Liberty, freedom – the idea of it, the sweet, fragrant feel of it and, conversely, the dreadful, bitter, fetid absence of it – is among the main preoccupations of theology. Liberty or freedom is among the main preoccupations of theology because it is among the main preoccupations of God.
The great, inaugural stories of the Bible – the five, immense sagas that unfurl in majestic power through the first chapters of Genesis: The Creation Story, The Fall, Cain and Able, the Great Flood, the Tower of Babel – all center on questions of freedom, human freedom and Divine freedom … on freedom’s horizons and limits, it dizzying prospects and its awful perils.
These stories are preoccupied with how we organize our lives together … how we build society while balancing freedom and restraint, liberty and law, self-expression and self-control.
What’s more, the question at the heart and center of the single most defining story in all of the Hebrew scriptures, the story that takes up more biblical real estate than any other, the story that is ancient Israel’s national epic (and, as such, has influenced every prophet and apostle and martyr … influenced the ministries of Jesus and the writings of St. Paul): the Exodus story, is a story of bondage and emancipation, subjugation and sovereignty, misery and release.
It is in the Exodus story that God’s heart is revealed. It is in this story that we learn that God’s heart breaks and bleeds with and for those who suffer. It is in the Exodus story that we are first introduced to a God who intercedes to liberate slaves who intervenes and intrudes upon human history on behalf of the most miserable. That’s our God.
Today’s portion of the story, from the 14th chapter of Exodus, tells of Israel’s dramatic escape from their captors, from Egypt. By the hand of God and with the help of Moses, the Israelites had escaped bondage but their enslavers are now pursuing them … are in hot pursuit … and they are bigger and stronger and better armed than the Israelites.
Israel arrives at the edge of the Red Sea. And God blows the waters – half this way and half that way – the waters gather and rise up like walls … leaving the seabed dry. The Israelites – women, children, elders, all the Israelites – scramble down onto the dry seabed and hasten across. The pursuing Egyptians – heavily armored soldiers, horses and chariots, and archers – follow between the walls of water. But just as the Israelites exit the dry seabed on the far side, and just as all of Pharaoh’s army is positioned between the walls of water …God releases the walls of water … the waters surge and swell and crash down upon Egypt’s army … and all are drowned.
The point of the story is this: don’t think you can enslave people and get away with it. Slavery is anathema to God and God is not without recourse. In other words, this God is no carved idol resting on a shelf; no icon or statue fashioned from wood or stone or clay or metal … but rather the very Author of the Universe, Master of the Spinning Planets, Maker of Heaven and Earth for whom liberty, agency, personal sovereignty is a preoccupation … is a matter of justice.
Liberty, freedom – the idea of it, the sweet, fragrant fact of it, and, conversely, the dreadful, bitter, fetid absence of it – is also among the main preoccupations of an early member of this church, a young, enslaved woman: Phillis Wheatley.
The year is 1773 and Phillis Wheatley is experiencing her own genuine, parting of the seas. She is on a ship, sailing from Boston to London. Behind her, in Boston, is slavery … is the family who owns her. In front of her, far beyond the bow of the ship, many nautical miles ahead, is British soil … and due to the historic Mansfield decision of the previous year, of 1772, the moment Phillis steps foot onto British soil, she will be free.
As Phillis sails for London – perhaps at night she imagines the waters piled up on the starboard side, and piled up on the port side … and the ship she rides in as the dry ground God has wrought for her … the dry ground that promises deliverance.
As she sails towards freedom, Phillis Wheatley (but 20 years old) is the most celebrated African in the world. The ship’s captain writes in the ships’ log that among his passengers is “Phillis, the extraordinary Negro poet.” Her departure from Boston is announced “six times in the four Boston newspapers” (Robinson) Newspapers in Connecticut, New York, Rhode Island, Pennsylvania, and New Hampshire also carry the story. She is described as “the extraordinary poetic genius”.
In England Phillis Wheatley is wined and dined and feted. She is introduced to royalty and aristocracy. She is there to have her poems published, but there is much more at stake. As Henry Louis Gates writes, “Essentially, she is auditioning for the humanity of the entire African people.”
1773 is Phillis Wheatley’s own crossing of the Red Sea. Not only is she emancipated that year, she also secures a publisher which assures her voice is heard and, soon, will make of her the first published African American woman.
In addition, it is in 1773 that Benjamin Rush – among the most important and influential of America’s Founding Fathers – publishes a book calling for the immediate end to the slave trade and for the dismantling of slavery. Benjamin Rush uses the story, and the genius, of Phillis Wheatley to make his case.
It is the following year, 1774, that an emancipated and ever more emboldened Phillis Wheatley binds together the biblical Exodus story and two different yearnings for freedom in her day and in her world: the Patriots’ cause: freedom from the crown; and her very personal cause, the cause of enslaved Africans.
Writing to a friend, the Native American minister Rev. Samson Occom, Phillis Wheatley lets loose: “In every human breast God has implanted a principle, which we call Love of Freedom. It is impatient of oppression and pants for deliverance. And, by the leave of our modern Egyptians, I will assert that the same principle lives in us.”
Liberty, freedom – the idea of it, the sweet, fragrant feel of it, and, conversely, the dreadful, bitter, fetid absence of it – is among the main preoccupations of theology, Jewish and Christian theology, because it is among the main preoccupations of God.
An Addendum to my sermon:
From the publication of her first poem at age 12, and thereafter for the rest of her too-short life, Phillis Wheatley carried on her small, frail shoulders the future of her race. I propose that it is our turn, Old South Church, to lift Phillis Wheatley aloft – as if on a litter or sedan chair – and carry her on our shoulders into the future. The story of Phillis Wheatley is largely unknown. We can change that. We can multiply those who know her story and who give witness to her genius and to her courage.
In your bulletins is an insert. On that insert is, among other information, a list of books about Phillis Wheatley. As Old South Church nears our 350th anniversary, it is my hope that members of this church (maybe at least 350 of us?) would choose to become experts on Phillis Wheatley: the first published African American woman and poet laureate of the American Revolution (Richard Kigel). There are not so many books written about Phillis Wheatley that you can’t become something of an expert in short order.
There are perhaps many reasons to multiply those who know Phillis Wheatley’s story … but I am interested in two in particular.
First, Phillis Wheatley is among the most famous and important members of Old South. She is family. In her day, despite the considerable disadvantages of being female and black and enslaved and young, she literally changed the conversations about slavery and about color. She forced white Colonists to confront their hypocrisy about freedom.
A second reason to become an expert on Phillis Wheatley is that we are engaged today, in our own important and painful national conversation about race, about skin color … a conversation to which Phillis Wheatley contributed substantially … a conversation which has changed from when Phillis Wheatley engaged it, but is no less urgent … no less dire.
I give God thanks for the divine heart that breaks and bleeds for those in pain. I give God thanks for parting waters and interfering in human history on behalf of the oppressed. I give God thanks for the Exodus story: a story that propelled the poetic pen of Phillis Wheatley emboldening her to speak up and out on matters of liberty and freedom … matters near and dear to the Divine heart.