14 Jan Wanted: Dreamers for God’s Kingdom
Genesis 37:17b-37 and Revelation 21:1-5
January 14, 2018
M. Michelle Fincher
Calvary Presbyterian Church
It was one of the biggest speeches of his career, and he knew it. Martin Luther King Jr. was already widely recognized as the spiritual leader of the American civil rights movement. The podium set up in front of the Lincoln Memorial on August 28, 1963 would be his bully-est pulpit ever.
Multitudes had traveled to our nation’s capital to join the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, co-organized by the National Association for the Advancement of the Colored People (NAACP) and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. The eyes of the nation were on the keynote speaker.
Dr. King had prepared his text carefully. He had asked for suggestions from his trusted advisors. He’d gone through several handwritten manuscript drafts which was unusual for him because he rarely used speechwriters and often spoke extemporaneously, from only a few jotted notes. Originally his title had been “Normalcy, Never Again”—but even after he had finished multiple edits, the papers he clutched in his hand were still not what he wanted them to be. The most famous line from the speech—“I have a dream”—wasn’t written on paper at all. That ringing refrain had been a feature of several speeches he’d already delivered in other places—most notably at Booker T. Washington High School in Rocky Mount, North Carolina, nearly a year earlier, and in Detroit two
The beloved gospel singer Mahalia Jackson was sitting behind Dr. King as he struggled to find words to connect to the audience. “Tell them about the dream, Martin!” she called to him. He heard her, and so he did. He told them about the dream.
Dr. King’s riff on the phrase, “I have a dream,” has truly gone down in history. Arguably 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 what Dr. King said just 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.” He was, of course, quoting the prophet Isaiah.
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.”
In the waning days of the 20 th century, a poll of more than 100 scholars of public addresses ranked Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream” speech as the most significant speech of that century. In 2013, 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.” But that is not what everyone
thought at the time.
An FBI agent named William Sullivan, head of the Bureau’s domestic spying operations, wrote in a memo to Director J. Edgar Hoover that, “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.”
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—powers like William Sullivan at the FBI, the powers that fear change—deeply uncomfortable.
Visionary leaders do not hesitate to dream of a better tomorrow for all God’s children. As a result, those who fear change sometimes do desperate things to try to bury the dream. Last week we spoke of dreams, one dream that came to the Magi and two dreams that occurred to Joseph. Today we look at a different Joseph, the one whose story is recorded in the Old Testament book of Genesis, rather than the New Testament Gospel of Matthew. This Joseph is the son of Jacob and Rachel, and he has eleven brothers.
Joseph has not just one dream, but several, extending over his lifetime. His early dreams foreshadow a time when his family will bow down to him and serve him. It is a dream he rather foolishly shared with his brothers. “Here comes the dreamer [again]! Let’s kill him and throw him into one of the pits; we’ll say that a wild animal devoured him, and we shall see what becomes of his dreams.” (37:20)
Joseph’s brothers think better of those words. In the end, they don’t kill him, but they do throw him down a cistern, then sell him into slavery. To cover up their heinous deed, they stain his multi-colored coat with the blood of a slain animal, so Joseph’s heartbroken parents will believe a wild beast killed him.
Of course, we know how the story turns out. Through a series of amazing adventures, Joseph ends up in Egypt, in prison. His dreams while he is in jail portend a future of both plenty and famine in the land. Eventually, Joseph is released from prison and is elevated to an administrative position high in the government and is soon running the entire country as Pharaoh’s chief of staff. In a time of terrible famine, the sons of Jacob come and grovel before this Egyptian bureaucrat, begging for food so they will not starve, thus fulfilling the very dream they’d found so offensive all those years earlier.
Only then does this mighty Egyptian official reveal his true identity. He is their brother Joseph, who has every right to exact a terrible revenge upon them, but whose heart has only forgiveness for these brothers who have so grievously wronged him. Joseph was not a complainer; he was a dreamer.
Reflecting on Dr. King’s speech, Jim Wallis of the Sojourners Community in Washington D.C., makes this same point about complaining. Looking at the speech, he has observed that something is missing from it. It’s the phrase, “I have a complaint.” Wallis points out that that, “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 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.”
That is a word that is as ripe and right for us today as it was back in 1963. In our homes, in our churches, in our lives we need to dream, and to dream big. We need to teach our children to dream of justice for all people. We need to remind each other that the dream that is needed is not so much the American Dream of individual achievement, but to dream God’s dream for the human race, a dream of a world made new through the grace, 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.” (1 Corin 5:17)
We need more dreamers like that today. We don’t need complainers. There are plenty of those already because a culture of complaint is a quick and dirty way to build community. It’s easy to point out everything that’s wrong and needs to be fixed, but the problem is that the kind of unity that is built on the negative, on complaint and hostility, has no staying power. For that, we need dreamers, visionaries who focus not on how bad things are, but on how good they can be. We need dreamers who can outline concrete ways, the small, incremental steps that can be taken, to achieve worthy goals. That’s true in our church, in our homes, in our communities and in our world. One determined, persistent and unfailingly gracious dreamer who shares a positive vision of what can be, can sow seeds of joyous enthusiasm that has the power to transform and remake our lives.
One of our jobs in the church is to be godly dreamers. We’ve been given the vision of God’s intent for our world, a purpose that God started at Creation and that Jesus continued by inaugurating his kingdom. Then God sent the Holy Spirit to launch the Church that we might continue to dream and work for this vision of a new world of justice and peace for all peoples. This is our call as Christians. It is our mission as the church. If we don’t do our job, someone will fill in the void with a vision that is unworthy, that will not treat all people with dignity and respect, that will point people not to the kingdom of God but instead, towards their own small, self-centered kingdoms. Christ calls us to a bigger dream than that, to a bigger dream than one that is all about us. God calls us to dream and work for the kingdom of God to come on earth—now, in our lives, in our work, in our families, in this church, today—as it already is ongoing in the presence of God. That will mean change. It will sometimes mean that we are uncomfortable. But, that is a dream, a vision, a call that is worthy of our lives. To God be the glory. Amen.