Lent 3: Harriet Tubman’s Gun
A sermon preached by the Rev. Jeffrey A. Geary at the White Plains Presbyterian Church on the Third Sunday of Lent, March 23, 2014
Psalm 95 Exodus 17: 1-7
From the wilderness of Sin the whole congregation of the Israelites journeyed by stages, as the Lord commanded. They camped at Rephidim, but there was no water for the people to drink. The people quarreled with Moses, and said, “Give us water to drink.” Moses said to them, “Why do you quarrel with me? Why do you test the Lord?” But the people thirsted there for water; and the people complained against Moses and said, “Why did you bring us out of Egypt, to kill us and our children and livestock with thirst?” So Moses cried out to the Lord, “What shall I do with this people? They are almost ready to stone me.” The Lord said to Moses, “Go on ahead of the people, and take some of the elders of Israel with you; take in your hand the staff with which you struck the Nile, and go. I will be standing there in front of you on the rock at Horeb. Strike the rock, and water will come out of it, so that the people may drink.” Moses did so, in the sight of the elders of Israel. He called the place Massah and Meribah, because the Israelites quarreled and tested the Lord, saying, “Is the Lord among us or not?”
“Is the Lord among us or not?” Is God present with us when times are tough?
On the answer to this question hangs the question of whether God is faithful to God’s people.
This, of course, is not exactly the question the people asked. They began simply with “Give us water to drink,” a legitimate request. The exodus had promised a new existence for Israel, one filled with joy, freedom, and well-being. But the path to freedom was proving to have many twists and turns, and at the moment they were desperately thirsty. They were not impatient for the Promised Land, crying out “How long, O Lord?” No, their cry was more akin to “O God, our God, why have you forsaken us?” They sob, “Why did you bring us out of Egypt, to kill us and our children and livestock with thirst?” The journey was proving more difficult than they had imagined, and this difficulty was calling into question God’s faithfulness.
“Is God present among us or not?” It is the central question, and to make this clear, once the crisis had passed Moses gathered a dozen large, flat rocks and erected a monument to this moment in the Israelites’ story. He named the place “testing” and “quarrelling” and let the newly discovered well of refreshing, flowing water bear witness to God’s ever present care.
Yet this was not to be the last time God’s people wavered in times of difficulty.
When Zora Neal Hurston, one of the writers at the center of the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s, depicted this moment in her book Moses, Man of the Mountain she has Moses say to the people
Freedom looks like the biggest thing
that God ever made to me,
and being a little hungry for the sake of it
ought not to stop you.[i]
While the water that flowed and the manna that God provided were concrete evidence of God’s faithfulness, such demonstrations were not ultimately able to overcome many Israelites’ desire to return to slavery. Some did turn back. And we do not know what risk that may have incurred for those who pressed onward toward Promised Land.
The annals of chattel slavery in North America recount that Harriet Tubman, the great abolitionist and suffragette, had four rules for the slaves she would lead into freedom: Be on time; follow instructions; tell no one of the escape; and be prepared to die rather than turn back.[ii]
Born in Maryland in 1820 as a slave by the name Araminta Harriet Ross, Tubman suffered debilitating beatings from the hands of her masters until she fled to freedom in Philadelphia in 1849. When the Southern-dominated Congress passed the Fugitive Slave Act the following year, requiring the capture and return of escaped slaves, Tubman adopted the name Moses and returned to the South in order to personally lead hundreds of slaves to freedom along the network of activists and safe houses known as the Underground Railroad, one route of which passed within a mile of here in the present town of Harrison.
African-American painter Jacob Lawrence depicts Harriet Tubman taking a group of slaves to freedom through the underground railroad in his remarkable painting Forward (1967).
With her left hand she pushes forward an enslaved man, and she carries a gun in her right hand. Lawrence’s depiction recalls stories that Tubman did not carry the gun for the slave patrols or “paddyrollers” but for those previously enslaved men and women who would turn back and put the escapees danger.[iii]
I have been pondering Harriet Tubman’s gun all week.
Harriet Tubman’s very real gun, as well as the difficulties and conflicting emotions involved in gaining freedom, got me thinking of the phrase “having a gun held to our head” which we use to refer to being forced to do something against our will, not unlike having our back up against the wall, another phrase derived from gun culture.
And we recoil from this. None of us like to be forced to do anything, especially if it involves personal discomfort or sacrifice.
Harriet’s carrying of the gun reminded any wavering souls that they needed to stick and stay with their decision to run to freedom. Because she would not allow their individual fears or doubts to threaten the well-being of the others runagates or to expose the Underground Railroad itself. History does not record that she ever had to use it.
The painting by Jacob Lawrence paints the runagate slaves’ challenging context – the need to subsume individual choice for the good of the whole. And it’s a situation in which we find our own selves again and again.
These days many of us recoil from the clear implications of climate and over-population. For if we truly understood the meaning of 400 ppm of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, the melting of the polar ice cap and rising sea levels, the salination of our water, the loss of soil and species and the ever increasing demands of what will soon be 10 billion people on a planet which can only sustain 4 billion, if we really understood this we would be making serious changes in the way we live right now. But we continue to act as if recycling and protecting species will be enough to save the planet. Nothing can save our present civilization, nor should we want to. Instead we should be seeking right now to leave behind that voracious civilization and live into and out of a new kind of existence of joy, freedom and well-being God intends for us.
It is no easier to make changes when the changes required are more personal.
This past week was the anniversary of my father’s death. He died of congestive heart failure in 2004 while waiting for a heart transplant. His heart failure was the result of a congenital defect rather than heart disease, yet he struggled throughout his life with his weight, which while he was not obese, was more than it should have been. This struggle was made more difficult by his heart’s limited ability to endure exercise. He took up walking for a while, something I think about every time I go hiking myself, and, after moving to Florida, he took up cooking as a way both to control and indulge his appetite. He approached food like a scientist, measuring salt and fat and all the things you calibrate when you are exploring new ways to eat, trying to change your habits, and learn a new lifestyle.
The struggle to make the changes required for our own health are as difficult as any other, whether that be regular exercise, necessary hours of sleep, the taking of medication for physical or mental health, or confronting addictions. I had a kidney stone in high school, two actually, and I still have not learned drink four glasses of water a day.
We don’t like having our choice taken away from us or our options limited. We don’t like it when necessity forces us to make decisions quickly. We resist with all our might. Sometimes it is only an appeal to remember that loved ones are counting on us, that our children don’t want to see their father perish because he was unable to choose well, that can jumpstart us into choices that are life-giving.
Because our society privileges individual freedom over social well-being, it is easy for us to think only of our selves and our particular desires, and, in the name of freedom, disregard their impact on others. It is not choice that is the highest good, it is, according to Jesus, “abundant life.”
Lent is often approached as an opportunity to think about the changes our lives require. Our text today, and Harriet Tubman’s gun, remind us that our individual choices impact others and invite us to see our lives as inextricably intertwined with others, and to seek our common well-being.
[i] Zora Neal Hurston, Moses, Man of the Mountain (1939)
[ii] “Harriet Ross Tubman (c. 1821-1913)” in Susan Altman, ed. The Encyclopedia of African-American Heritage (Facts on File, 1997).
[iii] Nyasha Junior, Preaching God’s Transforming Justice (WJK, 2013) p 143. A few lines from this entry are sprinkled throughout the sermon. See also https://www.facebook.com/note.php?note_id=10150187797339552