About Risks – Lessons from Harriet Tubman

Sermon, Rev. Sue Browning, March 19, 2017


Exodus 3:1-12 (NIV) (Moses and the Burning Bush)

Now Moses was tending the flock of Jethro his father-in-law, the priest of Midian, and he led the flock to the far side of the wilderness and came to Horeb, the mountain of God. There the angel of the Lord appeared to him in flames of fire from within a bush. Moses saw that though the bush was on fire it did not burn up.  So Moses thought, “I will go over and see this strange sight—why the bush does not burn up.” When the Lord saw that he had gone over to look, God called to him from within the bush, “Moses! Moses!”And Moses said, “Here I am.”

“Do not come any closer,” God said. “Take off your sandals, for the place where you are standing is holy ground.” Then he said, “I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob.” At this, Moses hid his face, because he was afraid to look at God.

 The Lord said, “I have indeed seen the misery of my people in Egypt. I have heard them crying out because of their slave drivers, and I am concerned about their suffering. So I have come down to rescue them from the hand of the Egyptians and to bring them up out of that land into a good and spacious land, a land flowing with milk and honey …the cry of the Israelites has reached me, and I have seen the way the Egyptians are oppressing them.

 So now, go. I am sending you to Pharaoh to bring my people the Israelites out of Egypt.” But Moses said to God, “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh and bring the Israelites out of Egypt?”

And God said, “I will be with you.


About Risks – Lessons from Harriet Tubman

Our reading tells of Moses’ encounter with God. In this chapter of Exodus God gives Moses an assignment. Moses is to lead his people from bondage in Egypt to the Promised Land.

If we had read this familiar story into the next chapter we’d hear Moses comes up with an assortment of “Really, why me?” responses. Picking up on his tone, maybe more accurately “Please not me.” He actually does ask God to send someone else.

Moses had not applied for this job, yet here he was. His best excuse was ‘I don’t speak well.’ God’s response was fine, then take Aaron. Excuses weren’t going to cut it.

The kicker of the story. God claims he (he God that is) had come down, burning bush and all, to rescue his people. Yet the rescue plan wasn’t that he God would take charge at the head of the line. No, it’s Moses being sent back to face the pharaoh. It is Moses who will need to be the motivational leader through the wilderness.

God does assert he’s got Moses’s back. “I will be with you” God says. My sense is Moses’s wanted God in front, clearing the path. But that wasn’t the plan.

Yet, what choice did Moses have?

Moses was human. He could have opted out. Now, had he refused the assignment the story would have likely not been told, at least not this way. And we don’t know – might God have checked with a few others before Moses reluctantly says ‘yes’ to the need?

This is a Bible story of human agency and how we use our free will in response to challenges. It’s a story too of human doubt in these moments.

In this case, Moses doesn’t walk away. Why?

Moses had witnessed the suffering of the Hebrew people in bondage. He had seen the price of tyranny on the community. He knew those enslaved were absolutely drained. Moses knew of these challenges and also brought to the table a unique understanding of the royal power structure. His life had been spared when the king has ordered all boys born to the Hebrew families were to be killed at birth. Instead Moses was placed in a basket, the basket placed in the river, and he was found by the Pharaoh’s daughter. He’d been raised in privilege.

God saw he had the right candidate and invited Moses to be his partner to help with deliverance. Moses would do much of the lifting. God counted on Moses’energy.

The situation needed a leader. Scholar Walter Brueggemann (A Theological Introduction to the Old Testament) cuts to core this lesson: “Passive waiting for God’s justice and deliverance does not fit in the model of the Exodus story.”

Moses was not God, not perfect, and not ready, yet was called to the risks of leading. Humans need to make things right for one another.

The story is about a ‘divine nudge’ to step it up, and to do so with some with urgency.

This less-than-subtle divine nudge pressed Moses to lead, even though the ‘how and what’ might be needed was murky. Yet, for Moses the ‘why’ was clear – the suffering needed to stop. The right thing to do was to respond ‘yes’ to the divine nudge.

Our Unitarian Universalist principles often make the ‘why’ of our discernment clear. We’re pretty good on naming how things should be. We post our ideals all around us – our principles to affirm and promote the inherent worth and dignity of all, and world of peace and compassion and a fair world where all have a say.

As UUs, how are we at jumping in to lead when the ‘what’ and ‘how’ aren’t clear? What’s our record on sustained action when the path is risky, and murky, and messy?

What is our response when the divine nudge pushes us toward a place that seems less safe, less sure, and requires sacrifice?

If we believe human choice affect outcomes, when it’s risky what gets us moving? It matters.

A colleague, Rev. Lisa Ward, who served for years in Harford, Md. and is now in Massachusetts, posted this week on the need for action:

“I am coming to realize on a deeply personal level, which I humbly hope will help me better engage justice work, that evil reigns when good people do nothing. We “feel good” liberals who default toward inherent worth and dignity do a disservice without the urgency, rarely truly known in our privilege, for interdependent health and well-being.”

Moses knew of hardship. “No” would have been a surprising answer to God, even in the face of his fears. He had seen the suffering.

Recent news stories here on the Eastern Shore have highlighted the story of Harriet Tubman, a leader in the Underground Railroad. Just last weekend the new museum opened in Dorchester County.

Harriet Tubman didn’t set out to be famous. When she made her fist trek in 1849 she set out to escape oppression. Her ‘why’ was personal. She had lived without freedom, and experienced violence. She was scared for her family. She knew slavery here on the Eastern Shore was wrong. Her initial escape was not that uncommon. Per the 1850 census there were 259 escapes in Maryland in the 1840s. (Bound for the Promised Land: Harriet Tubman, Kate Clifford Larson (85)).

We know Harriet Tubman was active on the Underground Railroad for a decade. What sustained her urgency?

While we can’t document her thoughts, a general belief in her cultural community was each person was here as an instrument of God. Larson finds in Tubman’s papers words claiming the Lord had delivered her [Tubman] and expected her to do his work, and she believed God would then take care of her after the work was done.

Religious communities had taught her slavery was wrong. Right here in Easton preachers, including back female preachers such as Jarena Lee, preached this message at camp meetings well before Harriet’s first escape.

Beyond a strong sense of how things should be, Tubman knew fear. She was motivated to stop suffering. Tubman reflected later in life, “[I was] not happy or contented: every time I saw a white man I was afraid of being carried away.” (Larson (54))

She too prepared herself for resistance. She was physically strong, often assigned to work with the men rather than in the house with the women. She could chop a half a cord of wood in a day. And by working with her father and the other men, she had access to information.

Unique to the Eastern Shore was information shared through the ‘watermen’s culture’ of trade and travel. The notions of liberty and freedom, abolition, and possibly of routes of escape that were crucial to survival were shared, and Tubman made use of all sources of information.

On the how-to of escape and survival she was shrewd. She observed well, and anticipated risks. She planned ahead, kept options open.

William Lloyd Garrison, an abolitionist and journalist pegged Tubman as Moses.

As I read about Tubman, a sentence that stuck me described the atmosphere of the Eastern Shore in 1852…about the time of Tubman’s early escapes.   (Larson, 96)

“Tensions were rising on the Eastern Shore…as national politics came to bear on Maryland’s social, political and economic foundations. Debates over the nature of slavery and its place in American society and its extension into the new territories dominated daily life, as representatives of the South and North fought over control of the legislative process.”

Tubman led [about] three trips prior to 1852, and even in this climate of tension, led eleven more escapes. Some trips ended in Philadelphia; others in NY and Canada. At about age 40 her role shifted. She stopped leading the treks as laws changed, and made broader connections, and spoke out in public places. Living well into her 90s, she was a leader for another 50 years – opposing slavery, accepting missions during the civil war, and adding her energy to women’s suffrage, her path often crossing with Unitarian ministers and leaders, among others. Moses too had a long path of leadership, leading in trying times for over 40 years.

When there is urgent need, where our attention is most needed and what makes our responses sustainable? Broad questions. Answered can feel even overwhelming. Even if we know what is right – measured by UU principles, and standards for human decency – how do we overcome doubt and excuses to respond ‘yes’ to so many the needs?

That divine nudge is often needed – to bypass head, and move to heart – to combine responses of head and heart.

The divine nudge might be toward a policy or social justice matter. Or it might be toward a more local need – to greeting your next door neighbor, or caring for a family member.

If it’s a divine nudge, likely something about the next step will feel risky, or uncertain, and almost for sure will seem inconvenient.

A divine nudge comes with a nagging call. What needs to be made right? Who might you partner with?

Whether from a burning bush, or from a still small voice from within, what are you being called to do next? How might we do our work of responding together?

Big questions. Questions we’re nudged to respond to with love, and with urgency.

May It Be So

2 responses to “About Risks – Lessons from Harriet Tubman

  1. Well written. I will pass it on to my three AKA/KTO Soririty friends, Willie Woods, Jennifer Reed, & Mary Taylor-Acree. You will remember that it was Jennifer who at TACL praised me, saying I had helped bridge the gap between black & white. Which you acknowledged from the pulpit. They also collect or their Talbot for which they award $500 to a worthy Freshman entering college. We raised that $500 each year when I was co-chair of the SJC and I imagine are keeping up that trend.

    Once again I thank you for your sermon and can tell you the written word kept me riveted and I did not nod off. Please know I wish my hearing were such that I could engage with you two in the cacophany that is coffee hour. I also do not approach you because I am embarassed by falling asleep in your sermons. chalk that up to my bad hearing & 78 years. I did enjoy being your partner in the Trivia quiz.

    My best to you & Bill.

  2. Thank you Rev Sue. Sorry I missed this sermon, but I enjoyed reading it.
    You gave us a lot to think about for what steps we could personally take in dealing with today’s issues

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *