Martin Luther King, Jr. Weekend
I’m starting a new sermon series so I’m going to start at the beginning with the creation story. There are actually two creation stories in the Book of Genesis. The one I’ll read is from Genesis 2, it’s the second creation story, but it’s the older of the two creation stories. It comes a thousand years before Jesus.
Then the Lord God said, “It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a helper as his partner.” So out of the ground the Lord God formed every animal of the field and every bird of the air and brought them to the man to see what he would call them, and whatever the man called every living creature, that was its name. The man gave names to all cattle and to the birds of the air and to every animal of the field, but for the man there was not found a helper as his partner. So the Lord God caused a deep sleep to fall upon the man, and he slept; then he took one of his ribs and closed up its place with flesh. And the rib that the Lord God had taken from the man he made into a woman and brought her to the man.
Then the story continues in Genesis 3
Now the serpent was more crafty than any other wild animal that the Lord God had made. He said to the woman, “Did God say, ‘You shall not eat from any tree in the garden’?” The woman said to the serpent, “We may eat of the fruit of the trees in the garden, but God said, ‘You shall not eat of the fruit of the tree that is in the middle of the garden, nor shall you touch it, or you shall die.’” But the serpent said to the woman, “You will not die, for God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food and that it was a delight to the eyes and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate, and she also gave some to her husband,
In 1892 a young man named Charles Buzzell was aboard the ship El Monte at a dock in New Orleans. He wasn’t a sailor, but a spectator watching them load the ship with bales of cotton. He went into the hold, sat down on one of the bales, fell asleep, and failed to wake up when they battened down the hatches and set sail for New York.
Nobody heard his screams for help, and when they opened the hold to unload the ship in New York nine days later, there was Charles, still lying on a cotton bale.
They thought he was dead, but in fact he was just comatose, so they rushed him to St. Vincent’s Hospital in Greenwich Village. As far as the shipmates knew, nine days was the longest time anyone had gone without food and water. The skilled practitioners at St. Vincent’s revived Charles and nursed him back to health until he was hale and whole.
About that time, Charles’ sister gave birth to a baby girl. They named her Edna, but then they gave her the oddest middle name: St. Vincent, to honor the nurses and doctors at the hospital who’d saved her uncle.
And that is how the great American poet Edna St. Vincent Millay got her eccentric name. Fellow poets speculate that if her uncle had been treated at Lenox Hill or New York Presbyterian, Edna’s parents might not have given her that sobriquet. It doesn’t scan.
You can tell a lot about a person from her name. When we came into this world, our parents chose a unique name for each of us with vast love, high hopes, and meticulous thought.
If your name is Peter, you made them think of, or hope for, the sturdiness of a rock. If your name is Diane or Diana, you made them think of, or hope for, a goddess. If your name is James or Jacob, you made them think of, or hope for, a trickster, or a stand-up comic. They might have called you Coyote or Raven. You made them think of Jerry Seinfeld.
A Princeton Seminary Professor says that a name is a way of honoring someone. Naming reflects honor and hope and respect. Did you notice in the creation story from Genesis 2 what the first man’s first job is? The first man’s first job is to name the animals. The oldest profession is not what you think it is. The oldest human profession is taxonomist.
This Princeton Professor talks about the great joy and expectation God experiences when she parades the animals past the first man to see what he will call them. God places an animal in front of the first man. The first man says “Hedgehog.” God smiles. God places another animal before the first man. The first man says: “Bulldog.” God is triumphant. God places a third animal before the first man. The first man says, “Horned Frog.” God is embarrassed.
So in this sermon series I want to pay tribute to some of the characters in the Bible who are important to the story, but never get a name. They are The Unnamed. They’re not Nameless; they all have a name, but we don’t know what it is. There are lots of them, scores, maybe hundreds. I want to talk about a few.
In fact, the first three characters we meet in the Bible don’t have a name. We typically call the first man “Adam,” as if it were a proper name, but that’s not the case. The Bible calls the first man A-dahm, which comes from the Hebrew A-dah-mah, which means “earth,” or “ground.”
The Bible calls the first man A-dahm—earthling, or groundling—because A-dahm is made of dust. God scoops up a handful of earth and sculpts it into a living being like a potter at her clay. Adam only became a proper name in later tradition.
We typically call the first woman “Eve,” as if it were a proper name, but at the beginning, that’s not the case. In Hebrew “Eve” simply means Mother because she is the mother of all humanity. Eve only became a proper name in later tradition. The first two characters we meet in the Bible are unnamed. They are simply “Groundling” and “Mother.”
The third prominent character we meet in the Bible is Unnamed—the Serpent. Later tradition will guess that it was Satan who prompted the serpent to swindle the first woman and the first man.
But the story doesn’t tell us that; it’s just a snake. Some say this story is the reason why many, many people have an overwhelming, paralyzing fear of snakes.
On this holiday weekend, I want to ask a relevant question which arises from this story: what’s the original sin? What error lies at the root, the source, the origin, of almost all that is wrong with humanity?
The snake defrauds the first woman by convincing her that if she tastes the forbidden fruit, it will make her like God. She will no longer be merely a groundling, or just a mother, but a goddess. She will be better than every other creature sculpted from the dust of the earth.
In America, the original sin is white superiority. That’s the error that lies at the origin of all our trouble. It has haunted us for 400 years, from slavery itself to the Civil War to Jim Crow to the vile malice voiced even today.
I’ve been rereading Toni Morrison’s masterpiece Beloved, and it’s convinced me she belongs in the pantheon of American giants with Twain, Melville, Dickinson, Wharton, Fitzgerald, and Hemingway.
Toni Morrison went to school in Lorain, Ohio, less than a mile from Lake Erie. She was the only African American in her first-grade classroom. But she was not the only minority. In every grade, she was surrounded by immigrants from all over the world. They had nothing in common; well, two things they had in common—they were in America together now, and they were not Black. She says, “Wherever they were from, they would stand together. They could all say, ‘I am not that.’”
In the fifth grade, she sat next to a white immigrant. She says, “He was very smart, but he didn’t speak English, so I helped him with his reading. I remember the moment he found out that I was Black.”
And then she utters an obscenity I cannot speak in this holy place. She says, “I still remember the exact moment. It took him six months; he was told. And that’s the moment when he belonged; that was his entrance.”
You remember the film Mississippi Burning? The Francis McDormand character says to Gene Hackman: “Hatred isn’t something you’re born with. It gets taught…At seven years of age, you get told something enough times you start to believe it; you believe the hatred, you start to live it, breathe it, marry it.”
That’s what happens when we buckle under the serpent’s fake news about our own vainglory. But the Groundling-Mother-Snake saga is just the beginning. The story reaches its apex at Calvary, where we learn that our own unseemly enmities and our own fraudulent superiority are doomed.
Even near the beginning, God swears a vow to the snake: “You may fang his heel, but he will crush your head.”
All that unworthy animosity. All that false supremacy. It’s all terminal. It may last 400 years, but it is withering away. Christ died. Christ is risen. Christ is king. Christ reigns. He died for every one of us.
And what awaits us is this ancient, imperishable dream: “That one day freedom shall ring from the prodigious hilltops of New Hampshire, and the mighty mountains of New York. Freedom shall ring from the heightening Alleghenies of Pennsylvania and the snowcapped Rockies of Colorado. Freedom shall ring from the curvaceous slopes of California and from Stone Mountain in Georgia and from Lookout Mountain in Tennessee and from every hill and molehill in Mississippi. Then all God’s people will declare: Free at last. Free at last. Thank God Almighty, we are free at last.”
That is our hope. That is our dream. That is our goal. That is our inevitable destiny.
Bartlett’s Book of Anecdotes, eds. Clifton Fadiman and André Bernard (New York: Little, Brown, 1985), 385–386.
Nancy Lammers Gross, “The Vocation of Voice,” Opening Convocation Address at Princeton Theological Seminary, September 8, 2019.
Quoted by Nadra Nittle, Toni Morrison’s Spiritual Vision (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2021), 28–29.
Adapted from Martin Luther King, Jr., at the Lincoln Memorial, August 28, 1963.
*You may use these prayers for non-commercial purposes in any medium, provided you include a brief credit line with the author’s name (if applicable) and a link to the original post.