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The Dream Season

Text: I Corinthians 12 (selected verses)

I was a senior at the College of William and Mary when I preached my second sermon. At the time the thought of writing, much less delivering, a second sermon was daunting. Having preached nearly everything I knew about the Bible, life, and literature in my first sermon, I wondered what else was left to say. Thankfully, an assignment from my American Religious Thought course delivered me from my dilemma.

Our professor asked us to read and then write an essay on the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s sermon called “The American Dream.” Written and preached almost sixty years ago (1965) upon his return from India, Dr. King wrote: “I remember when Mrs. King and I were in India, we journeyed down . . . to the southernmost part . . . the state of Kerala . . . That afternoon I was to speak in . . . a school attended by . . . students who were the children of former untouchables . . . they could not go places that other people went; they could not do certain things. And this was one of the things that Mahatma Gandhi battled – along with his struggle to end the long night of colonialism – also to end the long night of the caste system and caste untouchability . . . He called [the untouchables] the children of God, and he even adopted an untouchable as his daughter. He demonstrated in his own personal life that he was going to revolt against the whole caste idea.

“And I remember that afternoon when I stood up in that school,” writes King, “The principal introduced me and, as he came to the conclusion of his introduction, he said, `Young people, I would like to present to you a fellow untouchable from the United States of America’.

“For the moment I was a bit shocked and peeved that I would be referred to as an untouchable. Pretty soon my mind dashed back across the mighty Atlantic. And I started thinking about the fact that at that time no matter how much I needed to rest my tired body after a long night of travel, I couldn’t stop in the average motel . . . that no matter how long an old Negro woman had been shopping downtown and got a little tired and needed to get a hamburger or a cup of coffee at a lunch counter, she couldn’t get it there, that still in too many instances, Negroes have to go to the back of the bus and have to stand up over empty seats . . . that my children and the other children that would be born would have to go to segregated schools. I started thinking about the fact: twenty million of my brothers and sisters were still smothering in an airtight cage of poverty in an affluent society.

“I started thinking about the fact: these twenty million brothers and sisters were still by and large housed in rat-infested, unendurable slums in the big cities of our nation, still attended inadequate schools faced with improper recreational facilities. And I said to myself, `Yes, I am an untouchable, and every Negro in the United States of America is an untouchable’. And this is the evilness of segregation: it stigmatizes the segregated as an untouchable in a caste system. We hold these truths to be self-evident, if we are to be a great nation, that all men [and women] are created equal. God’s black children are as significant as his [God’s] white children. `We hold these truths to be self-evident’. One day we will learn this” (Martin Luther King, Jr., “The American Dream” in A Knock at Midnight).

Now, almost sixty years later, we are debating whether matters of slavery and segregation and race can or should be taught in American schools. And, almost sixty years later, I am even more curious where, given Dr. King’s life experience, he got his dream of a society and a church un-tethered by any form of segregation?

If you read enough of King’s work, you’ll find that he learned to dream from other dreamers, from Ghandi, yes, but from Jesus and from the Apostle Paul in particular. It would take a dreamer to believe that the congregation in Corinth could ever rise above its divisive, derisive, arrogant, and segregated ways. And, yet, Paul dared to dream.

Paul wrote two, fairly lengthy, letters to the church in Corinth and they’re not “thank you” notes for exemplary Christian character or “celebratory” notes for a job well done. These letters plead with the Corinthians to take a long, hard look at who they are and what kind of community God intends for them to be. These letters are addressed to one congregation in Corinth, but in reality, the letters were first heard by a collection of mini-congregations in the Corinthian church. Each congregation felt itself superior, each one reveled in its own spiritual superiority and segregated ways.

In these letters, Paul dreams of the day when the people of God will not segregate themselves into theological or spiritual or social or ethnic/racial ghettoes, but will recognize that cordoning off the grace of God only to the like-minded is anathema to being the body of Christ. Paul dreams of the day when every Corinthian Christian will yearn for and work for their common unity in Christ. For Paul, Christian unity is not believers trying to morph into some bland and blah uniformity. Christian unity is achieved when the church understands that no one person in the body is indispensable, but, in God’s eyes, every last person in the body is invaluable.

Paul also dreams of a church that will be restless until schism and segregation are rejected for the demons that they are. Elsewhere in this first letter to Corinth, Paul chastises the wealthy for eating all the food at the buffet line and finishing all the wine in the communion chalice while the poor come up empty and hungry. He dreams of a body of believers who will not sanction such class warfare in or out of the church.

Paul’s dream is inspired by Jesus’ dream of believers who will not be tempted to think themselves of greater worth than other believers. Clearly, the dreams of Jesus and Paul inspired Dr. King not only to dream of an end to segregation in the church, but to end this evil in society as well.

Almost sixty years later than King’s sermon, there is still more than enough room, enough need, for people of faith to dream. For too long, for far too long, I have listened to good, loving, committed, caring, intelligent Christians look out over their same complexion congregations and make excuses for why churches don’t seek out, welcome and embrace the full community of color around them by saying:

“Well, you know, folks like to worship with folks of the same race.”


“They wouldn’t be comfortable coming into this sea of white.”


“Their kind likes a different kind of worship from us.”

I hear similar rhetoric not just about people of various colors. I hear it said to explain the reason why the poor cannot worship in the same congregation as those who are not. Nearly seventy years ago, the Supreme Court struck down the insidious doctrine of “separate but equal.” And yet, too often, the church still tolerates a theology and practice of “separate but equal.”

For too long, for far too long, I have listened to good, dedicated, respected Christian leaders argue that the days of segregation are over in America. After all, we even elected an African-American President! These folks argue that it is time for African, Asian, and Latino minorities and their descendants to do what European immigrants did – pick themselves up by their bootstraps, stop complaining, stop draining the public welfare system, and, for blacks to stop whining about slavery or fantasizing about reparations or wanting us to discuss persistent forms of enslavement in America even after the Civil War.

Two centuries later, though, significant boundaries in education, health care, housing, and labor still stand firm, prisons are still populated with far more minorities of color and of low income and hope is still denied to too many. Two centuries later, segregation still diminishes both church and society and people of every color.

In this dream season of Lent, I am praying for a church that does not celebrate sameness or confuse sameness with Christian unity; a church that dreams of and works for a society and world in which the demonic wall of segregation collapses, once and for all.

What I learned long ago from Jesus and the Apostle Paul and Dr. King is that winter, spring, summer, or fall, in Christ, through Christ, with Christ, not just Lent, but every season is the dream season.

So, if you do nothing else in this season of Lent, for God’s sake, and for the sake of God’s beloved world, dare to dream!


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