Exodus 3:1-6, 10-15 “The Power of a Name”
I hesitated with my decision to continue with our special June series focusing on our National Parks. I came up with the theme and wrote the plans back in April. I wanted to give us a month of what I call, ‘fluffy’ worship. I wanted to create a month when we as a worshipping community could take a break from the traumas of the world and spend some time just glorifying God’s natural creation. I wanted us to marvel at God, because God is so easily reflected in the natural world. Back in April I thought all we would be dealing with in June was a global pandemic. I was intentionally going to create an opportunity for us to set that aside for awhile, to not think about it, to instead ‘travel’ as a community across our nation and see all that is good and beautiful. I had no idea that as the month of June began, the deep festering, 401-year-old wound of systemic racism and white supremacy would be exposed, and our country would be embroiled in pain, anger, and fear. I had no idea that our country would find ourselves at a crossroads and that a true and real opportunity would arise that could really allow this wound to begin to heal. As people of faith it is our responsibility to keep that conversation going, to not allow a return to normalcy because normalcy was killing people with black and brown bodies. As people of faith it is our responsibility to help turn our nation at this crossroads and seek justice. We must not allow ourselves to lose our focus and determination, so I feared that spending a month with our National Parks would do that. But then I started to think more about what our National Parks represent.
I am a huge fan of documentaries, and in particular the documentaries created by Ken Burns. Several years ago, he produced a documentary series about our National Parks. I have watched the entire series several times, and I commend it to you all. It is entitled: National Parks: America’s Greatest Idea. Now, I disagree with that, our greatest idea is our Constitution, it is an idea that hasn’t be achieved yet, but we are working on it. But, I think our second greatest idea is our National Parks. For over 100 years now our country has been setting aside extraordinary landscapes that can be found nowhere else in the world to protect them from greed and destruction. And, more importantly, to allow people to visit, learn, enjoy, and take tremendous pride in our country. Our National Parks are a great idea, and during a time of national upheaval, remembering some of what is the best of who we are is important. And, by studying National Park history, we can see how becoming the best of who we are is possible.
Today’s Park, Denali, is a perfect example. Denali National Park was established by executive order in 1917, a time in our country when huge swathes of land were being set aside to protect them from logging and corporate development. But, it was not called Denali National Park then, it was called Mt. McKinley. The first European who encountered this area and saw the mountain, which is the highest peak in North America, was a prospector named Frank Densmore. Mr. Densmore was a fan of a man running for President at the time, William McKinley. So, he called the mountain Mt. McKinley. And, even though people knew the original inhabitants of that land, the Athabaskan people, named that mountain Denali, when the land became a National Park, the incorrect, European name stuck. It wasn’t until 2015, 98 years later, that the Secretary of the Interior formally changed the name, an act that honored the true history of the land, and honored the sacredness of the mountain to the indigenous people who for thousands of years lived in the shadow of Denali. So, in a lot of ways, our National Parks can serve as a model for how we can learn from our mistakes, learn from them out loud – admit that we were wrong – and do better. God wants us to do better, and better is possible.
The correction of the name of the National Park to Denali, is really important. There is tremendous power in a name. When Moses encountered the burning bush and God shared God’s name with him, I Am, the relationship between Moses and God changed. The story was no longer about the burning but un-scorched bush, it was about a relationship. God was no longer unknown, nameless, distant and apart. A relationship was formed and I believe it was because a relationship had been formed that Moses was able to heed God’s call, slaves were liberated, and a faith was formed that has been the cornerstone of millions upon millions of lives. But, it began with a name. The Exodus story, of Moses leading the Jewish people out of slavery, is, ultimately a story about the relationship between Moses and God. Moses was being tasked with something seemingly impossible – to free an enslaved people, something that could only be achieved by walking with them through the desert. And while the Exodus story is full of miracles, the greatest miracle, I believe, is the relationship between God and Moses. Moses could not do what seemed to be impossible alone. And he was not, he was doing this with God. And, it began with a name.
For those of you who have been watching the marches demanding justice for George Floyd and demanding an end of the systematic racism and white supremacy that killed him, you have likely heard a chat: “Say his name” someone will cry out. “George Floyd” everyone will respond. On the mural that was on the stage for George Floyd’s memorial service in Minneapolis, the names of all those who had most recently been killed by police violence and white supremacy were listed. The names are important. The names make it personal. It is necessary for us to humanize this moment in our history. This is not a time for distance. By saying the name of George Floyd, we create a relationship. And that relationship helps to galvanize us to action. Saying the name is important. That is why we pray in the name of Jesus Christ – it creates relationship. And that relationship helps to galvanize us to action.
For far too long in our nation’s history we have gotten the names wrong. We have a long way to go to repent for the ways we have swept over the names of the lands of the native people’s of this country. But, in 2015, we took a step in the right direction. The Department of the Interior acknowledged its mistake and restored the mountain to its rightful name, Denali. And a relationship, a true relationship, is now possible. Our National Parks have a lot to teach us about the good and great in our country, and model for us how we can all do better.
I want to close with two final stories. In 1939, the Daughter’s of the American Revolution barred Marian Anderson from singing at Constitution Hall in Washington, D.C. because she was black. Horace Albright, the recently retired head of the newly formed National Park Service knew that we could do better. Using his influence, Ms. Anderson was invited to give her concert on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, an area under the control and protection of the National Park service. The concert was aired on television and attended by 75,000 people.
And my final story: 24 years after Marian Anderson’s concert, in 1963, a quarter of a million people marched on Washington DC demanding an end to the Jim Crow laws which continued to discriminate against and segregate black Americans. On August 28th, Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr ascended the steps of the Lincoln Memorial and said these words:
I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.”
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 today!
And if America is to be a great nation, this must become true.
And when this happens, and when we allow freedom ring, when we let it ring from every village and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God’s children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual:
Free at last! Free at last!
Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!3
In the photos and videos of that extraordinary moment you can see, standing right next to Rev. Dr. King while he gave that speech is a United States National Park Ranger. My Beloved Community, God wants us to do better. And better is possible.