United Presbyterian Church of West Orange

"A Dream Deferred (but not Denied)"
Minister Kim Braxton
January 17, 2021

Lectionary Scripture: Amos 5 (focus on Amos 5:24)

Main Lesson: A society must be “watered” by justice and righteousness in order to survive

Scripture: Amos 5:24 “But let justice roll on like water, righteousness like a ever flowing stream!” NASB


Title: A Dream Deferred (but not Denied)

-      The White Lion docked at Virginia Colony's Point Comfort and traded 20 captured Africans for food. - August 20, 1619

-      “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”  Declaration of Independence, 1776

-      “Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.” - Gettysburg Address, 1863

-      “Five score years ago, a great American, in whose symbolic shadow we stand today, signed the Emancipation Proclamation. This momentous decree came as a great beacon light of hope to millions of slaves, who had been seared in the flames of withering injustice. It came as a joyous daybreak to end the long night of their captivity. But one hundred years later, the negro is still not free. One hundred years later the life of the negro is still sadly crippled by the manacles of segregation and the chains of discrimination. One hundred years later the negro lives on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity”  - I Have a Dream, August 1963


The title of today’s message is “A Dream Deferred”. Good morning! As we gather together today to commemorate the life of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. I can’t help but wonder what his commentary on society would be today if he was still alive. To have the joy of seeing the first black president elected for TWO terms, the pain of continuing police violence and brutality after all these years, the surprise he would have felt when of a woman of color and the daughter of immigrants took her place in the office of Vice President of the United States, the acute feeling of déjà vu watching black voters suppressed at the polls some 60 years later, the sweet taste of a long awaited victory watching a black man and a Jewish man becoming senators representing the state of Georgia and finally what would his thoughts be after witnessing the insurrection at the Capitol. So many changes have occurred since his passing - - some are improvements but so many backward steps and adjustments in order to maintain a status quo for a system that at its very core was designed to be racist and to hinder the American experiment from becoming a reality for all of its citizens. A type of Social Justice cha-cha-cha - - three steps forward and two steps back, five steps forward and four steps back - - cha cha cha. How else can you explain the mountaintop experience of electing the first black president being followed by the election of Him who shall not be named, 45, the white nationalist in chief.  Cha-cha-cha the same dance to a different beat.


There are people who reflect on Dr. Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech as a sacrosanct declaration for the end of racism in America. However, for the African American today, in 2021 we can say honestly, that although we can see the dream. It is a dream that is filled with promise, it is a dream filled with opportunity, It is a dream of liberty and justice for all. But in 2021 it is still just a dream. And if feels like that dream is still deferred.

I wanted to hear Dr. King’s speech in full, not just the sound bites that are spoon fed to the population during the 28 days of Black History month. And when I listened his speech I wondered how was he able to see this dream so clearly. To hold onto the vision so tightly. When he faced so many obstacles from multiple sides. Civil rights leaders and protestors were being beaten and killed for the cause and he still spoke about a dream with hope and faith. And today as we are being hit with a white supremist movement that was invigorated and validated by the Racist in Chief I wanted to know how we in the 21st century can still hold onto the dream.

When I get hit with questions that I don’t know the answers to inevitably I find myself wrestling with some text in the bible. This week the Book of Amos and I became fast friends. All week long I read, took notes, and combed through the text trying to narrow down the copious amount of information into a concise cogent teaching. Then I realized that Amos and Dr. King had something in common. They both spoke truth to power, advocating for the oppressed, the poor and marginalized in their midst.


Let’s go to the text - - In order to provide some background about the prophet Amos was a shepherd from Tekoa (1:1) and his name in Hebrew derived from Aramaic means “burdensome”. Now Tekoa was located in the southern region, the land of Judah. And the Lord sent the prophet Amos to the wealthy Northern Kingdom (Israel) to announce judgement on the kingdom. So Amos carried that burden, the weight of that message to the Northern Kingdom and proceeded to speak truth to power. One of the main themes expressed throughout the text is that social justice is as indispensable as true piety. In plain speech - - how can you claim to be a Christian in right relationship with God when you deny another human justice? Their basic civil rights.


The Northern Kingdom had taken to perverting their worship rituals so they could “have it their way” and once they finished with this false display of worship then they went about exploiting the poor for profit and oppressing the less fortunate. To put it in a modern-day context – think of those unscrupulous mega church pastors, that preach a version of the gospel that supports the dogma of 45’s administration, that partner with his administration’s treachery, all the while demanding that their congregations pay a minimum of 10% of what they earn on the gross, plus additional offerings to fund their luxurious lifestyles.


But that is a sermon for another day.


Back to the text. The sins of the upper class of the Northern Kingdom were many. They were guilty of “bribery, extortion, corruption of their judiciary, perversion and dishonesty, for injustice and immorality, for exploitation of the impoverished and underprivileged for resolute dissolute behavior for pampered prosperity and boisterous banquetry, for greed and arrogant security for self-indulgence and a life of carpe diem, and for pride and prejudice.” Oh, they were busy in the north.


But doesn’t it sound familiar? How is it during a global pandemic the top 1% continued to prosper while everyone else struggled. Remember when people were price gouging for PPE, hand sanitizer, and toilet paper? Senators making stock trades to adjust their portfolios to optimize profit and minimize loss based on insider knowledge of an incoming pandemic - - while medical workers wrapped themselves in plastic trying to care for the sick and non-essential workers tried to figure out how to pay their bills, keep from being evicted and hold onto their health insurance coverage. When Amos exposed this corrupt system in the North and he let them know that God saw what they were doing and He was not pleased. Amos came onto their turf to and called out their hypocrisy and corruption.


Amos’ message to Israel is similar to the message of Dr. King. Dr. King also spoke truth to power calling out America’s hypocrisy. That even after the Emancipation proclamation and all of America’s promises of equality, liberty and justice none of that applied to you if you were born black in America. From  this morning’s opening quote from the “I have a dream” speech, “But one hundred years later, the negro is still not free. One hundred years later the life of the negro is still sadly crippled by the manacles of segregation and the chains of discrimination. One hundred years later the negro lives on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity” Dr. Martin Luther King came to his generation holding up a mirror to society. And in that reflection America started to see its ugliness – that a country that claims to be “United” in its very name but is far from it. He made it uncomfortable for people to continue to live unchallenged in America’s perpetual racial ambiguity and hypocrisy. Amos 3:3 states “How can two walk together unless they have agreed to meet?” Dr. King called out everyone from political leaders, liberal white people and passive unengaged African Americans. But throughout it all, Dr. King had a dream. He saw an America that could be better. That should be better. And in order to succeed she NEEDED to be better. He proclaimed, like Amos, “we will not be satisfied until "justice rolls down like waters, and righteousness like a mighty stream." Think about that for a moment - Justice rolling like water. Can you imagine what our society would look like if justice was equal for everyone? That no one was above the law? And no one could have the law twisted against them? When gender, class, race, or sexual orientation did not have any influence on how you were treated or perceived?

What would it be to live in a society that genuinely supported each one of it’s citizens equally and without bias or favor?


Let me tell you story about two fish. One day there were two fish swimming in the ocean - - an older fish and a younger fish. The older fish called out to the younger fish saying, “Morning! The water is beautiful today. Enjoy!” The younger fish stopped swimming and looked around and was confused. He then asked “What’s water?” See to the younger fish was so accustomed to water he didn’t have a name to associate with it. It was just always there. Around him, supporting him, enabling him to move from one place to another. He never had to question the purpose of the water, he never had to ask if the water was working against him. Water gave him oxygen to live. It was always there to enable him, to EMPOWER him, to enjoy his best life.  No one ever made the younger fish stop and question his environment. The younger fish never had to consider what life would be like if he was denied access to water, if his water supply was polluted. He just knew it was there and he had unlimited access to it.


Amos came and held up a mirror to the northern kingdom calling out the depravity and hypocrisy that they had been metaphorically swimming in. Dr. King came and held up a mirror up to society and forced them to face a reality they would rather ignore. A reality that has taught us that in every year since 1619 America cannot deal with her complicated and dark racial history. The minute you decided to traded 20 human beings made in the image and likeness of God for food you committed the most grievous of sins. And that sin will not be sanitized by sweeping it up with all the other dirt and filth and hiding it under a rug and denying its existence. Martin Luther King preached to a society that had never dealt with its ugly racial past.

America has never dealt with the duality and ambiguity that was created when a society simultaneously claims that “all men are created equal” while oppressing, brutalizing and enslaving a portion of its population. Yes, Martin Luther King was pointing out what was glaringly obvious to African Americans but was an inconvenient truth to white America. That the country that they loved so much is a liar. She lied. She does not allow, or permit liberty and justice for all. However, even in the face of these harsh realities Dr. King still had hope and he had a dream.


And even now in the 21st century when we are facing historic levels of white nationalist backlash, twisted conspiracy theories and a government that at one point was on the brink of collapse we can still have hope. Why, because we serve a God who is able to do exceedingly more than what we ask and believe. In times like this we need to lean into our faith and know that we know that we know that we know that when the Lord spoke about justice rolling down like water, and righteousness like a never ending stream, When Jesus came as the savior of the world speaking truth to power and giving a voice to the poor, the marginalized and the oppressed He did not bring us this far to leave us this far. The bible teaches us that “he who has begun a good work will complete it” So as we wait for the dream to become manifest in our present reality let us continue to work towards bringing the vision to pass. Because one day, one blessed day America will finally be able to say what she means and means what she says. That we will live to see liberty and justice for all of God’s people, regardless of color, class, or gender. That we can all take hold of the promises that the nation’s founders wrote about “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness”, that we can all take hold of the promise of “liberty and justice for all”. And most importantly that we can see the revelation of the word that the Lord gave to Amos that Justice would flow like water and Righteousness like a ever flowing stream.