January 2, 2022: Sermon Preached by The Rev. Carolyn H. Eklund
Year C; 2 Christmas; 1.2.2022
Matthew 2:13-15, 19-23
I first learned of Watch Night on New Year’s Eve from my African American Baptist neighbor in Durham, North Carolina. She always spent New Year’s Eve at her church from 10 p.m. to at least 1 a.m. My neighbor is a descendant from slaves, and Watch Night is an essential observance that retells the story of how the Emancipation Proclamation was first communicated over the wires on January 1, 1863, 159 years ago. Slaves knew it was coming and sat around their homes or outdoor fires to hear the hope of freedom come to them.
What I didn’t know until recently was that there was another term used by slaves on New Year’s Eve that was much more sinister and much more real. “Heartbreak Day.” Heartbreak Day was the day before the New Year when the books of the plantation owners were closing and any deficit, anything owed to collectors came due. Slave owners would go to their slaves and calculate which ones to sell or give to the debt collectors to pay off their debts. More times than not, fathers and mothers were separated from their children, never to be joined again. Heartbreaking.
There is a wonderful award-winning children’s story called “Henry’s Freedom Box” by Ellen Levine and illustrated by Nadir Nelson. It tells a true story of heartbreak and freedom, from a boy slave’s perspective:
Henry and his mother were slaves in the master’s quarters and were treated well. One day, the master lay dying in his bed. Instead of giving the boy and his mother their freedom, he gave the boy to his son who owned a tabaco factory. Henry never saw his mother again.
The boy worked well and hard, but was treated harshly. Over the years he met Nancy. They were married and had several children. They loved each other very much. But one day, Nancy and her children were sold away never to be seen again.
Henry was full of sorrow, but he still worked hard. He worked with the tabaco leaves and packed them in boxes to be shipped away. Some of the boxes were big…big enough to hold a person. Henry had the idea that he might fit in a box and be shipped north. On his visits to town he met a man who organized the Underground Railroad that connected with Philadelphia. The man helped Henry make plans to be packed away and shipped north.
Henry’s freedom box was loaded on a steamboat to go up the river. Then, it was placed on a train, the box arrived in Philadelphia where it was met by four men who were members of the Underground Railroad. Henry was free at last.
Emancipation, Freedom, Deliverance. To this day, Watch Night in churches is an occasion for reading the bible story of the Exodus. It is the story of God acting to free the Israelites from slavery in Egypt. It’s the story of a God who sets God’s people free….free from bondage under Egyptian Pharaoh’s harsh captivity.
That’s why the story this morning in Matthew’s Gospel of the angel telling Joseph in a dream to take the family to safety in Egypt was so compelling to Matthew’s community of Jesus followers.
The flight to Egypt takes us directly to this central story of salvation history, the deliverance of the Israelite slaves from Pharaoh’s bondage. Matthew’s predominantly Jewish community would have heard these words of Joseph’s dream and remembered the story of freedom from slavery, the occasion for the observance of Passover which they surely observed. They would have understood that in the birth of the child Jesus, this was the true baby king that the magi had just visited and in whom God was revealing God’s salvation for all.
Matthew’s community of faith had been through the Jewish revolt against Rome and the fall of the Second Temple in Jerusalem. Rome was in a retaliatory mode against the Jews who had revolted. Some in Matthew’s community were displaced refugees. This community of Jesus followers needed to be reassured that God was guiding the people to God’s peace and freedom. This community would hear frequently the words Jesus preached in the Sermon on the Mount, “Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”
No wonder the story of God’s deliverance of the Israelite slaves in the book of Exodus was the center of the hope for slaves who toiled in this country for centuries. When “heartbreak” was the word for the New Year, the slaves knew that the chant of Moses, “Let my people go!” was a chant of God siding with them for freedom.
Indeed, most of the African American Spirituals were about freedom and had multiple coded meanings communicating paths to escape. For example, “Go down Moses” was used as code for escape to freedom by “…Harriet Tubman who identified herself as ‘Moses’ to slaves who fled north.” (Library of Congress, African American Spirituals)
“When Israel was in Egypt land; Let my people go,
Oppressed so hard they could not stand, Let my people go.
“Go down, Moses, way down in Egypt’s land, tell old Pharaoh, to let my people go.”
The late theologian James H. Cone, author of many works of Black Liberation theology wrote these powerful words about God’s liberation of those who are oppressed,
“Only the oppressed can receive liberating visions in wretched places. Only those…in the context of struggle against injustice can see God’s freedom breaking into unfree conditions and thus granting power to the powerless to fight here and now for the freedom they know to be theirs in Jesus’ cross and resurrection.”
This is why Sacred Ground is so important for St. Paul’s, the Episcopal Church and the Brunswick community. Sacred Ground is a clear-eyed study of the history of slavery and those in this country who have been oppressed. It has the potential to call people of faith, people who benefitted knowingly and unknowingly from the oppression of others, to repentance and our own freedom. It’s a powerful curriculum designed to gently and honestly teach us to live into the truth of God’s freedom for all God’s people.
God is calling us learn things like “heartbreak day” and “The Fugitive Slave Act” and how laws, attitudes of law-enforcement and prison sentences favor those in the majority and in power over our neighbors of color.
In this fresh start to a new year, 2022, my hope is that God will be our source of freedom and joy and good health.
May our souls be open to the freedom that calls out to the Pharaohs and Herods of this world, “Let my people go!”