Hebrews 11:1-3, 29-33
I was nine years old and living in racially segregated Newport News. My blue-collar, Southern family did not have much use for Dr. King. Around the dinner table, he was referred to as that blankety blank trouble-maker who didn’t know his place. Fortunately, my grade school teacher saw Dr. King much differently and so on the first day of fourth grade, she let us watch a recording of Dr. King waxing eloquent at the Lincoln Memorial.
On the other side of the James River, my African American friend and co-author, Brian Blount, was 7 years old at the time. He was getting ready to “. . . enter Mrs. Branch’s segregated second grade classroom at the Hardy Elementary school where, by law, all the black children in Smithfield, Va., began their ‘separate but equal’ public education.” Brian writes: “At the Lincoln Memorial that hot summer day, Martin Luther King, Jr. spoke for me and every one of my classmates at Hardy, at the state-mandated all-black elementary and high schools across the United States of America; for my parents and my brothers; for every one of us who felt the animus of people who have hated us for being us.”
Brian ends a remarkable article about Dr. King’s, “I Have a Dream” speech by preaching these words: “King’s dream inspires us to believe not in the society our limited eyes and intellects have established, but in the vision of reconciliation and justice that the power of God and the resolve of people inspired, engaged and activated by that power can inaugurate” (Brian Blount, The Dream at 50, The Presbyterian Outlook, vol. 195, No. 16, pp. 13-15).
“I Have a Dream” is one of our nation’s greatest speeches, but even so, on that hot August day, Dr. King missed a prime chance to include in his speech one of the Bible’s greatest sentences. The author of the letter to the Hebrews opens the 11th chapter with these eloquent words: “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” If those words do not sum up Dr. King’s dream, Dr. King’s life, which ones do?
“Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” Most of my religious upbringing gave me a very different idea about “faith.” Growing up, I learned that faith is what gets you right with God so you have the right credentials to get into heaven. The author of the letter to the Hebrews has a much richer and broader idea of faith, one that Dr. King captured as he spoke about a dream.
In her fine commentary on Hebrews, Frances Taylor Gench writes: “Hebrews speaks of ‘faith’ more than any other book in the New Testament. In Hebrews 11 alone, the word ‘faith’ appears 24 times. . . . [Faith] is that characteristic of the Christian life that enables one both to persevere even in the midst of difficult circumstances and to step out into the unknown with courage and live in a risky and vigorous way” (Frances Taylor Gench, Hebrews and James, Westminster Bible Companion, p. 64).
“To the eye of faith, the universe is not simply an aimless swirl of energy and matter but a creation,” writes Tom Long, “an expression of the love of God sustained by God’s hidden providence. . . What the naked eye can see is a world of suffering and setback [and shootings], violence and hardship. In [the] classic story The Little Prince, a mysterious fox promises to tell a little boy the greatest of life’s secrets. When at long last the secret is told, it is this: ‘It is only with the heart that one can see rightly, what is essential is invisible to the eye’.” (Antoine de Saint-Exupery, The Little Prince, p. 70; Tom Long, Hebrews, Interpretation, p. 114).
The ineffable Anne Lamott says of faith that it is what leads us to trust in God’s future, even when the present is a total mess. She argues, “We don’t step into the truth of that [faith] by figuring it out. ‘Figuring it out’ is not one of Jesus’
Slogans” (from an article on Faith and Leadership in a 2013 publication of Duke Divinity School).
Dr. King saw the future not as a trouble-making idealist trying to advance his political agenda; he saw the future through the eyes of faith, walking in the ways of Jesus, trusting that God saw far more possibilities for freedom and justice than were being seen in segregated 1963, or in segregated 2019, for that matter. Faith, in Hebrews, is not waiting as a passive act for God to reward for signing up on the right spiritual team.
Faith gives us the ability to imagine a future not at all apparent in the present, a future where all the shootings stop, and the willingness to work toward that future in confidence. Faith is the conviction that our God is not resigned to the way things are and is not pleased with us when we are. Faith guides our feet every day and leads us to walk where others will not. Faith guides our lives to refuse to settle for myths like there is ever something “separate but equal,” to stop trying to justify white privilege, to stop trying to dignify homophobia. Faith engages us, body and soul, right here, right now.
During my years in downtown, Atlanta, I would arrive at church quite early on Sunday mornings. On my way inside from the alley, I would often find a host of adults sleeping outside our building. Over the years, sadly and inexcusably, I became almost immune to such madness, until I arrived one winter morning to find children sleeping just outside my office door.
Now, some would ask, “Gary, what does that awful situation have to do with faith?” I hope I would respond, “Absolutely everything.” Faith is about getting right with God and one way we do that is by doing right for God’s sake. We get right with God when we do right for all God’s children.
In my childhood and early adolescence, I was taught a much different lesson. I was told in no uncertain terms that people of faith trust in God and do not get involved in the mess of everyday life. King had the same type of teachers, some of whom were fellow clergy, who pleaded with him to slow down and let change happen in due time.
"When will you be satisfied,” some people asked King. In his Dream Speech, he responds, “We can never be satisfied as long as our bodies, heavy with the fatigue of travel, cannot gain lodging in the motels of the highways and the hotels of the cities. We cannot be satisfied as long as the Negro's basic mobility is from a smaller ghetto to a larger one. We can never be satisfied as long as a Negro in Mississippi cannot vote and a Negro in New York believes he has nothing for which to vote. No, no, we are not satisfied, and we will not be satisfied until justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream.”
Too many years ago, Dr. King spoke those words, naming a world that our God is bringing into being, looking at what is through the prescient lens of faith, and refusing to live as if God’s vision was visible only on the other side of the grave. His “Dream” speech gave flesh to the ancient promise of Hebrews, “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.”
Dr. King is now numbered among the great company of the faithful. They cheer us on as you and I refuse to be satisfied with and explain away what is that should not be.
Faith leads us to this table to get the nourishment we need to go outside and to speak and act, to love and forgive, to demand and not settle for something less than justice and anything other than love.
God grant us that kind of faith to every one of us and grant it right now.