Harlem (What Happens To A Dream Deferred?)

Pastor Rachel B. Livingston 

I. Beginnings

We come again to our sermon series on poetry from well-known poets, where we have engaged topics such as God being our Good Shepherd, creating Beloved Community, embracing the true sense of Christ, and traveling the road that is bound with Christ and not the status quo. We have been able to see that the word of the Lord can come alive in unsuspecting places in life, therefore we must keep our eyes open for where God is moving because God can move anywhere and everywhere.  And now we are looking at the poem “Harlem” by Langston Hughes as we look at the idea of God calling for justice in the midst of a world that perpetuates oppression.  An idea that can be applied to the time of our scripture, the time of our poem this week, and even now in our present reality.  What happens to a dream deferred? The highlighted question of the hour, within the eloquent words of our poet, Langston Hughes, a premier writer from the Harlem Renaissance. An anticipated question that in some ways does not necessarily achieve a specific answer or resolution within the confines of this poem, but yet you can feel the emotion that is present in the question brought about by the author as he seems to deeply understand what happens when a dream is deferred, put on hold, delayed so long that it feels like it’s been denied, or actually has been denied so long the hope of it occurring is actually suffocated.  What happens to a dream deferred?  And what then happens to the hope within the heart? And what then happens to the spirit of the human being as the dream is stifled?

 II. Scriptural Background

As we engage with our scripture this morning, it is likely that the words of Hughes could be on the lips of many that are under the strongholds of an oppressive government within the land of Judah – the poor, the downtrodden, the exploited.  They could sincerely feel the guttural moans, the stirring of the soul deep within that leads to the question, What happens to a dream deferred?  What happens when a sense of hope is cut off, when it seems like the weight of the world is standing on their neck and suffocating the life out of them?  When the structure of the world around them functions in a way that profits off of their exploitation, when the wealthy seem to feel that their lives are completely worthless. What happens when a dream is deferred?


Within our scripture this morning we see that our prophet, Micah, is proclaiming what seems to be the coming destruction of Israel.  This is after the Kingdom of Israel had been divided into two kingdoms, the northern kingdom of Israel and the southern kingdom of Judah.  However, at this point the northern kingdom had already fallen to the Assyrian Empire.  So part of the unified people of Israel had fallen to the Assyrian Empire already and now the impending fall of the rest of Israel was threatening to come crashing down.  Under the rule of king Hezekiah, the people of Judah had experienced an economic revolution that created a substantial growth of wealth for the rich at the expense of the exploitation of the poor.  This developed a large gap between the rich and the poor that created an oppressive structure that benefited off the manipulation and objectification of the poor.  The society had become completely corrupt by the governmental and spiritual leaders.   It is not unlikely that the poor were feeling the weight of the world on them as they lifted up a stifled groan, a stirring cry, that bellowed the sentiments, “What happens to a dream deferred? What happens when our hope is gone Lord? What happens when life tries to crush us with so much pain? What happens when we have become the insignificant, the forgotten, the broken?

III. What Happens To A Dream Deferred?

Oppression was so pervasive in the land of Judah that the prophets had abandoned their call to God, they had stopped listening to word of the Lord and had begun to treat their station of prophets and seers as a business rather than a call from God on their lives.  They weren’t even listening to God, but selling falsified sweet dreams rather than speaking truth to power that proclaims the gospel of the Lord, even when it hurts. They were perverting the word of the Lord by telling people what they wanted to hear based upon how much money someone would give them.  They proclaimed peace and that God would always remain with them, that God was never going to cause their destruction, all the while ignoring the fact that they had stopped listening to God and that God was not happy with the injustice that they were perpetuating.  They had ignored that they had broken their covenant with God in their perpetuation of injustice. The poor were exploited, the wealthy were relishing in their greed as they stood on the necks of the oppressed, the leaders led with the guise of continual oppression to appease the rich without concern for damning the poor, and the religious leaders had abandoned any connection to God’s word and God’s proclamation of justice.  It’s clear that as the poor and oppressed hoped for any sense of God’s justice, any sense of God’s peace, any sense of connection with God that might bring them liberation and redemption from their current circumstance, any sense of tasting the reality of a dream that would turn their situation around, the words of Langston Hughes poem could be found on their lips as they question what happens to a dream, what happens to a dream when it is deferred, delayed, and even denied.


What happens to a dream deferred?


Does it dry up

like a raisin in the sun?

Or fester like a sore –

And then run?

Does it stink like rotten meat?

Or crust and sugar over –

like a syrupy sweet?


Maybe it just sags

Like a heavy load.


Or does it explode?


What happens to hope in a bleak situation, what happens to joy when all around you seems to cave in, what happens to the dream when all you want is just a sense of human dignity, yet all around your soul gives way?  Does it all just wither away, does it hang over us as an unwanted longing, or does it just overtake everything and explode?


 IV. What Is Happening In The World Around Us?

I believe that if we listen to the world around us, if we listen to the hearts of the community we serve, if we feel the tension in the air we might be able to hear the whisper, to hear they moan, to feel the weeping as the world cries out in just trying to find out what happens to a dream deferred? What happens when all hope seems to be gone or stifled?  What happens when all we can do is turn to God for some sense of solace?


In this moment I am not trying to proclaim a political partisan stance, I never endorse specific candidates, as I believe that is distinctly up to the voter.  However, I will admit that there are policies that I support which I feel to be part of our duty as Christians – many of which are backed by our social principles that can be found in the Book of Discipline.  However, this is not the point that I am trying to make this morning.  As we approach the election this week, it is clear that there is tension – there is fear, apprehension, stress, anxiety, and paranoia – and that is for both sides of the aisle. In the minds of everyone, it seems that an opposing result could cause a catastrophe.  We have to admit that people are at odds with each other, we don’t know where to turn, and there is the even rumblings of what some predict to be an impending civil war as the lines at the gun shops seem to be wrapped around the building as people are loading up with more guns than they can handle.  What happens when the dream of a land of peace and justice, a dream that we might live together in community with love and harmony, what happens when that dream is deferred?


We live in a society where often times society values the strong over the weak, the victor over the downtrodden, and we don’t hesitate to step over the suffering to assert our own superiority.  And yet God calls us to value the weak, to extend love to the outcast, to lend a helping hand to the downtrodden.  God calls us to be counter-cultural. And yet the world ignores the oppression and injustice and people remain in the same state of suffering.  What happens when the dream of love and empathy is deferred?


We live in a world where yet again the streets have come alive for another black person who has been gunned down by police brutality, another person who needed the help of mental health professionals yet was met with a fatal bullet that ended his life.  We are living in a world at which some cry themselves to sleep because again the world they see does not value their lives, the world they see proclaims their lives don’t matter.  We are living in a world where people are so angered that they feel like they have to assert any sense of their human dignity by any means necessary.  We live in a world where racial injustice has made people numb to the heart wrenching reality of continually being brought the news of another black person being gunned down.  We live in a world when people are rocked to the core that they feel like their reality is that they could be next.  There have just been too many names that our soul is heavy: Walter Wallace, Jr., Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, Marcellis Stinette, Atatiana Jefferson, Renisha McBride, and these are only a few – we speak their names to remember the sanctity of their lives.  What happens when that dream, that dream of human dignity, that dream of being validated by God’s love is deferred? What happens when that dream is deferred, stifled even by racial injustice?


Does it dry up, like a raisin in the sun?


Or does it explode?

V.  How To Proclaim God’s Justice

What does the prophet have to say in the midst of a dream deferred?  Well I can imagine that the prophet probably prayed to God and proclaimed some of the words we find in our psalm this morning. “For you are the God in whom I take refuge; why have you cast me off? Why must I walk about mournfully because of the oppression of the enemy?  O send out your light and your truth; let them lead me; let them bring me to your holy hill and to your dwelling.” “Defend my cause against an ungodly people.”  We can imagine that Micah is asking for strength to stand against the structures of oppression that harm the poor, to be bold in the face of the leaders who want to deny the will of God, and to stand strong in the will of God and let it direct his path.  The sad news of our scripture this morning is that the people did not listen to the words of the prophet, they did not listen to the Lord.  They wanted to remain in their fantasy that perpetuated injustice and denied their covenant with God to reject injustice.  They had made this covenant with God because of the injustice they had experienced at the hands of Egypt.  And because of their rejection of God’s word it led to their downfall, it led to their exile, it led to their destruction.  What happens to a dream deferred? Well at the denial of God’s justice it seems that it might just explode.


But prayerfully we are not at the place of no return.  Prayerfully we are at the place where we can still heed God’s demand for justice. Prayerfully, as the people of God, we can function within God’s justice to establish God’s peace, love, and justice that proclaim the reign of God here on earth.  Hopefully we can tear down the walls of oppression that create inequality and build Beloved Community that touches each soul with the love found in Jesus Christ.


But what does this mean?  What does this mean for the people of God?  Well first and foremost it starts with self.  In the midst of a world that is framed and steeped in injustice and oppressive structures, we must address the ways in which we contribute to that.  Do we function in ways that keep the impoverished struggling for money? Do we function in ways that make people of color feel less than?  Do we function in ways that profit off the weak? Do we think of ourselves as better than because we have achieved certain degrees or received certain accolades?  The reality is that we have to sit with ourselves and wrestle with the discomfort of all the ways that we might be unfaithful to God, looking at ourselves in the mirror and address all the ways that we might hinder God’s provision of justice.


And once we do that, we must allow God to transform us, to work in us and through us.  We must allow God to shape and mold us to function in love that we might always carry out God’s justice.  Jesus Christ came to suffer death on a cross and was resurrected, that we might find new life.  Jesus came that we might be transformed, that we might become new beings in him.  Therefore, we must allow Christ to liberate us from the oppressions of the world, that we might be made over and clothed in him – that we might fully function in love, peace, and justice.

And then we must stand in solidarity of the oppressed.  To not only meet their need but work in ways that tear down the structures that call for their oppression.  Where the naked exists let them be clothed, where there is hunger let the  hungry find food, where there is sickness let the ill find healing, where there is bondage let those in captivity be made free, where there is blindness may they find warmth and sight, where there is poverty may the poor find sustenance and a means to restoration. But in all these cases may the structures that perpetuate their struggle be torn down.


And finally we must function in love.  We must let the love of God fill our very being that it shapes the way we encounter the world.  In the midst of a volatile elections season while brother and sister hate one another, may we act in love that restores God’s peace.  In the midst of racial injustice that seems to rob someone of personhood, may we extend love that acknowledges humanity and empathizes with the hurt felt, and assures people of God’s love.  In the midst of oppressive structures may we function in ways that assert God’s love for all people and show God’s active movement to demand justice in the face of oppression.


What happens to a dream deferred? Does it explode?


May we always be faithful to God that we might deliver the dream of God’s justice that restores hope and peace  – that it is not the dream that is deferred, delayed, or denied, but that injustice and oppression are always destroyed and denied.  May God’s justice roll on like a river, and God’s righteousness flow like an ever-flowing stream. Amen.