes together from all over the country — even the world — from many different income levels and ethnic backgrounds and religious creeds, who are majoring in everything from poetry to organic chemistry, there’s one topic of common interest that anyone can raise with anybody else, at any time, and get a sympathetic hearing: the subject of how bad the food is in the dining hall.”
The food doesn’t even have to be bad, he went on, for students to complain about it. Because it’s not about the food. It’s about the deeply felt human need for community.
A culture of complaint is a quick and dirty way to build community. If you’ve ever been to a public hearing, where people stand up and speak into microphones, making strident speeches about everything that’s wrong and needs fixing, then you’ve felt the thrill of people coming together around a common cause. There’s even a kind of euphoria that comes over a crowd in such circumstances: “We’re a pretty good bunch, we are! We’re not going to sit by and let the powers-that-be roll right over us. We’re making some noise. We’ll make them sit up and take notice!”
But, alas, it’s false unity. A sense of unity built on complaint has no staying power. At the end of the day, it fails to satisfy. It only builds negativity, and — when those complained against grow defensive, then marshal their forces and complain right back — it can even lead to open hostility.
No, we don’t need any more complainers. What we need is dreamers: visionaries who focus not on how bad things are, but on how good they can be: and on concrete ways — small, incremental steps — to achieve such goals. In a church, a dozen determined complainers can stir up such contagious unrest that a congregation sinks into a death-spiral. Just one dreamer, though — if that person is determined, and persistent, and unfailingly gracious about sharing the positive vision — can sow seeds of joyful enthusiasm that will transform and remake community life.
I like to think our Church School, and youth programs, and adult study opportunities are all about raising up such dreamers.
T.E. Lawrence — the famed Lawrence of Arabia — had this to say about those who dream:
All [people] dream but not equally. Those who dream by night in the dusty recesses of their minds awake to find that it was vanity; but the dreamers of day are dangerous [people], that they may act their dreams with open eyes to make it possible.
We need more dreamers of the day, just like that. We need people of passion and principle, who refuse to accept the cynical wisdom of the old French proverb: “The more things change, the more they stay the same.” I place great hope in the younger generations of today, confident they will do a much better job than my own generation of bringing about real change.
We baby boomers, in our prime, were noted for our protests. But, too often, those protests were all about complaints, rather than dreams. Most of them — except for Brother Martin’s dream-fueled vision of civil rights — fizzled in the end, and then it was back to business as usual.
May all our educational programs, here in this church, be about raising up precisely that kind of Godly dreamer. For, in the famous words of anthropologist Margaret Mead:
Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed individuals can change the world. Indeed it’s the only thing that ever has.
Those who have done that were dreamers, one and all. May we seek out such dreamers wherever we find them — even among our own children — and may we encourage and equip them to pursue that great dream of a new creation in Jesus Christ!
Copyright © 2013, by Carlos E. Wilton. All rights reserved.
Jon Meacham, Martin Luther King Jr.: Architect of the 21st Century,” TIME, August 26, 2013.
American Radio Works, “The FBI’s War on King,” American Public Media http://americanradioworks.publicradio.org/features/king/d4.html
Jim Wallis, “‘I Have A Complaint’ — No — ‘I Have a Dream,’” Sojourners “God’s Politics Blog,” August 29, 2013. http://sojo.net/blogs/2013/08/29/i-have-complaint-%E2%80%94-no-%E2%80%94-i-have-dream
2 Corinthians 5:17.
T.E. Lawrence, Seven Pillars of Wisdom (Vintage, 2008).