What’s your favorite title for Jesus? Your favorite name to call on. Teacher, savior, lord, brother…
In this morning’s scripture John the Baptist calls Jesus “the Lamb of God” and his disciples call him “Rabbi” and Jesus has new titles to add to the ones we claim from the OT predictions: Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Prince of Peace” and “Immanuel” which the book of Matthew cites from Isaiah’s prophecy.
All these titles, these names, introduce us to Jesus, just like we use titles and names to introduce ourselves. Anytime I’m in a group and we’re going around introducing ourselves I say “My name is Anna Lisa” rather than “I am Anna Lisa.” It’s a subtle difference but it matters to me, because I have a name, but I am not my name. Who I am is deeper. I am female, a young adult, a daughter, a sister, a spouse, a friend, a neighbor, a pastor, a writer, and still who I am is deeper and broader than all of that.
So we do need the shorthand. We need names to call one another, rather than trying to use all the labels that might apply.
And we need to remember that the names and titles we use for each other are not the fullness of who one another really is.
When Jesus met up with John and his disciples he wasn’t satisfied by their titles for him – Lamb of God, and Rabbi.
He invited them to “come and see” because only sharing time and space could adequately introduce them to one another.
That’s what Martin Luther King, Jr. knew, as well. He knew that black and white people in this country rarely live alongside one another, and the time we spend together is often part of a commercial transaction. Churches, families, civic organizations, neighborhoods – the places we make our most significant relationships – are the most segregated parts of our country. In fact, school segregation is more extreme (by some measures) now than it was when Martin Luther King was working for civil rights and the Brown vs. Board of Education ruling was well underway.
Martin Luther King repeatedly called for integration in the civil rights movement and in all aspects of our society. He honored the deep and sacred humanity of all people in his preaching and speaking, because we won’t bother to see underneath labels and stereotypes if we don’t believe that one another are belovedly created by God. By preaching his hope for humankind to become the best we can be, King taught us that integration and justice are worth working for.
But you’ve heard all this before, you know what we’re supposed to say about King and the clichés of this holiday are just one way it’s problematic for a predominately white church to celebrate King’s legacy. How can I say something that really matters – something that is relevant to the real suffering that so many black Americans experience today, without sending us into white guilt and despair that does no good? What fresh and relevant gospel good news can we share today? I invite you to listen with the open mind and young ears of the 4-year-old girl in the following story, told by her father to This American Life:
https://www.thisamericanlife.org/radio-archives/episode/188/kid-logic (story from Act 1, around minute 13)
There’s so much to appreciate in this story – her genuine thirst for the gospel good news of Jesus, her enthusiasm for what is good and loving in this world, and then we get to her last question, “Did they kill him too?” Though Jesus and King were killed nearly 2000 years apart, they were killed by similar fears and greed come to life in the exploiting systems of their day.
It’s easy and overwhelmingly common to celebrate Martin Luther King today, but when he was leading marches in the 1960s most Americans had negative opinions of him, according to Gallup polls. The labels and titles we give Martin Luther King today are not the ones many of our parents or grandparents used when he was alive.
The Church of the Brethren, though, was more supportive than most. Because we have traditionally committed to peace and non-violence, we were more invested in the Southern Christian Leadership Coalition and King’s work than most predominately white churches. Researching for this sermon I found letters between the General Offices in Elgin and SCLC. I also found this letter
“What’s going on down south? Why can’t they vote?” Pennsylvania college students wondered. “Come and see” said many black people in Alabama.
It’s dangerous to “come and see.” Watching the evening news from an armchair is much safer – at least physically safer, though keeping distance from the ache of the world breaks our hearts and our spirits.
It took three tries to start the march from Selma to Montgomery – you should ask Jim Tuten about it after worship – he wasn’t there, but he teaches about it. On the first try, Sunday, March 7, 600 people dressed in church clothes peacefully walked across the Edmund Pettis Bridge until they were attacked with tear gas and clubs by state troopers.