Over the Christmas break, I saw the movie “Lincoln”, which centers around trying to get the 13th Amendment passed, banning slavery. I later found out that 2012 was the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation, which freed slaves during the Civil War and was also in the film. When I reflected on the movie and where we are today, I felt a little torn, much as I do now on the eve of Martin Luther King Jr. Day. and on death of a member of our congregation.
On the one hand, I feel joy and hope about how far we have come—that America has become a more just place for everybody that lives here.
But on the other hand, I am painfully aware at the rampant injustice, discrimination and violence that still plagues and divides us. The Sikh shooting in Wisconsin;Newtown, Connecticut; I could go on. These events make us not only aware of how far we’ve left to go, but make me wonder if we are ever getting anywhere.
Indeed, Dr. King himself was keenly aware of this tension between past successes and future struggles. In 1967 he gave a speech titled, “Where Do We Go From Here?”
In it, he talks about all the successes of the Civil rights movement over the past decade. There were many many victories. King is not lulled into thinking his work is over. He knows the arc of the universe does bend toward justice, but that arc is longer than a decade. Longer than the 100yrs since the Emancipation Proclamation.
So then, where do we go from here? I can almost hear the Israelites in Isaiah asking that very question to God. For they were a people that had been freed from slavery only to be conquered, killed, and exiled by the Babylonians centuries later. Where could we possibly go except into more suffering? We don’t have a good idea of what the exile was like, but I can’t imagine it was easy or peaceful.
God does not offer a 10yr plan or a prescription or here even an admonition. Isaiah says, “the future will be different.” Their status as oppressed is changing. How does Isaiah do this?
He tells Israel that they have been renamed. They have been renamed. They had been called “desolate.” “the unloved,” “the abandoned ones.” They were told this until they didn’t have to be told any longer because they began calling themselves those things. They no longer knew what else to call themselves. Desolate. Abandoned. Where do we go from here, Dr King? I’m not going anywhere. There’s nowhere to go.
This metaphor of Israel being renamed reminds me of the power names have. Aren’t names a huge preoccupation we have? When people have a civil union or get married, there’s all sorts of options: keep your own last name, hyphenate them, make your old last name a sort of middle name, combine them and make a name completely new.
Or when parents are thinking of names for a child, again there are lots of things to consider: how common it is, is it a family name, does it have bad associations for either parent, does it have a nice meeter. It matters.
And its not just today, names have always mattered. In the Bible, names often describe a person’s character. A new name may show a change in character. When barren Sarai learns she’ll finally have a child, she becomes Sarah. When Jacob wrestles with God and prevails, he becomes Israel. Simon becomes Peter. Saul becomes Paul. Then in Isaiah, the people of Israel—a ragtag, not particularly moral bunch of nomads—get renamed by God as a beloved bride. The marriage metaphor showing that a relationship you have is changing. Your future, Israel, will be different now. You’re called Married. I delight in joy. I take joy in your presence and you will never be abandoned. Those are your names.
OK, so we hear God calls us these things: connected. Loved. Not abandoned. But can we trust that? Is it all talk? Haven’t you ever been excited about an offensive name being changed only to wonder will things change “in name only”? Will anything come of this? Where a name change is just a superficial bandage on a chronic disease of our souls/world? Is a name as flimsy as those sticker name-tags?
Sometimes it does seem that way. That names don’t matter. They don’t show anything. But I wonder about those labels we give ourselves, and one another. You know what they are. You fill in the blank. My name has been _______. I answered to it. It is stuck to me.
I think most have felt at best annoyed by something they were called by others, and at worse made to feel like less than a person by something they’ve been called. Names do have such power we may sometimes think the only good name is one we give ourselves. Names are powerful. That can be dangerous. We certainly don’t want to go down that road.
How do we balance that tension of being freed from slavery but in exile? How we do we celebrate our victories while still not being satisfied? How do we walk towards justice?
In his speech, King said to find a way from where we our, “First, we must massively assert our dignity and worth. We must stand up amid a system that still oppresses us and develop an unassailable and majestic sense of values.” Now I don’t know how to develop an unassailable and majestic set of values. My fellow people, I do not even know where this new year, new administration, or this day will take me or you.
Where do we go from here? Some days we don’t know, but we are asking the question together. We know there’s somewhere to get because God will not rest or be silent about our dignity and worth.
Sisters and brothers in Christ, God gives us a name. We are called the people of God. Called from the backwaters of a desert, from the back of the bus, from the back of the sanctuary. We are all called, and we are all different and unique but called as the same thing. Last week, Pastor Erik talked about how there’s really only one kind of person in this world—a person. Try as we might to divide ourselves, God has favored the oppressed, and bound the world in relationship to him. You are no longer called “Abandoned.” Some days we don’t know how to go forward. God has massively asserted our dignity and worth. The worth of the widow. The nomad. The miserable.
May we echo God. May we make sure that name for us sticks and so that when I forget you’ll read my name-tag and tell me that’s what I’m called. Part of the people of God, the Holy, the Redeemed, the Sought-out ones. They, God’s people together, said.