Say Their Names

Proper 7A

Trayvon Martin, Sandra Bland, Kathryn Johnston, Sean Bell, Eric Garner, Rekia Boyd, Amadou Diallo, Mike Brown, Kimani Gray, Kenneth Chamberlain, Travares McGill, Tamir Rice, Aiyana Stanley-Jones, Freddie Gray,  Philando Castile.  We need to say their names.  These lives are linked one to another – each of them a person of color killed by law enforcement.  And in each case, the court said “No conviction.”  We can look at them case by case and try to pick apart the details, to try to explain the outcome – try to justify the killing or to justify the verdict.  But when we take them as a whole, what we have is a picture of injustice, a picture of inequity, and we see the face of systemic racism. But we must say their names.  Because when we say a name, it is harder to look away and pretend we cannot see.  When we have a name, we begin to hear a story.  
This is Tamir, he’s 12, he likes to play with his airsoft toy gun in the park, pretending perhaps to be a police officer or maybe an FBI agent like the ones he sees on TV.  This is Tamir, he was 12.  He was playing in the park with his toy gun when he was shot by Timothy Loehmann, a police officer. 
We need to say their names. We need to look and to see. We need to hear stories.  This morning’s Old Testament reading from Genesis is interesting, isn’t it?  It’s a story of a boy who is cast aside by his father – thrown out of the house along with his mother.  But did you notice anything about the story?  There are two boys in the story but only one of them has a name.  That named boy is Isaac.  We will hear his name again later in the service when we pray to the Lord God of our Fathers and Mothers: God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.  But that other boy? The one placed under one of the bushes to die of thirst? That son of an Egyptian slave woman?  He has a name too.  But to find out his name, we have to go back 5 chapters in the story to learn that Abram’s wife, Sarai, who could bear no children, gave her slave-girl Hagar to Abram and said, “You see that the Lord has prevented me from bearing children; go in to my slave-girl; it may be that I shall obtain children by her” and Abram does what Sarai asks and Hagar conceives and bears a son and calls him Ishmael.[1]  It is Ishmael that Abraham, at Sarah’s request, casts out of his home.  It is Ishmael who is cast under the bushes to die.  He has a name. He has a story.  This same Ishmael goes on to become an important prophet and patriarch of Islam.  Muslims believe that Muhammad was the descendant of Ishmael and that he would indeed go on to establish a great nation, as promised by God in our passage from Genesis.  But in our story, he doesn’t even have a name.
When we cannot be bothered to learn and say a person’s name it is too easy to make all kinds of assumptions based on stereotypes.  For example, listen to these words from rapper J. Cole’s song “Neighbors” [Warning: explicit lyrics]:

We must say their names.  Because when we say a name, it is harder to look away and pretend we cannot see.  When we say a name, we begin to hear a story – this is Philando, he’s 32, he enjoys spending time with his sister and with his girlfriend.   
This is Philando, he was 32. He just got a hair cut, ate dinner with his sister, and picked up his girlfriend, Diamond Reynolds, and her 4-year old daughter, at his apartment. He was pulled over by an officer because of a problem with his brake light.  He was shot by officer Jeronimo Yanez – in front of his girlfriend her her daughter. Philando died.  That officer’s was acquitted of all charges on Friday, June 16, 2017 and he is a free man. 
Ishmael, Tamir, Philando.  We must say their names.  Because when we say a name, it is harder to look away and pretend you cannot see.  When you have a name, you begin to hear a story and the story you hear again and again and again in this country is that if you are a person with black or brown skin your life matters less than the lives of those with skin like mine. 
But there is another story.  And that story has the power to change our hearts and to transform our broken systems and institutions. And it is the story of God’s justice and God’s love.  A justice that rolls down like waters and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.[2]  A love that can create newness out of those that society cast outs - a woman named Hagar, her son Ishmael, and a man named Jesus of Nazareth.  Their lives ended but let the story begin anew with thesenames: Trayvon, Sandra, Kathryn, Sean, Eric, Rekia, Amadou, Mike, Kimani, Kenneth, Travares, Tamir, Aiyana, Freddie, Philando.  May we work alongside God to create a great nation because they are our offspring, they are God’s beloved.

[1] Genesis 16:2-16. Note that in this story there is already another injustice as Sarai casts out a pregnant Hagar who only returns when an angel of the Lord visits her to tell her to “submit” to Sarai.
[2] Amos 5:24.


Debra Bullock said…
Received this comment via email and wanted to link it here:

"Add Mark Barmore to your list of names. He was killed in August 2009 in a church basement where was hiding. He was shot in the back and was unarmed and killed in front of 15 pre-school children. The cops (will not call them police officers) were Oda Poole; fourth black man gunned down and Stan North; second black man gunned down. The Barmore family settled a law suit for over 1 million dollars. Poole and North are no longer cops and were never charged with a crime. - George"