“So I say to you, my friends, that even though we must face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed—we hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal…
I have a dream 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. I have a dream today!
I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places shall be made plain, and the crooked places shall be made straight and the glory of the Lord will be revealed and all flesh shall see it together.
This is our hope…”
As he stood in front of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, DC on August 28, 1963, Martin Luther King Jr. capped off the historic March for Civil Rights with his most famous and often quoted speech entitled, “I Have a Dream.” Usually Dr. King would address his audiences with a prepared manuscript written out ahead of time. But according to some accounts, Martin Luther King improvised the refrain of his “I Have a Dream” speech at the urging of one of this nation’s most iconic Gospel singers, Mahalia Jackson.
“Tell them about the dream, Martin,” Mahalia Jackson prompted Martin Luther King before he went up to the podium. And when Dr. King started to talk about the dream near the end of his speech, the refrain became soaring, legendary inspiration for the thousands gathered around the Reflection Pool in the shadow of the Lincoln Memorial in 1963 and for countless thousands in years since.
Tell them about the dream… I wonder whether that idea still resonates in 2016, now nearly fifty-three years after they were first spoken. Especially in these national days when we are so bogged down in incendiary rhetoric and so wrapped up in staking out and holding onto turf in spite of the divisiveness our stubborn self-centeredness has inevitably caused.
In the midst of national polarization around so many issues, our God given task as leaders and people of faith is still to speak a prophetic word. To tell people about God’s dream for one another and for the country in which we live. But as we struggle to find common ground and community and compromise, moving beyond the tribalism that pits us against our sisters and brothers, I worry that we are suffering from a scaled-down, national imagination. Are we dreaming less as a country than we once did? Or worse yet, are the dreams we’re having lately predominantly bad dreams…?
When describing her mother’s last days prior to her death, French existentialist Simone de Beauvoir once noted that the world had shrunk down to the size of her mother’s hospital room. I suspect many of us can relate to that image based on personal experience with loved ones at the time of their deaths. By the same token, the phenomenon of the world shrinking happens on a much broader level.
In our 2016 world where one mass shooting follows another with alarming regularity and we barely have time to lament the loss of innocent life in the wake of one tragedy before the next occurs, never mind harness the righteous anger that compels us towards decisive change, fear for our personal safety effectively shrinks our world.
In a world where religious extremists devalue human life to the point they are willing to sacrifice their own lives as long as they kill many more along the way, anxiety about whether we are teaching basic human and religious morals to our children shrinks our world.
In a world where unemployment and illness and racism and injustice and poverty imprison us to the pain of the present moment, where people struggle mightily to see beyond their own personal misfortunes, the world shrinks. Our goal becomes merely to survive when our God given destiny is actually to thrive.
And what about living in a world consumed with the bottom line? Where economic recession and corporate greed and downsizing and the tremendous gap between the wealthy and privileged and the poor and powerless garner so many daily headlines. We routinely subordinate our highest and deepest values to what we calculate as profit margin when each day is done. Yes, fiscal responsibility is essential. But in the process of constantly trying to balance the budget we lose sight of what’s ultimately important and we run the risk of losing our collective souls. And when our vision fails and we lose track of what matters, the world shrinks.
In these uncertain times in which we live, we need the power of holy imagination on a national level. Without holy imagination, life withers and dies. And only great dreams, along with the energy required to achieve those great dreams can restore our nation to full health…
Which brings us to this weekend when we remember and honor once again the life of Martin Luther King Jr. At the same time, it’s a weekend when we invite one another to dream large and noble dreams in his name. Martin Luther King Jr. invites us to dream about a country which is generous to the weak and the vulnerable, welcoming strangers and insuring the well-being of every single person who lives within our borders.
Martin Luther King Jr. invites us to dream about national healing. To dream about a nation where boarded up businesses are transformed into places of innovative thinking. A nation where homes and companies and churches like ours become meccas for alternative sources of energy in the form of solar power and other power that honors God’s creation and does no damage to the environment.
Martin Luther King Jr. invites us to dream about a country where rundown schools become temples of the imagination for children of all ages. He invites us to dream about a country where sisters and brothers who have mental illness and special needs can find the compassionate care and support they need to live full lives. He invites us to dream about a world where people set aside their weapons and to be in dialogue with one another as a way to settle differences.
And Martin Luther King Jr. invites us to dream God’s dream for our nation. A dream where justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream. A dream where swords are beaten into plowshares and spears into pruning hooks and no one learns the ways of war and violence anymore. A world where we break down the walls that divide us and build up the bonds that unite us in the name of the one who invites us to love our enemies and to break bread around a communal table and to love our neighbors as much as we love ourselves.
Tell them about the dream. The dream that Martin Luther King Jr. spoke of in 1963 reminds us that within what we perceive as limitations are possibilities for adventure and growth. So are we asking ourselves the right questions? What is our dream? What are we really living for? None of us can move forward on negativity and fear. Imagination and hope are what drive us into the future.
Today then, let us dream big. Let us have expansive and generous personal and national dreams, taking us beyond what we know to what is yet uncharted. Let us have big dreams for this church and for all churches that we be waystations of healing, justice and transformation. And where each of us recognizes that our well-being is connected to the well-being of those who gather with us and those who gather beyond us and outside us.
Let us have big dreams for our nation. A nation where we seek to walk hand in hand, identifying our diversity as a thing of beauty. Leading the world by our example of peace and justice and not violence. Building great things that inspire awe and wonder and adventure. And creating a beloved community of people who aren’t afraid to keep on dreaming in days to come.
As Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech built towards its climax, he said the following.
“With this faith we will be able to hew out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope. With this faith we will be able to transform the jangling discords of our nation into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood.
With this faith we will be able to work together, to pray together, to struggle together, to go to jail together, to stand up for freedom together, knowing that we will be free one day. This will be the day when all of God’s children will be able to sing with new meaning—‘my country ‘tis of thee; sweet land of liberty; of thee I sing; land where my fathers died, land of the pilgrim’s pride; from every mountain side, let freedom ring.’”
Tell them about the dream...Amen.