Rise Up and Follow
January 7, 2017 (Epiphany)
Rev. Fritz Nelson – First Presbyterian, Columbiana; First United Presby, EP
Why did the Wise Men leave home? What compels us to rise up, to leave our comfort zone, the security of routine, the sameness of the everyday, to go in different directions, to start new journeys, to follow a star?
Matthew tells us virtually nothing about the Wise Men. They appear in the court of king Herod, the King of the Jews, having journeyed from somewhere in the East. Matthew uses the term magi – a Greek word from which we get the word magic. They were seers, astrologers, persons who looked to the heavens for signs and wonders that might explain current and future events. They see a star of interest, discern it represents a king being born, and follow it.
Over the generations multiple stories have grown up around these mysterious figures. There were three of them – or a dozen. They’ve been given names. They came from modern day Iran, India and Iraq – or possibly Yemen or China. They rode camels. They were kings.
Multiple stories, myriad invented details, but no motive. I wonder the same thing about Abraham – why did he decide to follow this new God across the desert? Or the Israelites – what about their slavery changed so that they were ready to follow Moses? Or the disciples – what was the difference between those who met Jesus and left home to follow, and those who met Jesus and went back home?
Not long ago I learned the story of Josiah Henson, one of the most important, and least known, figures in American history.
Josiah Henson was born a slave in Charles County, Maryland, an area today that’s part of suburban Washington DC. He spend most of his life as a slave on a 250 acre plantation owned by Isaac Riley. By the time Josiah was in his 30’s, he had become Isaac Riley’s most trusted slave. Josiah could read, write and do math. He was an excellent businessman and often represented his master in the markets and trading areas of Washington and other nearby cities. He frequently interacted with free blacks and traveled through communities where it would have been easy to escape – yet he never did. In fact Isaac Riley so trusted him that he had Josiah oversee the delivery of several slaves to a relative’s plantation in Kentucky – a journey that took them all through the free state of Ohio – every one of them could have walked to freedom, yet he made sure every slave was delivered.
Josiah Henson considered himself a man of honesty, integrity and of good reputation. He was a devout Christian and recognized spiritual leader among the slave community. He also had perhaps the best situation a slave could ask for – a fair amount of independence, a level of prestige, and the respect of his master. He didn’t spend his days laboring in fields. He wasn’t tortured and whipped. He could earn his own money. He had little reason to rise up, to escape, until he did.
On his way home from Kentucky, Josiah Henson experienced true independence for the first time. He also earned a fair amount of money preaching a series of revivals. When he got home, Isaac Riley didn’t appreciate the “new man” his slave had become. He agreed to let Josiah Henson buy his freedom, and then cheated him – setting a price, taking his money, and then increasing the price to an amount Josiah could never dream of paying. Only then, when he had experienced the betrayal of his master, did Josiah Henson rise up. Only then did he gather his wife and four children and disappear into the free black and abolitionist communities he knew so well from his travels.
Henson would move to Ontario, Canada where he would achieve acclaim as a preacher, businessman and community leader. His bestselling memoir – The Life of Josiah Henson, formally a Slave – became the basis for the bestselling Uncle Tom’s Cabin – which helped strengthen the cause against slavery and increased support in the north for the Civil War. Over the years, Josiah Henson had multiple opportunities to escape, but he never did. It took the betrayal of his master for Josiah to rise up, to leave his life of relative comfort and stability, to journey into the unknown. It took the betrayal of his master for Josiah to follow God’s call toward a dynamic, impactful and liberated life.
New Years bring new beginnings. Winter’s cold is a good time for taking personal inventory, for discerning whether its time to embark on new journeys or resume old ones. Is there a star in the east that beacons? Is God calling you to something different – beyond your comfort zone, beyond the familiar? Is the status quo no longer as comfortable as it once was? Is it time to rise up? To follow God in new directions, to new dimensions, to new places, to a new life? The Magi saw a star, decided to follow, and their lives were forever changed. Josiah Henson felt the disrespect of his master, embraced his God given dignity, and the course of our nation was altered. What about you?
In his later life, Josiah Henson would return to the United States, lead revivals and actively help slaves escape to Canada. He might very well have ended his services with the song we’re about to sing – an old escape song disguised as a Christmas carol – “Rise Up Shepherd and Follow.”