Many have asked what exactly I preached on August 21 at Park Avenue Christian Church, in New York City. A sermon is way too long for a blogpost. But here it is.
By Tom Ehrich
From the Gospel of Matthew: Now when Jesus came into the district of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” And they said, “Some say John the Baptist, but others Elijah, and still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?” Simon Peter answered, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.”
Last month, a church friend in North Carolina who is deeply faithful and therefore totally irreverent sent me a “Doo Wop Test” about rock songs from the early years. Some were before my time. I only got 60% right.
See if you know the end of this opening line: “Now they often call me Speedo but my real name is _______.” Shout it out if you know it. Was it Mr. Earl, Jackie Pearl, or Milton Berle?
Extra credit if you can name the one-hit wonders who sang it.
If it makes you feel any better. I had to go on the Internet to find the answers. In 1953, a young man named Earl Carroll formed a group in Harlem eventually called The Cadillacs. This was their only big hit. It came out in 1955, and it is said to be one of the first songs that crossed the color line from black to white, or in the code language of the time, from rhythm and blues to pop.
It’s an intriguing little song. The singer says that some people know him as “Speedo” because “I don’t believe in wastin’ time” when it comes to “pretty women.” Not a bad reputation for a young guy on the make. But he wants everyone to know that his real name – not his street name, not his playground name – his real name is “Mr. Earl.” A name of respect.
1955 was an important year for respect and knowing who you are. It was a turning point year.
That was the year Marian Anderson became the first African-American to sing at the Metropolitan Opera. Sixteen years earlier, the Daughters of the American Revolution had refused to let the world-renowned contralto perform before an integrated audience at Constitution Hall. First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt immediately resigned from the DAR and invited Ms. Anderson to give an open-air concert from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. Before 75,000 people – whites and blacks standing together – she began her concert by singing with great dignity, “My country, ‘tis of thee, sweet land of liberty.” (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mAONYTMf2pk)
Now, in 1955, the daughter of a coal delivery man and childcare worker sang Verdi at the Metropolitan Opera. When she first appeared on stage in Act Two, the audience applauded wildly before she sang a single note.
1955 was the year Emmett Till, a 14-year-old African-American from Chicago, was murdered in Mississippi for speaking to a white woman at a grocery store. Two white men mutilated him so thoroughly that they couldn’t identify the body, and the killers were acquitted. But Emmett Till’s mother recognized him, and she insisted on an open casket at his funeral to show the world what they had done to her son.
In March 1955, in Montgomery, Alabama, a 15-year-old African-American girl named Claudette Colvin refused to give up her bus seat to a white person. She was arrested, kicked by police and later convicted of violating a segregation law.
Nine months later, a housekeeper and seamstress named Rosa Parks got on a bus at the same stop in Montgomery and also refused to give up her seat to a white passenger. She said she was “tired of giving in.” Her arrest sparked a bus boycott in Montgomery that lasted 381 days and began the unraveling of Jim Crow in the Deep South.
1955 was the year the divorce rate in America began to spike, as women who had worked hard during World War Two but had then been forced into a new role as homemakers in the new suburbs got fed up with living through their husbands’ careers and their children and struck off on their own.
On November 20, 1955, a 27-year-old Mississippi native named Elias Otha McDaniel took the stage on the Ed Sullivan Show. Instead of singing the pleasant ballad that Sullivan wanted, he sang the first rock and roll song ever to appear on television. It bore his new name: “Bo Diddley.” (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UFtXhaQnnBM) Sullivan was furious and banned Bo Diddley from his show. “That colored boy…won’t last six months,” Sullivan said. When Bo Diddley died in 2008, long after Ed Sullivan had faded into oblivion, Bo Diddley was honored by the President of the United States and remembered as “the rock that the roll was built on.”
It matters, you see, what your real name is. It matters who you really are. Not your skin color, not the names people call you, but who you really are. Not the job you hold, not where you fall on the career ladder, not the roles they assign you, but who you really are. Not the size of your paycheck, not the size of your house, not the size of your car, but who you really are. Not where you went to college, not where you went for vacation, not where you went for dinner, but who you really are.
It has happened to all of us. We have gotten dismissed, disrespected and disdained because of something like skin color, gender, sexual orientation, nationality, religion, age, hair color, height, weight, shoes, addiction – things about us that have little to do with who we really are.
In someone’s eyes, we are all useless, worthless, nameless, and pointless. We are tools to be used, fools to be manipulated, bodies to be ogled, labor to be bought, used and cast aside. In someone’s eyes, we are data to be mined, eyeballs to be shown ads, debtors to be sent more credit cards, trends to be harvested.
In someone’s eyes, we are in the way and need to be shoved aside. We are sitting in a seat that someone else wants. We have money that someone else covets.
You and I have a choice to make. We can go along with being dismissed, disrespected and disdained, and we can take that as our identity. Okay, I’ll step aside when you walk by and refuse to see me. I will stand for you, even though you would never think of standing for me. I will let you turn me down for a job because I’m overweight or gray-headed or an immigrant or imperfect. I will let you place me in whatever slot makes you feel bigger and better. I will let you take away my rights because those rights get in your way. I will be your cannon fodder. I will be the target of your incessant ads. I will be your scapegoat.
Or we can do what Claudette Colvin did and Rosa Parks did and Eleanor Roosevelt did and Marian Anderson did and and Bo Diddley did and Paul Robeson did and Martin Luther King Jr. did and, in his own doo wop way, what Earl Carroll did. We can say to the world, You can call me Speedo, you can call me “boy,” you can assign a number to me, you can call me any name you want. But I know who I am! I know who I am! Your names mean nothing to me. I know who I am! I am a child of God. I am a son of God. I am a daughter of God.
And my Lord and Savior is a Jew from Galilee who got exactly the same treatment. They called him John the Baptist, because it made him safe. They called him Elijah and Jeremiah. They called him a nobody from Nazareth, a blasphemer, a madman, a rebel. They mocked him as “King of the Jews” and put a crown of thorns on his head. As he died, they taunted him as a failed magician.
But Jesus knew who he was. He was the Messiah, the Son of the Living God, the light for all humanity, the hope for all the wounded and downtrodden. He knew who he was and said No to Satan. He knew who he was and said No to wealth and power. He knew who he was and said Yes to lepers and Gentiles and outcasts.
Jesus knew who he was, and his was the name that gave strength to Rosa Parks when she sat down with David Abernathy and a young preacher named Martin Luther King Jr. to launch organized resistance to segregation in Montgomery, Alabama.
Jesus was the one whose name reverberates through these halls and gives this congregation the power to be black affirming and white affirming, gay affirming and straight affirming, justice affirming and recovery affirming, hope affirming and wholeness affirming.
And I am here for that reason. I can live without going to church on Sunday, but I cannot live without being loved and affirmed and accepted and known by name and known by who I really am. I am excited to be part of a faith community that will not be trapped in old ways, but will reach high and wide to make this a better world.
We can all join Claudette Colvin when she said to an angry white bus driver, “I know my rights.” We can join Rosa Parks when she said, no more “giving in.” We can join Bo Diddley when he sang his big hit of 1955, “I’m a Man,” and Earl Carroll when he sang, “My real name is Mr. Earl.”
And when the world around is going crazy with hatred and phony patriotism based on bigotry, we can stand with Marian Anderson and sing with dignity, “My country, ‘tis of thee, sweet land of liberty.”
To a world that is forgetting how to hope and wants us to lose hope, too, we can all say: I might be nothing to you, but I am everything to God. I am loved so deeply by God that it makes my skin tingle. I am loved so deeply by God that it brings tears to my eyes.
I am loved so deeply by God that I will dare to dream, I will dare to make a difference, I will dare to turn toward the light, I will dare to change my ways and make amends, I will dare to believe in a future that is bigger and bolder than anything I know today.
I will dare to show you respect. I will dare to let you be whoever you are. I will reach out my hand to you and show you my wounds and you can reach your wounded hands to me. I will I tell you my truth and listen to your truth. I will weep on your shoulder and you can weep on mine,
For we know the answer to the question, Who am I? We know who we are. We are children of God. We are sons of God. We are daughters of God. We are the beloved of God. We are everything to God. And through us God will bring down the walls of hatred and injustice and fear, and make this a better world.