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I met Moses Godfry as my daughter’s elementary school music teacher. He was African American and one of the most gifted musicians I had ever known. He was magic with the girls, encouraging one of them to go onto to a much deeper study in music as an adult, a study which has deeply informed her remarkable career as an artist today. When I sat down with Moses at a school concert I asked him about his unusual name. “I was named after my grandfather” he told me “who had escaped slavery in 1862 during the Civil War. He came North met my grandmother and they made a life in New York. My parents worked as domestic servants. I was the first in my family to go to college.” “Did you play professionally?” I asked. “I did for a while” he said “but the competition for African American Jazz musicians is fierce. I still play a gig when I get a chance but I took up teaching so I could send all my girls to college.” I was not far enough along then in my racial training to understand the subtext. Moses, like his name sake, came to the promised land of the North, but America’s Original Sin of Racism, had kept him from realizing his dreams. Not too unlike the new Disney movie Soul.
In her book The Warmth of Other Suns, author Isabel Wilkerson lays out the long story of African Americans migrating out of Jim Crow South to the promised land of the North after WWII; Chicago, Detroit, New York, Philadelphia. What so often happened, she concluded, was that the promised land fell far short of the promise. Sure, there were jobs and housing, but the racism was still there; redlining, segregated schools and hiring practices that keep people of color out of higher paying careers. Even the leveling effect of WW II and the GI Bill, did little to advance POC into the justice this new land promised.
The fact of the matter is that the caste system in this country is remarkably strong, as Wilkerson in her more recent book Caste has made all too clear. Racism is just the obvious form of a caste system in our country, with roots in our history of slavery. When a person of color jumps over the caste they are born into they are often kicked back down. And if that doesn’t work, the system kicks back. The horror of the last four years coming to an ugly head on the attack on the Capitol is a reaction to the caste system being disrupted, as it was with the election of Barrack Obama, Kamala Harris and a black preacher from GA into the U.S. Senate.
Racial Justice is an existential threat to many whites and a call to the rest of us that may reach far beyond our own imaginations. Even we, who so deeply want to see justice delivered into the promise land, may find it hard to do in our lifetime. As Wilkerson observed:
“A caste system persists in part because we, each and every one of us, allow it to exist—in large and small ways, in our everyday actions, in how we elevate or demean, embrace or exclude, on the basis of the meaning attached to people’s physical traits. If enough people buy into the lie of natural hierarchy, then it becomes the truth or is assumed to be. Once awakened, we then have a choice. We can be born to the dominant caste but choose not to dominate..” (From Caste)
Imagining ourselves finally traveling hand in hand into the promised land, has long been our dream as UUs. Its biblical roots are well known to us
Jacob, the son of Isaac, who was the son of Abraham, steals the blessing of his father from his older brother Esau by dressing up in goat skins and convincing his father who was blind, to turn the inheritance over to Esau who was hairy, right away. Isaac, convinced that Jacob was Esau, handing over the inheritance right away. With his brother’s inheritance in hand, Jacob fled his father and his older brother and found himself with his uncle Laban who promised him his daughter Rachel in exchange for seven years of hard labor and most of the inheritance he had just stolen from his older brother. Seven years turns into fourteen and so when God told Jacob it is time to return home, he is more than ready. His father is long dead and Jacob longs to return to his homeland, to his own promised land. Jacob left with his wives, servants and children headed back to the Promised Land, quite anxious about how he would be received by his older brother after cheating him so many years ago. They family arrived at the bank of a river and Jacob sent the party across not entirely sure he could yet come out to face his brother. Exhausted from the journey he put his head down and prepared to sleep. As he slept, an angel came upon him and began to wrestle with the wily Jacob. They were evenly matched and as dawn came upon them, Jacob asked the strangers name, to which no reply was given, instead Jacob was wounded in the thigh bone, an ancient symbol of intimacy. Jacob held the stranger and demanded that before he let him go he bless Jacob (the equivalent of yelling “Uncle”) and the angel said, “your name has been Jacob (which means to grasp, by the way) but from now on your name will be ‘Israel’, for you have striven with God and prevailed” . This is a story of a journey from betrayal to justice; a story not unlike the Great Migration north that so many including Moses Godfrey took. If only our ongoing journey towards justice could follow the bible’s script.
Jacob was a changed man. Until then he had been a passive player in the drama of his destiny, the mama’s boy, the trickster, worried about his older brother, ignored by his father, tricked by his father-in-law, trapped in a darkness of soul in which his life held little purpose. (See Naomi Rosenblat’s Wrestling with Angels; Doubleday, 1995 for an excellent discussion of this motif)
Yet, somehow, through his own self – reliance he was able to come out of his old hidden self and accept his wounds (symbolized by his thigh injury) and transcend to the higher place of his true and better nature.
Just where was Jacob’s Promised Land? Was it in the land he was migrating to? The land he once called home? Or was it to reconcile with his brother, Esau from whom he had stolen his father’s inheritance? In a very outward and literal sense, Jacob was returning to his home land, an actual place that felt had been promised to him by God. But if we look further into the story, we can see that he was also traveling to the promised land of reconciliation and brotherly love that he longed for with his brother. But neither of those “promised lands” were possible until Jacob completed his most important and inward journey and that was the promised land of his own integrity.
Wrestling with the angels is a powerful metaphor in mythology. It refers not so much with a celestial force or even something outside of who we are, but a wrestling with our inner doubts, our faults and even our guilt. By prevailing through the night, Jacob was given a new name, and with that name a renewed identity to become the good man he was promised by God to become; no longer the trickster and liar, but instead a human being cognizant of his faults and willing to atone for them by returning to his brother and asking for his forgiveness. The wound he suffered from the wrestling with the angel was not so much a physical one as it was spiritual and emotional. The physical dislocation of his hip was just a reminder of the spiritual dislocation of his conceit in favor of a life with the promise of integrity. The promise of integrity. I think a great deal about that these days. Are we ready for the days ahead? I will we even begin to address this new world? Integrity is the matching of our best inner selves to the actions of our outer selves, isn’t it. And isn’t that what theology is supposed to help us do. Give us the values to live the promise of integrity.
People of Color have been wrestling with angels they cannot win against for centuries. Where is the Promised Land of racial justice? Where is our promised land of the beloved community we yearn to see, extending the spirit of love beyond the borders of this present moment? Beloveds, the promise land is right on the edge of certainty and it starts in us, right in here, right with our own doubts, and our own judgements, our own fears and our own prejudices. Every great world leader has wrestled with the angels; Mother Theresa, MLK at his kitchen table, Muhammed and his encounter with Gabriel, the Buddha and the temptation of Mira the God of death, Jesus and the devil promising him worldly power and eternal life. Each prophet, just like each of us, has to wrestle for our better selves. That is the true and most lasting Promised Land.
For someone like MLK who had plenty of struggles to overcome, the Promised Land he dreamed of was not just of his people but of himself. He was well aware of his shortcomings, his anger, his infidelity, his impatience, but he was also aware of how important it was to not let those shortcomings stall his work. Taylor Branch in his last and most sentient book of King and the Civil Rights movement spoke realistically of just how much of a struggle it was for the prophet that he was to overcome his failings. He did struggle with affairs and his marriage, but he kept at the Promised Land, theologizing as he moved forward with his larger mission to fight against war and poverty itself.
And what about us? What are the struggles that keep us from the promised land of our imaging racial justice.? Our Racial Justice Council is a good start. We are engaged across the life of our congregation in racial justice work. We are recognizing our own implicit bias, our own white silence, our own fragility. We are imaging the work that those of us who are white must do on our own in order to walk with our brother and sisters of color towards the promised land. In just another hour you have the opportunity to hear Layla Saad speak at our MLK Celebration on her work Me and White Supremacy. I urge you to attend. On February 7th as we introduce the theme of Beloved Community we will have a chance after the worship service to learn from Bryan Stevenson’s Equal Justice Initiative. We can journey in our imagination through a presentation on the work of James Baldwin on March 7th.
How do we prevail? How do we overcome our shortcomings and move towards our own promised land? We can work for justice. We can march for rights. We can hope for a world beyond the one we see here. But we will need to do the inner work as well. This is what I have learned from Dr. King. We have to wrestle with our own angels before we can truly complete our journey to the Promised Land we dream of. When Dr. King stood in front of the statue of Abraham Lincoln and looked across the long mall towards the Capitol at the other end, he never would have imagined a band of mostly white, racist insurrectionists would storm the capitol building, the very temple of civic religion. No, Dr. King had another dream.
“I say to you today, my friends, so even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream. 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 one day on the red hills of Georgia, the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood.” (MLK August 28, 1963)
He had a dream that we are still walking towards today. GA has changed. But George Floyd and thousands of brown and black lives have been lost. We are still marching my friends, for our imagination is long, sacred and altogether righteous.
When Jacob crossed over into his homeland and sent word to his brother Esau that he was coming he was full of trepidation. What would his brother do? What he still be filled with anger at having his inheritance stolen? Would he attempt to harm Jacob? Or would Esau welcome him home? As Jacob approached his brother’s camp he could see Esau and a large retinue approaching quickly. Jacob worried that they were mounting an attack. But as Esau drew closer Jacob could see that his brother was running towards him with open arms. As they embraced Jacob realized that his worst fears were relieved. His brother had moved beyond the struggles of their past and was overjoyed to welcome his brother Jacob home. Home to their promised land. May our journey this year also bring us closer to our home where all are equal again, starting with our own hearts as we open them to the promise of transcending love. So may it be. And amen.