25 August 2013

The Dream at 50

Jeremiah 1:4-10 & Luke 13:10-17

14th Sunday after Pentecost/ 25th August 2013

We’ve come a long way since 1963, both as a church and a nation.  This weekend marks the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. The actual day of the March was August 28th.  You might remember that day (I was born about seven months later), maybe you were there, or know someone who was there.  Whether you were there or not, remember it or not, we know about it, should know about it because it was a pivotal moment in our history, a turning point really. It was one of the largest rallies for human rights in the history of the United States. It was organized by civil rights groups and labor groups, and, significantly, by religious organizations.  Included among the religious speakers that day was the Rev. Eugene Carson Blake (1906-1985), former president of the National Council of Churches (later president of the World Council of Churches), and, at the time of the March, stated clerk of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (USA), the former northern stream of the church. (Although the denomination did not endorse the March.) Between 200,000 and 300,000 were in attendance on that humid August day, 75-85% of the marchers were black.  The March paved the way for the passing of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which outlawed major forms of discrimination against racial, ethnic, national and religious minorities, and women, ending, legally, segregation; and it paved the way for the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which prohibited discrimination in voting.

            Perhaps the March is most remembered for the speech that came at the end of the program given by the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. (1929-1968), known today as his “I have a dream…” speech.  Carved into the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, at the exact location of the podium where King spoke to the crowd are these words, “I HAVE A DREAM.” 

            But that speech almost fell flat.[1]   On the night before the March, King asked his aides for advice on what he should say.  The speakers were limited to five minutes each.  As a preacher who tries to write his sermons on Friday afternoons, I was amazed to learn this week that King was still working on his speech the night before! His advisor, Wyatt Walker, told him, “Don’t use the lines about ‘I have a dream,’…It’s trite, it’s cliché.  You’ve used it too many times already.”

            Walker was right.  King had used it a lot. As early as 1960, in an address before the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), entitled “The Negro and the American Dream," King introduced this image. He said to that gathering, “In a real sense America is essentially a dream—a dream yet unfilled.  It is the dream of a land where men of all races, colors and creeds will live together as brothers.  The substance of the dream is expressed in these sublime words: ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.’ This is the dream.  It is a profound, eloquent and unequivocal expression of the dignity and worth of all human personality.”

            On the night before the March in Washington, however, he was urged not to mention the dream.  After listening to his advisers at the Willard Hotel, King said, “I am now going upstairs to my room to counsel with my Lord.  I will see you all tomorrow.”  He worked on the speech throughout the night, producing draft after draft. King gave the final text to his aides and then went to sleep, around 4 a.m.; there was no reference to “I have a dream” in it.

            King was the last to speak that day. By the time King made it to the podium the crowd started to thin. It was hot and it was late. King stayed close to the text. People in the crowd said it was not as powerful as some of his other speeches.  He was wrapping it up with, “Go back to Mississippi, go back to Alabama, go back to South Carolina,” when Mahalia Jackson (1911-1972) cried out to him, “Tell’em about the dream, Martin.”  King stayed closed to his text, he said “Go back to the slums and ghettos of our northern cities, knowing that somehow his situation can and will be changed.”  Again, Jackson yelled, “Tell’em about the dream.”  King then grabbed the podium and set the prepared text to the side.  One observer said, “When [King] was reading from his text, he stood like a lecturer.  But the moment he set that text aside, he took on the stance of a Baptist preacher.”  Clarence Jones, one of King’s aides, turned to the person standing next to him and said: “Those people don’t know it, but they’re about to go to church.” In that moment the podium transformed into a pulpit; the lecturer became the prophet of the Lord proclaiming the Word.  King paused and then said, “So even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream.” And the rest is history.

            But what happened in that moment?  Something happened. It’s that moment when prophets and preachers are born. That moment when prophets and preachers feel compelled to speak, have to speak, have to say what needs to be said, even if it’s not what people want to hear.  The prophet Jeremiah tried to remain silent, he refused to speak on God’s behalf, but he knew that he couldn’t because, as he said, “within me there is something like a burning fire shut up in my bones; and I am weary with holding it in, and I cannot” (Jer. 20:9).  A prophet, a preacher can’t keep silent. It’s a violation of one’s call, of one’s spirit to do so.  It’s as if at that moment King was touched by fire, the fire of a prophet, seized by something deep, and primal, and electric.  When he was speaking, preaching from that depth the crowd responded, the people woke up; something was constellated in the crowd and the American psyche.  He was tapping into something profound and people knew it.  The African-American community might have known about Martin’s dream, but white America didn’t.  Now they did.

            Most Americans had never really heard King speak or preach before.  Less than two miles away in the White House, President John F. Kennedy (1917-1963) was watching the speech on television. Kennedy had never heard an entire King speech before then. When it was over he said, “He’s damned good. Damned good.”  William Sullivan, head of domestic intelligence for the FBI had a different response.  “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 stand point of communism, the Negro and national security.”

            What’s so dangerous about having a dream? What’s so dangerous about trying to  dream?

            Dr. King’s “dream” speech might be 50, but we have to be honest, both synagogue and church needs to affirm and remember, this dream didn’t belong to Martin, it wasn't his. It was and is actually part of a much older, deeper dream, dreamt by Jeremiah and other prophets, dreamt by Jesus, indeed, dreamt by and hoped by all who know the heart of God and trust in God’s promise.  As God said to Jeremiah when he was called: “Do not be afraid…for I am with you to deliver you,…” (Jer. 1:8). That’s what King was tapping into.  That promise of God, the dream of deliverance, of freedom, of liberation, is situated right at the heart of God.  Deliverance, freedom, liberation—it’s who God is and what God longs for for all God’s children, and because this is true, this is what people of faith in this God are called toward, despite however unpopular or unsettling or even  dangerous it will seem. There’s no stopping this desire within God.  It’s why he sent the Son, the one who embodies God’s deliverance, freedom, and liberation. For everyone weighed down by oppression, like the crippled woman who was bent over and unable to stand up straight, Jesus comes on the Sabbath, breaks the law, heals on the Sabbath, and says, “Woman, you are set free…” (Luke 13:12). The Sabbath was made for liberation, for release, for healing, hope, and, as we Christians claim, for resurrection.  And the Church was formed to extend God’s liberation movement; it exists to participate in God’s great march toward freedom.  These are our marching orders; they always have been and always will be until the Kingdom finally comes.  And the Church can either step in line or get out of the way.

            Indeed, we have to admit and remember, actually confess the sins of the Church that tried to block, hinder, and resist God’s march toward freedom; the Church needs to confess its collusion in racism, working hard to keep the country and the Church, “separate but equal.”  Not the whole Church, of course.  The Civil Rights Movement would not have been as effective as it was if the Church of Jesus Christ had been silent about injustice.  That part of the Church had to be extra loud and forceful because the majority of the Church, both in the North and in the South, remained silent, didn’t want to get involved, preferred that King and others like him would just be quiet and go away.  The 1960s were a divisive time in the Church, especially around the question of race. Baltimore was not the most welcoming place for African-Americans.  It’s troubling to hear the stories about the racism, the remnants of Jim Crow, the segregation, the hatred, which were practiced around here, including Catonsville. In the mid-1960s, the pastor here at the time, Dr. Wayne McCoy, preached a progressive gospel for the time that disturbed a lot of people.  Dr. McCoy put up these words on the Frederick Road sign:  ALL RACES WELCOME HERE.  It caused quite a stir in the church, members were upset, and some actually left the church.  I can tell you my own stories of growing up in the racist north, terrified by the stories of the Newark (NJ) riots in 1967, stories I’m not proud about.

            When we look back to that era. When we hear the stories. When we see the images, it’s easy to say, how did we ever behave like that as a people, as a Church? If you want to see a good portrayal of this period, be sure to see the new movie The Butler I went to see it with an African-American friend. She and I had a long, honest talk about racism in America last Saturday afternoon and then we went to see the movie together. If you can, go and see the movie in Baltimore, downtown, in a mixed-race movie theatre, then watch how you’re feeling, and how others are reacting around you.  When the lights come up, look into the eyes of your brothers and sisters. 

            How? Why?  When we tell our children about what it was like then, they’re stunned.  It sounds so barbaric, but it’s true and not that long ago.

            We’ve come a long way since 1963. We have much to celebrate and to be thankful about. But we’re not where we need to be as a nation and Church.  Sunday morning at 11 o’clock is still the most segregated hour in America each week. Churches still struggle with racial diversity. CPC has become more racially diverse, but we still don’t reflect our community.  Some say because we now have an African-American president that we crossed into a post-racial America.  We dealt with our history.  But that’s a lie.  It’s simply not true.  Just ask a random group of African-Americans if that’s how it feels living in America today.  Race is still an issue for us as a nation, and as a Church, primarily because we don’t really talk about race, we pretend our differences don’t exist; we don’t want to bring up the past, dwell on the pain.  Out of sight is never out of mind. We think we’re not biased or prejudiced, but it’s there, in all of us.  The tension over the George Zimmerman verdict is a case in point.

            We’re still not where we need to be. But the dream is still alive.  It won’t die because it’s fueled by the fire of God’s love.  It’s God’s dream dreaming through us, which means we have to continue to dream the dream forward.

            We’re still not where we need to be, but we’re on the way there, we’re getting there. That spirit is beautifully captured in the musical Hairspray, wrestles in a comical, yet serious, way about what it was like to live in Baltimore in the 1950s.  Hairspray ends, full of biblical images, looking away from the past to a new future

’Cause tomorrow is a brand new day,
 and it don’t know white from black….
‘Cause the world keeps spinning ‘round and ‘round
and my heart’s keeping time to the speed of sound,
I was lost till I heard the drums,
Then I found my way, 
‘Cause you can’t stop the beat.

The beat, the rhythm of change, the march toward justice is inexorable. 

You can try to stop the paradise we’re dreaming.
But you can’t stop the beat

So shine that light
Take my hand
And let's dance into the promised land
Cause . . . I know we've come so far
But we've got so far to go
I know the road seems long
But it won't be long till it's time to go
So, most days we'll take it fast
And some nights we'll take it slow
I know we've come so far but…
We've got so far to go. [2]

[1]Gary Younge provides a fascinating account of King’s speech in “Martin Luther King:  the story behind his ‘I have a dream’ speech, The Guardian, August 9, 2013. http://www.theguardian.com/world/2013/aug/09/martin-luther-king-dream-speech-history
[2] Hairspray (2002) music by Marc Shaiman and lyrics by Scott Wittman.  

1 comment:

Richard Micklos said...

Your study of history at Rutgers served you well. The short "history lesson" at the beginning of your sermon was interesting and very informative. I learned things about the speech that I didn't know. Then you beautifully segued from King's dream, to God's dream, and, finally, to the Gospel reading. Ending with examples of "the dream deferred" close to home, both in time and place, was a master stroke. This was a elegantly crafted and powerful reflection on the meaning of "The Dream" in 1963 and fifty years later.
It's a blessing that you share them with us.
P.S. A perfect new title and relevant quote.