April 21, 2013 Sermon


“Christian Hope and Dreams Deferred”


April 21, 2013

The Reverend Jonah K. Smith-Bartlett


Romans 8:18-25

18I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us.  19For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God; 20for the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope 21that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God.  22We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now; 23and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies.  24For in[a] hope we were saved.  Now hope that is seen is not hope.  For who hopes[b] for what is seen?  25But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.

John 11:38-44

38Then Jesus, again greatly disturbed, came to the tomb.  It was a cave, and a stone was lying against it.  39Jesus said, “Take away the stone.”  Martha, the sister of the dead man, said to him, “Lord, already there is a stench because he has been dead four days.”  40Jesus said to her, “Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?”  41So they took away the stone.  And Jesus looked upward and said, “Father, I thank you for having heard me.  42I knew that you always hear me, but I have said this for the sake of the crowd standing here, so that they may believe that you sent me.”  43When he had said this, he cried with a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!”  44The dead man came out, his hands and feet bound with strips of cloth, and his face wrapped in a cloth.  Jesus said to them, “Unbind him, and let him go.”


The poet Langston Hughes famously wrote of a dream deferred.  One can argue, and many do, as to a hierarchy of the greatest poets as we do the greatest musicians and ballplayers.  And like these other lists, our assessment of what is “good” or “great” is highly subjective.  There are reasons for claiming Shakespeare, Emily Dickinson, W.H. Auden or even the groundbreaking work of the man who wrote the simple yet powerful couplet – “One fish, two fish, red fish, blue fish” – the great Dr. Seuss.  I would personally argue that all of these claims of greatness are fine proclamations.

But there is an objective statement to be made about Langston Hughes and his idea of what happens to a dream deferred – whether it dries up like a raisin in the sun or sags like a heavy load or explodes.  That statement is something along the lines of this – Hughes has captured something particularly vulnerable in these lines, particularly troubling here, and essentially human.

While Langston Hughes wrote these words in 1951, the phrase “A Dream Deferred”, or rather the meaning behind the phrase (essentially human), is vitally important for an understanding of the early Christian church.  The reality of the crucifixion, atonement, resurrection, and ascension, the reality of Calvary and the Empty Tomb, and the truth of Christ as the Son of God is spreading to churches in Rome, Corinth, and Thessalonica – small at first, fearful at first, but still growing in number and still growing in faith.

This dream, the dream of the apostle Paul, the dream of the early church is addressed in the first verse of Paul’s letter to the Romans that we read this morning and it captures the thesis of the reading that follows, “I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us.”

And not just the church in Rome – not just the church at the center of commerce and culture, not just the church at the center of the empire.

The dream went to Corinth as well.  Paul wrote to the Corinthians, “In a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet.  For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed…Where O Death, is thy victory?  Where O Death, is thy sting?”  Paul’s dream.

Paul’s dream went to the Thessalonian church in Greece as well.  “Put on a breastplate of faith and love, and for a helmet the hope of salvation.  For God has destined us not for wrath but for obtaining salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ.”  Paul’s dream.

Paul’s dream, and the dream of the first Christian communities is this: while still standing in the warm shadow of Easter, the second resurrection, the return of Christ and the transformation of a world of persecution to the peaceable kingdom is right around the corner.  Right there on the horizon.  As the gospels proclaim, they know not the day or the hour but they trust that it is a day close at hand and an hour of triumph ready to be born within their lifetime and the lifetime of their children.

This is Paul’s dream.  This is the dream of the early church.  And as we now know, this is a dream deferred.  The lion has not yet lain down with the lamb.  The swords have not yet been beaten into plowshares.  Not in the lifetime of Paul, not in the lifetime of the children of those churches in Rome, Corinth, Thessalonica… not yet in our lifetime.

Paul’s dream deferred is our state of normalcy.  It is our everyday hustle and bustle, where we are all too busy, distracted, overwhelmed now to keep our eyes fixed on the horizon.  So while we are bearers of the Christian dream, we are also part of the continuation of the Christian story, past Paul, past Constantine, past Luther, past the listing of saints in a family tree in a family Bible upon a bookshelf in our homes.

But strangers to the present hope of Christ’s immediate return does not make us strangers to dreams deferred – drying up like raisins in the sun, sagging like a heavy load, exploding.  We know that we have dreams for ourselves and one another and we celebrate that many of these hopes have already come true.  We recognize also that many have not.

There is a social impact of dreams deferred and a personal impact as well.

Actor, singer, and activist Paul Robeson once said, “We must join with the tens of millions all over the world who see in peace our most sacred responsibility.”  We know all too well in the tragedies of the last week and the far too many places of violence around the world that the earth still groans for peace.  Robeson’s dream (peace our most sacred responsibility) is a dream deferred.

The novelist and essayist James Baldwin wrote of poverty, “Anyone who has ever struggled with poverty knows how extremely expensive it is to be poor.”  Poverty holds hostage the pivotal words of the Lord’s Prayer – give us this day our daily bread (each and every once of us), forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors.  Poverty exhausts the body and the mind and perhaps especially and most tragically the human spirit.  Baldwin’s dream (poverty extinguished and the daily bread amassing) is a dream deferred.

And of course, the most popular public voice of American Christianity in the 20th century, Martin Luther King Jr., who utilized the imagery of the dream perhaps more poignantly and successfully than any other, “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.’”  There have been great strides forward toward King’s dream, and large steps yet to go.  For now but prayerfully not for long, the dream of King is still a dream deferred.

The words of Langston Hughes that describe the reality of the early Christian church also reach toward us not just along the winding roads of a common social history but on a personal level as well.

The restored health of one we love who walks in hope and faith through the process of chemotherapy.  Some day soon, we hope – but for now a dream deferred.

The passion of one we love that is stifled by job security or the justified fear of taking a risk.  The flourishing of that passion, the flourishing of that person – some day soon, we hope – but for now a dream deferred.

The dignity of one we love who has been trapped by addiction, depression, and still struggling with a call for help.  Their dignity restored – some day soon, we hope – but for now a dream deferred.

For now we stand atop the mountain with Moses but tomorrow?  Tomorrow we join Joshua and we cross the River Jordan.  Because we believe, because we know – as those who proclaim Christ as Lord and Savior – that buried somewhere in the good news of the gospel is the turn away from disappointment…the turn from discouragement…the turn toward hope founded in the God in whose image we are all created.  This hope abounds in the story of Easter, but it lives subtly and distinctly in that resurrection of less renown – where Jesus calls for his dear friend to join him, “Lazarus!  Come out!”

As a person who loves to read, (though admittedly that wasn’t true until I was out of college), I fall in love with the transformation of characters.  The ideal-driven Preacher Casey is transformed by the desperation of the Dust Bowl in John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath.  Over the span of forty years, John Updike wrote a series of novels featuring the same title character- Harry “Rabbit” Angstrom, who being surrounded by temptation and grace, changed as much as the America that he loved in those four-plus decades.  Over the span of seventy years and continuing every Wednesday, the character Batman has been developed, and while that’s often a somewhat laughable comparison, it is entirely unique to the medium.  After seventy years, he has transformed again and again although he is eternally thirty-five as four Robins have now inexplicably grown up around him and moved past the role of sidekick-always-in-trouble.

When I look at the people of the gospel stories as transforming characters, I am drawn especially to two.  The first is Barabbas who, after being released, is actually the sinner who Christ literally suffers for first.  I once thought that I could write the novel of Barabbas’ life after Good Friday until I learned that it had already been done plus a movie starring Anthony Quinn.

The second is Lazarus.  Christ dies for the forgiveness of all people… all, but in the gospels recounting Christ’s life, he only weeps for one.  For his friend Lazarus.  Lazarus, Jesus’ dear friend, has died.  His sisters, Mary and Martha, don’t just hope for a miracle, they petition for one.  The crowd gathers, as the crowds always tend to do – and Jesus calls, “Lazarus!  Come out!”  Then his beloved friend steps out from his tomb and returns to him.  For centuries – paintings, poems, murals, plays, songs, stories – tell of the water turning to wine or the feeding of the five thousand or the man walking on water  For centuries our imaginations have been captured by those moments and other moments like them.  But this moment – “Lazarus!  Come out!”  This moment puts the others to shame.  This is not just a miraculous act, defying reason, emboldening faith – and working toward the foremost purpose of “Know This- I am the Son of God”.  This is the Son of God LOVES.  The Son of God loves Mary.  The Son of God loves Martha.  The Son of God loves Lazarus.  The Son of God loves us.

The dream of Mary, the dream of Martha, and we must imagine in some ways…the dream of Jesus the God who wept as well…is here no longer a dream deferred but a dream realized.  The smaller resurrection – Lazarus.  One life in Lazarus conquering one death, and pointing to the one life in Christ that will soon immediately and then eternally conquer all death.

We are not Rome.  We are not Corinth.  We are not Thessalonica.  The dream deferred of the early church is likely one that the modern church has hardly considered to be our dream of today.  Thus we don’t find ourselves entirely disappointed or entirely dissatisfied when year after year we work through the calendar to that day of rest where we might celebrate the Easter resurrection of Christ in song and prayer but on the same calendar don’t recognize either the presence or absence of Christ’s still expected return.  The dream deferred of the early church is the story of Christ’s empty tomb, reenacted finally and for all people and all time.

So what of the modern church?  What of our dreams deferred?

The dream of Robeson and the sacred responsibility of peace?

The dream of Baldwin and the dignity of the impoverished?

The dream of King and God’s call for equality?

Our dream for the health of those whom we love?

Our dream for the restoration of the whole person free of substance, sickness, fear, sorrow?

Our dream for the promise to the parents of Newtown and the parents around our nation for whom only one word is good enough and that word is “enough”?

Our dreams – here, lifted up?

Our dreams written upon our hearts in silence?

What happens to our dreams deferred?  Do they dry up like a raisin in the sun?  Do they sag like a heavy load?  Do they explode?  Or, are they too, like the dreams of Mary and Martha and the like the life of Lazarus – are they too resurrected?

We sit in the shade of a rock rolled away from the tomb, but we don’t rest there in expectation and anticipation.  We are called to act, we are called to believe, to follow, to seek, we are called to live as the people of a Living God, who CAN day after day, resurrect our living bodies, resurrect our spirits, and resurrect our dreams so that we might help each other’s dreams to also be realized, and collectively dream far larger than any one of us can do alone – dream of the Kingdom of God, step out of the shade, and build it together.

To the Glory of God. AMEN.

[a] Or by

[b] Other ancient authorities read awaits

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