A story that slaves brought to America from Africa is a story of hope in the midst of suffering. It is a story of resurrection.
Come with me to John’s Island, nestled along the coast of South Carolina just south of Charleston.
Come with me to the early 1800s, when the plantations on the island used many slaves to harvest the crops.
Come with me to a particularly memorable day in the fields as the slaves were at work.
The sun was hot, the work was hard, the slave driver was keeping a careful watch on this crew of coffee black, mocha brown, caramel-shaded workers toiling against their will for the plantation owner.
One of them was a woman who was tending her child as she picked the cotton. In some tellings of this story, the child is a newborn and her body was still recovering from childbirth. In other tellings, the child is perhaps six years old.
This story, you see, comes from the slaves brought to America from Africa. It has it roots in stories of West Africa, of North Africa. It is a story of hope in the midst of suffering. It is a story of resurrection.
The way Rev. Otis Moss III, pastor of Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago, tells the story, the boy is about six and so can have a voice in the story.
Whatever the age of the boy, his mother was worn out by her work, by caring for the child, by the realities of slavery.
On this day, as the humidity enveloped her body and the strain of bending and picking and hauling weighed her down, she fell to the ground.
W.E.B. Dubois (doo-boyz), the great African-American sociologist and historian of the last century, said that the woman collapsed from the weight of being viewed by herself and by her owners both as a problem and as property.
Or as Otis Moss put it, “Her strong yet frail body simply collapsed under the weight of waking up every day to face the tragedy and absurdity of a people (the slave owners) who claimed to be Christian but always lived in contradiction.”
The woman fell to the ground and her son quickly tried to revive her. He knew that if the slave driver saw her on the ground, he would come and whip her and demand that she get back to work. And then the boy saw the slave drivers on their horses heading toward his mother.
But before the slave drivers arrived, an old man came over to her. The people she worked with called him “Preacher” or “Prophet.” The slave owners called “Old Devil.”
The boy looked into his face and asked, “Is it time?”
The Preacher, the Prophet, smiled and nodded and leaned down to the woman lying on the ground. His whispered one word into her ear.
Then he whispered it into her son’s ear.
The woman began to sit up, her spirit renewed, her strength returning. The other workers in the field stopped and watched as she began to rise above the ground.
She reached out and grasped her son’s hand, looked up toward Heaven and began to rise higher. They were flying away.
The slave drivers on their horses watched with disbelief, then with anger. They raced toward the Preacher, the Prophet with their whips swirling in the air. The Preacher, the Prophet, looked at the other workers and shouted, “It’s time!” Over and over he said, “Kulibah, kulibah, kuliba!”
Here’s how Otis Moss described the scene in his retelling of the story:
“The Africans rose from the fields and their flight to freedom began.
Can you imagine this sight:
the dehumanized flying,
three-fifths of a person flying,
the disenfranchised flying,
the dishonored flying,
the discouraged flying,
the dismissed flying,
the dismembered flying,
the disadvantaged flying,
the diseased flying,
the disinherited flying,
the dislocated flying?
All taking flight with such grace and beauty to a world no one had seen.”
Kulibah. Otis Moss says the word means “God is in you.” In another telling of the story, Mel Williams, pastor of Watts Street Baptist Church in Durham, North Carolina, says kulibah means “let them go” or “up on high.”
Whichever meaning you favor, this is a story about living in the midst of hardship but never giving into despair.
It is a story about hope, not just hope to fly away from the slave fields, but hope that someday, there will be no slave fields, hope that all people will be treated with the dignity that is inherent in each of us as people made in the image and likeness of God.
When Mel Williams finished telling this story at a graduation ceremony in North Carolina, he reminded his listeners that “God loves each one of us with unconditional love. God has loved us and set us free to struggle against every obstacle, every injustice. We have been given the roots of faith. And by the power of the resurrection, Jesus took care of the business of teaching us how to fly.”
That’s why I think this story has so much power on an Easter Sunday like this.
We all know the things that oppress us.
It may be our health, it may be our job, it may be trouble in our families.
It may be a world where too many are trapped in poverty.
It may be a world overrun with violence, where terrorists strike deadly blows in Belgium or Nigeria, Iraq or Yemen, France or Mali, the United States or Lebanon.
It may be a world where people seeking power play to our worst instincts by demonizing those who are different from us, whether by virtue of their skin color or the language they speak or the religious beliefs they hold, whether because of their marital status or their sexual orientation or their gender identity.
We live in a world where people claim to be Christian – maybe even we claim to be Christian – and yet we live, as Otis Moss put it, “in contradiction.”
We may wish a word like kulibah could set us free, could set everyone free.
What the story of Jesus’ resurrection offers us is not a single word but a story of hope that grows out of Jesus’ life and message and that gives us a glimpse of what could be.
It is a story that can set us free to live out God’s vision for our world.
Anthony Scioli is a professor of psychology at Keene State College in New Hampshire and the author of books about hope. He says that hope has four components –
a sense of continued trust and connection to another person,
a feeling of being strong and capable,
a belief that you aren’t trapped in a bad situation and you have a way out, and
a belief in something larger than yourself – in other words, spirituality.
It’s that last component – believing in something larger than ourselves – that the resurrection story offers us.
Jesus’ followers knew the depths of despair in the day after his execution.
They had begun the week cheering him on as he entered Jerusalem, then watching in amazement as he turned over the tables in the temple of those who were exploiting the poorest in their midst.
They had reveled in a shared meal, amazed when he knelt down and washed their feet as a lesson in serving others, worried when he went off alone in the night to pray.
Then most of them scattered in fear as the religious leaders and political authorities colluded to have him executed, hanging him on a cross – that Roman instrument of torture – to die.
And then something amazing happened. We heard the story as Luke tells it in today’s Gospel. He had risen! There was all that running back and forth to the tomb.
After that, the very next story in the gospel according to Luke gives us some clues about how we can sustain the hope of this morning.
It’s another part of that spiritual component of hope. It’s another story where symbolic acts allow our spirits to take flight. And many of you know, it’s also my favorite story in the Bible.
Two of Jesus followers are heading back to the village of Emmaus outside of Jerusalem when a stranger joins them on the road. We don’t know exactly who these two are, other than they were in the wide circle of people known as Jesus’ disciples. Perhaps they were a married couple going back home, totally dejected and discouraged by the events of the last few days.
They had heard the story that Jesus was no longer in the tomb but did not know what to make of that. But as they chatted with this stranger on the road, he explained some of the stories from their Jewish scriptures that they thought they knew so well. They began to understand these stories in a new light.
It was getting late in the day, darkness was starting to settle in. They urged him to stay with them for dinner and he did. The conversation continued. And as the meal continued, the stranger took a loaf of bread, broke it and shared it with them. At that moment, they realized they were eating with Jesus, who had been transformed from death to life.
They did not stay put. They ran back to Jerusalem to tell the rest of Jesus’ followers of their encounter with the risen Jesus.
On their journey, they had offered hospitality to a stranger, learned from his teaching, recognized Jesus in the sharing of bread and did not keep this news to themselves – they took the words of hospitality and learning and sharing to the community.
No one said “kulibah” to them, yet their encounter with Jesus propelled them beyond their anxiety, beyond their fear, beyond their confusion into a place where they could live out the way of Jesus, where with their companions, they would begin to transform the world.
When we think about the Easter story today, it is easy to get caught up in debates over the science, the history, the logic or the illogic of someone being raised from the dead. Those discussions are worth having, because the story of the resurrection is so central to Christianity.
But those discussions can smother the central message of the story – a message that gives us the courage to rise with hope, much as those slaves rose from the fields of their bondage to a freedom where whips and chains could no longer hold them down.
Hope in our world is not just optimism. It is a spiritual quality that can carry us forward when reality seems too overwhelming.
In 1966, Robert F. Kennedy was in South Africa, a time when the white minority still ruled ruthlessly over the black majority. It would be a quarter century before apartheid would give way to freedom.
Yet Kennedy’s words offered inspiration in what must have seemed like a hopeless time:
“…each time a man stands up for an ideal or acts to improve the lot of others or strikes out against injustice he sends forth a tiny ripple of hope, and crossing each other from a million different centers of energy and daring, those ripples build a current that can sweep down the mightiest wall of oppression and resistance.”
Those words are etched on the wall of the reflecting pool at Robert Kennedy’s grave in Arlington National Cemetery.
Or as Jim Wallis of Sojourners – that Christian organization dedicated to peace, social justice and environmental stewardship – likes to say, “Hope is believing in spite of the evidence, and then watching the evidence change.”
That’s what happened to Jesus’ followers on Easter morning. As hard as it was, and as imperfect as they were, they believed in spite of the evidence and watched the evidence changed.
He rose up – kulibah – and they rose with him and across two centuries, they are taking us along with them. Thanks be to God.
Let’s sing about hope. The hymn is number 461 and it’s called “Let Us Hope When Hope Seems Hopeless.” Let’s sing the first two verses after Jeff plays it through once.