Sermon: Sunday, June 27, 2010: Time After Pentecost–Lectionary 13

Texts: 1 Kings 19:15-16, 19-21 and Psalm 16  •  Galatians 5:1, 13-25  •  Luke 9:51-62


I’ve shared on plenty of occasions that before I went to seminary I worked with runaway and homeless youth. For the most part, I did that work in shelters and transitional living programs, but for the year and a half before I left for seminary in Atlanta, I was a youth worker in a domestic violence center named after Harriet Tubman.

Harriet_TubmanHarriet Tubman, as most of you know, was this country’s most famous conductor on the Underground Railroad, the network of safe houses hidden in barns and schools and churches leading from the south to the north before the Civil War. Born herself into slavery in Maryland almost two hundred years ago, Harriet Tubman lived a life of hard labor and frequent beatings at the hands of the people who thought they owned her. Once, during her adolescent years, she was commanded to help restrain a boy who had left the fields without permission. When she refused to participate in his punishment the man threw a weight at her, hitting her in the head and cracking her skull. She was taken back to the home of her masters and laid out without medical attention for two days to see whether she would live or die. From that time on Harriet experienced seizures and visions, which she attributed to God.

Shortly before her thirtieth birthday, Harriet and her brothers Ben and Henry set her face toward freedom. After almost three decades of inhumane treatment, Harriet decided that there were two things she had a right to – liberty and death, and if she could not have the first she would rather have the second than go on living as a slave. However, once they had made their escape and a reward had been posted for their capture and return, Harriet’s brothers had second thoughts. Ben had recently become a father, and could not bear the separation from his family. So all three returned, where we can assume their welcome was not friendly.

Not too long after that Harriet made another escape, this time without her brothers. The night before she left, Harriet sent a coded message to her mother in the secret language of the invisible church, the freedom songs of enslaved people. She sang, “I’ll meet you in the morning… I’m bound for the promised land.”

After she escaped from slavery, Harriet Tubman returned to Maryland to help others escape. First she returned for her family members, then others. Each trip strengthening her resolve to break the back of the institution that had broken her skull. She made thirteen trips back to slave territories and rescued over seventy human beings trapped by that evil institution, earning the name “Moses” among those who knew her, because she led her people to freedom.

Those freedom songs she used to send a message to her mother lived on and grew in their meaning, so that a little over a hundred years later as African-Americans suffering under Jim Crow and segregation gathered to march for their rights you might hear songs like

“Ain’t gonna let nobody turn me ‘round, turn me ‘round, ‘turn me round’. Keep on walking, keep on talking, marching up to freedom land.” (Ain’t gonna let no jailhouse turn me ‘round… Ain’t gonna let segregation turn me ‘round… Ain’t gonna let race hatred turn me ‘round… Ain’t gonna let Mississippi turn me ‘round…)

That human spirit, that Holy Spirit, of determination to face the unjust powers of this world in the name of freedom for all people is the spirit that rested on Jesus as he “set his face to go to Jerusalem.” The scriptures tell us that as he became clearer about his mission to confront the twin powers of temple authority and Roman occupation, Jesus set his face and those who had earlier accepted his teaching and healing no longer accepted him in their hometowns. In his determination to go forward, and never back, Jesus began to look dangerous to people.

The mantle of the prophet comes with a cost. When Elijah threw his cloak over his successor Elisha, the younger prophet returned to his home and liquidated all his assets, feeding the people with the meat of the oxen who had once tilled his land. When a would-be follower of Jesus is caught up by the passion of his preaching and declares, “I will follow you wherever you go,” Jesus responds by hinting at what it will cost him.

“Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests, but the Human One has nowhere to lay his head.” Following me is not for those who want to stay put and rest. I am marching forward, not back. “Let the dead bury their own dead; but as for you, go and proclaim the [reign of God come near].” Follow me.

We been ‘buked and we been scorned.

We been talked about, shore as you born.

But we never turn back. No, we’ll never turn back,

until we are living free, and we have equality.

We have walked through the shadows of death,

we have to walk all by ourselves.

But we’ll never turn back. No, we’ll never turn back

until we are living free, and we have equality.

We have hung our heads and cried,

for those who like we who have died.

Died for you and died for me. Died for the cause of equality.

But we’ll never turn back. No, we’ll never turn back

until we are living free, and we have equality. And we have equality.

“For freedom,” writes Paul, “Christ has set us free. Stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.”

That human spirit, that Holy Spirit, of determination to face the unjust powers of this world in the name of freedom for all people is the spirit that rested on the women in Minneapolis at the Harriet Tubman Center who built a safe house for women fleeing from the bondage of domestic violence. Convinced that they had a right to liberty, choosing not to die, they grabbed a hold of the life that is really life and they took the name of the woman who knew better than anyone else how hard and how good it is to set your face toward freedom.

But they also took from their namesake the determination to go back and to free those still trapped in violence. “For you were called to freedom, brothers and sisters, only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence, but through love become slaves to one another.”

After Harriet was done leading escape missions out of Maryland she went on to work for women’s suffrage and continued working for the cause of equality for all people from all forms of slavery. We, who are in ourselves the living body of the risen Christ, are called to set our face toward Jerusalem with such determination.

We can do this with courage, acknowledging our fear of the attention we may draw, or the criticism we may endure, because we know that God’s loving compassion doesn’t just flow through us toward all the hurting people of the world – God’s love flows toward us, as members of Christ’s own crucified, broken body. Th
e Son of Man may have no place to lay his head, but the birds of the air do have a nest in which to rest, and if his eye is on the sparrow, then I know he is watching you and me as well.

We are a living witness to the power of God’s love at work in the world. Love that will not look back, but marches forward. Love that sounds like freedom.


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