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Dreaming and Waking

Rev. Dr. Karin Case
Sun, Jan 18

Text: 1 Samuel 3:1-10

Today—on this Martin Luther King Sunday—I will speak of dreams and dreamers, prophets and visionaries. On this second Sunday of Epiphany—I will speak of the Spirit—moving in us and among us for the sake of God’s justice. And of how we can “hear each other into action” through listening to each other’s stories. How, in hearing each other’s truths, we recognize may God’s presence, and know what Beloved Community is like.

We begin with a nighttime vision. With the story of the young boy, Samuel, a temple assistant to the old priest, Eli. Samuel was a boy of ten or twelve. The scripture tells us, “Samuel did not yet know the word of the Lord and the word of the Lord had not yet been revealed to him.” We begin with this young boy, who hears a voice in the night—calling to him, “Samuel, Samuel!” Three times, a persistent voice, “Samuel!” And three times, the boy wakens and goes to Eli, believing it is Eli who has called him.

It takes the insight of that wise, old priest to recognize that it is God who is speaking to Samuel, God’s voice beckoning in the night. And so Eli teaches Samuel how to listen. And also how to act in response to God’s call. Eli instructs the boy, “Go lie down, and if he calls you, you shall say, ‘Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.’” And Samuel does.

It is the power of Eli’s listening that helps Samuel to hear God’s voice. Through Eli’s listening, Samuel is awakened to God’s purpose. We begin with the story of this young boy.

But there is a second story we lift up today—the story of a young man who dreamed a dream—a visionary, a prophet, a Christian preacher and organizer. An African American man, born in Atlanta in 1929, who knew the realities of segregation and racial hatred. Today, across this nation we celebrate the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

It is the legacy, not only of a great man, but of a great movement. The story not just of one man’s vision, but of entire communities who shared a dream of a better world, free from the violence of hatred and segregation.

It’s important to acknowledge the complexity of that dreaming and visioning and of the Civil Rights Movement, itself. So many stories and experiences to be taken into account, such diverse strategies for action.

Have some of you been to see the movie, Selma just released last week? I know some of you have—because we saw it together! I know the youth group saw it last Sunday, too. One of the things Selma portrays so adeptly is the conflicts within the movement. We are reminded of Malcolm X and the Black Panthers. We see James Forman and John Lewis in strategy sessions, and witness disagreements between SNCC—the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee—and SCLC—the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.

It is too easy now—fifty years later—to see the movement as singular and monolithic, rather than the complicated, contested, and difficult process it was. We lose something important if we reduce the story to a simpler narrative, creating a false distance between ourselves and that era, as if human communities and choices were simpler or clearer then.

You elders among us—you who lived through that time—have wisdom and insights to share. We want to hear your stories!

For those who were born during the 1960’s or later, have you come across the internet meme that asks: “Have you ever wondered what you would have done if you had been alive during the Civil Rights Movement? Now is the time to find out.”

Whatever the gains of the last fifty years, whatever your assessment of this present moment in history, the meme is an in-your-face way of pointing out that we face choices of our own. What must we do? Like the old priest Eli, we must hear each other’s stories and listen to each other’s visions. We must remain alert to the challenges of our time.

Dr. King wrote,
One of the great liabilities of history is that all too many people fail to remain awake through great periods of social change. Every society has its protectors of status quo and its fraternities of the indifferent who are notorious for sleeping through revolutions. Today, our very survival depends on our ability to stay awake, to adjust to new ideas, to remain vigilant and to face the challenge of change.

This is a good day to be in church. You—who are awake to the pain and devastation of racism—come and find rest here. Come find ears that will hear your story and hearts that will dream with you.

This is a good day to be in church. You, who are dozing through these days, putting on the snooze alarm rather than remaining alert to cries of injustice. Stay awake! Come, hear the stories of beloved brothers and sisters for whom the struggle is real and daily, those whose sleep is disturbed. Hear God’s persistent voice, calling in the night.

All of us with white privilege have a choice. We can choose whether to engage and we can dictate the terms of our engagement. White privilege means that—if we want—we avoid the exhaustion of having to deal with racism day in and day out. We can hit the snooze alarm and go back to sleep. Having privilege doesn’t make us bad people, but privilege does present a moral choice. Will we engage? Will we be accountable to the lives of those who are directly impacted by injustice and inequality?

This is probably not a choice that will impact our survival. Though part of the story we tell today is of white folks who, along with so many African Americans, gave their lives in the struggle—people like James Reeb (in Selma), Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner (in Philadelphia, Mississippi).

Engagement is probably not a life or death choice for us, but it is a choice that will effect the soul of our community. Will we stay awake?

This is a good day to be in church. We need to hear the call to stay awake to the challenges of this time. We need to hear each other’s voices and visions, calling us to Beloved Community. We need to hear voices going all the way back to the Hebrew prophets, to Samuel and Eli. And the voices of modern-day prophets—like Dr. King—who preached justice and mercy and spoke of God’s vision for what we might become. We need to hear the strong prophetic tradition that declares—despite seemingly insurmountable odds—that our God can make a way out of no way.

Friends, how do you hear the call to ministry and to prophetic action? In a blinding revelation—like Paul’s, or a bizarre vision—like Ezekiel’s? Through an insistent voice in the night, like the one that called to Samuel? Perhaps through the pain of injustice, accompanied by the sure knowledge that God calls us to a fuller humanity, a new community of justice and freedom? Perhaps you hear the summons through the prophets and visionaries of our age. What is your dream?

This is an image of Dr. King in August of 1963, speaking at the March on Washington. Were any of you there that day? We remember that Mahalia Jackson sang right before King spoke. And we know that five years later—at King’s funeral—Jackson would sing King’s favorite spiritual—Precious Lord—with which we’ll close our worship today.

Hear these familiar words of King’s vision,

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, 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."2

Friends, what is your dream? How is God calling you? When you wake in the night, are you ready to say, “Speak, God, for your servant is listening?”

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