Second Sunday After Epiphany
In 1951, Montage of a Dream Deferred by Langston Hughes was published with one of his most well-known poems entitled “Harlem.” It goes like this:
What happens to a dream deferred?
Does it dry up
like a raisin in the sun?
Or fester like a sore—
and then run?
Does it stink like rotten meat?
Or crust and sugar over—
like a syrupy sweet?
Maybe it just sags
like a heavy load.
Or does it explode?
There’s something captivating about the power of a dream. In biblical stories, dreams are one of the ways in which God and angels would talk to humans, offering a message that might be lost among the chaos of daily life. As children, we had dreams about what we wanted to be when we grew up; and now that we’ve up, we have dreams that play back precious memories from childhood. Dreams have a way of quieting the noise of reality so that we can be more acutely in touch with our inner selves; with our wants, with our desires, and with our hopes. As we commemorate the life and legacy of the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. tomorrow, I can’t help but think of the dream that he shared:
Even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream…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, every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be made plane, and the crooked places will be made straight, and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together.
But what happens to a dream deferred? Four years after proclaiming that dream on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, Dr. King revisited it during a Christmas Eve sermon at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta:
In 1963, on a sweltering August afternoon…in Washington, D.C.,…I tried to talk to the nation about a dream that I had had, and I must confess to you today that not long after talking about that dream I started seeing it turn into a nightmare, just a few weeks after I had talked about it. It was when four…girls were murdered in a church in Birmingham, Alabama. I watched that dream turn into a nightmare as I moved through the ghettos of the nation and saw my black brothers and sisters perishing on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity…I saw that dream turn into a nightmare as I watched the war in Vietnam escalating…Yes, I am personally the victim of deferred dreams, of blasted hopes.
And now, nearly 57 years after Dr. King first shared that dream, what we find around us is that same nightmare. We may truly want to believe that things have changed, that we as a country have progressed, but I cannot in good faith say that’s true. Racism is clearly alive; racist violence is still prevalent; old systems of white supremacy have simply been replaced by new systems of white supremacy. Dr. King’s dream is still deferred, waiting to be realized.
The passage from Isaiah that Lory read for us this morning is one of what scholars have come to call the “Songs of the Suffering Servant.” Last week’s reading was the first of these songs, as we heard the words of God through the prophet Isaiah, who proclaimed:
Here is my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen, in whom my soul delights; I have put my spirit upon him; he will bring forth justice to the nations. He will not cry or lift up his voice, or make it heard in the street; a bruised reed he will not break, and a dimly burning wick he will not quench; he will faithfully bring forth justice. He will not grow faint or be crushed until he has established justice in the earth; and the coastlands wait for his teaching.
In today’s reading, we encounter the voice of this servant. This servants speaks of how they were called before they were even born, called to be this prophetic figure who would bring forth justice for Israel. God made their mouth like a sharp sword, with piercing words of truth, saying to them, “You are my servant, Israel, in whom I will be glorified.” And yet, it seems as though the servant’s task has been a failure. “I have labored in vain,” they say; “I have spent my strength for nothing and vanity.”
These are words that we even now are all far too familiar with. In our lives at home, in our lives at work, and in our lives out in the world, we are far too familiar with the pain of feeling as though our efforts have made no difference. We are far too familiar with the sense of loss when it seems as though our work has been in vain. Far too often, we have experienced the hopelessness that comes when our aspirations for this life fall flat and are faced with the agony of disappointment. We know what it means when a dream is deferred all too well.
But the question becomes: what happens to that dream?
Does it dry up like a raisin in the sun, slowly withering away until we no longer find any hope of it in our lives?
Does it fester like a sore, causing us pain beyond what it seems we can bear, a constant reminder of what is and what could have been?
Is it like a sweet piece of candy that eventually gets hard, unappetizing and good for nothing except to be thrown away?
But other times, in the words of Langston Hughes, it explodes. Sometimes it causes a reaction within us that simultaneously sharpens our vision and causes our innermost beings to become restless, a riot that will not cease until our dream is brought to reality. It explodes far beyond ourselves that others cannot help but catch it, where that dream becomes not a personal ideal but a communal hope.
The servant found themselves in that hopelessness of a deferred dream but encountered the crucial truth that sharpened their own vision. The strength to endure in the aim of this dream—of this calling—came not from within but from God. Because restoration and justice was first and foremost God’s dream for the people of Israel, and God called the servant to take part in that dream.
So what happens when God’s dream is deferred? Well, it seems to me that it becomes larger; it becomes more encompassing; it becomes universal. It explodes. It explodes out of that small nation all the way to the ends of the earth; it becomes the light that shines in the darkness.
When that divine dream seems to be insurmountable, God decides to make it even bigger. When those in power reject and oppress that dream, God uses the one who is deeply despised, who is abhorred by the nations and the slave of rulers to carry out that dream. When it seems that every pathway has been blocked in actualizing that dream, God makes a way out of no way. For as much as we humans may try to defer God’s dream, God’s love and grace are relentless and restless. And when God’s dream explodes, it turns out that it is awfully hard not to get on board with it; to get wrapped up in it; to take it on as our own dream.
Throughout history, God has called humans to take on that dream. It hasn’t always gone according to plan, and sometimes it seems more like a nightmare. But in those moments, it seems that there have been those for whom the dream explodes; for whom it because even more encompassing and more holistic.
Dr. King went on in his Christmas Eve sermon:
Yes, I am personally the victim of deferred dreams, of blasted hopes, but in spite of that I close today by saying I still have a dream, because, you know, you can’t give up in life. If you lose hope, somehow you lose that vitality that keeps life moving, you lose that courage to be, that quality that helps you to go on in spite of all. And so today I still have a dream…With this faith we will be able to speed up the day when there will be peace on earth and goodwill toward men. It will be a glorious day, the morning stars will sing together, and the sons of God will shout for joy.
My friends, that very same dream is still alive and it is exploding and God is still calling us to take it on for ourselves. God is still calling us to receive the Spirit and work for justice not only in our immediate communities but in the world. And God is calling us to see where else that dream leads; to imagine how our doors can be opened a little bit wider and how our table can be extended to make a little more room; to see those that our old dreams left out; to recognize where we can be more peaceful, more just, more holy.
And God dreams only the best for us. It’s not the American Dream, nor is it likely to be all of the same dreams that we have made for ourselves, but God dreams of our joy, of our love for each other, and of our lives. Let us hold on to hope that this is possible. Let us receive the strength to keep working for justice. Let us find the courage to persevere, even in those times when it may seem that we are living a nightmare.
Let us not let God dream alone.
 Langston Hughes, “Harlem” from The Collected Works of Langston Hughes. 2002.
 Martin Luther King, Jr., ”’I Have a Dream,’ Address Delivered at the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom” on The Martin Luther King, Jr. Research and Education Institute, Stanford University.
 King, “A Christmas Sermon on Peace” from Beacon Broadside: A Project of Beacon Press.
 Isaiah 42:1-4 (NRSV)
 Isaiah 49:3 (NRSV)
 Isaiah 49:4 (NRSV)
 Isaiah 49:7
 King, “Christmas Sermon”