Born of Slavery

June 19, 2022

Series: June 2022

Speaker: Rob McClellan


Today's Sermon


"Born of Slavery"


Exodus 12:31-36    

           31Then Pharaoh summoned Moses and Aaron in the night, and said, ‘Rise up, go away from my people, both you and the Israelites! Go, worship the Lord, as you said. 32Take your flocks and your herds, as you said, and be gone. And bring a blessing on me too!’
33 The Egyptians urged the people to hasten their departure from the land, for they said, ‘We shall all be dead.’ 34So the people took their dough before it was leavened, with their kneading-bowls wrapped up in their cloaks on their shoulders. 35The Israelites had done as Moses told them; they had asked the Egyptians for jewellery of silver and gold, and for clothing, 36and the Lord had given the people favour in the sight of the Egyptians, so that they let them have what they asked. And so they plundered the Egyptians.

Born of Slavery

            As is so often the case the hymns could do the preaching today.  I was what, ten, when I sat in a Sunday School class where Ms. Deborah Robinson was the teacher—I bet you who have taught Sunday School didn’t realize we remember.  All I remember about the lesson is her having us try and sing that hymn. There we were a soprano and a bunch of kids whose voices had yet to change trying to sing that deep, powerful, “Let my people go…”  She wanted us to know that song of freedom, freedom from slavery. 

           The black church produced so many spirituals, many of which held fast to the narrative of slavery from the Older Testament.  You don’t hear much critique of the so-called angry Old Testament God there, a heretical description sadly oft-repeated in the church.  That part of the church early recognized that the God described in the Old Testament is a liberator, a God who loosed the chains of slavery, a God who did not sit on the sidelines but chose sides against the oppressor. Whether it’s “Swing Low” or “Let My People Go” the refrains of those hymns drew on an ancient liberator for a more modern slavery because freedom tastes the same. 

           You could say one of the biggest mistakes slaveholders ever made (if they were trying to maintain the institution of slavery) was to give the slaves the Bible and the religion.  The slaveowners may not have been able to make the link between God’s liberating activity in the stories of Scripture, but the slaves spotted it clear as day.  In what should be described as miraculous, they took a tradition that had been forced on them and managed against all odds to find freedom within it. 

           I don’t know if I could have endured a single minute as a slave.  For many of us, slavery is an abstraction, an idea, a relic of history.  We’re not really, how could we be, in touch with it would have been like.  There are books and films, even live simulations, but you can close a book, turn off or walk away from a screen, even use a safe word in a simulation.  Part of the hell of slavery was that it was on all the time, inescapable unless you were lucky enough to escape, though we know the punishments for those who tried and failed.  Many were born into and died in that awful institution.  I don’t know how I would endure a minute.

           Do you know how many minutes are in a year?  Thanks to the musical RENTI can answer that…anyone else?  525,600.  In the musical it prompts the question of how you measure a year.  We might do it with fond memories, accomplishments, trips taken, milestones reached.  I wonder how a slave would measure the year. 

           On the evening of January 1st, 1863, many blacks gathered in churches as well as homes eagerly awaiting midnight when the Emancipation Proclamation would return to them their freedom.  It wasn’t until June 19, this very day, in 1865, over two years later, when Union Soldiers entered Galveston, Texas, that slaves in Texas were given their freedom. If you’re counting, that’s well over a million eternal minutes later that a quarter of a million people waited extra to taste freedom.  That day, this day came to be known as Juneteenth.[1]  This white man from the Midwest hadn’t probably heard of that occasion until just a few years ago.  Never heard that history.  Somewhere along the way I did learn of Tuskegee, but not the Tulsa race massacre, not until very recently.  There’s a lot I wasn’t taught.

           Last year Juneteenth became a federal holiday, and I didn’t mention it in church.  You’ve no doubt by now picked up on the fact I don’t address every item on the civic or cultural calendar.  There are so many days and months dedicated to anniversaries and causes, many of them worthy, but I don’t try and comment on all of them for that would be all I did.  My omission this time, however, was more specific.  I wrote in my notes, reflecting back on last year:  I know some would have liked me to comment on it, preach about it, but I had heard a lot of voices of color saying, we didn’t ask for a holiday.  We asked for our voting rights to be protected, or policing to be reformed, or any number of inequalities to be corrected. 

           Symbolic gestures are important, but they can also serve as a distraction from making more meaningful progress.  They can lead us to pat ourselves on the back, and subconsciously wash our hands of it rather than rolling our sleeves to continue the work.  You no doubt can list the work that remains to be done.  For example, studies have shown that blacks are systematically undertreated for pain in medical settings compared to white counterparts.[2]They’re given fewer painkillers.  Think of that; our society doesn’t trust their pain.    Here’s an excerpt from a Pro Publica article:

According to the CDC, black mothers in the U.S. die at three to four times the rate of white mothers, one of the widest of all racial disparities in women’s health. Put another way, a black woman is 22 percent more likely to die from heart disease than a white woman, 71 percent more likely to perish from cervical cancer, but 243 percent more likely to die from pregnancy- or childbirth-related causes. In a national studyof five medical complications that are common causes of maternal death and injury, black women were two to three times more likely to die than white women who had the same condition.[3]

I just heard an interview Wednesday of a black former football player, Myron Rolle, turned neurosurgeon.  Inspired by the work of Ben Carson, Rolle is now a neurosurgery resident at Mass General and he described routinely entering rooms and patients saying things such as, “Yes, I’m done, you can take your tray from me” because they couldn’t believe he was there to take their brain tumor away.” 

           I don’t mean to use exclusively health examples.  According to one article in US News and World Report, nationally blacks are incarcerated at five times the rate of whites.[4] It sounds as though we’re picking right up from where we left off last week.  As Coretta Scott King said, “Struggle is a never-ending process.  Freedom is never really won; you earn it and win it every generation.”[5] 

           We know there’s a lot of work to be done, which is why as a white pastor to do a victory lap on the first Juneteenth felt out of tune, if not worse.  Eugene Robinson, a black columnist for the Washington Postcalled recognizing Juneteenth as a federal holiday “a hollow victory.”  It’s probably better to listen to him than it is me on these matters.

            What I can advise is for all Christians to remember is that spiritually, we are a people born of slavery.  That is our birthright…or curse, I suppose.  The scriptures don’t allow us to forget where we come from, captives of Pharaoh, forced to work even harder when any peep of freedom or respite crossed out lips.  Now there are those who will point out the archaeological evidence of the exodus is virtually nonexistent.  Don’t think this is heretical; it was rabbis who first pointed this out to me. 

           In a way, this makes our foundational narrative even more powerful.  Not only did our ancestors comprehend a liberating God, but they imagined their very origins to be in captivity, placing themselves forever in solidarity with the enslaved.  “Remember that you were a slave in Egypt and the LORD your God redeemed you from there; therefore I command you to do this,” says Deuteronomy 24:18.  The “this” was not depriving a resident alien or an orphan of justice, or taking a widow’s garment in pledge.  Never take advantage of the vulnerable, because your roots are embedded in vulnerability.  Rabbi Michael Adam Latz writes, “The Bible is a radical sacred text that teaches God sides with powerless slaves instead of a powerful Pharaoh.”[6]

           When Pharaoh finally relents God’s pressure to the let the people go, scripture says not only that they took their unleavened bread (lest their captors change their minds), but they also asked the asked the Egyptians for jewelry of silver and gold, and for clothing, and they were granted it.  Sounds like reparations.  Scripture says they “plundered” the Egyptians.

           Heavy.  Heavy, of course depends on where you sit, but it’s heavy material on a light spring day—it’s the lightest Sunday of the year.  Yet, so much seems heavy, tense, uncertain.  We’re wrestling a lot right now about who we are as a society.  There’s a lot on edge right now on top of a residual weariness of a pandemic that is not playing out the way we would have liked.  Many people are struggling to hold it all together, and good people really trying.  You’re here because you’re trying.  You’re trying to live in the footsteps of Jesus Christ, and it’s easy to get weary, or discouraged, or cynical, or angry, or grieved.  Of course.  If you weren’t a feeling or thinking person, you wouldn’t feel these things, think the things you think.  There’s room for that here.

           Here is also where you can make that an offering, asking God to help transform it into a renewable energy source, into some hope for more liberation, and fulfilled promise of release. The work, the struggle, just the everyday path, takes something to help us just take the next step.  Think of what the slaves did when they had nothing. They sang.  When the slaves used to work in the fields, enduring in their minds and unknown or maybe eternal state of captivity, they sang.  They sang of a God who sets people free, rights wrongs, and brings those abuse their power to justice.  They sang and their notes carried them until freedom came for them. 

           We can sing to carry us on the road to a greater freedom too.  We can bolster ourselves with prayer and fellowship, not as folks who have figured it all out, but as folks committed to walking in faith or in search of faith together.  We can be the kind of body that makes room for others wandering around out there without anyone with whom to walk but cynicism or loneliness, hatefulness or despair. As we will sing to close today, we can lift every voice and sing till, till earth and heaven ring, ring with the harmonies of liberty.