“Still I Rise”

2 Corinthians 4: 8 – 9 Jill A. Kirchner-Rose, MDIV, DMIN

On this Ash Wednesday and during this Black History month, I find myself reflecting upon the life of Sojourner Truth. Sojourner Truth was born Isabella Baumfree in 1797 to James and Elizabeth Baumfree, enslaved parents. Around age nine, she was sold at an auction for $100, along with a flock of sheep. In 1828, after escaping slavery, Isabella moved to New York City.

After living in New York City for more than a decade, Isabella heard the Spirit calling her to travel and lecture. She desired a new name for this new vocation. After all, she had left everything behind, including her old life, and she asked God for a new name. She said, “And the Lord gave me Sojourner because I was to travel up and down the land, showing the people their sins, and being a sign unto them. Afterward, I told the Lord I wanted another name, because everybody else had two names; and the Lord gave me Truth, because I want to declare truth to the people.” Sojourner Truth became a fiery preacher and abolitionist.

One day, she was preparing a speech at a town-house in Indiana. While preparing for this speech, she heard that someone had threatened to burn down the building if she spoke there. To which Sojourner replied, “Then, I will speak upon the ashes.”

Ashes. Ashes are a curious thing. On the one hand, ashes are a reminder of the ways that humans across history have literally reduced to ashes one another’s homes, buildings, cities, and very bodies. Ashes can be a sign of destruction.

But on the other hand, ashes can be a thing of wonder. On this Ash Wednesday, we are reminded that ashes – dust, dirt, earth—are the stuff from which we have been made and to which we will return. Yes, God brings life from ashes. God works wonders amid destruction. God breathes God’s own spirit into the rubble.

In our scripture passage today we meet the Apostle Paul. Paul traveled over 10,000 miles through shipwrecks, snake bites, prison, death threats, a thorn in his flesh to share the good news of God’s love for all through Christ Jesus. And Paul writes, “We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed. Perplexed, but not in despair. Persecuted, but not abandoned. Struck down, but not destroyed.”

Yes, the Apostle Paul and Sojourner Truth have much in common – through their travels they knew about afflictions, hardships, calamities, riots. Paul says, “We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed.” To which Sojourner responds, “Then I will speak upon the ashes.” Paul declares, “We are perplexed, but not in despair.” I can imagine Sojourner, speaker of Truth, crying out in response, “Then I will speak upon the ashes.” “We are persecuted, but not abandoned.” “Then I will speak upon the ashes.” “We are struck down, but not destroyed.” “Then I will speak upon the ashes.”

On this day of ashes, may we too rise from the ashes to become more powerful than we ever thought possible. Let us be marked not as sinners in the hands of an angry God, but “let us claim our brilliance within the debris, let us speak upon the ashes, let the stardust be engraved into our bones, ashes to ashes, dust to dust, from the rust, our masterpiece shall rise” (Shirley Maya Tan).  

This has been a painful year. A global pandemic, insurrection, racism, and the list goes on. It has been a painful year – so let us move toward a hopeful, healing Lenten season – where we rise up and speak upon the ashes. In the words of Maya Angelou, soul sister of Sojourner Truth,

“You may trod me in the very dirt

But still, like dust, I’ll rise…

Out of the huts of history’s shame

I rise

Up from a past that’s rooted in pain

I rise

I’m a black ocean, leaping and wide

Welling and swelling I bear in the tide

Leaving behind nights of terror and fear

I rise

Into a daybreak that’s wondrously clear

I rise

Bringing the gifts that my ancestors gave,

I am the dream and the hope of the slave

I rise.

I rise.

I rise.” Amen.

*Thank you to Jan Richardson for her sermon, “Upon the Ashes,” which inspired today’s sermon.