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Here’s the text of the latest sermon.
14 The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will fulfill the promise I made to the house of Israel and the house of Judah.15 In those days and at that time I will cause a righteous Branch to spring up for David; and he shall execute justice and righteousness in the land.16 In those days Judah will be saved and Jerusalem will live in safety. And this is the name by which it will be called: “The Lord is our righteousness.”
One day in August 1968, an American Civil Rights leader stood on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, before a crowd of more than 200,000 people and made one of the most famous speeches of the 20th Century – the whole speech is 17 minutes long – and well worth listening to, but this morning I’m offering some edited highlights… He said,
“I am not unmindful that some of you have come here out of great trials and tribulations. Some of you have come fresh from narrow jail cells. Some of you have come from areas where your quest for freedom left you battered by the storms of persecution and staggered by the winds of police brutality. You have been the veterans of creative suffering. Continue to work with the faith that unearned suffering is redemptive.
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 one day on the red hills of Georgia the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood.
I have a dream that one day even the state of Mississippi, a state sweltering with the heat of injustice, sweltering with the heat of oppression, will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice.
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 today.
I have a dream that one day, down in Alabama, with its vicious racists, with its governor having his lips dripping with the words of interposition and nullification; one day right there in Alabama, little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers.
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 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.
This is our hope. This is the faith that I go back to the South with. 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 a 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 mountainside, let freedom ring.”
And if America is to be a great nation this must become true.
From every mountainside, let freedom ring.
And when this happens, when we allow freedom to ring, when we let it ring from every village and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God’s children, black and white, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual, “Free at last! free at last! thank God Almighty, we are free at last!” (Martin Luther King Jr.)
You know, of course, that this speech was made by Martin Luther King Jr. The following year, he won the Nobel Peace Prize and even now, 40something years after his assassination, King’s words resonate. Saint or sinner? Hero or troublemaker? King’s life and motives have been scrutinised by many – but his words, in this speech, indeed, in many of his speeches, his words are the words of a prophet. A human being, with human faults and failings, charged with giving God’s message to God’s people.
The people who had gathered to hear him that day were in need of a prophet. By 1963 things were changing, but the folks at the Lincoln Memorial had lived all their lives in the shadow of discrimination; the colour of their skin branding them as ‘less than’ and depriving them of full citizenship in the land of their birth. Many of those gathered there still bore the scars of slavery, having parents or grandparents who had been bought and sold – chattels of the white, slave owners. Even in 1963 the colour of a person’s skin dictated the kind of life s/he would live.
That crowd of more than 200,000 people sorely needed to hear Good News.
And today? Well, today, Martin’s dream is a step or two nearer. A man of African heritage has just won his second term in the White House and his two little children have all the benefits and privileges America has to offer. There is still, though, a long way to go. The American prison population is disproportionally black; the poorest Americans are those of non-Caucasian heritage – there is still injustice, but Martin was right. He dreamed a dream whose time had come; a dream that we can take with us into a brighter future.
Just as Jeremiah did, so many centuries before him, King spoke words of power to live amongst the people to challenge; to inspire; to warn and to help.
In our first reading this morning we heard from Jeremiah and his message today, holds bold words of hope. Living, as he did at Anatoth, some two miles from Jerusalem, he knew something about the political and religious situation there. He had grown up in a Priestly family – (just as MLK Jr had) – so he knew both how things were supposed to work and how things actually did work. The scholars tell us he was born around 645-640 B.C.E. at a time of insecurity for the Hebrew people because the Assyria power base was an ever-present threat. Maps of the region in that time show Judah squeezed between the huge nation of Assyria to the north and Egypt to the west and south. During Jeremiah’s life, the rulers of Judah struggled over the question of which nation to make an alliance with to avoid being totally destroyed by either the Egyptians or the Assyrians.
One commentator, (Melinda Quivic) writes:
“What does a prophet do when threats arise? In the answer to that question lies the power of this reading. A prophet does not turn to the easy answer. A prophet does not lie. The prophet is the one who holds out a vision for us to cling to especially when we cannot grasp the meaning. With his pronouncements, Jeremiah sets the tone for all that is to approach our ears in Advent, for we need to hear the warnings to “be alert” in the context of ultimate and sure promise.” (End quote)
Advent is a time when we are charged to remember the words of the prophets – words sent from God to a people need to be challenged; inspired; warned and helped. Prophets are not easy people. In the Old Testament they were the odd ones; the chosen ones; you could tell someone was a prophet by the way they dressed; by the way they wore their hair; by what they ate. Even in the New Testament we know they were easily recognisable. Today, it may be harder to recognise them. God speaks into our world through the ones who see; the dreamers of dreams; the ones who show the constantcy of God’s love for humanity and the world, through the words they speak. God’s message is a message of commitment; a message of consistency. God has been; is now; and will be – forever.