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Sermon 6.16.24 The Resurrection of Sawney Freeman



Good Morning St. Andrew’s and Happy Juneteenth week and Happy Father’s Day.

My mother-in-law has a little tiny sign in her front flower garden that I love.

It has four little lines.

The one who plants

beneath the sod

And waits to see,

believes in God.

It’s an unattributed poem, and as someone who loves to plant seeds, the way that God has created nature to take these tiny little things that seem so dead and turn them into sprawling plants of all kinds never ceases to amaze me.

Today, I’m moved to preach to you about reaping the harvest that we have waited for.

Sawney Freeman was born into slavery in Connecticut in the 1770’s according to a probate record from 1777, the year after Independence was declared by the Continental Congress.

Sawney was mostly an agricultural worker, planting and harvesting without compensation on the farm of someone who belonged to St. John’s Episcopal Church near Essex, Connecticut

Sawney also played the fiddle.

We know this, because of an ad in the local newspaper in 1790 looking for a runaway, who had taken his fiddle with him.

A seed planted. And we wait.


The Gospel of Mark tells us that it is a kingdom endeavor to plant seeds and wait.

It also tells us that we can be surprised and awed by both the natural process of growth and by the enormity of what one tiny seed can become.

Sewing seeds is one of the most basic and fundamental things that we do as humans in order to survive,

It’s also something, thank God, that if we didn’t do, nature would do for us.

For Jesus and the early Christians, of course, it was one of the first ways that they began to think and teach about resurrection,

Because planting seeds brings new life to the earth.

In almost every ancient culture that has left us writings, fertility and agriculture were linked together.

Many of the agricultural rituals were accompanied by either explicit or implicit references to human procreation.

Before the advent of modern science, it was assumed that the male partner was totally responsible for the creation of a baby,

The mother was just the fertile soil.

How anyone could believe that when their baby comes out lookin’ like its mama (side-eye)… patriarchal delusion.

But I’m not here to judge people who died thousands of years ago, (or even hundreds of years ago)

It’s Father’s Day, so let’s be generous to our forefathers and say that they did the best they could with what they had.

The point is that planting seeds and waiting is a tangible thing that brings new life, both flora and fauna to the earth, and it is a crucial image of resurrection.

Now, I’ve already done a sermon recently about farming and agriculture, so that is not what I am really here to talk about today.

You all know me pretty well, and so you probably know that one of my favorite things to do is to take a metaphor and make it even more metaphorical.

I’ve told you now about the first metaphor, the planting and the waiting for literal plants as a metaphor of resurrection.

But, what I really want to talk to you about today, if you’ll allow me, is about planting, waiting, and resurrection as one of the most beautiful, miraculous, and hard fought gifts of the African American experience.

Now back to our story.  Where were we?


In 1793, Sawney Freeman was emancipated and by 1801 a new newspaper ad mentions him.

“To be sold at Isaac Beers and Co. (pause) Book Store, New Haven: A Number of Musicians Pocket Companion, containing a variety of tunes, in four and five parts, for bands and single instruments, composed by Sawney Freeman, a free black man in the State of Connecticut.”

Sawney died in the late 1820’s, but by that time he had become not just a preeminent fiddle player, but according to this advertisement a headline composer of fiddle music, whose name could sell a book of music.

So well remembered was he, that in an 1864 history book of Durham County, Connecticut, historian William Chauncey Fowler described him and his music.

Here I quote, “He accompanied his violin with a sort of organ, which he played with his foot … It added greatly to the volume of the music.”

The earth produces a stalk and it grows. We wait some more.


As we begin our yearly celebrations of Juneteenth, it is not lost on us how central the idea of waiting has been for us and for our ancestors.

We hear words of encouragement like those from our Psalm this morning:

6 Now I know that the Lord gives victory to his anointed; *

he will answer him out of his holy heaven,

with the victorious strength of his right hand.

7 Some put their trust in chariots and some in horses, *

but we will call upon the Name of the Lord our God.

8 They collapse and fall down, *

but we will arise and stand upright.

 

The patience, endurance, and fortitude it took to get from 1619 to 1865, the stony road trod from 1866 to today after the bitterness of that chastening rod.

But we are also a people who believe in resurrection after the planting and the waiting.

We believe that there is something that can come from the planting and the waiting… something miraculous.

Oppressed peoples around the world have almost always believed that God would liberate them;

our ancestors believed with all of their might in God’s anointing.

But, more often than anyone can count, they also wondered “How long? How long until God causes us to arise and stand upright?”

In other words, when will resurrection come?

The purpose of the waiting and the patience is not simply to build a kind of endurance that allows exploiters to take advantage,

But a time of gathering strength for the harvest that God intends for us to reap.

So many churches make planting and seeds and waiting and harvest about money.

What a shame that is, because it undercuts the main purpose of the metaphor.

The harvest is not money, it’s a resurrection.


2 Corinthians tells us that while we are in our body, we are away from our true home, and it tells us that because of his death and resurrection we are all new creations; new seeds, new plants, a new harvest for Jesus’ kingdom come.

A Christian theology that says seeds and waiting are only about money is a theology of death, when resurrection and new life is what Jesus is actually offering us.

2 Corinthians also tells us there will be a judgment seat and that each will receive recompense for what has been done in the body, whether good or evil.

Often this is taken as a kind of nod to purity culture; “keep yourself clean in your body or else…no drinking, no dancing, no sex, no anger (unless it’s righteous), no greed (unless it shows how blessed you are), no cheating (unless you’re on my team).”

What if things “done in the body” is not just about what we do to ourselves?

What if it is also about what we do to other people’s bodies?  What if we are responsible for the good or evil we put on someone else?

People, even Christian people, discount the insidious and insufferable evil of slavery; its history, its connection to the evil of wealth disparity, the toll it took on human bodies and souls.

They don’t experience the racial reckoning that we have been experiencing as the harvest of centuries of waiting.

We tend to see planting and waiting and harvesting as something that happens in a single life time, as an individualistic thing.

But Jesus works on a cosmic as well as a personal level.

We all go through cycles of planting and waiting and harvesting individually for sure;

But I think that our racial reconciliation work has shown us that this resurrection hope that we see in the planting and the waiting can be generational too.

There are seeds that were planted centuries ago, and one of the miracles of life is that every now and again we get to witness a resurrection after generations of waiting.

Sawney Freeman may be the first African American composer to have written music.

Of course we know that as far back as there have been people of African descent on this continent, there have been men and women who have composed music; usually that folk music that gets passed down from mouth to mouth; from ear to ear.

In their part of the racial reckoning, St. John’s Episcopal Church in Essex, Connecticut sought a type of resurrection life, when they began to research the life of Sawney Freeman a few years ago.

They found a record of a man - a father of music - and followed it.

It would be incredible enough, if all that they had found was this person and a little bit about his life.

The story of his self-emancipation followed by his legal one.

The story of his being a fiddle player, who took his fiddle with him in an act of love for music and resistance to ownership.

The story of a black man who became so famous for his compositions that he was the headline composer of a compendium of music remembered 40 years after he died as a great performer and musician.

This harvest would be a wonderful harvest after all of the planting and the waiting, the waiting and the watching for growth.

But there is more to this story, there is also the miracle of resurrection.

You see, as the people of St. John’s in Essex continued their search, and found an online database of American Music, which told them that one copy of Sawney Freeman’s music was part of the rare manuscripts archive at Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut;

Just 40 miles from where Sawney Freeman was born.

They got in touch with the archivist to find out what they could,

and it turned out Gurdon Trumbull, the father of the first librarian of Trinity College was an abolitionist and had worked to collect material about the local black residents in his community.

One of the things that he passed down to his son was an original handwritten, 1817 copy of the Pocket Companion music by Sawney Freeman.

After finding the sheet music from 200 years ago, the library digitized the compositions and the people of St. John’s in Essex paid to have the music arranged for modern musicians.

In March of this year, just a few weeks before Easter, the Resurrection happened.

A group of musicians of color were brought together to record the 13 works that are the last remnant and legacy of the planting and the waiting that Sawney Freeman began over 200 years ago.

I’d like to end my sermon today by playing you one of those songs.  You can find the rest on Connecticut Public Radio’s story about Sawney Freeman. (https://www.ctpublic.org/2024-03-15/sawney-freeman-slavery-connecticut-music-composer)


This song is called the New Death March, may it remind us that our march toward death is always toward a death like Christ’s and that it always ends like the one who plants beneath the sod and waits to see;

with resurrection into greater glory.

Happy Father’s Day, Happy Juneteenth, Alleluiah Christ is risen.

That was a Resurrection worth waiting for!

 

 

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