“I have a dream.”
The words are iconic. I’m sure most of us know the speaker, and the context.
Martin Luther King, Jr. The Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C. August 28, 1963.
Ground zero of the African-American civil rights movement.
It had been 100 years since Abraham Lincoln himself had issued the Emancipation Proclamation. Almost 98 years since the U.S. Congress had passed the 13th amendment to the U.S. Constitution, abolishing slavery. A full century, in other words, to bring about full equality under the law for African Americans. But it hadn’t happened.
Three, four generations. And it still hadn’t happened. Bits and pieces, here and there, including a decade of rocky attempts at desegregating schools. But the 100-year old promise of freedom was far from fully realized.
And so African Americans were getting restless. Meetings were held, boycotts were enacted. People marched, people protested. Some began to think all this was not enough. A stronger voice was needed, a more powerful statement. Maybe even violence.
Into this world Martin Luther King came. Supporting Rosa Parks in her refusal to give her seat to a white passenger on an Alabama bus. Instrumental in organizing the civil rights movement. Preaching, speaking, rallying, lobbying. Insisting that, in their struggle for justice, African Americans must not resort to the same tactics as their oppressors: no hatred, no cruelty, no violence.
And this was how Martin Luther King, Jr., ended up on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C., on August 28, 1963, in front of 200,000 people.
Ground zero of the African-American civil rights movement.
“I have a dream.”
Powerful words, these. Powerful things, dreams.
“I have a 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 that 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 that one day every valley shall be exalted, and every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places will be made straight; ‘and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed and all flesh shall see it together.’”
Sounds biblical, these words. Sounds like God, these dreams.
And that’s because they are.
Nearly two thousand years earlier another prophet had stood on the other side of the world in very similar circumstances. He, too, had a dream.
His name was Jesus. He was from Nazareth, in Galilee. His people, the Jews, were coming up to 100 years under Roman occupation: nearly a century of economic exploitation, heavy taxation, no freedom to choose their own course. Galilee in particular was a simmering cauldron of unrest, always ready to boil over into outright revolt.
It had happened before. Not long after Jesus was born, after the death of King Herod, several people tried to claim the throne to take a run at Rome. Messiahs grew like wildflowers after a spring rain—but they were ruthlessly cut down.
Ten years later—about the time Luke’s Jesus was turning heads as a child in Jerusalem’s Temple—a man named Judah led an outright revolt against Rome, claiming Rome’s heavy taxes amounted to slavery. He and his followers were brutally crushed by the armies of Rome.
And now here Jesus stands, on those very hills of Galilee.
Ground zero of the Jewish resistance movement.
“I have a dream,” Jesus declares.
“I have a dream of God’s kingdom come, God’s will being done, on earth as it is in heaven. On that day every valley shall be exalted, and every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places will be made straight; ‘and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed and all flesh shall see it together.’”
“I have a dream,” Jesus proclaims to his fellow Galileans buckling under the weight of Rome. “I have a dream that one day those who are now grieving will be comforted, those who are now lowly and downtrodden will be in charge, those who are right now starving for justice will have their craving satisfied. I have a dream that one day those who are humble in their spirit and pure in their motives, those who show mercy toward others, those who make peace instead of inflicting violence and waging war, these will live in the fullness of life.”
“I have a dream today!” The crowd rumbles its agreement.
“I have a dream,” Jesus shouts to the restless masses. “I have a dream that one day the last will be first and the first will be last, everyone on equal footing. The Jew will live alongside the Gentile, the rich will sit down with the poor, men and women and elders and children all will share their lives in mutual care and respect.”
“I have a dream today!” You can hear the “Amen!” shouted in the background.
“I have a dream that one day the lost will be found. The struggling, the sick, the stigmatized, the silent, the sinner, all will be brought in to the banquet of God’s great love, the very least feasting until they are satisfied. I have a dream that one day the poor will hear good news for a change, the unwell will know true healing, the outcasts will be embraced, and those left for dead will experience new life.”
“I have a dream that one day oppression will cease and wars will be no more. The powerful and proud will be humbled and the lowly will be lifted up, swords will be turned into plows and seeds of life will be planted for the flourishing of humanity.”
“I have a dream today!” And the applause echoes out over the waters of the Sea of Galilee.
It might seem strange to think about Jesus’ teaching on the kingdom of God as God’s dream for the world. But that’s essentially the idea: the kingdom of God is God’s vision for the world, what the world would be like if people lived out God’s will, God’s way for humanity. The kingdom of God is the best possible world God can imagine.
This still might seem odd, to imagine God dreaming, to think of God imagining a better world. But remember: God is the Creator of all things, and to speak of God as Creator is to speak of God as imagining. Before anything existed, God imagined it. Everything that is, exists because God imagined it first. To use the Apostle Paul’s words, God is the one who “calls into being the things that do not yet exist.”
But God is not done imagining. God is not done dreaming. God has a dream for a better world. And God’s dream for the world is what Jesus called “the kingdom of God.”
And here’s the thing about God’s dreams: when God dreams something, you know it will become reality, even if it takes an eternity.
In fact, God has provided a way for us to see this dream become a reality: through Jesus. Jesus didn’t just stand on the steps of the halls of power and share God’s dream. He taught how this kingdom of God can come down to earth, and then he lived it out. Think back to our Scripture passages for today from Luke’s Gospel. Think back to the story of Jesus.
God’s kingdom, Jesus says, starts small, like a mustard seed. God’s dream for the world begins in the insignificant spaces in our lives: the everyday, the ordinary, the mundane. God’s dream for the world starts in the hidden places of our lives: in small, unseen acts of empathy and humility and compassion.
The kingdom of God does not come about through flashy programs and glitzy marketing campaigns, but through the nitty-gritty, down-to-earth, day-by-day, moment-by-moment choices we make to be kind, to be patient, to welcome, to forgive, to trust, to rejoice, to persevere.
God’s kingdom, Jesus says, spreads quietly, like yeast in dough. As we do these ordinary acts of love in the hidden spaces of the world, God’s dream begins to spread. It’s contagious. Grace begets grace. Forgiving others leads to others forgiving. Practising empathy and compassion encourages others to do the same. Joyful hospitality and thankful generosity multiply, spawning a community of open-handed and open-hearted people.
The kingdom of God does not come about through guilt manipulation or aggressive coercion, but through the repeated, repeated, repeated practice of Christ-likeness: humbling ourselves, raising up others, seeking the good of all above our own whiny wants.
And this is where God’s dream gets really hard. Because living into God’s kingdom, Jesus says, requires us to lose our lives in order to truly live. If we really want to seek first God’s kingdom and God’s justice, to see God’s dream become reality, Jesus says we must “deny ourselves and take up our cross and follow him.”
The kingdom of God does not come about by an easy road, a life of comfort and ease, insisting on our rights and privileges. It comes about by a narrow path, the path of willingly putting others’ genuine needs before our own personal preferences, seeking the good of all rather than our own selfish whims, knowing that when we all thrive together, we will each thrive even more.
And this is where God’s dream moves beyond our private lives and into the public domain. Because living into God’s kingdom, Jesus says, requires us to stand fast against evil: both that within ourselves and that in the wider world. God’s dream confronts the nightmare of this world’s evil. It demands that we defy those impulses within ourselves that cause harm to the other, and also those larger patterns of hostility and injustice within our societies that cause harm to whole swaths of people.
Racism, sexism, and bigotry of all kinds. Physical, sexual, and other forms of abuse. Economic exploitation and political repression. All the human rulers and underlying ideologies and prevailing attitudes and social structures that support these and other terrible evils.
To seek first God’s dream for the world means we are committing ourselves to stand firm against all these spiritual forces of evil—but to do so through persuasion and not coercion, through compassion and not cruelty, through mercy and not vengeance, through peaceful means and not violence.
Jesus walked this path himself, this narrow path to God’s kingdom. He did the small things, off in a back corner of the Roman Empire. He lived out the infectious way of welcoming love and selfless compassion and grateful joy. He resisted the evil powers of his day, willing to die rather than kill, giving his own life to seek the good of all.
And through all this Jesus sowed the seed of God’s kingdom in the world. In Jesus this dream was plucked from the fertile imagination of God and planted in the earthy soil of our humanity.
This was why, when Jesus was asked when God’s kingdom would come, when God’s dream would become a reality, Jesus could say: “Don’t look for the big, flashy signs! The kingdom of God is already among you. It’s right here—if you’re ready to see it.”
Do you remember the story of Pentecost? After Jesus’ death and resurrection, after Jesus’ exaltation to his rightful place in the universe, the wind of God moved on the face of the deep, just like it did in the beginning. God’s Spirit came upon that ragtag band of Jesus-followers, all huddled together in hope and fear.
And when it came time for the Apostle Peter to explain what was going on to the bewildered crowds, do you remember what Peter said? He quoted the words of the prophet Joel:
I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh,
and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy,
and your young ones shall see visions,
and your old ones shall dream dreams.
And so it has been ever since.
God’s daughters and sons are still prophesying, they are still dreaming. The young ones, even the old ones—did you hear that?—are still dreaming God’s dreams for the world.
For two thousand years God’s people have been dreaming the dreams of God, imagining God’s kingdom come, God’s will being done, on earth as it is in heaven. Martin Luther King’s dream is just one of those dreams, still awaiting its full realization. Like the dreams of Syrian refugees, and residential school survivors, and many, many others.
The kingdom of God starts small, like a mustard seed. And it can take an age until its branches provide nests for the birds and shade for all who seek it. The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends surely toward justice.
But to see this become a reality we must dream the dreams of God. We must imagine the world as it can be, flowing with justice and peace and bursting with flourishing life. Only then can we step out in faith and love and hope in the footsteps of Jesus, and grasp the dream that stands before us.
Adapted from a sermon preached on October 30, 2016, at Morden Mennonite Church, as part of the “Stirring Our Imagination” worship series. Watch MLK’s full “I have a dream” speech; or listen to the audio recording. Images: 1) U.S. National Archives and Records Administration; 2) “Jesus Teaches By the Sea” by James Tissot; 3) “Parable of the Sower” by Jesus Mafa.
Cross-posted from http://www.mordenmennonitechurch.wordpress.com. © Michael W. Pahl.