Communion Meditation delivered by The Rev. Timothy C. Ahrens, Senior Minister of The First Congregational Church, United Church of Christ, Columbus, Ohio, Pentecost 4, July 6, 2003, dedicated to the freedom fighters throughout American history who made it possible for all of us to be free and always to the glory of God!
Ezekiel 37:1-14; Mark 6:1-13
(IV of IV in "Heroes of the Faith" Series)
Let us pray: May the words of my mouth and meditations of each one of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, our strength and our salvation. Amen.
His name was Cinque. He was a Mende King from a tribe on the coast of West Africa. Cinque was one of America's great freedom fighters, though the only English he spoke was learned from a King James Bible and he never became a citizen of this nation. Faced with certain slavery at the hands of Spanish sailors and believing what he had been cruelly told (that is, that he and his fellow Mende sisters and brothers were to be eaten), Cinque found a loose nail aboard a low black schooner named La Amistad and used that nail to unlock his slave chains.
The date was July 1, 1839 - thirteen years before our congregation was formed to fight for the abolition of slavery, 23 years before the outbreak of Civil War. While bound by chains and stored as cargo within a hold on the lower deck of the Spanish ship a storage area that was four feet high and held 52 men, women, and children who had to be rolled into place King Cinque unlocked his chains and the chains of 52 other Mende men, women, and children. With a few sugar cane knives, the Africans secured the ship by overpowering their Spanish pirates. In so doing, they declared themselves free again. They demanded the remaining sailors take them back to Africa. The sailors complied, but a chose a course that went east by daylight, but went northwest under the cover of night. After almost two months of this zigzag voyage, the Amistad dropped anchor off the far eastern end of Long Island, New York on August 25, 1839. The African freemen (as they were called by their Congregational protectors), were captured, bound once again and taken in chains to New Haven for trial as murderers and thieves.
Over the next 27 months, the survivors of the Amistad, would take a new voyage through the court system of the United States in a case that would take on international acclaim. In the end, former President John Quincy Adams defended the Africans before the United States Supreme Court. In his closing speech, Mr. Adams said, "Last night, I spoke with my friend, Cinque. I told him what was to transpire here today. He told me, as was the practice among his people, he had been talking to his ancestors now long gone. They told him, all would be well. As I stand before you today, I believe we would do well learn from Cinque. We would do well to talk to our ancestors!" Mr. Adams went on to invoke the names of the great founding fathers. He went on to invoke the names of the early Supreme Court justices. One by one, he spoke the names of the great men who had sat in the seats of justice, and declared, following each name, "Gone." When he finished, he looked at the Supreme Court and said, "All of them are gone! Who among you is ready to step into their legacy and defend freedom? Who is prepared to take the place of our ancestors and become great, in the name of God, and this great nation once again?"
One week later, the Court delivered its verdict. With one dissent, the justices found for the Amistad prisoners. The court declared that the Africans had never been lawful slaves and that they were kidnaped and illegally transported to Cuba. Their mutiny was an act of self-defense. The court freed the remaining 35 of the 53 Amistad men, women, and children on the spot (18 having died). Because President Tyler refused to transport them home, it took another eight months to raise funds and return them to Africa. Later, Marque, a young girl among them returned to Oberlin College. The others stayed in West Africa. Cinque returned to find his tribe destroyed, and his family killed or taken into slavery.
Mr. Adams question echoes in my mind today. "Who will take the place of our ancestors? Who will defend the legacy of freedom once again?" Although I have not been talking to our ancestors, it would probably do me and all of us well, to do so. What would Mr. Jefferson and both John and JQ think of our Patriot Act? Would they see it as an act of justice that men and women are now arrested in this nation and imprisoned with no stated charges, no length of terms, no trials, no explanations in the name of patriotism? The tragic story coming out of Kent, Ohio this week of a man taken from his family and taken to a Pennsylvania prison under the auspices of the Patriot Act certainly should make us sit up and talk to our ancestors! Not only is he now held without charges, but his wife has slipped into severe depression and because of that and the loss of the steady breadwinner in their family, has lost custody of their children who are now in the care of Children's Services. We need to defend our constitution at the same time we defend our nation in troubled times and in the face of terrorism. We cannot sacrifice the Bill of Rights on the altar of fear! We cannot allow terrorists to invade our system of justice and cause us to toss aside our hard-fought rights! We need to be freedom fighters in our generation and "hold onto these truths" which are self-evident! Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness are self-evident truths not for a few, but for all God's children! We must fight for truth and freedom, or we will certainly lose it.
Speaking of truth, at the same time Cinque and the Mende detainees were wondering in New Haven, Ct.'s jail if they would ever be free again, there was woman in this nation who was black and beautiful; free and powerful! She was born a slave in Hurley, New York in 1797. Her mother, Betsey and father James named her Isabella Hardenbergh (the Hardenbergh coming from the name of the slave family into which she was born). Later, as a free woman, and at the age of 46 years old, she renamed herself, Sojourner Truth. She chose this name because she planned to sojourn across America. She considered God to be her only master and his name was Truth. Sojourner Truth preached God's word of freedom until her death at 86 years old. But by the age of 46, she had already fought and won two legal battles - one to reclaim her son, Peter who was sold illegally into slavery and the other to reclaim her good name after she was slandered by the New York press. She was the only African-American woman of her time to have won two court battles with white powerbrokers!
As she spoke out for freedom and for equal rights for blacks and women, she said in her famous "Ain't I a Woman?" Speech, delivered at a Women's Rights Conference in Akron, Ohio in 1852, "Sisters, if women want any rights, more than they got, why don't they just take them and not be talking about it?" It was said of Sojourner Truth that no one was a finer advocate for justice and righteousness! In 1849, Sojourner went to visit her old master, John Dumont, whom she had beaten in court to save her son Peter, some 22 years earlier. As they met, John Dumont asked Sojourner Truth for forgiveness. He said, "Slavery is the wickedest thing in the world, the greatest curse the earth has ever felt." Sojourner later said of her reconciliation with Dumont: "He was a slaveholding master turned to a brother."
Our God, who loves justice and truth declares it to be so in Ezekiel 37:1-14. God places the prophet Ezekiel in a valley of dry bones. Then God asks Ezekiel, "Will these bones ever live again?" Ezekiel responds, "You my Lord, God, who reveal your loving kindness in justice, only You know it!" God knows it. God who reveals God's loving kindness in justice, knows the truth! Bones can live again! When God speaks to the dry bones in the valley of the dead, they rise up! Bones come together, bone to bone, nerve and sinew, skin on bones, the bodies stand and walk and are the fruit of God's prophetic loving kindness revealed in justice! God is not still! God is not silent - but in the power of the four winds, God breathes life into these dead and dry bones!
Can you feel God breathing? Can you hear the word of the Lord speaking still? Can you feel the Spirit of the Lord blowing through this place? In this time? Can you see the bones of freedom rising up and standing having been joined bone to bone, nerve to nerve, muscle to muscle, sinew to sinew?
O Lord, God, Breathe on us! Breathe your power and your desire for justice into our souls and into our voices and into feet and hands! Breathe on First Church! Breathe, O Holy Spirit on Columbus, Ohio! Breathe, O breath of God on this nation! Breathe on his so that we may be your freedom fighters in an age when freedom is once again at risk! Breathe, on us, Holy and Ever living God so that we may say with our ancestors, with Cinque, with Sojourner, with Martin, with all who have walked this way - Free at last, free at last, thank God almighty, we are free at last! Amen.
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