Sermon: Power of Names

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My Grandma Bea, me, my mom, and my sister Lucy

Preached by Lydia Wylie-Kellermann at the Day House Catholic Worker
August 27, 2017

Exodus 1:8-2:10
Matthew 16:13-20

As I read the opening piece of the text from Exodus, it feels like I am reading a script from the white men who marched on Charlottesville two weeks ago.

It begins with the Pharaoh naming his fear that the Israelites are becoming too numerous and powerful. He is scared they will out-number and over-take him. He orders that they be forced into labor and when that doesn’t work, he orders murder.

It echoes of the treacherous low-wage labor forced on undocumented folks living in constant fear.

It echoes of a prison industrial complex holding captive more black men today than were enslaved in the south.

It echoes of Fox News continued fear mongering about what will happen when white people are no longer the majority in this country and urging white people to have more children.

It echoes of scared, violent hoodless white men of my generation carrying torches through the streets chanting “they will not replace us.”

My heart aches in these days. What does it mean for me as a white person living in these times? How do we dismantle this system of white supremacy that has always run this country and now sits so blatantly in the White House? What does solidarity and resistance look like?

What follows Pharaoh’s violent order are some amazing women who can teach us something about being an ally in the work of liberation. This is probably my favorite text in scripture and my love of it comes from seeing it through Laurel Dykstra’s eyes in Set Them Free: The Other Side of Exodus. She writes “In Exodus, the contrast between what men do and what women do is striking. In the prologue, Hebrew and Egyptian women cooperate, communicate, and cross social and cultural boundaries to save a life. In the rest of the book, Hebrew and Egyptian men and gods clash, posture, and wage war.”

Perhaps one of the most helpful things from her book for me is thinking about where I place myself when I read Exodus. I have always pictured myself joining the Israelites, walking on dry land across the Jordan as the Egyptians are carried off to sea. But Laurel sets us straight saying that as US citizens, especially those of us who are white folks, we are Egypt. We are the empire benefitting from the system and the question becomes how do we support the liberation of the Israelites.

The story begins with the midwives, Shiphrah and Puah. Most likely these are Egyptian women who are working for Pharaoh. Like us, they have moderate privilege and power and oppose some aspect of the reign they live under. But here we have the first act of civil disobedience in the bible. They refuse to murder the boys. They lie to Pharaoh. They choose life rather death.

Laurel writes “The story of the midwives’ refusal is followed immediately by the civil disobedience of Moses’ mother, who does not throw her baby into the Nile but places him safely in a tiny boat. Moses’ sister then boldly confronts the daughter of Pharaoh, conspiring with her to save the infant Moses. Each act of civil disobedience inspires the next. Is it any wonder that Moses becomes a resistance leader with such women influencing his early life? The baby in the basket becomes the man who demands that his people be free to worship God and then marches with a band of slaves out of the house of bondage. The midwives’ civil disobedience is the beginning of the end of Pharaoh’s tyranny.”

The midwives inspire in me to remember who the folks are who have sparked the actions I have taken. What are the moments in our current history that will lead me to deeper action? And they remind me that one small action leads to another. No action is too small or ineffective, for they build and shift and grow.

These women also call on those of us with privilege to listen and be directed. Laurel looks at Pharaoh’s daughter and writes “A woman of rank, privilege, and power, in a crisis situation, listens to perhaps the least powerful person she is likely to encounter:  the female child of a slave. And she allows the child to offer the plan, to tell her what to do. To listen and to be directed by the least may be the beginning of our journey out of Egypt.”

I am also aware that we don’t know what happens to these Egyptian women. Were they punished? Did they lose their work? Were they stripped of status and power? Did they watch the Exodus with joy? Did they happen to escape with the Israelites? While we don’t know the rest of their stories, we can imagine that there were real costs to their actions. And we have to know that for us to take on seriously the undoing of white supremacy, it will mean serious costs for us too.

As I placed the first reading beside the Gospel, they seemed almost impossible to compare. One reading was resistance of women that led to liberation and the other feels like a very male conversation that seems to lead to the hierarchy and patriarchy.

But last Sunday, Denise commented after the homily about the re-naming that was happening in last week’s text and the power of that. It struck a chord in me as I realized that both of these readings today include naming.

Our scriptures are filled with names, and re-namings, and lists of lineage lines. It is a book of names. Names are important. They come through dreams, through God, filled with meaning, and they also come from empire. Who is doing the naming is important. There are characters in these stories who have names given to them by empire, and underground names given to them by their cultures, peoples, and faith.

In fact, the Hebrew name for Exodus is “these are the names.” Pharaoh’s daughter, unnamed herself, is the one who names Moses- for “I drew him out of the water.” It is a powerful name that is a forever reminder of where he came from, or his own story, or liberation and a life that almost was not. Yet, I am also struck by the fact that this was probably not his first name. That his mother who birthed him, held him in his early months, put him into the river, and then nursed him and raised him til she had to give him back to Pharaoh’s daughter, had already given him a name. One that she used to sing him to sleep when he was just born. Here Moses’ name is tangled in layers of power, privilege, history, and resistance.

Then we have this conversation between Simon and Jesus where Jesus asks “Who do you say that I am?” There is a sense in which Simon names who Jesus is and then Jesus names Simon Peter. You name who I am and I will name you. There is a way in which naming one another is an act of seeing who the other is.

Naming is important work. Remembering names is important work.

I like the mythology in Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wind in the Door

“I think your mythology would call them fallen angels. War and hate are their business, and one of their chief weapons is un-Naming – making people not know who they are. If someone knows who he is, really knows, then he doesn’t need to hate. That’s why we still need Namers, because there are places throughout the universe like your planet Earth. When everyone is really and truly Named, then the Echthroi will be vanquished.”

Names remind us who we are. If we know who we are, we do not hate.

On the Eve of the Charlottesville protests, Erinn and I sat with two friends on our front porch holding space for the friends we knew in Charlottesville who had been organizing towards this day for months at great personal risk. There was a call put out to white folks that if we couldn’t be there in person, that we take some action on that day to dismantle white supremacy. That evening, we took that question seriously wondering aloud in community how we could hold that in our own lives.

One step we committed to was to do our ancestry work. To learn where we each come from. To learn the names of our great-great grandparents and trace them back to cultures and spiritualities that we no longer remember. Part of dismantling white supremacy, has to be de-centering our own whiteness and recovering our own histories. Lily Mendoza writes that to become the modern individual, the “white mind” has “needed to disconnect from all that made up the formerly indigenous self ie, ancestry, community, history, place/nature, sense of spirituality, mythis origins/ stories, dreams, etc.”

So, we made a commitment to try to reclaim our own history and culture and not just claim “whiteness” as our cultural identity. So, we begin the work of names. We get out paper and start drawing lines and calling relatives to try to piece together the names. We are picking a great-grandparent to start. Once we have gathered the names and found pictures of the faces we will begin to try to learn or imagine the stories, to call their names and see who they are and realize in them a little more of who we are. It is a small step, but there is something overwhelming about it too.

We are also aware that even in this work of unlearning white supremacy within us, there is privilege. For those who came to this country on slave ships, were stripped of their names. There isn’t access to relatives with boxes of papers or name registries. Empire stole the names and changed them so that roots cannot be traced back indigenous lands and culture. Empire knows how important names are and strips them.

Names can be so powerful they can be made almost unspeakable. I think of the name Yahweh, spelled YHWH so sacred it could not be spoken.

And on the other hand, I think of the great power for evil that names can be held. In Harry Potter, Voldemort becomes so powerful and evil that all of the wizarding world cannot even say his name so they call him “He who must not be named.” But it is in the resistance movement that they insist upon calling him by name. They call him by his name to humanize him, to dis-power him. They call him by his childhood name looking him in the eye and remembering who he is and was.

I think of naming my kids and the names that came to me in dreams during pregnancy.

I think of Cara naming her new Catholic Worker Magdelene House after a woman that has been so abused by the church for centuries but who was powerful and the first disciple to witness the resurrection. I think of the way that simply naming the house gives it a spirit, a history, a life to live into.

I think of being at the School of the Americas protest where all of Sunday is a memorial service where for three hours, they do nothing but sing the names of those who have been murdered by graduates of the SOA. Resistance as remembering the names so that they will not be forgotten.

So, we move to a time of communal sharing if folks have things they want to say. What are the stories we all hold around names? How do they hold sacred power and empire power all mixed together? What are the things we need to name in this moment to demystify evil or to uplift the history for the sake of the future?

 

 

As we move into a time of petitions, let us begin first with a time to name names. Names of those who have sparked our own courage and clarity to not cooperate with evil. Names of those whom we each come from. Names of the ancestors that surround this circle. Names of people who we refuse to become ashes.

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My Grandma Bea, me, my mom, and my sister Lucy

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