In America, we seem to have a sort of fascination with con artists. Two of the films nominated for best picture this week, American Hustle and The Wolf of Wall Street feature main characters who are con artists. American Hustle tells the story of political corruption in New Jersey and the way two con men play all sides against each other; The Wolf of Wall Street stars Leonardo DiCaprio as a smooth talking Wall Street broker who convinces people to buy worthless stock. Or if, like me, you haven’t been to a movie in awhile, think back to classic movies like The Sting with Robert Redford and Paul Newman or Elmer Gantry with Burt Lancaster or The Music Man with Robert Preston. You can probably add to this list yourself, movies whose ‘heroes’ are really scoundrels, and yet we root for them anyways. Walter McDougall, an historian at the University of Pennsylvania writes, that “far from despising flimflam artists as parasites or worse, American popular culture habitually celebrates rascals as comedic figures.” He says that we do this because con artists, despite their vices (like lying and stealing), represent many of the virtues that Americans aspire to. Con artists are independent and typically self-made. They don’t have to kowtow to a boss. They succeed or fail based on their own wits. They exemplify, in short, the complicated nature of American capitalism, which, as McDougall argues, has depended on people being hustlers in both the positive and the negative sense. In “The Financial Page” column this week in The New Yorker, James Surowiecki puts it like this: “The American economy wasn’t built just on good ideas and hard work. It was also built on hope and hype.”
Surowiecki points out that to raise money to start a business, you’ve got to sell an imaginary future--a dream. Unless you already have a great deal of money, you have to convince other people, people with money, to give you money so that you can buy the materials you need to make a product which you then hope to sell to make more money. Before building a single car, Henry Ford had to persuade his major supplier to take stock in lieu of cash, because he didn’t have the money to pay for thousands of dollars’ worth of parts. The stockholders, in effect, believed Henry Ford’s dream that he could build cars that people would buy, and that he could make a handy profit selling them. Sociologist Alex Preda writes, “Talent for persuasion is key: after all, the public must be convinced to part with their money on the basis of the simple promise that an idea will yield profit in the future.” Successful entrepreneurship involves hucksterism, the ability to convince investors and employees that they should risk their money, their time, and their effort on you. Like a con artist, you’re peddling optimism. The tantalizing combination of risk, hope, and hype provides both the capitalist’s formula for transforming the world and the con artist’s strategy for turning your money into his money. As Mel Weinberg, whose life provided the model for American Hustle said, “It’s my philosophy to give hope...That’s why most people don’t turn us in to the cops. They keep hopin’ we’re for real.” Both the capitalist’s and the con man’s are dreams of a sort, one the American dream of making good through your good ideas and hard work, the other a dream of an easy path to quick riches. Both dreams captivate our imaginations.
Dreams and dreamers are scattered throughout the bible. In Genesis, we read about Jacob, a scoundrel and a con man if there ever was one. After cheating his brother out of his inheritance, Jacob flees for his life. He stops to rest for the night, and taking a stone for pillow, he lies down to sleep. He dreams of a ladder set on the earth with its top reaching to heaven, and the angels of God ascending and descending on it. Then God stands beside him and says, “I am the Lord, the God of Abraham your father and the God of Isaac; the land on which you lie I will give to you and to your offspring; and your offspring shall be like the dust of the earth, and you shall spread abroad to the west and to the east and to the north and to the south; and all the families of the earth shall be blessed in you and in your offspring. Know that I am with you and will keep you wherever you go, and will bring you back to this land; for I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you.” When Jacob wakes up, his life is transformed. He believes he will be able to return home one day in peace, he vows that the Lord shall be his God, and he pledges a tithe of all he has and all he will have to the Lord.
Dreams figure prominently in Matthew, the gospel most of our gospel readings come from this year. Just before Christmas we heard about the angel appearing to Joseph in a dream to tell him to not be afraid to take Mary as his wife, for the child conceived in her was from the Holy Spirit. Later, an angel again speaks to Joseph in a dream, warning him to take his family to Egypt to escape Herod, and a couple of years later, once again the angel speaks to Joseph in a dream, telling him it is safe to come home. A couple of weeks ago, we heard about the dream the wise men had warning them not to return to Herod after they have found the baby Jesus. These dreams in our sleep are familiar to us, of course, whether we dream of ladders and angels and God or if our dreams are harder to understand. Freud suggested that our dreams come from our subconscious will, our subconscious desires, and you’ve probably spent time trying to figure out what your sleeping dreams mean, what you’re trying to tell yourself, or what a particularly bizarre dream might mean.
The bible has waking dreamers as well, day dreamers who spend a lot of time imagining how the world might be a different place, dreamers who ask “What if?” These day-dreamers are called prophets, and they lay out a vision for how we should live according to God’s dream for the world. The book of Isaiah is a collection of these dreams, these prophecies, and our reading this morning is sometimes called a song of a suffering servant. It’s not clear exactly who is speaking, but whoever it is is not a popular person: they are deeply despised, abhorred by the nations, the slave of rulers. But none of that matters. The prophet-dreamer says, “The Lord called me before I was born, while I was in my mother’s womb he named me. He made my mouth like a sharp sword, in the shadow of his hand he hid me; he made me a polished arrow, in his quiver he hid me away. And the Lord said, “You are my servant, Israel, in whom I will be glorified.” The speaker protests that they’ve tried their best, but nothing has worked, they have failed. God says, in effect, “Never mind. You will not only restore the nation of Israel; you will be a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.” Our Christian tradition sometimes understands this suffering servant through whom God brings salvation to be Jesus; whether that’s what Isaiah has in mind really doesn’t matter as much as the basic message of the passage: God works through the unlikely person, God works through the outcast and the downtrodden, or as Martin Luther puts it, God carves the rotten wood, God rides the lame horse. No vessel is too humble to carry and no tongue is too weak to proclaim the word of God.
On the night of January 27, 1956 in Montgomery, Alabama, Martin Luther King, Jr. couldn’t sleep. He was twenty-seven years old, fresh out of seminary, with a wife and young children. Just seven weeks earlier, Rosa Parks had refused to give up her seat on a city bus to a white passenger. King had become the leader of the boycott when the other black ministers had hesitated, knowing how dangerous and difficult it would be. And it was proving to be just that. The night before, King was removed from his parked car for going 30 mph in a 25 mph zone, he was arrested and briefly imprisoned before the police and mayor became frightened by the crowd that gathered outside the jail. King’s day had been filled with all the many details of the boycott, encouraging those who had to find alternate means of transportation to get to work, reassuring the other leaders who had received death threats. Taylor Branch tells the story in his book Parting the Waters. “Late that night, his mind was turning over as he lay in bed. Coretta had fallen asleep. The phone rang again. “Listen,” said the caller, “we’ve taken all we want from you. Before next week you’ll be sorry you ever came to Montgomery.” King hung up on the angry voice. Hope of sleep receded further. He paced the floor awhile before giving in completely to wakefulness, which drove him to the kitchen to make a pot of coffee. The phone never stopped ringing, and King never knew what to expect, whether a hate filled white caller, or black caller with a kind inquiry about his arrest, or a black caller complaining about the carpool or needing help. It was overwhelming. There was no idea nor imaginable heart large enough to satisfy all of them, or to contain them. Before coming to Alabama, he’d had a limitless potential to think anything was possible, but all that was constricted by hard reality. King buried his face in his hands at the kitchen table. He admitted to himself that he was afraid, that he had nothing left, that the people would falter if they looked to him for strength. Then he said as much out loud, praying “I’ve come to the point where I can’t face it alone.” As he spoke these words, the fears suddenly began to melt away. He became intensely aware of what he called an “inner voice” telling him to do what he thought was right. Such simplicity worked miracles, bringing a shudder of relief and the courage to face anything.”
You know the rest of the story after that dark night of the soul for Martin Luther King. A couple of days later, his house was bombed, but he continued on. The death threats continued, he was attacked and stabbed, but he continued on. A year later, the Montgomery authorities caved and the boycott was over, but King was not done, he continued on. He traveled the country tirelessly, speaking out for civil rights. King was a prophet and dreamer in his own right, and fifty years ago he took the podium on a hot, humid August day on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. The details and pressure of organizing the March on Washington had been overwhelming, and he hadn’t had much time to think about what he was going to say. He’d been speaking for several minutes when Mahalia Jackson, the great gospel singer, urged him to “Tell them about that dream.” And King said, “I say to you today, my friends, even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, 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, live out the true meaning of its creed: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all people are created equal.” I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia children of former slaves and the children of former slave-owners will be able sit down together at the table of fellowship. 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.” On and on he took the refrain, “I have a dream,” finally quoting the prophet-dreamer Isaiah: “I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, 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.”
Martin Luther King’s dream did eventually begin to transform our country, even if he didn’t live to see it through. His dream inspired his followers and generations not yet born to work for justice and freedom for all. The sleeping dreams of Jacob, Joseph, and the wise men shaped and changed their lives. The waking dreams of the prophets continue to inspire and encourage us to live in the image of God. I have come to believe that nothing changes, not in our community or our country or our world or even in our own lives without someone first having a dream. Our church is here because twenty years ago this community dreamt of a future here in Hilton. We’re still here because a couple of years ago we began to dream of a church that worked to make life better for seniors, young people, and our wider community. Each one of us represents the hopes and dreams of our parents and our grandparents and their parents and grandparents before them. So, on this day before the Martin Luther King holiday, a day we remember a great dreamer, let’s take some time to reflect on our own dreams. What are your dreams for yourself? For your family? For this church? For our community? For our country? What is your dream for our world? You probably saw on the way into church the wonderful trees that Eileen Henion painted on the sanctuary doors. In the bulletins are leaves for us to write our dreams on, and then after worship we’ll put them up on the trees, as a way of speaking our dreams out loud and sharing them with each other. As our dreams transform those bare tree branches may they also begin to transform our lives, our community, and our world. Amen.