An old–but still relevant–sermon for MLK Jr. Day

Hello!  What follows is a sermon I preached five years ago about God’s dream for a nonsegregated church.  While preparing for this coming Sunday’s sermon, I ran across this one and thought I’d share it here.  God bless….

I Have a Dream

Tomorrow is a special day.  The mail won’t run.  The banks will be closed.  Many of our schools will take a day off.  All to remember the legacy of a man who was shot and killed more than 40 years ago.  Our society is very different today than it was 40 years ago—at least it is in some ways.  Whether the differences are for the better or for the worse depends on your perspective.

Women have more equality in the workforce than they did 40 years ago.  We have better healthcare and longer life expectancies than people did 40 years ago.  Chances are that we live in more comfort and have nicer things than we had access to 40 years ago.  We also have more crime, more access to pornography, and maybe even a greater hunger for more stuff than people had 40 years ago.  Again, it depends on our perspective.

Our perspective means a lot.  It colors how we think.  It impacts how we live.  It even goes a long way to influence how we worship, who we worship, and who we worship with, which brings me back to tomorrow’s holiday.

Tomorrow our nation remembers the life and legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.  A Baptist preacher.  A civil rights leader.  A black man martyred for sharing in God’s dream.  I bet some of us never thought about it that way.  He’s being remembered because of his work for justice, equality, and civil rights.  Just four years before Dr. King was murdered in Memphis, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed into law the Civil Rights Act of 1964.  Here’s what part of that Act says:  “All persons shall be entitled to the full and equal enjoyment of the goods, services, facilities, privileges, advantages, and accommodations of any place of public accommodation, as defined in this section, without discrimination or segregation on the ground of race, color, religion, or national origin or sex.”

For me, this is all history—history that I’ve read about in books and seen in documentaries.  For most of you, this is history that you lived and witnessed.  Your perspective and my perspective of this history is different.  But the law we live under and the liberty it grants us is the same.

Having grown up well after the days of segregation in our nation, I and others in my generation have struggled with the unnaturally long life of segregation in our churches.  For my family in particular, this issue has gone from being a curiosity to a real concern.  We have a 3 year old daughter (she’s here with us tonight) who is neither white nor black but is biracial.  She was born to a white woman, fathered by a black man, and adopted by us.  No matter how society sees her, to us her skin tone is insignificant to the fact that she is made in the image of God.  But how will she feel about the church as she grows up?  Will she feel welcomed and at home, or will she feel alien in the white churches of her parents?  For that matter, would she feel any more welcome in a black church that has many of the same racial problems and prejudices that white churches might have?  God wants us all to feel at home in His church.

My dream is that the day will come when Dr. King’s dream for the nation becomes our dream for the congregations of God’s church.  Let’s remember a bit of Dr. King’s dream as he shared it in his famous speech from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in August 1963.

 “I say to you today, my friends, so even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American 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 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.”

Dr. King referred to Scripture in that excerpt of his speech.  He quoted from the Declaration of Independence, which itself is referring to Scripture as it states the self-evident truth of the equality of all humankind.  But he refers directly to Scripture from Isaiah.  Here what Isaiah has to say:

Isaiah 40:1-5  Comfort, comfort my people, says your God.  (2)  Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her that her warfare is ended, that her iniquity is pardoned, that she has received from the LORD’s hand double for all her sins.  (3)  A voice cries: “In the wilderness prepare the way of the LORD; make straight in the desert a highway for our God.  (4)  Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain.  (5)  And the glory of the LORD shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together, for the mouth of the LORD has spoken.”

Here, the Jews are comforted with knowledge that captivity will not last forever.  God will come to deliver them.  He will destroy the obstacles and barriers that keep people from seeing Him, and He will come to them as their King.

Now, Christians have long remembered this passage and its use in the gospels.  It applies to our ministries today, much like it did to the ministry of John the Baptist as he prepared the way of the coming of the Lord.  Every obstacle that stands in the way of God must be torn down.  Every crooked path must be made straight.

Dr. King helped tear down barriers, but there has never been a barrier-breaker like Jesus.  He talked to the poor, he ate with prostitutes, he touched the lepers, he even healed Gentiles.  And then He died for all of us.  And since He is the Christ, the Son of the Living God, He is the one foundation for God’s church.  He is the one gate through which we all find access to reconciliation with God.  He is the true bread and the true water which gives us eternal life.  He is the Good Shepherd who brought the sheep of many pastures into one fold.  We preach and proclaim these things as we should, but unbelievers don’t believe us when they look inside our church buildings.

Our racial disunity and our inability or unwillingness to worship together with people of every color and nationality is a barrier to the mission of God.  It is a stumbling block to those who don’t believe.  It frustrates the plan of God to bring down mountains and raise up valleys so that we all may find God together.  It still enslaves those who do believe and yet still have to dream about God’s desire for racial equality and brotherhood in His church even though we live in a society as open as our own.  And this is not a new problem.  This problem is older than the Civil Rights movement.  It’s older than Jim Crow.  It’s older than the Civil War.  It’s older than the slave trade.  Even the first century church shared the shame of this sin.

One of Paul’s great challenges in his ministry was to overcome racial and ethnic divides in Christ’s church.  He deals with it directly in Romans, 1 Corinthians, Galatians,  Ephesians, Colossians, and Philemon.  He deals with it indirectly in other letters.  Consider three well-known examples:

Rom 1:16  For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek.

Rom 10:12  For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek; for the same Lord is Lord of all, bestowing his riches on all who call on him.

Gal 3:28  There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.

What does this mean?  Does it mean only that all nationalities can find salvation through Jesus Christ?  It means that, but it means more.  Does it not also mean that certain distinctions have been erased, that God has granted us access through one gate, and at the entry of that gate stands the Cross?  There is no back door.  No servants’ entrance.  We are all God’s children invited to sit at His giant banquet table.    We are all of one flock.  All within one fold.  All because we have one Shepherd.  The law and liberty we live under is the same.

This is a spiritual reality.  It is high time that it becomes a visible reality in the Church of Christ.  The Civil Rights Act of 1964 made it illegal to forcibly segregate our assemblies.  Very few churches break this law today.  But very few of our churches look much different now than they did 45 years ago.

I have a dream.  I want you to have a dream.  I want us all to share in the dream that is God’s vision for a unified church that does more than just open its doors to the world.  According to His Word, God’s dream is for a church that actively invites people in as equals, as brothers and sisters.  His dream is for a church that practices hospitality and sacrifice.  It’s for a church that foregoes its comfort and normalcy so that it can find God’s blessing.  His dream is for a church where Jews and Gentiles can get along and worship and serve alongside one another.  A church where worldly status has no place.  A church where red, yellow, black, and white is seen and not just sung in the nursery.  His dream is that we can come to the table together and commune on Sunday.  His dream is that we can sing together and pray together and work together for the unified body of Christ—whether we’re red, yellow, black, white, brown, or any other pigment God has made in the image of His glory.

Tomorrow our nation celebrates the remembrance of a dream whose dreamer died more than 40 years ago.  Forty years is a long time.  It’s significant in Scripture, and I pray that it is significant for us as well.  Maybe our time of wilderness wandering is almost over.  Maybe the Promised Land is just over the horizon.


Patrick Barber

Preached January 18, 2009 at Harding Place

Searcy, Arkansas


About PatrickBarber

Preaching Minister East Point Church of Christ Wichita, Kansas
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