On 28th August 1955 black teenager Emmett Till, was violently killed in Money, Mississippi.
On the same day in 1963 Martyn Luther King delivered his famous “I Have a Dream” speech on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington. A huge crowd heard King’s riveting speech that day of his dream, that included the words:
“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 colour of their skin but by the content of their character.
I have a dream today!”
The problem with this is that the colour of a person’s skin is instantly obvious. By contrast the content of a person’s character is much more difficult to read.
It requires of us a willingness to move beyond the superficial to look beneath the surface. It means taking time to look, to really look, making space in our lives to listen and understand.
It requires the generosity that gives people the benefit of the doubt and allows a breathing space for the conversion of our imaginations.
I wonder what Martin Luther King would think if he were to walk in our cities today.
Perhaps he would be justified in thinking that nobody has taken any notice.
In the book of James, we read about what it means to listen:
“Anyone who listens to the word but does not do what it says is like someone who looks at his face in a mirror and, after looking at himself, goes away and immediately forgets what he looks like. But whoever looks intently into the perfect law that gives freedom and continues in it — not forgetting what they have heard but doing it — they will be blessed in what they do” (James 1:23–25).
Isn’t it ridiculous to think that anyone could look at themselves in a mirror and then immediately forgot what they look like? Yes, unless of course you are a preacher. All preachers have seen this phenomenon play out on too many Sunday mornings. The preacher has held up a mirror, the congregation has seen something and then within moments of the service ending the congregation has forgotten what is heard.
What do people say after another mass shooting, the death of a black man in police custody or another disclosure of historic sexual abuse? “Lessons have been learned and things must now change”.
Change does not happen in any life, church or society without the intention to change and a clear plan to effect that change.
Some preachers us the following mechanism to help hearers think about such a change:
The word speaks to me. This is what it is says. So, what does that mean in my life? Now what should I do in response to this and how can I do it?
The 28th of August is also Augustine Day. It marks the day that Augustine, the Bishop of Hippo died in 430 AD. Augustine was a North African, born on the same continent as the ancestors Emmett Till and Martin Luther King. There is some debate about his skin colour but no doubt that he was African. It is striking that one of the greatest and most influential theologians in church history came from Africa.
One of the things I like about Augustine’s sermons is that he often speaks directly to particular groups in the congregation to draw out the implications of what is being said in the sermon.
What is the point of speaking unless we believe that there is some prospect that our words might result in change? We are all entitled to dream. The hard thing is finding practical ways to turn dreams into reality.
Having read this blog, what one thing could you do to bring change to your life, preaching, church or society?