Scripture Lesson: Matthew 4:1-11
Sermon: On Liberty and Slavery
Pastor: Rev. Kim P. Wells
Fourteen hundred and ninety-two. Of course. We know what happened then.
Columbus sailed the ocean blue. That is drilled into us in school. 1776. We all
know that year. The birth of a nation. But what about 1619? Recently, there have
been efforts to make sure that all of us are clear about 1619 and what happened in
that year for it is a year that is as important to our identity and heritage as a people
as 1492 and 1776.
What about 1619? I didn’t learn anything in school about that. The 1619 project
of the New York Times is helping us all to learn that in 1619 the first African
slaves arrived in the English mainland of North America. It is an important marker
in our history as a nation.
Yes, we all learn about slavery. In elementary school I did a book report about
Frederick Douglass entitled, “Agitate! Agitate! Agitate!” We learn about the
plantations. We may read Uncle Tom’s Cabin. We watch “Gone With the Wind.”
We read Toni Morrison’s Beloved and learn of a mother who felt it was more
loving to kill her child that have the child grow up a slave. In more recent years
we’ve seen “12 Years a Slave” and “Harriet.” But for all that exposure, for all the
reading and the films I’ve seen, from the places I’ve visited including the National
Lynching Memorial and Museum in Montgomery, Alabama, for all of the
conversations I have had with people, I still don’t feel that I understand or
comprehend slavery. Not intellectually. Not emotionally. And certainly not
I can never pretend to empathize with the ravages of slavery upon the human
psyche and all of the continuing aftershocks of slavery that are still being felt on
the streets and in the stores and in the offices and on the playing fields even of our
city here today.
My ancestors chose to come to these shores from Europe in the last century. They
chose to seek new life here. One of my grandfathers chose to leave his country of
origin, Italy, chose to leave his wife and children, and chose to come here to start a
new life with a new wife and children. It was his choice. No one forced him. No
one captured him. No one tied him down and put him on a boat and brought him
here against his will. That leaves a heritage completely different from the legacy
of slavery. I cannot pretend to understand what it feels like to be the descendent of
It is hard enough for me to try to comprehend the inheritance of whiteness. For
slavery to thrive, the concept of whiteness had to constructed, invented, designed
and instilled so that slavery could be maintained. That is baffling to me, as well.
How could people, especially supposedly Christian people, create a social system
that places a value on people based simply on skin tone? Something so random?
Yet slavery and racism only “work” where the concept of whiteness is associated
with superiority and every other skin tone with inferiority. There is nothing
“natural” about the racial constructs of slavery and the reality that was constructed
to imbed and maintain slavery in American society. Slavery is a social and
economic construct. Devised and perpetuated by people. Slavery and its aftermath
are the result of human choices.
This morning, we listened to the story of the temptation of Jesus in the wilderness.
It is the classic story for the beginning of Lent, a liturgical season of soul searching
and repentance. In the story we are told of Jesus going into the wilderness by
himself for 40 days. Here he is not under the influence of society or the power
structures of his day. He is free to look within. To search his soul. To give his
heart fully and completely to God. In the wilderness, he can define himself in
relationship to the transcendent and creation, and not in relation to the constructs of
human society with its power arrangements and economic systems.
Then he is tempted; as he will be when he returns from the wilderness. Jesus’
strength of resolve and identity are tested. Can he stay true to the reality of the
commonwealth of God, the dream of God, despite other competing visions and
voices? Does he have the capacity to chose the way of God/Love even when confronted with other choices that appear morally good or just simply benign?
Can he stay aligned with God regardless? The story tells us that Jesus stays true,
centered, and grounded, in his devotion to God and God alone.
In this story we see Jesus free himself from the constructs and constrictions of
religion, ethnicity, gender, class, tribal identity, and status that are in conflict with
universal unconditional Divine Love.
This desert testing conveys a grueling confrontation. Yet a necessary one. For to
be true to our faith is a difficult challenge.
In his book, Meditations on the Sand, Alessandro Pronzato reflects, “If you
therefore go to the desert to be rid of all the dreadful people and all the awful
problems in your life, you will be wasting your time. You should go to the desert
for a total confrontation with yourself. For one goes to the desert to see more and
to see better. One goes to the desert especially to take a closer look at the things
and people one would rather not see, to face situations one would rather avoid, to
answer questions one would rather forget.”
The season of Lent is a time for this kind of honesty and self assessment. It is a
time to test our words against our deeds. It is time to examine ourselves to see if
our hopes and dreams are aligned with the intentions of God for the good of all.
And we will not like everything that we see. That is why Lent is a season of
forgiveness, atonement, and reconciliation. Our faith gives us a way through the
morass that we may find as we examine ourselves and our relationships with
others, individually and socially. It gives us a path to freedom.
What Jesus ultimately finds in the wilderness is his freedom. The story of
temptation and testing shows us that he remains free. He is not controlled by the
society or the values or even the religion of his day. He is not seduced by
popularity, power, or comfort. He limits the control of other influences upon his
life. He is choosing for himself. He is free.
This is the highest goal of the human journey. Freedom. Our faith is about
freedom. We believe that the truth will set us free; that we have freedom of choice.
I’m not going to say that we are all enslaved because slavery was about people
being forced into a situation where against their will.
As Christians, we believe that we are tethered to the reality we are in by choice.
We have choices about what we accept and whether or not we accept the reality we
are being given. We have the choice whether or not to accept the construct of
whiteness. We have the choice whether or not to accept racism in our community
and country. We have inherited the ravages of slavery but we have the power over
what we do with that inheritance. We do not have to accept social constructs that
define things by race and we do not have to accept the perpetuation of the legacy
of slavery and its assault on human dignity and human value. We have choices
about how we reckon with the legacy of slavery. Or don’t. We do not have to
accept the social arrangements or economic arrangements that continue oppression.
We have the freedom to embrace an antiracist reality. We can accept the reality of
reparations. We can accept the reality that Jesus shows us of universal,
unconditional Love. Consciously or unconsciously, we are making choices. So if
the racism persists, this has to do with our choices as individuals and as a
community; as people of European descent and people of African descent; as
Americans. We are choosing.
Our faith liberates us from captivity. In the story of Adam and Eve, they eat the
apple and their eyes are opened. They have choices. They have free will. We
have choices. Our faith is about what we do with our choices and our free will.
We will make mistakes. We will cause harm. So our faith also has a path for
repentance, for reconciliation, for restitution and for new life, new birth, and new
We have the freedom and the opportunity to create our reality. In fact, we have the
obligation to create our reality. Others are trying to create our reality for us all the
time. But finally each of us has choices to make. These choices are not necessarily easy, but we can be at our fullest, our freest, and our most human when
we take responsibility for our choices. Like Jesus, we have the choice to align
ourselves with the God of Love and that God alone. That is when we are truly
free. Former slave, George Moses Horton, celebrates that freedom in his poetry-
Oh, Liberty! Thou golden prize,
So often sought by blood –
We crave they sacred sun to rise,
The gift of nature’s God!
Following the sermon, the choir sang the anthem, “On Liberty and Slavery,”
composed by music director Hilton Kean Jones, based on the words of the poem by
George Moses Horton. It was the premier performance of the anthem.
The words of the poem are included here and a biography of Horton.
A reasonable effort has been made to appropriately cite materials referenced in this sermon. For
additional information, please contact Lakewood United Church of Christ.
George Moses Horton 1798–1883
Born a slave on William Horton’s tobacco plantation, George Moses Horton taught himself to read. Around 1815 he began composing poems in his head, saying them aloud and “selling” them to an increasingly large crowd of buyers at the weekly Chapel Hill farmers market. Students at the nearby University of North Carolina bought his love poems and lent him books. As his fame spread, he gained the attention of Caroline Lee Whiting Hentz, a novelist and professor’s wife who transcribed his poetry and helped publish it in her hometown newspaper. With her assistance, Horton published his first collection of poetry, The Hope of Liberty (1829), becoming the first African American man to publish a book in the South—and one of the first to publicly protest his slavery in poetry.
Horton hoped to earn enough money from the publication of his book to buy his freedom, but his attempts were denied despite significant support from members of the public, including the governor.
He learned to write in 1832. In the early 1830s, with a weekly income from his poems of at least $3, Horton arranged to purchase his time from his owner, and became a full-time poet, handyman, and servant at the university. He continued to buy his own time for more than 30 years while publishing a second collection of poetry, The Poetical Works (1845), and continuing to appeal for his freedom.
After the Civil War, Horton traveled with the 9th Michigan Cavalry Volunteers throughout North Carolina. During those travels, he composed the poems that make up his third collection, Naked Genius (1865), published in Raleigh. After 68 years as a slave, he settled in Philadelphia for at least 17 years of freedom before his death, circa 1883.
His legacy is celebrated by the residents of Chatham County: he is the namesake of Horton Middle School, June 28 was declared George Moses Horton Day in 1978, and in 1997 he was declared the Historic Poet Laureate of Chatham County. Horton’s poetry is featured in the Norton Anthology of African American Literature, and in 1996 he was inducted into the North Carolina Literary Hall of Fame. A selection of his poems appears in The Black Bard of North Carolina: George Moses Horton and His Poetry (1997, ed. Joan R. Sherman).
Horton’s poetry displays a keen ear for rhythm and rhyme and a circumspect understanding of human nature. His poetry explores faith, love, and slavery while celebrating the rural beauty of Chatham County, home of the plantation on which Horton spent much of his life.
A historic marker stands near where Horton’s plantation was located.