“It was my good fortune to lend a helping hand to the weary travelers flying from the land of bondage.”
These are the words of William Still. Still, born in 1821, was the son of a slave women that labored on a plantation in Maryland. Now…Still’s mother, has an interesting story of her own. After several attempts to escape her captivity… she realized that it would be impossible to leave the plantation with all four of her children… for they had attempted repeatedly to run, and they got caught… brought back… punished… and, every time, left utterly shattered. But before all her hope was snuffed out she had the realization that she could perhaps be able to get at least two of her children out. So she had to choose which ones she ran with and which she left behind. A decision that no mother should every have to make. But choose she did. She ran with her two young girls. The smallest and most vulnerable. Which left her two eldest sons (Peter and Levin) behind. Her master, in retribution took the two sons who were left behind and sold them to a new plantation in Alabama, in the deep south. So as to make it unlikely (if not impossible) that child and mother could ever be reunited. That was the price that was paid. But she escaped to freedom, with two of her precious children, where she settled and had 18 more children. William Still being the youngest child born into her family in Freedom Land.
When young William grew up he started his adult life in Philadelphia. A city right along the border of the divergent ideologies of the South and North… the front lines of the abolitionist movement. And there he went to work as a clerk in the Pennsylvania Anti-Slavery Society. Throughout the 1840s the need to organize and begin a movement to assist in ushering escaping slaves over the Canadian border became a very real and pressing need. And by 1844 (when he was just 23) William Still was known as the “father of the underground railroad.” His home in Philadelphia was a well-known and important station along the railroad. In the height of its day he hosted as many as 60 people a week as they journeyed toward freedom.
Now it wasn’t only his work as an abolitionist and conductor that he is famous for. But it was in his personal diary that historians get some of the best documentation of the people fleeing along this well know trail of freedom. Still knew all to well the sadness of a family separated in slavery having grown up hearing his mother’s tales. So he took it upon himself to collect from those that came through his station names/aliases, to collect the dramatic stories of escape, and notes on the family they left behind. It was his gift to offer these seekers of freedom a chance to be documented and heard. In a time when secrecy was priority… he gifted them with his confidence and his words. His diaries are filled with stories of captive slaves who were beaten, abused, stories of watching helplessly as their children were sold on the auction block, stories of being branded and whipped… William Still sought to honor these stories by letting them be heard. Still once said, “The heroism and desperate struggle that many of our people had to endure should be kept green in the memory of this and coming generations.” Still kept these stories safe by storing his diaries in a crypt at a local cemetery. At the final meeting of the Philadelphia Anti-Slavery Society in 1872, Still was granted permission to publish his diaries and stories of those he served as a conductor of the Underground Railroad.
In our Scripture passage that we read today, we read of the trying and dramatic escape of the Israelite people from slavery. We pick up today, another well known part of the story of the Exodus. Where Pharaoh finally releases the Hebrew people. After God sent the ten plagues to Egypt, Pharaoh finally relents. Does anyone here think that they could name all ten plagues off the top of their heads? There’s a good trivia question… Blood, frogs, gnats, wild animals, pestilence, boils, hail, locust, darkness, and the final one… the harshest and cruelest of them all… the death of the firstborn from which God spared the Hebrew people. It was only after the death of Pharaoh’s son, that he relents. Because it was in that moment… that Pharaoh, finally, realized that his adversary in this game wasn’t Moses, but it was God calling for the release of God’s people. Pharaoh challenged God, and he lost. So, Moses packs up the Isrealites and high-tails it out of Egypt as fast as they can run! Out of Egypt, away from the hands of their oppressors. Out of slavery.
But as they arrive to the edge of the desert. Just when the weight of the journey they have ahead of them begins to settle in… God comes to Moses again and says something to the affect of, “Sorry kid. Doesn’t look like it’s going to be that easy… Pharaoh’s coming. His heart is hardened still. But don’t worry… I got this. Just follow me.” And there on the edge of their great journey, God appears before them in what Scripture says is a pillar of clouds by day and fire by night. Many artist over the years have attempted to render what this may have looked like. Some painted a tornado type funnel cloud, some have drawn a stack of puffy clouds, and some have interpreted this cloud as a plume of smoke coming up from the desert ground. In spite of the differences of how we see this scene unfolding… what matters is that Moses had gotten them this far with God instruction. But for this leg of the journey… God was taking over… fully. Sort of like their grand almighty Conductor. This was God saying, “Follow me!” So God in cloud form leads the Hebrew people, not in the fastest or safest route possible, but sort around and under… back tracking leading astray. God knew that they were being pursued… and wanted to make it look like they were disoriented and confused… lost in the desert. And it works, for a while… the Egyptians are thrown off the scent…
But all to soon the Hebrew people… this group of lost, tired, confused, weary, broken… refugees are cornered beside the Red sea. Some scholars say that there could have been 600,000 people in this band or run-aways. 600,000 people! And they start crying out to God! In fear and in anger of having led them to what seemed like, at the time, to be there death. And then God says this, and this is the heart of the story, God says: “Do not be afraid. Stand firm and you will see the deliverance the Lord will bring you today. The Egyptians you see today you will never see again. The Lord will fight for you; you need only to be still.”
Do not be afraid. The Lord will fight for you, you need only be still. That is the heart of not only this story… but of the whole of our Christian narrative. To trust our God.
Now the ending of this story is well known. Moses holds his staff above the churning sea, and Almighty God parts the water, and then circles back the pillar of clouds to hold off the pursuing Egyptians. Allowing the Hebrew people to go onward towards freedom. And then Lord lets the water go to cover the Egyptians. Ending the chase. God was there is a big way that day. Dramatic. Huge. Hollywood has tried many times to recapture that scene… but, on that day the Hebrew got to see God fight for them… what an incredible thing!
What would that moment have been like? Standing at the edge of the Red Sea, an Isrealite, that has known nothing but captivity your whole life. To see the water crashing down over those that sought to drag you back into bondage and slavery. To watch the Lord fight for you.
Image that. After the water had calmed. To know that you were now free. The lifetime of slavery and abuse and hurt were behind you. And now. You are with a God that loves you enough to fight for you.
That would have been a big moment. A moment where you witnessed the breadth of God’s power and love for you.
Do not be afraid. The Lord will fight for you, you need only be still.
The thing I love about Scripture is that God gives us story after story, that teaches us the same lesson. Most of us need to be taught something several times and in several different ways for us to fully understand it… And thank God that God knows that!
Do not be afraid. The Lord will fight for you, you need only be still. Think of:
Little David standing before Goliath.
Daniel staring into the mouth of lions.
Joshua at the city wall.
A woman at the well being offered living water.
Sinner Saul as he is renamed Paul.
Our own beloved Christ and he dies on a cross.
Our Lord, fought for all of these people. Our Lord led the way towards freedom, recovered them from the hands of their oppressors, strengthened them for their divine tasks, rescued them from the hold of their sin. Our Lord, led all of them through the desert towards Freedom Land.
Do not be afraid. Scripture says, The Lord will fight for you, you need only be still. Trust in our God.
For our God loves us enough to fight for us.