The year is 1761, or so. Imagine a young Black girl, front teeth missing, perhaps 7 or 8 years old, very slight of build, and a bit sickly after having barely survived a journey across the middle passage, and no doubt traumatized and flinching at every sound after the shocks, horrors, beatings, the hunger, the death on the ship all around her … and now she stands … a stranger in a strange land, surrounded by all sorts of different vegetation, sounds, and entirely different looking human beings.
Now imagine a woman – a White woman named Suzanna Wheatley who sees this young girl perhaps she even saw her standing there on an auction block and thinks, “she must be the age my baby would be had she not died” …
Imagine that woman, Suzanna Wheatley buying – yes buying this frail, frightened, little slave girl … and bringing her home … as a slave mind you. As a great grandson of slaves, I assure you that I am not trying to glamorize slavery, an evil and vile institution. And yet, even amid such profound darkness – were there not cracks through which God’s Divine light could still shine?
On Suzanna Wheatley’s bill of sale she might have seen that her new merchandise came in on a ship named The Phillis, with that unique spelling ... and thus she named this young girl. And the bill of sale might have noted that said merchandise landed July 11, so let us make that your birthday, and guessing from your missing front teeth, I’d say you must be age 7 or 8.
Property. Property and the struggle among all sorts of people to just not be treated like property. From the ways women are portrayed on commercials, videos and elsewhere to debates about reproductive rights are we not still dealing with women being treated like property – even in the 21st century?
Phillis, like so many millions of slaves, was just property – that’s all. And so were women in biblical times as women can be, still today. In fact, Walter Wink, who writes an article you can Google and read entitled “Biblical Perspectives on Homosexuality,” explains that the only way to understand anything about sex in the Bible is to first recognize that the Bible primarily deals with women as a property rights issue – not love or sex. It was all about who owned you. A woman was owned, first by her father until she was then owned later by a husband … and on from there.
And so, whenever a man had any dealings with a woman, he needed to know who owned her so that he would not violate another man’s property rights. Re-reading the Bible through that lens breaks open and reveals the power of Jesus’ innovative way of seeing and reaching out to women and children … as equals.
To the people in Jesus’ day … this would have been shocking! Consider Jesus’ interactions with women … Interactions that must have been like cracks in the sky of their limited world view through which Divine light shined – for the express purpose of moving the whole of humanity forward.
The gospel is a radical document; it empowers women among many others to move forward. The gospel calls those of us with more power to help those with less power to do so!
Consider the role of women in the New Testament.
Mary is first to know Jesus was coming the first time
Elizabeth is first to proclaim faith in him
Anna is first to Proclaim Jesus to the world
The Samaritan woman at the well—the woman scandalized by having had 5 husbands—had the longest conversation with Jesus and it is she who first reveals Jesus’ identity as Messiah. Think about it!
In today’s lesson,
- The ruler of the synagogue named Jairus, approaches Jesus about healing his daughter saying that he knows Jesus can heal her.
- But on the way, Jesus walks through a crowded market place with people pushing and shoving in the usual ways and gets distracted.
- Suddenly a woman who has been hemorrhaging for 12 years grabs hold to the hem of his garment.
- And instantly, the woman is healed … after 12 years of trying everything.
- Jesus asks? Who touched me?
- The disciples reply, “What do you mean? Hundreds must have touched you in this crowded market place.”
- But Jesus said, but someone really touched me – she touched the essence of my being
- He calls out for this woman, but the woman retreats in fear
- She is afraid because by touching Jesus she knows she has made Jesus, the rabbi, ritually unclean, according to Jewish law
- But Jesus goes on to Jairus’ house anyway … though he is now ritually unclean … and Jesus heals her anyway
- During Jesus’ delay to heal the woman in the market place, Jairus’ daughter actually dies, but Jesus comes to her bedside anyway … saying, “Little girl, arise.”
And Jesus tells the mourners, “Those casseroles you brought in for the funeral are now going to be used for a birthday party, push back the furniture and let’s dance, because … I am the resurrection and the life! Give her something to eat … and some birthday cake!
Phillis Wheatley had an encounter with that same Jesus . . . and not even the evils of slavery could hold her back. Phillis got the chance to learn above and beyond the level of hardly any of the girls in her day of any race, learning both English and Latin.
Just as Jesus broke with tradition to reach out, just so the Wheatley’s broke with tradition, seeing Phillis’ gift for languages they helped her learn to write, not as one who was a slave, but as one who could become the poet laureate of a nation which Maya Angelou among others would one day become despite her race.
Allowing slaves to learn to write was considered a dangerous thing because then slaves could communicate at great distances and perhaps organize. Because of Phillis Wheatley’s own brilliance, and Suzanna Wheatley saying “little girl arise to her,” she would become the first African American person and only the second woman of any race to be published.
It is notable that Mrs. Wheatley out of her own brokenness, connects with Phillis and in so doing, she too helps change the course of human history.
Women and men, are there little girls and younger women in your life you can actively help to “arise?” And not just help them out of poverty; why not help them into the White House?
As hard as it is for us to believe this could happen, people in Wheatley’s day could not believe it was possible for a person of African descent to have written her poetry … was the voice of Jesus in their time saying, “Arise” – The support of the Wheatley’s was not just support for Phillis but for the untold millions who will follow and never ever consider that based on race or gender they will not be able to do anything! That day is coming!
In an odd turn of events, even Thomas Jefferson would get into the debate, arguing that Wheatley could not have authored any such poems. But this only increased the national and international attention and the so-called “discovery” that a person of African descent could have had such ability. It was for their world, a new discovery – not unlike discovering … Penicillin!
Until then, hidden by old convictions, and old understandings, the world was blind to a genius standing before their eyes – because she was Black, because she was a woman.
After Wheatley faced a jury of her intellectual (though regarded an inferior in so many ways) they all signed off on Wheatley being the real deal, she became the “toast of the town” – even in London where she traveled and earned the chance to remain there … as a free woman.
Nonetheless she returned with the older Wheatley son and the family would ultimately free her. But freedom also has its captivities. Being a free Black woman in colonial New England was no “crystal staircase”. Wheatley would ultimately die at a young age and be buried in a potter’s field.
But that would not be the end either. Over the years she has been and continues to be both revered and reviled at times: Revered for her brilliance; reviled for being so complacent about remaining a slave. (Though the possibility has been recently discussed that some of her poems could contain anagrams that by simply re-arranging certain letters contain powerful diatribes against the plight of people of color in America. This bears further research.)
And today, we, Phillis’ church family, will celebrate her resurrection from potter’s field to Commonwealth Ave. Together we will offer a prayer of thanksgiving remembering her. Today, we will sing Happy Birthday because that one, Jesus our brother, who said I am he that was dead but behold I am alive forever more, that one who raised Jairus’ daughter and healed the woman with the issue of blood … That one is Still speaking to women and men, girls and boys saying, … Arise. Arise through faith, Arise through education, Arise through perseverance … No matter what anyone else says … Arise! No matter what you are going through, Jesus says to you and me across time … “Because I rise … you shall also rise!” Hear the voice of God calling you this morning, Arise!
Will you join us in honoring this great woman by walking with us down to the Women’s Monument on Commonwealth Avenue where Phillis along with Abigail Adams and Lucy Stanton hold court?
If so, will you, those who plan to join the walk, move to the center aisle on the last verse of the closing hymn? We will recess out together and down to the Women’s Memorial.