Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” is heralded as one of the most important American speeches of the last 100 years. Delivered in Washington, DC, 60 years ago in 1963, it will be commemorated with Share the Dream Sunday on August 27, 2023. Churches across the nation will share the message and the meaning of this historic moment in history with teaching, preaching, and curriculum developed to carry the message of love, conscience, justice, freedom, perseverance, and hope that are the roots of all of King’s teaching, so desperately needed in the divided society we face today.
The rich and brief life of Martin Luther King Jr. gives all preachers three key messages and mandates for ministry that remain relevant to us today. King showed us personal sacrifice of privilege to serve the poor and the least. His faithfulness to the ministry recognized that a place of privilege is always a place of purpose. And he made full proof of his call by measuring ministry results by his service to the poor, as Jesus clearly instructed in Matthew 25. These are the attributes of ministry leaders who have a fully-formed Christian character as described by both Paul and Peter in their Epistles—a character that is rooted in love. This was the character of Martin Luther King Jr.
King was, in some ways, a privileged preacher. The basic measure of American economic privilege is home ownership, the source of most household and generational wealth in the country. Globally, America is in the top ten countries with the highest rates of home ownership. King was born in a home bought and owned by his grandparents and passed on to his parents. Multi-generational home ownership is something that most African Americans today still do not have, with home ownership well below 50 percent.
Privilege is also measured by educational achievement. King’s father had earned a bachelor of theology degree in 1931 from one of the most prestigious academic institutions in the country then and now, Morehouse College. At that time in American history, less than 3 percent of all Americans had a college degree, much less African Americans. King’s father, affectionately known as “Daddy King,” not only had longevity, outliving his famous son by more than 15 years, but he also pastored Ebenezer Baptist Church, one of the leading and largest churches in Atlanta. King followed his father’s footsteps to Morehouse College and went on to earn additional degrees, including a PhD in systematic theology from Boston University at age 26.
Despite all this, King followed the example of Christ set forth in Philippians 2:7–8, taking on the role of a servant, humbling himself and becoming obedient to the possibility of death, even death by assassination. His sacrificial death on April 4, 1968—which he prophetically spoke of on the night before he was murdered—stands as possibly the greatest example of ministry service in our nation’s history. In his sermon recalling the Good Samaritan story that night before he died, he challenged all of us to “develop a kind of dangerous unselfishness.” A man who could have simply followed his father to a famous pulpit, and a life of middle-class comfort in a city where the path had already been laid, chose to live a life of servanthood for the poor and sacrifice for all.
A Place of Privilege Is a Place of Purpose
Scripture has many examples of this life of sacrifice in places of privilege. In fact, it is possible that King’s model life-story of the sacrifice of privilege to serve the purposes of God and the people of God is one of the great narratives of the entire Bible. When we consider the stories of Joseph, Moses, Nehemiah, Esther, and Daniel, we see in each a position of privilege being released so that these individuals could fulfill a purpose of service to their people. In each instance, the wealth, influence, and power connected to the positions these people held were ultimately used to the benefit of God’s people.
For all of us in America, whether African American or some other ethnicity, we find ourselves in the richest and the most politically and militarily powerful country in the history of the world. We also have global ethnic diversity while comprising less than five percent of the world’s population. This is a position of both power and privilege. It is no wonder that so many risk their lives and well-being to gain entrance to this place.
For those of us who are here, and especially those of us in ministry, we must consider our purpose in the context of God’s call and plans for our lives. Why did God choose us for this location and this assignment? What is our purpose in this “palace” of a nation?
We know from the stories of the biblical characters that a palace position is always for a purpose greater than one’s own comfort or convenience. Whether we choose Joseph, Moses, Nehemiah, Esther, or Daniel, each has a story of privilege in the context of the oppression of their people group or family. In each instance, we see God using the position to bring benefit to the larger family or people group in a similar way that God used King in his position for a purpose of service.
Our identity as American people, combined with a limited view of history, often leads us to conclude that these narratives do not apply to us. This is especially true for many white Americans who see themselves as simply “Americans.” But the reality of history is that Americans, Euro-Americans, African Americans, Asian Americans, Hispanic Americans, and all Americans other than Native Americans, are a people in “exile” or apart from their geographic and ethnic origins.
However Americans identify themselves, all share the position of privilege that living in the richest country in the world affords. Therefore, all are called to examine their obligation to serve and be sensitive to their ethnic roots and how God may have positioned them for a purpose tied to ethnic roots, and not just national location. This is the challenge that we see Joseph, Moses, Nehemiah, Esther, and Daniel each struggled with as they considered actions to benefit their people group.
King, in the relinquishing of his position of privilege, understood that his call was to “suffer affliction with the people of God, [rather] than to enjoy the pleasures of sin for a season” (Heb. 11:25). This sacrifice was perhaps best illustrated when King gave up his home (in Atlanta) and moved his family into the slums of North Lawndale on the West Side of Chicago to show his support for the poor people of this segregated urban ghetto. King described this experience as worse than what he encountered in the South.
While few would make a sacrifice of this nature to serve in their ministry, all in ministry need to consider the specific opportunities that an American position affords to bring transformation to their historic ethnic identity. This could mean service in support of Christians in the now nearly totally secular European context where family origins began for many. In the case of African Americans, it may mean seeing service and support of African Christians as a part of your responsibility since you are among the richest Africans on the planet.
All Americans need to consider their responsibility to their people’s origins and not simply limit their call to “fixing America.” This does not have to be an either-or proposition. America may need fixing, but Europe, Africa, and Asia also need Christian witness and the support that uniquely can come from those of us here in the American “palace” nation.
One might consider the American-centered global missions movement as an example of this idea, and it might be fair to suggest that the ministry of many para-church organizations bringing the wealth of the nation and its donors to support foreign missionaries is an example of addressing the global ministry need. Unfortunately, however, many of these groups are declining significantly and struggle with recruitment.
The growing numbers of religious “nones” are clearly less interested in leaving the comforts of this country. Some would argue that this is a good development since so much of what these groups did was bring Jesus’ teaching but not the resources for economic development so needed in the developing world. The idea was similar to bringing fish but not teaching people how to fish.
Organizational examples of this kind of empowering mission work would include Operation Mobilization’s ships, which bring medical technology to places where it does not exist and then engaging locals to assist and learn from the effort. MAP International similarly comes alongside healthcare providers globally bringing US medicines and equipment often not available in the developing world. Domestic organizations such as One Church One School are an example of churches partnering and empowering here in the US while serving the poor.
In King’s sermon “The Impassable Gulf [The Parable of Dives and Lazarus],” he preaches from the position that the parable was not condemning the rich man’s wealth, but rather the crime was ignoring the opportunity to use his wealth for good. King is said to be articulating the position taken by George Buttrick’s lecture on this parable found in his book The Parables of Jesus.
By example and precept, King encourages all of us in ministry to consider our position of privilege as a place for purposeful outreach to a world in desperate need of the basics of food, clothing, shelter, health care, and the justice that God seeks for the poor.
The Measure of King’s Ministry
Considering the ministry of King and its relevance today, only one of the five national problems identified at the outset of the message of “I Have A Dream” has been fully addressed. Segregation laws in intercity buses, trains, hotels, and restaurants have since been eliminated in America.
The remaining problems named at the beginning of the message of the “dream” are still with us: a lack of justice seen in police brutality, suppression of voting rights, housing inequities and homelessness, children being exposed to injustice in media (not “whites only” signs but pervasive Black media imagery of poverty, comedy, and debauchery, which harms all of us).
The sad reality is that in the six decades since this message was delivered, America is still seeking justice for all, a coming kingdom of God that includes loving acceptance and care for the poor, the widow, the orphan, and the downtrodden, along with the freedom to actually achieve life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness enshrined in the founders’ American Dream and the origin documents of the nation.
The call and challenge to the preachers contemplating Share the Dream Sunday in 2023 and in every year to come is to preach the message of justice, the kingdom, and freedom.
This must begin with God’s Word and the preaching of the character qualities that underly these outcomes that are so absent in today’s public discourse—qualities that Paul exhorted us to live out in 1 Timothy 4:12 and Colossians 3:12–14, and that were described by Peter in 2 Peter 1:5–9.
To preach the dream, live the dream, and share the dream, we need people who will be an example in their faith and their purity in what they say, how they live, and how they love—people who complement their faith with good character, spiritual understanding, alert discipline, passionate patience, reverent wonder, warm friendliness, and generous love. These are the character qualities of people who will serve the least and help bring the transformation of society that we all seek.
Share the Dream Sunday, August 27, 2023
The biblical principles that shaped Martin Luther King Jr.’s belief in an all-loving and all-powerful God compelled him to act on behalf of those who were oppressed, and empowered him to stand for justice in a very unjust world. The legacy that King left behind has literally changed our history.
We have the power to do the same if we are willing to embrace these transcendent principles in our world today. This is the dream of King we must live and preach. This is the dream we must share. This is the dream that King describes as the measure of his own ministry in the eulogy he gave for himself on February 4, 1968, which, at the request of his widow, was played at his funeral:
I'd like somebody to mention that day that Martin Luther King Jr. tried to give his life serving others. I'd like for somebody to say that day that Martin Luther King Jr. tried to love somebody … to feed the hungry. I want you to be able to say that day that I did try in my life to clothe those who were naked … to visit those who were in prison … I want you to say that I tried to love and serve humanity.
Editor’s Note: If you would like to lead your church through a Bible study related to Share the Dream Sunday be sure to check out the curriculum on Church Source. They have three different versions of the study, so you can purchase whichever one is the most convenient for your church setting.
The study guide and video curriculum are a resource for preachers and churches to discuss this important history and discover a biblical resource that will deepen our engagement with matters of racial justice. This could be used during the months of August–September in commemoration of the 60th Anniversary of “I Have a Dream,” or it can be used throughout the year as a resource for small groups or Sunday School Bible studies.
C. Jeffrey Wright is the chief executive officer of Urban Ministries, Inc. (UMI), the largest media and publishing firm serving African American churches and denominations. He is a trustee at Fuller Theological Seminary and a contributing author to: Nonprofit Leadership in a For-Profit World.