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I Never Dreamed

Texts: Psalm 126:1; Matthew 2:18-23

I lived a somewhat schizophrenic childhood. The lessons I learned in school often did not jive with what I learned at home, in my neighborhood, in my church. In school, I sat transfixed watching the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. wax eloquent on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. My heart sang with his vision of a land that would care more about the content of a person’s character than the hue of their skin.

When I left school, though, I walked home to an all-white neighborhood – with one consistent exception. At the close of the day, usually on Fridays, I would see several domestic workers, always women, always black, leaving the homes of the few better off families in our largely blue-collar neighborhood. They were walking to catch a bus to a part of town I was told never to visit. To say housing was segregated in my Tidewater, Virginia upbringing would be to belabor the obvious. I never dreamed that sixty years after King’s speech in our nation’s capital that housing would still be largely segregated in America. And I never dreamed that the Presbyterian church throughout my life would still be largely white.

In school, I watched King lead a mounting army of Christians and Jews, blacks and whites, young and old to engage violence with non-violence. As a budding young Christian, I listened attentively as he called people of faith to work tirelessly for peace and never to let injustice go unchallenged.

In the same speech from the Lincoln Memorial, King spoke: “There are those who are asking the devotees of civil rights, ‘When will you be satisfied’? We can never be satisfied as long as the Negro is the victim of the unspeakable horrors of police brutality. 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 a Negro in Mississippi cannot vote and . . . we will not be satisfied until ‘justice rolls down like waters, and righteousness like a mighty stream’."

I never dreamed that sixty years later, I would work with dedicated religious and political leaders in Atlanta to fight so-called “voter identification bills,” which would make it more difficult for minority poor and elderly citizens to vote under the guise of preventing voter fraud. I never dreamed that nearly sixty years later in this land of immigrants, many states would enact legislation to deny the most basic civil rights – those of education and medical care – to children born in America but whose parents are not in legal residence here.

As a young teen, I watched King and his company put into action the high calling of Jesus in Selma, in Montgomery, in Birmingham as they faced threats upon their lives. In his “dream” speech, King cautioned those being assaulted: “In the process of gaining our rightful place, we must not be guilty of wrongful deeds. Let us not seek to satisfy our thirst for freedom by drinking from the cup of bitterness and hatred. We must forever conduct our struggle on the high plane of dignity and discipline. We must not allow our creative protest to degenerate into physical violence. Again and again, we must rise to the majestic heights of meeting physical force with soul force.”

I have lived a good number of my years in the D.C. area. Then and now, I love to walk through the memorials in our nation’s capital. Perhaps my favorite memorial is near the Lincoln Memorial where King delivered his articulate dream on August 28, 1963. This memorial is much newer. It was built to honor the presidency of the late Franklin Delano Roosevelt. The Memorial leads you along a winding path that covers several acres, intended to give you a sense of the movement and moment of Roosevelt’s extensive and momentous presidency. In each era, you read some of the most profound civic rhetoric in American history, but perhaps his most important words are the simplest and shortest. As you exit the FDR memorial, the last quotation on the wall is from his 1941 State of the Union Address. The phrase states, "Freedom of speech; Freedom of worship; Freedom from want; Freedom from fear."

I never dreamed that sixty years after King’s speech and nearly eighty years after Roosevelt’s State of the Union Address that you and I would live in a society consumed by and often controlled by fear. Turn on talk radio or watch some of the ceaseless 24 hour a day “expert” TV political commentary from any political perspective and it will be clear quite quickly that what sells in America in 2023 is “fear.”

We are hardly unique. Fear has been a bestseller for centuries. In his first epistle, the disciple John wrote, “Perfect love casts out fear.” The dark side of John’s words is “relentless fear casts out love.” If you and I live in constant fear that the sky is falling, our love quickly constricts for those who love in a different way than we do, for those who seek asylum when we just want them to go home, for those who demand that our history books tell the whole American story and not just the “all-white” version.

Fear keeps us up late at night, keeps us awake pacing the floor. And most seriously, those who do not sleep, do not dream. For people of faith that is more than a physical problem, it is a spiritual crisis. Just imagine what would have happened if Joseph had ignored the news that came to him in a dream, had clung to his shame and fear and divorced Mary, as was his right.

If Joseph had not dreamed, he would not have heard the angel’s admonition not to fear and he would never have welcomed God’s love made flesh into the world. When fear rules our hearts and stunts our sleep, we are like the exiles in Babylon who decided God’s dream stopped on the banks of the Euphrates. They knew that God didn’t live on the other side of the tracks or the other side of the Potomac or the James river. When fear rules our hearts, we are like hunting Herod then who sent troops to remove the “fear factor” from the land or hunting Herods today who send those we have learned to fear to Martha’s Vineyard or the house of the Vice-President on Christmas Eve.

Soon after FDR died and more than a decade before King would make his speech, a new musical appeared on Broadway. Even though Rodgers and Hammerstein had an outstanding record, it was tough to find money to produce this particular musical. The story is set in the South Pacific, but it could just as easily have been set in Southwest Virginia or on the Southwest border.

In South Pacific Nurse Nellie Forbush falls in love with plantation owner Emile until she discovers that he has fathered his children with a woman of another ethnicity. Seaman Cable witnesses the painful encounter between Emile and Nellie and realizes that he too rejected love because of his own prejudice. He then argues in song that hate and fear are not inevitable, are not a part of our D.N.A., are not how God has destined us to live and behave, but that you’ve got to be taught to hate and fear:

You've got to be taught to hate and fear

You've got to be taught from year to year

It's got to be drummed in your dear little ear

You've got to be carefully taught

You've got to be taught to be afraid

Of people whose eyes are oddly made

And people whose skin is a different shade

You've got to be carefully taught

You've got to be taught before it's too late

Before you are six or seven or eight

To hate all the people your relatives hate

You've got to be carefully taught

You've got to be carefully taught

Sixty years later, God still has a dream that you and I can be carefully taught not to hate and fear, but to love and to forgive, so that we can live up to our calling to be a community that refuses to bow down to the demon of hate and the devil of fear. God still has a dream that making peace and bridging the divide between those with different skin colors is not a dangerous social experiment, but is the sacred work of the risen community of Christ. God still has a dream that meeting the violence of our culture with the overpowering force of redemptive, sacrificial, non-violent love is not an aging Hippie’s hope, but is the sacred calling of the community of Christ.

Sixty years later, God still has a dream of a church that is not measured by the size of its sanctuary, the number of its members, or the bulk of its budget, but by the compassion it practices and the justice it advocates. God still has a dream of a church that is not constrained by the megaphone of fear, but lives gladly within the fear-busting, wall-demolishing, faith-emboldening reality of the love of God.

Sixty years from today, may it be said of us, “When the Lord restored the fortunes of the risen community of Christ, they were those who dared to dream God’s dream.”


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