Genesis 32:22-31 Romans 10:5-15 “What Is Your Name?”
First Congregational Church of Anchorage : 13 August 2017
If I say the name Genghis Khan, what do you imagine? I would venture a guess that most of us have no image of him in mind. What about Stalin, or Ghandi? Maybe Joan of Arc, Lincoln? What about Michael Brown, or Sandra Bland?
I was watching a documentary of Princess Dianna once, you know, because it was on Netflix. I remember they said that she was the most photographed woman when she was alive. She is remembered for many things, but most of all we probably remember what she looked like, at least that is the first thing I think of. I have seen so many photos of her during my life that I doubt I will ever forget what she looked like.
But what about the first list of people, people who’s names carry meaning almost separate from the actual person and what they looked like? What does the utterance of a name do? It is amazing to me that the very speaking of a name can elicit such great reaction. If I say the name Michael Brown, I can visibly see people squirming in their seats anywhere I go.
But what is in a name? And with that, why do we end prayers with something referencing Jesus?
Names point to something. They reveal something both about who holds that name and also who hears the name. You see, the names are not the thing themselves. They point to something else. They are not the thing, but if parents in this country name their child Adolf, you know why.
Paul is having this same sort of discussion, only not about the name of a person. Rather he is concerned with the name of faithfulness for primarily Jewish followers of Jesus in Rome in the first century. Righteousness. The people at the church in Rome were a long ways away from other predominantly Jewish communities.
They were in Rome. A place where they were not considered citizens, and were routinely deported back to Judea, what is modern day Southern Israel, whenever the emperor and Roman citizens needed a scapegoat for a problem. Then, as they were needed again, they were brought back for the same kinds of things migrant workers have always been shuffled back and forth for.
This separation seemed to have caused a competition of sorts within the church as to who could be the most righteous according to their reading of the law of Moses.
The discussion was not about their faith exactly, but rather about what to call it. Paul is not interested in dismissing their efforts to be faithful Jews as followers of Christ, but instead focusses in on their apparent disagreements about what righteousness means in light of the Jesus movement.
What Paul knows is that discussions about what to call something has a tendency to distract from the thing itself. Names take the place of the thing, Being called righteous replaces living righteously. It then becomes a tactic for distracting from the real thing, and in Paul’s mind the real problem was religious competition with little regard for lived righteousness.
I find myself this morning struck yet again by how this reality of how names shift and the use of coded language distracts from continuing problems often unspoken. The events of the last few days, the people killed and terrorized, leave me angry, yet in no way surprised.
It deepens my mistrust of people who so easily give encouragement for such events through political choices and general indifference. But that is my own problem I suppose.
There is more to be said about white supremacy in this country than one sermon can ever contain. There is too much to even unpack in that names used for one sermon; what they call alt-right, or far-right, the KKK, Nazis and neo-Nazis, continuing confederacy, white nationalists, and assorted armed militia groups present in Charlottesville, VA.
All the names, the anti-immigrant sentiment, the religious bigotry, islamophobia, the open and disguised racism, taking America back. These names and tag lines all get tossed around with ease, but they are nothing more than an attempt to disguise what the thing itself is. It is nothing less that white supremacy lived out, and it is demonic.
Unfortunately, white Christianity has done little to address its own association. In fact, the KKK itself is a white, Christian-only terrorist organization that has existed in this country for almost 150 years. The Nazi party itself was Christian, and required it. This is not a new thing.
For us it has become a question, as it has for many Christians before. Who’s side are we on? People have died asking that question. Dietrich Bonhoeffer for example, the well-known German minister who refused to go along, was executed. Civil rights workers and ministers were injured and killed with regularity in the south and across the country in the last century.
I have participated in demonstrations where people and organizers were harassed and brutalized by police, and on occasion, mysteriously found dead. We may ask today, which side are we on?
Before Jacob’s name was changed to Israel, he had to ask the same sort of question. He must confront his own demon that has been following him around. He has to reckon with who he is and has been. He will not come out unscathed.
He is about to see his brother, the one he stole the birthright from, and even now he is trying to scheme out of confronting him. He remained on the other side of the river for one more day.
Which side was he on?
He sends his wives and children, with his favorites going last for safety. Maybe by then his brother will stop taking and killing his herds and family. But notice that he waits on his side of the river, hiding one more day from confronting this demon that has become part of him.
It is though he must finally wrestle it out. Only he won’t let go. Even as God wrestles with Jacob, he can’t let go. Let go of what seems like the appropriate question? He has struggled with God and people.
It is only after he wrestles it out that he can set things right with his brother, who has every right to be furious and angry. It is now that he can be named a new name, a name that acts like a limp from a strike on the hip, reminding him of the demon that had traveled with him for years. A demon he could never quite name, but nevertheless quietly guided his life.
White supremacy is a demon that will not go away easily. It is part of us, it fills our veins and it bleeds all over everything it touches. From the beginning of our country and long before, slavery has defined our cultural and economic identity. For 250 years slavery was legal. For 90 years following, Jim Crow laws legally designated black people as subhuman and refused to let go of slavery’s past.
It may be surprising to know that public lynchings began after slavery was abolished, and the surrounding of black churches by white mobs baring torches only intensified with legal freedom. Unfortunately that is exactly what happened this weekend, in 2017, in Charlottesville. The event had one purpose only, to send a signal as to whom this country belongs. Or at least who they think it belongs to.
Traci Blackmon, a minister I know from Saint Louis was in that church in Charlottesville. I was in her church just days after Michael Brown was killed. She messaged out on Friday that they don’t even need hoods anymore. They are carrying torches in polo shirts.
The list goes on. Japanese internment camps, immigration policies only interested in cheap exploitative labor, and then be gone. The Jewish followers of Jesus in Rome knew that reality well.
But before this great big demon that has infected us can be dealt with, there must be a reckoning within white America about the historical reality of this moment in Charlottesville. White supremacy is a demon, and this demon has bled all over everything. But it is not new.
It is a wickedness that we do not want to wrestle with, because we know we will not come away unscathed, without a limp. Ignoring it might postpone the pain for most of us for another day, but it is eating us alive from the inside.
There is nothing left to do but call this demon what it is everywhere we see it. Silence and a willing ignorance has allowed the events in Charlottesville to happen. It is why police do little to stop the raging violence of these good-ole-boys. It is why they feel free to wield bats and threaten to use their openly carried firearms. Silence is why they feel empowered to terrorize churches full of ministers and drive cars through crowds. Because they know nothing will happen to them, that we will all stay quiet in order to distance ourselves from their implication on us.
The time for thinking oneself innocent because we don’t give the Nazi salute and wield torches in Charlottesville is over. The demonic corruption has bled all over us long ago. The time for confronting white supremacy within us, and all around us is now.
You see, the white supremacy that has bled all over us is the same demonic terror that it has always been. We have to begin casting it out every chance we get. That is the only way we move forward towards any idea reconciliation. This has never been a “both sides are at fault” situation. Pretending it is staying on the other side of the river, hoping to avoid confronting the sins of our collective past for one more day.
Jacob had to confront who he was and the historical reality that lead to that moment on the safe side of the river. Then, and only then, was he able to cast off is old name, Jacob, which literally means usurper, or grabber of the heal. Maybe even cheater. His new name, Israel, would mean: one who has wrestled with God and who they are, and who came away fully alive, if not slightly hobbled.
Names are a tricky thing. Even big, heavy, names like white supremacy. But the name is not the thing itself. The thing shifts and moves around, sliding in and out of sight, hiding under new and changing identities. It is a demon that must be rooted out of our cities, our neighborhoods, our churches, our families, and out of all of us every day. When we can wrestle with it, even if we have to limp away, then we can respond to the name of righteousness that Paul speaks of. It will be near us, on our lips, and in our hearts.
We will speak it in all that we do, for how is anyone to hear if we don’t speak? Without someone to the bring the good news of a God who has wrestled with us and sent us away with a new name. Who will know there is another way than hatred if that’s all they see?
I pray this day that this nation will finally awakes to confront the thing that is so difficult to name, so hard to confront. I pray that we name it wherever we find it, whatever name it carries, casting it off, and crossing the river to the other side, claiming a new namesake.
There is a Hebrew word, Eikev. It designates the 46th portion of the yearly reading of the Torah, the first 5 books of the bible. Eikev was read yesterday during the Sabbath.
Eikev means “if,” or “because,” “as a result of.” It is a conjunction you might say. It at first seems to be the makings of a punishment or an inevitable outcome. A kind of fatalistic threat. If…
But there is something else to Eikev. There is a leaning in to it. It is on the heels of something, pursuing. The “if” implies an actively pursuing on the heels of something. This anticipation requires paying attention and work. The “if” depends on how we pursue. And how we pursue on the heels of something new, impacts what it might become.
We are on the heels of something it seems. What are we pursuing? The recent events point in one direction. What are we on the heels of? Eikev.
Before I close, I want to leave you with a prayer, because hard work flourishes as a result of how we prepare.
May your name and all you stand for be a blessing to the world in which you live and have your being. May righteousness be the signal of your faith, not because you know how to do it, but because you wrestle with it. Because you pursue it. Because you are on the heels of it.
May you know your demons by name and shed them off daily. May you speak the good news every chance you get of the God who brought you through.
This is the work of reconciliation. This is the work of transformation. This work is salvation appearing in our midst. This is our work in faithful witness to righteousness in the name of Christ who has gone before us.
And who we might even say we are on the heels of.