Dr. James A. Forbes, Jr., is Brown and Sockman Professor of Preaching, Union Theological Seminary, New York.
IN January 20 our nation will celebrate the birth of Martin Luther King, Jr. He was a man of humanitarian vision, a preacher of equality and peace, a prophet of non-violent struggle for social change, a drum major for justice, and an inspiration for freedom-loving peoples everywhere. If you attend special services in King’s honor, listen to the radio, or watch television programs recounting his noble deeds, you are likely to hear excerpts from his famous speech, “I Have a Dream.” Many will be moved by the tone of his voice, the enrapturing cadence of his delivery, and the spirit of togetherness to which his vision calls us. Some who formerly stood in opposition to his program will join in the spirit of the holiday and acknowledge that, indeed, King was God’s gift to our nation and to people all over the world who dream of a just and a peaceful society.
What difference will such a holiday make? Will it move us closer to the realization of the dream Dr. King so powerfully described? Will it call forth a fresh resolve to resume the struggle for which King suffered abuse and eventually met a martyr’s death? How may we, beginning with the First National Observance of Martin Luther King, Jr., Day, start to build a tradition worthy of his dream? How shall we institute a celebration that goes beyond speeches and songs, banner and parades?
The opportunity to make this holiday more than just another festive occasion or an extra day off to shop or play should be a high priority for the religious communities of our nation. Can you think of any other holiday which is so clearly rooted in a prophetic vision? What national celebration so powerfully mandates attention to moral commitment and spiritual revitalization? At last we have a holiday which makes it an act of patriotism to tell the truth about the basic changes we must make if we are to dream the dream with King. Let us as persons of religious commitment focus out thoughts and lift our voices in calling our nation to prophetic awareness.
If you had an opportunity to address the nation in preparation for the King holiday, what message would you share? What insights from the Christian faith would you offer to deepen and enrich the celebration? Take a moment to think about it. Sooner or later, perhaps we all will get the chance to speak our piece; if not at the National Press Club, then maybe at home, at work or at church.
I’m glad my time has come to preach a sermon on Martin Luther King, Jr. I have a good text, an appropriate topic, and I think I’m on to something that needs to be said. My text is Acts 10: 1-23. It is about another leader who also had a dream — Peter, the disciple of the Lord. His experience on the housetop in Joppa gives a faith perspective for interpreting the challenge of the dream of Dr. king. My sermon topic is the title of the first movie I saw when I was a seven-year-old boy. I remember nothing of the movie; only its title — Wake Up and Dream. “What a strange title,” I thought to myself. Strange to my mind because at that age I always associated dreaming with being in bed asleep. “To wake up” suggested coming out of sleep to become active, aroused, or alert. I wondered to myself, “Can you wake up and dream at the same time?” I think we shall see from the experience of Peter and Martin Luther King that God-given dreams require extraordinary alertness from all who would be faithful in making the dream come alive.
Let us take a brief look at the way in which Peter’s ministry required him to wake up and dream, and in the light of his story turn to a more detailed analysis of Dr. King’s dream. Hopefully we will discover why we, in our time, must be come visionaries wide awake for divinely inspired action in the world.
Peter, the fisherman, had been called to Jesus to be one of the twelve. In the company of the other disciples he had learned of the great dream of the Kingdom of God — life ordered and sustained according to the will and design of the Creator. Peter had heard the parables of Jesus on the love of God which reaches out to all. He was the preacher on the day of Pentecost when all sorts and conditions of men and women of different cultures and tongues were gathered by the spirit into one body of love. On that occasion, he had preached that God was going to pour out the Spirit upon all flesh. He had become a leader in the new community, characterized by remarkable caring and sharing, but still primarily Judaistic in orientation.
Now God was ready to open new frontiers of inclusion — a ministry to the Gentiles. Peter, a leading apostle, has been chosen as the agent of change. But he will need to undergo change within himself before he will be able to fulfill the assignment. Blocking his readiness to respond are remnants of exclusiveness in his heart. Food restrictions, rules of table fellowship, and social interaction were well known and rigidly observed. Nevertheless God has a dream which is broader than Peter’s former customs and convictions. The transforming moment comes to Peter by way of a dream, or as the text says, “a trance”:
…Peter went up on the housetop to pray, about the sixth hour. And he became hungry and desired something to eat; but while they were preparing it, he fell into a trance and saw the heaven opened, and something descending, like a great sheet, let down by four corners upon the earth. In it were all kinds of animals and reptiles and birds of the air. And there came a voice to him, “Rise, Peter; kill and eat.” But Peter said, ‘No, Lord; for I have never eaten anything that is common or unclean.” And the voice came to him again a second time, “What God has cleansed, you must not call common.” This happened three times, and the thing was taken up at once to heaven.
Now while Peter was inwardly perplexed as to what the vision which he had seen might mean, behold, the men that were sent by Cornelius, having made inquiry for Simon’s house, stood before the gate and called out to ask whether Simon who was called Peter was lodging there. And while Peter was pondering the vision, the Spirit said to him “Behold, three men are looking for you. Rise and go down, accompany them without hesitation; for I have sent them.” And Peter went down to the men and said, “I am the one you are looking for; what is the reason for your coming?” And they said, “Cornelius, a centurion, an upright and God-fearing man, who is well spoken of by the whole Jewish nation, was directed by a holy angel to send for you to come to his house and to hear what you have to say.” So he called them in to be his guests.
Then the next day he rose and went off with them and some of the brethren from Joppa accompanied him. (Acts 10:9b-23)
Peter’s dream became a mind-expanding experience. He learned that “time makes ancient good uncouth.” He discovered that the dream of the Kingdom of God keeps on growing. The formulas, mandates, and holy obligations of one season may become simply the fertile soil for the springing up of new patterns of obedience. Peter came to see that the God-given dream expands beyond one’s first impressions and invites one to move in faith as the new dimensions unfold.
Does not the entire Bible reveal this basic truth, that the God of Creation keeps calling us forth to new places of trust and risk? Peter came to understand a little better their stories and the story of Jesus as well. For in Jesus what had been celebrated in the past finds new depth as each generation is summoned into dimensions of destiny never imagined before. Let us not hasten to congratulate ourselves for our understanding of this truth. We need to pay close attention to the negative lesson Peter learned. It is one which is likely to be experienced by all who want to keep pace with God’s dream. Peter is exposed to his own resistance to what God’s present will ordains and demands. Did you hear his response to the words — “Rise, Peter, kill and eat”? “No, Lord.” That is what he said. He said “No” to the Lord. For a moment his ingrained custom held higher authority than the voice of the Lord …. Said he “for I have never eaten anything that is common or unclean.” This is not the defiant rebellion of an unholy pagan, it is the conscientious preservation of standards of purity and piety from the past. No matter how holy or sacred our traditions seem to be, we need to be alert to the moment when a moving dream turns a previous “yes” to God into a blasphemous “No Lord.” What awful tension was experienced between “Rise, Peter, kill and eat” and the reply “No, Lord” and the subsequent admonition “What God has cleansed, you must not call common.” Three times the tension swept through his mind in living color. It startled him awake. He knew that the old way was passing and a new day was dawning for him.
The transforming power of the dream is evidenced by the depth of Peters perplexity as well as his readiness to follow what the Spirit prompted him to do. Despite his initial hesitation and at considerable risk to his reputation he receives the messengers from Cornelius’ house, accepts them as house guests and on the next day returns with them to Caesarea where a whole congregation of gentiles was waiting to find its place in the dream of God.
What a glorious and exhilarating experience he had at Cornelius’ house. It became for him and his companions another Pentecost. The freedom of the Spirit he experienced was “out of this world.” Old distinctions faded away amid the profusion of praise. Peter actually enjoyed what he once would have abhorred. That’s the way it is with a God-given dream if we can be awakened to walk in its emerging possibilities. It captures our imagination, wins out commitment and hurls us into a future of ever-expanding wonder. That is what happened to Peter and his dream.
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., had a dream too. He gave his life attempting to awaken the nations to the promise in the dream. In his sermons he frequently urged the hearers not to be like Rip Van Winkle who slept through a revolution. The urgency of the dream he preached about demanded alertness and readiness for action. Mrs. Coretta King spoke of the work of her husband as “attempting to awaken a sleeping giant.” Dr. King didn’t travel the length and breadth of this land just to give rousing speeches to be enjoyed and then ignored year after year. He wanted the people to wake up and dream. Is that what he would wish to say to us from his place of waiting? I am convinced that such would be his mood if he were addressing the nation today.
What was the dream? Many images, words and phrases come to mind when Dr. King’s dream is mentioned:
Black and White together
Content of character and not color of skin
Freedom, equality, and justice for all
Strength to love
Interdependence of all life
Living together in peace
Justice rolling down like water and righteousness as a mighty stream.
Rich and poor, black and white sitting down at the table of brotherly love.
Shifting from a “thing-oriented” society to a “person-oriented” society.
Eliminating the triple evils of poverty, racism, and war.
An economic system strong enough to care for the weak.
Hewing out of mountains of despair a stone of hope.
There are countless other expressions you and I could add to the list. But no description is adequate if it does not include the following elements which many feel were the central longings at the heart of his dream:
The search for the Beloved Community
through non-violent action
centered in the moral imperative of love
deeply rooted in the American dream
reflective of the Kingdom of God
transforming our society into an oasis of freedom and justice
where social, economic and political power is shared with dignity for all
working together to create a beautiful symphony of brotherhood
so all God’s children can say in truth — “Free at last.”
What a dream! Those of us who lived through the years of the King struggle heard these and similar words many times. Even now they touch deep places in our hearts. On the other hand, those who missed the drama of that phase of the civil rights movement may find it difficult to imagine that anyone would oppose such a beautiful dream as we’ve just reviewed. I can only say to such persons, if you only knew the price of blood, sweat, and tears that had to be shed, it would strain your powers of imagination. Bombed-out churches and homes, lynched protestors and maimed marchers, police dogs, fire hoses and electric cattle prods, and overcrowded jail cells could give convincing evidence that the dream did not enjoy universal endorsement.
Can you see now why it is important not to let the celebration simply lift up the charming words of “I have a dream” and neglect the backdrop of suffering against which these words are made well nigh sacred? All who celebrate ought to be aware that belief in the dream was first affirmed by King and his followers in the face of a system social, economic and political — which found the dream to be too costly and intolerably disruptive of the customs, comforts, and conveniences of the advantaged citizens of the time. It was a dream advancing against the stream of selfishness, prejudice, and pride. Marchers sang “We Shall Overcome” not only because it built a sense of solidarity for the demonstrations, but because everybody knew how high the walls of discrimination and exploitation had been built and how strongly reinforced they were by centuries of benign neglect and outright assault against the dignity of blacks and the poor.
Some prefer to bypass the judgment section when they play the “I have a dream” speech. But. let us take time to pay attention to the analysis King gave before getting down to the dramatic chant at the conclusion of his great speech. Early in the speech he said,
We have come here today to dramatize an appalling condition. In a sense we have come to our nation’s Capital to cash a check. When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir. This note was a promise that all men would be guaranteed the unalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. It is obvious today that America has defaulted on this promissory note insofar as her citizens of color are concerned. Instead of honoring this sacred obligation, America has given the Negro people a bad check; a check which has come back marked ‘insufficient funds.’
To speak of the dream without acknowledging the persisting objections to its fulfillment is to risk falling into a slumbering sentimentality. No one serves the dream effectively while asleep. We must wake up and dream.
If we wake up we will discover that King’s dream is like that which Peter experienced. It is a growing dream, requiring constant updating, moving on to new frontiers. It began with a struggle for racial justice in the Montgomery bus boycott. Then on to interstate transportation, access to public accommodations, voting rights, jobs, workers rights, educational opportunities, and political empowerment in general. Observe the movement of the dream from concerns of racial equality to issues of poverty and from there to issues of international peace and universal brotherhood. The dream never stood still. It moved all the way from Montgomery to Washington and back to Memphis. The dream embraced concerns all the way from a seat on a bus to a seat in the Kingdom to come, from the valley of segregation and despair to the mountaintop of equality and hope. Mrs. King recognized the expand ing scope of the dream as moving beyond the focus of its early progra mmatic expression. In the foreword to Dr. King’s book Strength to Love, she recalls that as early as 1955 the larger dimensions were being expressed:
“Even then, Martin’s vision transcended time and place. He articulated for us not only the boycott’s immediate goal — the desegregation of city buses — but, more importantly, showed us its ultimate goal of healing and regenerating an entire populace.”
This more comprehensive goal of the dream became clearer as time went on, and as resistance hardened. In 1967 at the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, Dr. King told his followers, “…we must honestly face the fact that the movement must address itself to the question of restructuring the whole of American society.” What an ambitious agenda. To the ears of the rich and powerful such a goal certainly suggested prospects of nightmarish conflict and disruption. But even more comprehensive was the hope he announced out of his having been to the mountaintop: “I may not get there with you, but I want you to know tonight that we as a people will get to the Promised Land.” Who was he including in that phrase “we as a people”? Every element of our nation had representation there that night in Memphis at Mason Temple. Was his dream growing too big, was it beckoning too many segments of the population and would it upset too many vested interests?
Perhaps those who opposed the national holiday give evidence of sensing more clearly than many others the broader proportions of the dream. Maybe they fought against it because they felt the price would be too high, and they recognized their unwillingness to pay and doubted if the nation could bear the weight of the dissatisfaction and demands the dream might awaken. If this description of the expanded vision is accurate, it may be that many who were supporters of an earlier understanding may find themselves with Peter saying No, Lord. Some who marched for the dream in the early days may turn back as they are awakened to the sacrifices the dream will require today. As people of faith are we not learning with Peter and King that the call of God can be exceedingly disturbing of our settled convictions and our most reasonable assumptions? Many committed church members have come to know that the best of God’s Dream is often in tension with the hallowed “habits of our hearts.” And if that be the case, we ought to wake up, for the dream marches on until it sets up picket lines in front of our precincts of security and power. What a rude awakening that can be when God-given opportunity for genuine equality and justice knocks at our door and finds us wishing we could go back to sleep and dream of how things used to be.
Is that why the government finds it easy to dismantle many of the affirmative action programs? The people are sleeping! Is that why the needs of the poor and elderly are ignored in the name of balancing the national budget? The people are sleeping! Is that why handpicked blacks and other minorities are being recruited to help the system blame the victims? The people are sleeping! Is that why there is an erosion of voting rights, access to education, employment opportunities, health care and housing for blacks, hispanics and native Americans? The people are sleeping! Is that why freedom fighters in South Africa and Central America are not sure we can support anybody’s freedom but our own? The people are sleeping!
Can’t you hear the voice of King calling from his grave? America, Wake Up and Dream!
When all is said and done, the most serious issue concerning King’s dream is the question of where it came from. If it is only a political platform of a rare Black Baptist preacher with a golden voice and extraordinary courage, that is one thing. If it is simply a curious combination of Afro-American spirituality, Gandhian philosophy, Brightmanian Personalism, Liberal Social Gospel Theology, with Conservative Evangelical fervor, that is an interesting, but not particularly compelling patchwork of ideas. But what if God gave the dream and what if the general drift of the dream is in the direction of the Shalom of Hebrew Scriptures and the kingdom of God as preached by Jesus? Suppose King’s dream is a genuine part of the Dream of the One who “Shaped the sun and pillared the blue firmament with light”? What would that say to us?
If King’s dream is a part of the Dream which is the design by which God works in history, then surely we had better wake up. It will not matter too much who King was and what he did or left undone. It will be inconsequential as to whether we like his philosophy, life-style or methods. It will not matter what we always thought about his program or what our community feels or whether his goals seem feasible or whether the time is right or whether the government approves it, or the power structure endorses it. The only thing that matters is whether we wake up in time to follow where the dream leads — no matter what it costs.
Let’s wake up and calculate the cost of these elements of the dream:
- New social, economic and political policies so that all may share the resources of our land;
- New community commitment to adequate housing, health, employment, education, political participation, and well-being of all the citizens;
- New programs so that human rights are genuinely supported all
over the world;
- A national commitment to maintain and pursue peace through greater reliance on human values and less dependence on our military might;
- Preserving a just sustainable world, free from pollution and oppression.
If the cost results in increased taxes and a reduction of our luxuries and conveniences, will we protest with a defiant “No Lord!”? If we have to learn to make do with less security and risk reproach for our kingdom-conscious life-style of trusting God, will we say, “I’m sorry Lord, find somebody else”? If the Lord needs our power and influence to change a system so that the poor, elderly and minorities will be relieved of inequities in the courts and exploitation in the marketplace, will we resist the call and then rise up and help kill the dream and the dreamers?
For those who like Peter and King are led to the point of saying “Yes” to God’s expanding Dream, there is no virtue or wisdom in being asleep. Be well aware, there will be risks, disappointments, set-backs and extraordinary sacrifices. Rejection and ostracism will surely come. And insofar as the backdrop of our work is a system which claims to enjoy sacred authority, death and destruction may be pressed into service against us lest we disturb the rest of those who are “at ease with Zion.” The demons of racism, economic oppression and militarism are experienced in turning the people’s dreams into nightmares. All who will be servants of the Divine Dream might as well dream dreams that allow them to keep their eyes open and their consciousness keen. The Spirit seeks to arouse us to new obedience and action. Do we hear the knock at the gate? Are we willing to follow the moving dream? Once again I ask, where does this challenge leave us? With Jesus in a garden in need of reassurance about the future of his dream, while the disciples were fast asleep? Or with Peter on the housetop searching for an interpretation of a dream which seemed to contradict his sense of holiness? Or with Coretta and her children wondering if the cause was really worth sacrificing the man of their hopes and dreams? Or with Martin King writing a letter in the Birmingham jail and hoping against hope that fellow Christians — clergy and lay — would finally understand why he was there?
If we should be hesitant and halting in response, that is understandable. Saying “yes” didn’t come easy for any of the above, not even for Jesus. A God-given dream usually requires repeated appearances and confirmations two or three times. This is because of its magnitude, which strains our fixed securities and our finite minds. Even when we wake up the dream does not always reveal its ultimate intention. But the God who plants it calls us to follow as we are strengthened by the Spirit. As we go in obedience the giver of the dream shepherds it and us toward fulfillment. Thereby faithful dreamers are assured that “We Shall Overcome.”
How blessed we are to have a national holiday which at least once a year calls us to wake up and dream. Can you imagine what moral and spiritual uplift will come to this nation if our churches will enter the time of alert visioning, reflecting on these questions:
What kind of world does God intend?
What in us fights against the fulfillment of that dream?
How may we best serve that dream today?
What will it cost?
Will we be able to risk the commitment?
The dream thus considered may seem at first to threaten the spirit of celebration. But don’t panic. Realism is only designed to deepen the celebrative possibility. If you or your friends are unnerved by the gravity of this analysis I urge one thing more before you choose to say “Yes” or “No.” Hear this testimony from Martin Luther King’s own lips. It may be just the reassurance we need to draw us into the power and promise of the dream. It just might awaken faith in some of us and enlist us as lifelong agents of the Dream of God.
As I come to the conclusion of my message, I would wish you to permit a personal experience. The first twenty-four years of my life were packed with fulfillment. I had no basic problems or burdens. Because of concerned and loving parents who provided for every need, I sailed through high school, college, theological school, and graduate school without interruption. It was not until I became a part of the leadership of the Montgomery bus protest that I was actually confronted with the trials of life. Almost immediately after the protest had been undertaken, we began to receive threatening phone calls and letters in our home. Sporadic in the beginning, they increased day after day. At first I took them in my stride, feeling that they were the work of a few hot-heads who would become discouraged after they discovered that we would not fight back. But as the weeks passed, I realized that many of the threats were in earnest. I felt myself faltering and growing in fear.
After a particularly strenuous day, I settled in bed at a late hour. My wife had already fallen asleep and I was about to doze off when the telephone rang. An angry voice said, “Listen, nigger, we’ve taken all we want from you. Before next week you’ll be sorry you ever came to Montgomery.” I hung up, but I could not sleep. It seemed that all of my fears had come down on me at once. I had reached the saturation point.
I got out of bed and began to walk the floor. Finally, I went to the kitchen and heated a pot of coffee. I was all ready to give up. I tried to think of a way to move out of the picture without appearing to be a coward. In this state of exhaustion when my courage had almost gone, I determined to take my problem to God. My head in my hands, I bowed over the kitchen table and prayed aloud. The words I spoke to God that midnight are still vivid in my memory. “I am here taking a stand for what I believe is right. But now I am afraid. The people are looking to me for leadership and if I stand before them without strength and courage, they too will falter. I am at the end of my powers. I have nothing left. I’ve come to the point where I can’t face it alone.
At that moment I experienced the presence of the Divine as I had never before experienced him. It seemed as though I could hear the quiet assurance of an inner voice saying, “Stand up for righteousness, stand up for truth. God will be at your side forever.” Almost at once my fear began to pass from me. My uncertainty disappeared. I was ready to face anything. The outer situation remained the same, but God had given me inner calm. Three nights later, our home was bombed. Strangely enough, I accepted the word of the bombing calmly. My experience with God had given me a new strength and trust, I knew now that God is able to give us the interior resources to face the storms and problems of life.
Let this affirmation be our ringing cry. It will give us courage to face the uncertainties of the future. It will give our tired feet new strength as we continue our forward stride toward the city of freedom. When our days become dreary with low-hovering clouds and our nights become darker than a thousand midnights, let us remember that there is a great benign Power in the universe whose name is God, and he is able to make a way out of no way, and transform dark yesterdays into bright tomorrows. This is our hope for becoming better men. This is our mandate for seeking to make a better world.