Preachers are a dime a dozen. Right now, on Rt. 151 alone, there must be 15 of us shifting our notes, preparing to deliver our understanding of the word of the Lord. Each of us has two things in common. We are all legends in our own minds and we are all replaceable. The Tandy’s and the Cameron’s have come and gone and Rockfish still moves forward. In two weeks my former church will install their new pastor and Graves Memorial will have hardly skipped a beat. To be a great preacher is indeed a rare thing. Ask Lynne Carson about John Buchanan or Bill Howard about Otis Moss III. They know what I am talking about. Personally I have marveled at the gifts of folks like Barbara Brown Taylor, Joe Roberts Jr. and Bill Coffin. I had the honor of hearing Desmond TuTu. Now those folks can preach. Joe Roberts could weave his magic for thirty minutes and make me wish for an additional thirty. A great pulpiteer is indeed rare, but not as rare as a great prophet.
In this morning’s text we are introduced to the prophet Jeremiah. He stood alone, speaking words no one cared to hear as the City of Jerusalem and the land of Judah crumbled into oblivion. The book of Jeremiah is not light reading. It reflects the words of one man, supposedly speaking for a God brought to tears by the reckless behavior of a wayward people. The Old Testament prophets did not predict the future. Instead they made social commentary on the events they witnessed. The Old Testament prophets spoke words they believed God placed on their tongue. Often those words burned their mouths and their hearts as they dreamed of a future when God would again ordain peace and harmony to once again walk hand in hand.
Jeremiah 1:9 states, “I have put my words in your mouth. You tell my people, “Today I will pluck up and pull down. I will destroy and overthrow. And then I will then build and plant.”
The word of the Lord is something few dare to speak, for with the recitation of the word, follows the crisis of a nation.
At the moment of his death in April of 1968, I am not sure how many white folks in America would have proclaimed Martin Luther King Jr. a prophet of God. I was old enough at the time to have heard and believed many of the accusations thrown his way. King was accused of being a communist, a womanizer, and a person inciting violence while preaching non-violence. Many folks I personally knew felt he had brought his death upon himself by being “uppity”. In the south it was generally understood some folks were only capable of achieving certain heights. If you aspired to raise your own personal bar you were “uppity” and had to be taught a lesson. There is no doubt King wanted to raise that bar, not just for himself, and not just for one group of people, but for a nation that much like ancient Jerusalem had lost its moral compass. If we had all been listening to King’s words on August 28th, 1963, perhaps more of us might have wept bitter tears five years later.
I have tried to remember what I was doing on that Wednesday afternoon. CBS aired the entire three hours of the event but it was not until many years later that I finally viewed it. By then the names of the speakers and had become members of my own personal Hall of Fame. They included A. Phillip Randolph, James Farmer, John Lewis, and Roy Wilkens. Famous protest singers such as Joan Baez, Bob Dylan and Peter, Paul, and Mary all sang but they were completely upstaged by Mahalia Jackson’s rendition of “I’ve been ‘buked and I’ve been scorned.” Then, Dr. King was introduced.
When does one become a prophet? The real ones are seldom self-appointed because the real ones want to be anything but a prophet. I think the ascension to this lonely post comes when God chooses to put the words on your lips.
On the night of August 27th the leaders of the March gathered in one room to weigh in on how King was to close this historical event. The original dream did not belong to King. Randolph had tried to organize a march on Washington during the Truman Administration. He was the dean of the movement and King listened to every word he spoke. But there were also other voices in the room. Farmer and Wilkens had a different agenda. Lewis wanted to make sure his young volunteers were inspired. King wrote and rewrote until his trusted friend Ralph Abernathy leaned over and said, “Martin, take us to church.”
The next afternoon, after three hours of speechmaking and singing, A. Phillip Randolph introduced Dr. King as the “moral leader of the nation”. The mantle had been officially transferred. If you have listened to that speech, if you have listened carefully, you will note that King, tipping his hat to Lincoln and Jefferson, began a stylized dissertation that seemed aimed at the white intelligentsia of America. It was well crafted and probably was a masterpiece in its own right. But King never got to the end of what he had prepared. If you watch carefully you will note that King seems to struggle with the written words before him. He hesitates, takes a deep breathe and that was all the time God needed. Mahalia Jackson, sitting directly behind King, said loud enough for many folks to hear, “Martin, tell them about the dream.” Using Jackson as a holy vessel, the word of the Lord was placed on the lips of Dr. King and the rest is history. Setting aside his prepared text, he began to preach. It wasn’t a new theme. King had introduced it in churches throughout Detroit before coming to Washington. It wasn’t even an original theme. Years before, King heard Howard Thurman preach, “Keep the dream alive; for as long as a man has a dream in his heart, he cannot lose the significance of living.”
It was not even King’s dream. It was the hope of every person on that mall, every mother growing weak in Mississippi, and every father growing old in the shadow of Stone Mountain. It echoed Jefferson’s dream that “All people would be created equal”. It celebrated Lincoln’s dream that “with malice toward none and clarity for all we would strive to finish the work before us.” But primarily it was and is God’s dream that “Good news will be brought to the oppressed, the broken hearted will be uplifted, and liberty will be proclaimed to the captives”.
Dr. King took folks to church that day. By the end of his speech everyone there realized someone finally had the courage to say in a public place what everyone had been thinking. Integration was not just a civil issue. It was not just a matter of morality. It was a holy cause and God Almighty was in front of the parade. God was about to tear down and build up and not everyone was going to be happy with the transition.
Fifty years after that historic moment, I often wonder what Dr. King would say if he were still with us. History tells us prophets never live long but what if he had lived and was returning to Washington to speak a word or two. He would have been 84 years old. I know a lot of folks older than 84 who still have something to say.
I like to imagine he would have looked at the children and wondered out loud why we are cutting money from Head Start.
I like to think he would have looked at the male teenagers and said, “Pull up your pants, wear a belt and walk like you know where you are headed.”
I think after years of listening to Yolanda and Bernice, he would have reminded all young women that they are equal partners in life and glass ceilings can be eliminated by constantly swinging the hammer of justice.
I think after years of listening to Coretta, he would have had a serious talk to folks of all races and sexual orientations about how he had came to respect the covenant of marriage.
I think he would still preach nonviolence as a lifestyle, compassion as a holy standard and justice as a vocation.
I think he would have declared the God we call Yahweh, Jehovah and Allah is One in the same.
While he was a man of impeccable dress, I like to think he might have made the speech in a hoodie, reminding us that while we have come along way, the dream is not yet complete.
I hope he would have ended his speech with words from a sermon he wrote from one verse in the book of Jude. “Our God is able. Let this affirmation be our ringing cry. It will give us courage to face the uncertainties of the future. It will give our tired feet new strength as we stride toward the city of freedom. When our days become dreary with low hovering clouds and our nights become darker than a thousand midnights, let us remember that there is a great power in this universe. God is able to make a way out of no way, and transform dark our yesterdays into bright tomorrows. This is our hope for becoming better people. This is our mandate for seeking a better world.”
Spoken like a true prophet of the Lord.
To God be the glory. Amen.