Jeremiah 2.9-13, Hebrews 13.7-8 &; 15-16
This reading from Hebrews says, ‘Remember your leaders, those who spoke the word of God to you.’ How appropriate then, that last week saw the fiftieth anniversary of one of the most famous speeches of modern times, Martin Luther King’s ‘I have a dream’ speech. Alongside Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address it is one of the speeches which shaped modern America, just as Twentieth Century British consciousness was shaped by the wartime speeches of Winston Churchill.
But of course there were striking differences between the ‘I have a dream’ speech and the speeches of Churchill and Lincoln. Their speeches were borne out of conflict, Luther King’s speech was borne out of a vision for peace. Lincoln and Churchill were urging people to violent resistance, whereas Luther King was an advocate of non-violence.
Churchill’s most famous speech, ‘We shall fight on the beaches’, was a stirring call to arms, but it was a backs to the wall call to defend the status quo against unimaginable horror. ‘Even though large tracts of Europe and many old and famous States have fallen or may fall into the grip of the Gestapo and all the odious apparatus of Nazi rule,’ Churchill told Parliament, ‘We shall not flag or fail. We shall go on to the end. We shall fight in France, we shall fight on the seas and oceans, we shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air, we shall defend our island, whatever the cost may be. We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender.’
An American journalist said at the time that everyone should learn the speech by heart, but it’s not a Christian speech.
Similarly, the Gettysburg address contains stirring words about the necessity of making sacrifices to preserve democracy. It is just ten sentences long, so it is worth quoting in full:
‘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.
‘Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battlefield of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.
‘But, in a larger sense, we cannot dedicate, we cannot consecrate, we cannot hallow this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us—that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion—that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain—that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom—and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.’
In a masterpiece of understatement Lincoln described his speech as ‘a few appropriate remarks’. It’s actually a great speech but it’s not a Christian speech. It owes its inspiration more to classical rhetoric. And we can argue whether the civil war really did establish democracy. It was to be another hundred years before the votes of all Americans were considered equal.
By contrast, the most memorable sections of Martin Luther King’s speech are shot through with Christian symbolism. It’s by far the longest speech of the three, and for many years the full text was hard to obtain. Churchill and Lincolcn gave their speeches away to encourage people with their words, but King copyrighted his speech so that he could sell it to raise funds for the Civil Rights Movement.
‘We have... come to this hallowed spot,’ King told the crowd, ‘To remind America of the fierce urgency of Now. This is no time to engage in the luxury of cooling off or to take the tranquilizing drug of gradualism. Now is the time to make real the promises of democracy. Now is the time to rise from the dark and desolate valley of segregation to the sunlit path of racial justice. Now is the time to lift our nation from the quicksands of racial injustice to the solid rock of brotherhood. Now is the time to make justice a reality for all of God's children.
‘There are those,’ he went on, ‘Who are asking the devotees of civil rights, "When will you be satisfied?" We can never be satisfied... and we will not be satisfied until "justice rolls down like waters, and righteousness like a mighty stream."
‘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 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."
‘...And when this happens, and when we allow freedom to ring, when we let it ring from every village and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God's children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual:
Free at last! Free at last!
Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!’
Over the anniversary period the BBC not only broadcast King’s speech, it also broadcast the speech that Tony Blair gave to the House of Commons before the Iraq War. It was yet another brilliant speech, a speech that - like Churchill - urged us to think what the future would be like if we gave in to dictators. It was another speech about war, and it was a speech that was founded on a falsehood, that the Iraqis still had weapons of mass destruction.
The Syrian crisis has also inspired several new speeches about the need to put up a fight.In calling for a period of further consultation and relection before attacking Syria, President Obama quoted the Gettysburg address. But perhaps It’s a good time to remember King’s vision of peaceful change, in which he spoke of the need to believe in ‘creative suffering’ and ‘to work with the faith that unearned suffering is redemptive.’
Jeremiah used many stirring words in his prophecies, and none more so than today’s lectionary reading: ‘Therefore once more I accuse you, says the Lord, and I accuse your children’s children. Cross to the coasts of Cyprus and look, send to Kedar and examine with care; see if there has ever been such a thing. Has a nation changed its gods, even though they are no gods? But my people have changed their glory for something that does not profit. Be appalled, O heavens, at this, be shocked, be utterly desolate, says the Lord, for my people have committed two evils: they have forsaken me, the fountain of living water, and dug out cisterns for themselves, cracked cisterns that can hold no water.’
The people are here accused of something utterly wrongheaded. They are like wanderers in the wilderness who have abandoned a gushing spring or fountain of beautiful fresh water, bubbling out of the mountainside, in order to rey instead on a cistern designed to collect rainwater in a dusty and parched desert. The contents will never be as pure, cool and good to drink. But worse still, the cistern built to collect the water is cracked, so even this precious rainwater is seeping away. The people of Israel have exchanged a rich spiritual inheritance for an empty creed, the true God for false ones.
‘Remember your leaders, those who spoke the word of God to you; consider the outcome of their way of life, and imitate their faith,’ says the writer to the Hebrews. The outcome of Luther King’s life was, ultimately, a Black president, but it was also a share in the creative and redemptive suffering which he had encouraged the Civil Rights marchers to accept. ‘Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever,’ says the writer. ‘Through him, then, let us continually offer a sacrifice of praise to God...’ Eventually, Martin Luther King was to offer the ultimate sacrifice, like the men who fell at Gettysburg and like Jesus Christ himself who gave himself as a sacrifice to reconcile in himself all people, regardless of creed and colour, to one another and to God.
The writer to the Hebrews ends by reminding his readers that the sort of sacrifice which pleases God is ‘to do good and to share what you have.’ In the end, stirring rhetoric has to be made real. It has to be grounded in action. It has to be lived out in lives of faithful Christian service. Above all it has to be lived out in doing good and sharing what we have. That is the most eloquent testimony of all.