“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 just explode?”
Langston Hughes, poet of the Harlem Renaissance, spoke out of the frustration of a people who had been waiting for the dream of freedom to come true. He suggested that when you do not get what you earnestly want and desperately need, either that frustration dries you up, shrivels you; or it creates a boiling rage.
What happens to a dream deferred? Does it dry up like a raisin in the sun? Or does it just explode?
Here we are, near the end of summer. It’s late August, and there isn’t much summer left. Did you begin the season with high hopes about what you would accomplish? Once school was out, what did you think you might do with the extra time? Learn a new skill? Brush up on your sports technique? But now it’s August, it’s the end of summer, and where did the time go? What happened to that dream deferred?
Once the days grew longer, and there was more sunlight, what did you imagine you might do? Get those weeds pulled, plant those vegetables, whip that landscaping into shape? But the burning of the afternoon sun withered not only your garden but also your energies, and here we are at the end of the season. What will you do about that garden? Did it dry up like a raisin in the sun? It’s August, it’s late.
Where are you are in your life? What is to be done about good intentions, never fulfilled? Those ambitions, never completed? What about all those dreams of what you could become and what you might make of your life? And here it is, late, and so many things were never done. Here you are a senior adult, nearly at the end of the lazy hazy days, and dreams deferred are sagging like a heavy load, or maybe exploding in rage.
Somewhere around the year 600 BC the people of Judah woke up to a day of enormous frustration. They had planned so many wonderful things. They had thought they were on the edge of tremendous national prosperity. They had a fine king, Josiah, who had rebuilt the Temple, had refocused the people, and had energized the nation.
But one horrible day, at Megiddo, Josiah and Judah’s army marched out to intercept Necho, the Egyptian pharaoh, on his way to do battle with Babylon. On that day, that terrible day, the dreams of the people of Judah were dashed, as on the plain of Megiddo King Josiah lay dying, his army crushed. Bad as that was, only a short time later, at Carchemish, another battle, this time with Egypt defeated, but the Babylonians stepping in to take over. Judah, with its bright hopes and its worthy ambitions, was now a vassal of Babylon. Defeated. Dried up like the raisin in the sun.
The prophet Jeremiah reports their plaintive cry: “The harvest is past, the summer is ended, and we are not saved.” Jeremiah, they said, it’s late! We had such high hopes, such fantastic dreams for ourselves! But it’s late! “The harvest is past, the summer is ended, and we are not saved.”
Can you feel that in your own life? You’ve done part of your education, but you didn’t do all that well – and if you don’t get into gear right now you will never have the grades for college. “The harvest is past, the summer is ended, and we are not saved.”
You’re a parent, and suddenly you see that that child of yours is not a child anymore. Others influence him; there are other sources for her mind to draw on. If you are going to shape that character and guide that heart, it may be too late. “The harvest is past, the summer is ended, and we are not saved.”
You’re a man or a woman of a good many years, and you recognize that you have come to a stage in life where there just isn’t plenty of time anymore. When I think about being sixty-seven years old, and so many of the things I once thought I might do, I know I will never do. I am not sure whether I feel disappointment, or pain, or rage. I only know that it’s August in my life, and I sense some frustration. “The harvest is past, the summer is ended, and we are not saved.”
What is the word of the Lord for those of us who feel as though our dreams have petered out and our visions clouded over, for we are near the end of the summer’s warmth and feel the first chill winds of decline just ahead? The word of the Lord through Jeremiah offers us first, an analysis of what is wrong; and then, a word of hope for what can yet be done.
First, Jeremiah’s analysis of what is wrong when dreams are deferred and we are not fulfilling our hopes and visions. Jeremiah would remind us that the problem is that we have expected God to guarantee our ambitions, but that we have not wanted to pay the price of loyalty. Jeremiah tells us that the issue is that we have expected God to make it all happen for us, but we have not wanted to take on any discipline.
Jeremiah reports that the people of Judah are asking, “Is the Lord not in Zion? Is her King not in her?” It’s kind of like Washington in August – where you have a hard time getting anything done because everybody you need to work with has headed for the mountains or the shore. They’re not in their offices or their homes; I can tell you from personal experience, this week they were all on Interstates 66 and 81! Well, the people of Judah were suggesting that if things are not happening as they should, it must be that even God is on vacation. “Is the Lord not in Zion? Is her King not in her?” When things are not working out, we want to know what God is doing about it, and why God is not at work.
But listen to Jeremiah’s rejoinder. Pay attention to Jeremiah’s analysis. The prophet says, “Why have you provoked me to anger with ... graven images, and with ... foreign idols?” Our God turns the question around, and instead of our asking what God is doing about all our failures, God asks us what we are doing running off after foolish priorities. How can we call on God to rescue us at the last moment if we have not maintained our loyalty to Him? How can we suppose that the Lord will overlook our laziness, turn away from our procrastination, and ignore our lack of discipline, and then fix things for us when it is too late?!
I really enjoy playing the organ for services here, when I can. But the problem is that I let my skills lapse. For nearly forty years I have not played, except incidentally. I find myself coming to this keyboard on Sunday morning, having tried to practice a little during the week, and I get very busy praying, “Lord, help me to find the right notes and to keep my feet from getting tangled up.” But now the truth is that if I do not practice, if I do not do the hard work of scales and drills, no amount of praying will prevent wrong notes and hamstrung hymns! There is a discipline to be lived, even when it is late in life and we think there is no more time.
You see, we may sing, “Just when I need Him most, Jesus is near to comfort and cheer”. But we will not know His nearness unless we have cultivated His presence day after day. The Lord God of hosts is not a heavenly go-fer, who is always ready to do our bidding. We are to be obedient to Him and attentive to His ways. “Why have they provoked me to anger with their graven images, and with their foreign idols?” But we come looking for Mr. Fixit, puffing and panting, “The harvest is over, the summer is ended, and we are not saved. Is the Lord not in Zion? Is her King not in her?”
No, brothers and sisters, if you and I are living with dried-up dreams and flattened visions, let us not expect God to do for us what we have not been willing to do for ourselves. If we have not been willing to pay the price of disciplined loyalty to our God, He does not reward faithlessness.
And yet there is also a word of hope from this prophet. Jeremiah is not only the preacher who diagnoses our grief and explains why we mourn the end of summer. Jeremiah is also able to offer us an insight for health.
Jeremiah says that our God is a healing God. That our Lord is a redeeming Savior. That He is able to turn ashes into beauty and defeat into victory. But we must have faith to wait for Him and stand with Him as He works.
How does Jeremiah say it? What are his insightful words? “Is there no balm in Gilead? Is there no physician there?” A cryptic phrase that means that no matter how dire the situation, no matter how difficult the task, the Lord our God is able to bind up the wounds and comfort the brokenhearted. Late as it may be, and slipshod though we may have been, it is not too late for our God to bring about healing. Not too late for our God to offer new life. Paul says it so wonderfully in the Roman letter, “God is at work in all things for good for those who love Him and are called according to His purpose.” It may be that we mourn the end of summer, for we are not yet all that we could have been. But come see what God can do! There is a balm; there is a physician.
There was plenty to mourn near the end of the summer of 1945. Countless thousands had died in a war against imperialism, marked by unspeakable cruelty. In August of that year, a new weapon, the atomic bomb, destroyed the cities of Nagasaki and Hiroshima, killing thousands of people. Finally the war was over, but at an awful price. Much to mourn at the end of that summer. But do you know that within weeks, the work of reconciliation had begun between the American and the Japanese people? Do you know that Christians in both nations reached out, in the name of the suffering servant, to bind up wounds and work for peace? Our God is able; He is a balm in Gilead, to heal the sin-sick soul. He is a physician, for the healing of the nations.
There was plenty to mourn near the end of the summer of 1963. Thousands came together in the streets city to mark the centennial of the Emancipation Proclamation; but they came also to cry out, “The harvest is ended, the summer is past” – and after a hundred years “we are not saved.” Justice had not yet rolled down like waters for African-Americans, nor righteousness as a mighty stream. Standing in front of the Lincoln Memorial, they were stirred by the rhetoric of a young prophet who, like Jeremiah, assured them that there was a balm in Gilead, there was a physician there. Martin Luther King, at the end of that summer, mourning the nation’s failure to do justice, nonetheless cried out that he would return to the Southland full of faith that God would do justice. Yes, God does justice, in His own way and in His own time. But God brings health.
There is plenty to mourn near the end of the summer of 2005. I cannot remember so many stories of stabbings, shootings, abandoned children, and sheer cruelty. It seems our community is destroying itself at breakneck pace. And yet I know that in the midst of one hot spot where men have died, Catholic Christians are gathering to pray and to provide help. I know that on the edge of another place where the pain of poverty is palpable, another group of Haitian Christians are building a center for ministry. And I know that on the most desolate edges of this city, where families live with random violence every day, our brothers and sisters at Johenning Baptist Center are faithfully offering counseling, training, guidance, and hope. Yes, there is a balm in Gilead; yes, there is a physician there.
For you and I know what Jeremiah could only dimly perceive – for you and I are on this side of Calvary. You and I know that even God has His hopes dashed, time and again; even the Creator of heaven and earth cannot see His work completed, but must watch His dreams dry up like raisins in the sun. But you and I also know that in Jesus Christ and at His cross that same God has paid the price for our deliverance and is doing whatever it takes to bring us back to Himself.
For on that third day ... just when it seemed no more could be done ... on that third day ... just when it appeared that all was lost ... on that third day, under a blazing sun that had seared all hope ... on that day He rose from the dead, conquered our diseases, healed our sorrows, and wiped out that old enemy, death.
And so, brothers and sisters, if the harvest be past, the summer ended, and we are not saved – if there are so many things we wanted to do for the Kingdom but did not do – then take heart. Pay the price of discipline and faithfulness and take heart, for “the great physician now is here, the sympathizing Jesus. He speaks the wounded heart to cheer, Oh praise the name of Jesus!”
There is still time to respond; there is new life; there is something more we can be, even at this late date. For because of the empty tomb, I tell you, there is a balm in Gilead, to make the wounded whole; there is a physician there, to heal the sin-sick soul.