|Freedom Stairway: 100 steps led up the hill to the Rankin house where, over a period of approximately forty years, hundreds of fugitive slaves were hidden until they could be moved safely to the next station on the Underground Railroad.|
We know from reading the gospels that after his baptism, Jesus was led by the Holy Spirit into the wilderness. He spent forty days alone in the wilderness, fasting and being tested, before he began his ministry.
Jesus had been praying alone, with only his closest disciples near him, when he began teaching them that he would have to undergo great suffering, be rejected by the religious authorities, be killed, and the third day be raised. Then he told them, "If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it..."
It's six days after this when Jesus takes his inner circle of disciples and goes up on a high mountain to pray. Peter and James and John saw Jesus transfigured before them. His face shone like the sun, and his clothes became dazzling white. Then the three disciples saw Jesus speaking with Moses and Elijah.
Then a bright cloud comes and overshadows them-- a of God's presence. From the cloud, a voice speaks, echoing the voice heard when Jesus was baptized: "This is my Son, the beloved, with whom I am well pleased."
At his baptism, there's a moment when the veil of the present is stripped away to reveal who Jesus is and who he will be. Now, the disciples are told not only who Jesus is-- but they also hear that they are to "listen to him."
How would you respond to an encounter of the transfigured Jesus? The disciples seem overwhelmed! They want to put up some tents, to somehow contain the glory they’d seen. But Jesus tells the disciples to get up… and to not be afraid. And then they go back down off the mountain, into the valley. What they’ve seen and heard has changed them. This is Jesus, God’s beloved Son. They need to listen to him and follow his commandment to love God in every aspect of their lives and to love one another. That means they need to be merciful and peacemakers and righteous and just. The light of God’s love needs to shine through their lives so that others may see their good deeds and moral excellence so that others will God will be glorified.
What does that look like?
In the scriptures, we hear prophets who saw the suffering of those around them, the injustice of those who were living comfortably at the expense of others, and their world was changed. They were moved to call God’s people to live in the ways of righteousness and justice that God demands.
Like the prophets of old, we look around at our world, and we see that it’s filled with injustice. People are hungry or lack clean, safe water to drink. Women and children are trafficked into sex slavery. There are workers who are cheated out of fair wages in sweatshops so that our clothes and electronics can be cheap.
If we open our eyes we see some of the same injustices in our world that Amos and Isaiah and other prophets saw in their time. If we choose to look in the right way, our mountaintop experience can call us to lives of discipleship, to lives of prophetic action, and we will work to turn the world to God’s ways.
In the parable in Matthew 25, Jesus taught that whatever we do for the least of those among us, we do for him. “When did we see you, Jesus,” the disciples ask. Jesus is transfigured every day when we see him in the faces of those who are hungry, in the poor, in refugees, the oppressed worker, the homeless, and the sick. If we have eyes to see, we encounter the transfigured Jesus every moment of every day.
Moments of transfiguration show us that change is difficult-- but needed. The Transfiguration is that moment between what was and what is to come. Like Peter, we get a glimpse of what could be.
Over the centuries, people of faith have looked around at their world, and they have had transfiguration moments. For most people in the early centuries of this nation’s history, slavery was simply part of the American way of life, a necessary part of agriculture and of the economy in the southern and northern parts of the country. Slaves were considered property and a major part of slave owners’ wealth. This is a part of our nation’s history that a lot of people would rather not think about, but it is a part of our history, and we’re still dealing with our history today.
Runaway slaves were seen as a problem as early as colonial times, and the United States Constitution explicitly required that fugitives “from service or labor” must be delivered back to their owner. By 1793, the first Fugitive Slave Act empowered slave owners or hired slave catchers to hunt down fugitive slaves and return them to their owners. This was the social and legal context.
In his book, Bound for Canaan, Fergus Bordewich tells how ordinary people, black and white, slave and free, joined together to do what they believed was right in a movement of civil disobedience that challenged prevailing social mores and local and federal law. This network of clandestine operators eventually became known as the Underground Railroad.
As Bordewich writes,” Most members of the underground uncompromisingly regarded their work as answering only to a law higher and more sacred than those enacted by mere men….”
Most of us recognize names like Harriet Tubman and Frederick Douglass. But there were many others who were part of the underground movement that carried as many as 100,000 fugitives to the far northern states and Canada.
There was David Ruggles, who invented the black underground in New York City…William Lambert, a black abolitionist who founded Detroit’s Vigilance Committee. There were many bold Quakers like Isaac Hopper in Philadelphia and Levi Coffin and his family in Indiana. Arnold Gragston, who remained in slavery to ferry hundreds of runaways across the Ohio River from Kentucky to Ohio, until he and his family became his last passengers.
Bordewich estimates that the network of men and women who harbored or conducted fugitive slaves, plus those who assisted with food, clothing, and legal assistance, numbered more than 10,000.
One of the most celebrated stops in Underground Railroad history was Ripley, in Ohio. Hundreds of locals were involved in the resistance work, even before the Rankin family patriarch, Rev. John Rankin, moved to Ripley in 1822.
The Underground Railroad network in the Ripley area had three components. The first were Presbyterian ministers, most of whom were Southerners, who had begun around the year 1800 to come north to escape the horrific climate of slavery. Later, there was an administrative body known as the Chillicothe Presbytery that helped to connect the web of relationships that linked Ripley to Ripley to several other towns in southern Ohio.
The second component included activist abolitionists. The Ripley Anti-Slavery Society, which held its organizational meeting in Red Oak at the Presbyterian Church, enlisted 337 members in its first year.
The third component was a sizable population of free blacks including John Parker and William Atwood, and a small number of courageous slaves who lived across the river in Kentucky.
Perhaps the most famous fugitive slave to come through Ripley was Eliza Harris, who pushed her baby ahead of her on the thin ice and is thought to be the inspiration for the character Eliza immortalized by Harriet Beecher Stowe in her book Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Uncle Tom’s Cabin which was the best-selling novel of the 19th century. It reached millions as a novel and a theatrical production and energized anti-slavery forces in the American North.
Rev. John Rankin arrived in Ripley in 1822. He and his family built a house on top of Liberty Hill, overlooking the town, the river, and the Kentucky shore. They kept a lantern burning through the night as a beacon that could be seen from across the river, signaling slaves when it was safe to cross the river and guiding them as they made their crossing to the north side.
The United States Constitution and the Fugitive Slave Law permitted slave owners to reclaim fugitive slaves, even if they were in a free state like Ohio. When abolitionists sheltered runaway slaves, there was always the possibility that Federal marshals, hired slave-catchers, or local law enforcement officers could demand to search your property. Over the course of the more than 40 years, the Rankin family kept hundreds of fugitives safe until they could safely be moved on to the next station
“You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden. Nor do people light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.”
We are changed through our relationship with Jesus Christ. We look around our world and see the face of Christ in those who are oppressed or marginalized. When we have eyes to see and ears to hear, what we see and hear changes us.
God isn’t finished with us yet. God keeps shedding new light on our understanding and lights our faces with the radiance of Christ’s glorious self-giving love. God continues to shine upon us, to transform us, almost imperceptibly, one degree at a time, so that we can work with God to transform our world.
And that, my friends, is good news!
Rev. Fran Hayes, Pastor
Littlefield Presbyterian Church
February 26, 2017
 Fergus M. Bordewich, Bound for Canaan:The Epic Story of the Underground Railroad, America’s First Civil Rights Movement. Amistad/HarperCollins Publishers, 2005.
 Matthew 5:14-16