Texts: Haggai 1:1-8; Galatians 5:1
This is the month for patriotic pundits to opine about freedom. Flags fly, fireworks explode, and this year even tanks made an appearance on the D.C. mall on the Fourth.
I have found, though, that those who know the most about freedom are those who have longed for it, been denied it, have struggled to find it, and over time have found its true source.
Langston Hughes, the African American poet and novelist, retells a story told by slaves and their descendants on John’s Island, South Carolina. It is a story still told among people for whom freedom is a struggle and a distant dream.
The story begins: “Once all Africans could fly like birds, but . . . their wings were taken away. There remained, in the sea islands and in the low country, some who had been overlooked, and had retained the power of flight though they looked like other men.
“There was a cruel master on one of the sea islands who worked his people till they died. When they died he bought others to take their places. These also he killed with overwork and the burning summer sun, through the middle hours of the day, although this was against the law.
“One day . . . he bought a company of native Africans just brought into the country, and put them at once to work in the cottonfield. He drove them hard. They went to work at sunrise and did not stop until dark. They were driven with unsparing harshness all day long, men, women, and children.
“There among them was one young woman who had lately borne a child. It was her first; she had not fully recovered from bearing and should not have been sent to the field until her strength had come back. She had her child with her . . . astraddle on her hip.
“The baby cried. She spoke to quiet it . . . Then she went back to chopping knot grass; but being very weak, and sick with this great heat, she stumbled, slipped, and fell. The driver struck her with his lash until she rose and staggered on.
“She spoke to an old man near her, the oldest man of them all, tall and strong, with a forked beard. He replied, but the driver could not understand what they said; their talk was strange to him. She returned to work, but in a little while she fell again. Again, the driver lashed her until she got to her feet. Again, she spoke to the old man. But he said, ‘Not yet, daughter; not yet’. So, she went on working, though she was very ill.
“Soon she stumbled and fell again. But when the driver came running with his lash to drive her on with her work, she turned to the old man and asked, ‘Is it time yet, daddy?’ He answered, ‘Yes, daughter; the time has come. Go; and peace be with you!’ and then he stretched out his arms toward her . . .
“With that she leaped straight up into the air and was gone like a bird, flying over field and wood. The driver and overseer ran after her, but she was gone, high over their heads, over the fence, and over the top of the woods, gone, with her baby astraddle on her hip.
“Then the driver hurried the rest to make up for her loss. Soon a man fell down in the heat. The overseer himself lashed him to his feet. As he got up from where he had fallen the old man called to him in an unknown tongue. When he had spoken, the man turned and laughed at the overseer, and leaped up into the air, and was gone, like a gull, flying over field and wood.
“The overseer ran at the old man with lashes ready; and the master too, with a picket pulled from the fence, to beat the life out of the old man who had made those Negroes fly. But the old man laughed in their faces, and said something loudly to all the Negroes in the field, the new Negroes and the old Negroes.
“And as he spoke to them they all remembered what they had forgotten, and recalled the power which once had been theirs. Then all the Negroes, old and new stood up together; the old man raised his hands; and they leaped up into the air with a great shout; and in a moment were gone.
“Where they went I do not know; I never was told. Nor what it was that the old man said . . . that I have forgotten. But as he went over the last fence he made a sign in the master’s face, and cried ‘Kuliba!’ ‘Kuliba!’ I don’t know what that means.”
This ancient story has been told for generations in slave communities, among people well acquainted with bondage. At the risk of extreme presumption, I think I know what Kuliba means.
Years ago, Israelite hostages held by Babylonians and then by Persians were finally released from their bondage. They could go home at long last. Once home, the city was in ruins; their family homes were in ruins; their temple was in ruins. Many felt that they left one set of chains for another.
After an initial drive to rebuild the Jerusalem temple, enthusiasm waned. Into this dispirited time, the prophet Haggai preached. He said, “As long as you leave the temple in ruins, that is the way your life will remain. As long as you are preoccupied with putting your own house in order, you will never have time for God’s house.”
Speaking the word of God, Haggai said to his people, “Kuliba! All God’s children have wings. No one can strip you of the freedom God gives. Get out of your houses and rebuild my house. Let it stand as a light to all who walk in darkness.”
Years later, Jesus spoke to leaders of the rebuilt Jerusalem temple. He told the Pharisees about the wings of freedom that God gives. When these leaders were so chained in religious right and wrong that they could not rejoice in the healing of a crippled man on the Sabbath, Jesus cried, “Kuliba! The Sabbath was made for humanity, not humanity for the Sabbath.”
Even confronted by a crowd in Gerasa shouting to Jesus, “Go back where you came from” and then nailed to a cross, looking out over those who were chained by their own hatred and need for vengeance, Jesus cried, “Kuliba! Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.” Friends, that is freedom. Those are wings with which I would love to fly.
You see, true freedom does not come to us by government decree, nor is it ours to dish out as we will. Some say freedom is what we give each other. You do your thing. I will do mine. That is not freedom. That is just reshuffling bondage.
Freedom is another name for the wings that Jesus gives us; wings that allow us to fly above our own chains, above our own cross, and fly in the name of the One who sets us free.
There is no telling where the wings of freedom in Jesus will lead us to fly, but surely, they will fly us to places where there are too many chains. Fly us to back allies and city streets and school yards of drug deals to cry, “Kuliba! You are God’s precious children. Put down your weapons of self-destruction and fly!”
Freedom wings will fly us to the halls of power in our nation’s capital to cry “Kuliba! Every one of you is a child of God, so stop your racist, xenophobic, homophobic rhetoric, and see the face of Jesus in the very ones you are vilifying and fly!”
Freedom wings will fly us to where women are told to celebrate soccer victories discreetly, to run for office quietly, to accept large gaps in pay for the same work sweetly. Freedom wings fly us to women with the cry, “Kuliba! You are God’s beloved children, so let your voices no more be silenced, and fly!”
Freedom wings will fly us to the border where not only are migrant families separated and children kept in cages, but U.S. citizens and Mexican citizens who work in each other’s land must suffer massive waits every day just to get to work and to come home from work. Freedom wings fly us to the border to cry Kuliba! to anyone who is making the chains even larger.
Freedom wings will also fly us to nursing homes and hospice beds to cry, Kuliba! to those who deal daily with the indignities of institutional care. Fly us to these old wooden pews in this 250th anniversary year to cry, Kuliba! as a reminder that you and I are God’s children now, and as a challenge to leave this place on freedom’s wings, and fly!
July will always be a month filled with freedom speeches, but be not deceived. Freedom is ours by the hands of God alone, whether we are walking in the sunshine of liberty or crawling in the ditch of oppression.
So, head out of this sanctuary on this brutally hot day and look for someone in chains; someone who cannot fly; someone who is longing for freedom, and cry to them the ancient African word: Kuliba! Touch that person. In God’s name and for the love of Jesus, teach them how to fly!