We Have A Dream
“Who do you say I am?”
This simple question of naming is on par with the deepest, most vexing questions of the Bible, on par with questions such as “What is truth?” by Pontius Pilate and “Am I my brother’s keeper?” by Cain. A simple 6 word question – “Who do you say I am?” -- causes us to examine the naming of Jesus Christ and the theological significance of what that naming means for us. For the blessed NAME of Jesus Christ, the Word or the Logos, means to us that Jesus is incarnated into this world. A simple 6 word question also causes us to examine how we see ourselves and how we represent ourselves to each other. This act, where the application of a name means much more than a simple labelling or branding, is an “incarnational naming” in its Creative aspect – and yet it is an “insidious naming” in its Destructive aspect.
The act of naming is also an act of judgment. We Christians must be cautious when we engage in the type of “insidious naming,” where the act of naming serves to DEFINE who the other is, and who the other is not. As Christians, we have historically engaged in the act of insidious naming through the lenses of colonialism, racism, sexism and homophobia. We have often distorted the act of naming, twisting it from an act of exaltation and honor (“You ARE the Messiah”), to an act of de-validation, racism, and exclusion (“You must NOT worship here.”) When Christians use the act of naming to judge and to separate, that is an insidious, a sinful thing.
In this season where we recall the 230 years since the expulsion of Richard Allen and Absalom Jones from this very sanctuary. In this season where we recall the 54th anniversary of the March on Washington on August 28, 1963, at which Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King delivered his “I have a dream speech.” And in this season where we witnessed the twin spectacles of outrage in Charlottesville and Boston in recent weeks -- we are called to ask the controversial question that undergirds American society. WHY? Why do I give you the power to “name” me? [PAUSE]. Our Lord Jesus Christ calls on us to employ naming as a tool of exaltation, rather than as a tool of separation. [PAUSE].
As Pastor Fred just related, in 1787, Richard Allen and Absalom Jones, were two deacons ordained for service to the Lord by this very congregation, Historic St. George’s Church. They were ejected by the white men of this church for the simple act of worshipping in this Sanctuary.
On that day, Richard Allen and Absalom Jones engaged in a non-violent social protest. A non-violent protest that would resonate through African-American liberation movements from the buses of Montgomery, Alabama, to the Edmund Pettis Bridge, to the streets of Ferguson, Missouri.
By their non-violent actions on that fateful day, Richard Allen and Absalom Jones seemed to be asking the incarnational question, “Who do you say that I am?” The white leaders of the congregation responded to Allen and Jones through an act of insidious naming. I can imagine them saying: “You are NOT of us. You are NOT our equals. You must meet God elsewhere, because this is where WE meet God.” Sounds a little like, “You will NOT replace us.” [PAUSE]. Richard Allen and Absalom Jones left that day, vowing never to come back. But their ancestors and followers came back, thanks to Pastor Fred and Reverend Dr. Mark Tyler, from Mother Bethel AME, and the important work that they did to achieve a Great Reconciliation over 230 years later in 2009.
Fast forward August 28, 1963, 54 years to the day tomorrow. Not much has changed. That day, the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King led the March on Washington to protest discriminatory voting practices in the South, to protest economic disparities between whites and African-Americans, and to protest for better working conditions and adequate housing.
The tens of thousands of people from all walks of life protested that day to claim their part of the American Dream. Dr. King reminded us all of the unpaid debt that our U.S. Constitution promised to all persons, whom God has endowed with equal rights, regardless the color of their skin.
In his masterful speech, Dr. King called out the disparate treatment and the social stigma that “insidious naming” causes in American Society. That day, Dr. King preached:
“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. I have a dream ... I have a dream that one day in Alabama…little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers. “
Yes, Dr. King engaged in the naming that day: He called “Separate but Equal,” by its real name: racism. He called “Whites Only” accommodations by their real name: white privilege. And he called the American prospect of freedom and equality what it was for many, “just a “Dream.” Dr. Martin Luther King, a man of God, had a dream…We, the people of God, have the same dream. [PAUSE].
Fast forward to August 12, 2017. In Charlottesville, VA, white supremacists, neo-Nazis, and the Ku Klux Klan gathered to intimidate others chanting: “You are not us.” “You will not replace us.” “You are not welcome here.” “You are the Other.” They even came up with a NEW NAME, the “Alt-Left.”
My sisters and brothers in Christ, our witness of God’s unconditional love, requires that we love our neighbor (whether that neighbor is a person of color, foreign refugee, or undocumented alien). Our commitment to unconditional love for our neighbors means that we, as a Christian community, must face head-on America’s “original sins,” which are racism and white privilege. These original sins will remain with us, until we, as a Church, affirm the wholeness, equality and inclusion of all persons who have yet to inherit God’s kingdom on earth.
My sisters and brothers in Christ, “Who do you say I am?”
I am the first MAN OF COLOR in the 247 years of this Church’s existence to be called to this pulpit. This pulpit is steeped in history and glory, but this pulpit is also stained by the sin of racial animosity. I have been called as Pastor of this great and historical United Methodist Church. Yet, unlike all of the Pastors of this great church who preceded me, I am a man who has been taunted by racists and bigots; I have experienced racism cast my way by persons living in white privilege. Truly, I know that we do not live in a “color-blind” society.
And yet, God calls me – a man with brown skin – to this long line of white men and women who served as the spiritual leader of this congregation. As your Pastor, I am called to denounce the divisive role of racism in the United Methodist Church and in American Society. As your Pastor, I am called to a prophetic witness that racism, sexism, homophobia, and colonialism are never far from the surface of our interpersonal interactions. As your Pastor, I am here to bear witness to an historical truth: We “name” each other, categorically, in the quiet of our hearts every day. We define persons who are biologically and ethically our equals as “the Other.” We “call” each other by “names.” [PAUSE].
Jesus Christ calls on us to “unlearn” insidious naming. Jesus Christ calls on us to unlearn our tendency to judge the “Other.” And Jesus Christ promises us that His kingdom on earth will be a world where race and ethnicity are irrelevant. But to live out that Dream -- to act out Dr. King’s vision of a world where all color is nameless – that requires us, as Christians, to carry out the Great Commission. For it is God’s Great Commission to us to love the Word, the Logos, which means the incarnate God. And it is God’s Great Commission to us to love our neighbor as ourselves, however she or he shall be named.
May it be so.