A Way in the Sea
We lost an hour early this morning. It was an hour filled with all sorts of possibilities and promise; an hour that could have been used for great good, but was taken from us. It’s a tragedy, really, when you think about it. I myself would be terribly sad about the loss, but on Thursday I flew between Eastern Time to Mountain Time and picked up two extra hours… so my net gain was one hour, and I still haven’t decided what to do with it!
Daylight Saving reminds me of the shortness of time. The Gospel reading is also about that. Jesus is only hours away from entering Jerusalem on his way to the cross. Next week for us is Palm Sunday, and the anointing of Jesus by his friend Mary was the last action recorded in the Gospel of John before the triumphal entry with the waving of palm branches. Time is almost out as Mary covers Jesus with perfume to prepare him symbolically for burial. And then another kind of scarcity is mentioned: the poverty experienced by those who could have benefited from the money spent on the pure nard that created the perfume. Jesus sounds cavalier or even callous saying that the poor will always be with them, but he recognizes that Mary’s devotion is an act of singular beauty.
The reading from Isaiah is also about the juxtaposition of scarcity and beauty. The prophet Isaiah speaks for God, recalling Israel’s suffering during the days leading to liberation from slavery in Egypt. “Don’t remember the former things,” he says, “but consider instead the new thing that God will do.”
God is described here by Isaiah as the one who makes a way in the sea. There’s an allusion to chariots and warriors and horses being swept away by waves as the children of Israel are brought through the water to safety.
Today is designated by the United Church of Christ as “Amistad Sunday.” I know that many are familiar with the saga of the slave ship Amistad. Anthony Hopkins and Morgan Freeman and others told the story in a 1997 Spielberg film. But I wonder if you know its connection to the United Church of Christ and our Congregational forbearers?
In Africa in 1839, a group of five hundred adults and children, mostly from Sierra Leone, were marched through the jungle to the sea. They were placed in an over-crowded ship, and many died while crossing the Atlantic to Cuba. Fifty three survivors, including four children, were sold to Jose Ruiz and Pedro Montes, despite the fact that importing slaves was by that time illegal. The human cargo was put on a small ship named Amistad for transport to a Cuban plantation three hundred miles away. They were treated barbarically, of course, and the ship’s cook taunted them mercilessly, saying they would be killed, chopped up, and eaten.
Although the slaves represented nine distinct African ethnicities, they came together in their determination to escape from captivity. One night, as the crew slept above them on the deck, the slaves were able to pick or break the locks on their chains. Led by Joseph Cinque, who had been a rice farmer back in Africa, they crept above and killed the cook and another member of the crew. Two of the Africans died in the struggle that ensued, but the others were successful in taking command of the ship. They demanded that Ruiz and Montes sail the ship back to Sierra Leone.
For a few days, they travelled east, but then those at the helm turned north along the eastern coast of the United States, hoping to be spotted and rescued. It was a long journey, with little food or water. Several of the Africans died. Finally a navy ship spotted the Amistad off the eastern tip of Long Island. Ruiz and Montes were freed, and the Africans were imprisoned in Connecticut which still allowed for slavery at that time.
Over the next several months, Congregationalists in Connecticut came together to provide a legal defense. They were leaders in the growing abolitionist movement. The legal struggled that ensued pitted two United States presidents against one another. President Martin Van Buren wanted to ship the Africans back to Cuba where they would certainly be killed, but the Connecticut court determined they were brought illegally from Africa and would not be returned to slavery. The case was appealed to the Supreme Court, with former president John Quincy Adams serving as the slaves’ attorney and arguing for their freedom. The court agreed with Adams and ruled in their favor. In late 1841, the thirty-five surviving Africans returned to Sierra Leone. As they arrived at their destination and departed the ship, they were thrilled to see that the slave depot had been destroyed. They quickly dispersed and returned to their families. Imagine the joy of those reunions!
God said to the people through Isaiah, “I will make a way in the sea.” In other words, those escaping bondage will find freedom.
On Friday night, I watched protesters in Chicago hold up signs that said “Racism hurts us all,” and “We are not rapists,” and “Black lives matter,” and “Muslims united against hatred,” and, just in time for St. Patrick’s Day, “The Irish were once immigrants, too.” The verbal response to protesters by those attending the rally in Chicago was the mantra “USA, USA!” It’s frightening when anyone forgets that we are a nation of immigrants representing many races and religions. It’s also hard not to see the rhetoric of this campaign season taking us back to dark places of our nation’s history: times when it was acceptable to spew blatant hatred and deny the value of other people and other faiths. Isaiah said, “Do not consider the former things.” Don’t go back. “I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?”
This week, on NPR’s “Morning Edition,” Francios Clemmons was interviewed about his television career. His character, Officer Clemmons in “Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood,” was the first ongoing African American role in a children’s TV series. In the interview, he recalled an episode that aired in 1969, in which Mr. Rogers had been resting his feet in a plastic pool on a hot day. Clemmons related, “He invited me to come over and to rest my feet in the water with him. The icon Fred Rogers not only was showing my brown skin in the tub with his white skin as two friends, but as I was getting out of that tub, he was helping me dry my feet.” I heard those words and thought of our Gospel reading; of Jesus’ friend Mary anointing Jesus’ feet and then wiping them with her hair. What would happen if people actually sat beside those they think are so different and anointed them – blessed and touched them – and shared something as simple as cool water like Mr. Rogers and Officer Clemmons? As Isaiah said, I give water in the wilderness, rivers in the desert. This is the new thing springing up that God asks us to see and drink from deeply.
As Jesus was dripping with the perfume that Mary lavished on him, Judas Iscariot objected to the extravagance. He spoke with righteous anger about the waste of money, which was ironic since he was the one charged with keeping the common purse and stole from his own friends. Sometimes people use the words of Jesus’ reply to justify ignoring the poor. “The poor will always be with us,” so why bothering addressing a problem that will never go away? I’m pretty sure Jesus would be angry with that. Jesus honored Mary’s act of love in anointing him, but that does not invalidate the rest of his message and his ministry that emphasized serving the poor. His first words in his first recorded sermon were these: “I have come to preach good news to the poor.” Good news must include addressing the causes and consequences of poverty.
Isaiah said “Don’t remember the former things, or consider things of old.” I understand what he was saying: Don’t get stuck in the past. But forgetting or ignoring the past is problematic, too. Two days ago, a 112 year old Holocaust survivor was announced as the oldest living man in the world. During the Nazi occupation of Poland, Israel Kristol was sent to Auschwitz where his wife and two children died. He weighed eighty pounds at the end of World War 2 and was the only member of his extended family to survive. Remembering the atrocities and injustices of the past is critical so that we do not relive them in the future. Valuing all persons, including those who look and believe differently, is not negotiable for us.
The group of Congregationalists that formed the “Amistad Committee” in 1839 continued to work for the release of slaves and was an important catalyst for the larger abolition movement in the United States. They helped to make a way in the sea for those who ultimately crossed the sea to freedom, and are a model for those who wish to right any form of injustice.
God is always wanting to do a new thing for those who suffer and for those who feel stuck in old ways and those who are enslaved by any powers that seem too great to overcome. What is the new thing that God wants to do in your life? And how will you help others find freedom?