SCRIPTURE – Luke 2:8-16 – In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. 9 Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. 10 But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: 11 to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. 12 This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.” 13 And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying, 14 “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!” 15 When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.” 16 So they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger.
“Mary Had a Baby” Sermon Series
#2 – Rise Up, Shepherd, and Follow
We continue our sermon series this morning looking at a few Christmas-related African-American slave spirituals, and listening to what they can teach us, people on the other end of the spectrum, about celebrating Christmas. How can looking at the birth story of Jesus through someone else’s eyes help us appreciate that magnitude of what happened on that holy night? During a season in which the Christ child easily gets buried under piles of wrapping paper, what did this story mean for people who didn’t take it for granted?
One of the things that makes spirituals so fascinating was the role they played in communication among the slaves. This was a group of people who didn’t have the freedom to talk openly with each other, so they had to come up with creative ways to share information without alerting their masters. The slave owners underestimated the spiritual and intellectual gifts of the slaves, which let the slaves’ imaginations run free even while they were in servitude. Realize that Christianity wasn’t the slaves’ chosen religion; it was forced upon them by their Christian masters. But the slaves were incredibly resilient. They devised songs that on the surface appeared to be solely about their newfound faith in Jesus, but were actually a type of Morse code, where the words carried double meanings. The slaves tricked their owners into thinking they were harmless and happy, easily adapting to their new religion, when they were actually planning their escape.
In the “Death and Eternal Life” section of our hymnal, number 644 is the spiritual “Steal Away to Jesus.” “Steal away, steal away, steal away to Jesus, I ain’t got long to stay here.” That song may sound like it’s about going to Heaven, but it was actually used as an announcement, like a conductor calling “All aboard!” for a departing train. When the slaves were in the fields singing “I ain’t got long to stay here,” they were preparing for an escape attempt.
Songs like “Steal Away to Jesus” and “Swing Low Sweet Chariot” were signal songs, which communicated that a certain event, like an escape attempt, was about to happen. There were also map songs, which gave specific directions for the escape. The most famous of these is called “Follow the Drinking Gourd.” Now, if I heard that song, I would have no idea what the drinking gourd was, much less how to follow it. For the slaves, the Drinking Gourd was the Big Dipper constellation, which had as a part of it the North Star. This song is a travel itinerary, telling the slaves that when winter arrives it’s time to follow the North Star to freedom.
One of the purposes of our song today, “Rise Up, Shepherd, and Follow” was to remind the slaves to follow the star that would lead them to freedom. Listen to the verbs in the song: Rise up, follow, take heed (or listen), and leave. It’s a call to action for the slaves embedded in the biblical story of Christ’s birth. But the song has several other layers of meaning that helped the slaves celebrate the gift of Jesus Christ.
For the most part, slaves were not allowed to read, especially not the Bible. Plantation owners feared that if the slaves read about how Christ promised salvation from sin, the slaves would also want salvation from slavery. So, instead of passing on the tradition by reading the Bible to each other, the slaves told the stories, much like the Israelites orally passed down stories for centuries and centuries before the Bible was written as a way of preserving their religious history.
“Rise Up, Shepherd, and Follow” was one of the ways the slaves would pass down the Christmas story. The singer would sing a line of the story, “There’s a star in the East on Christmas morn,” and the rest would respond, “Rise up, shepherd, and follow.” Then the next line of the story would be sung, and the crowd would respond. This could go on for awhile as the full story of Christmas was told. That’s how the story of Christ’s birth survived and provided hope to a group of people without access to the Bible.
But did you notice there’s something a little off about this story? When I was in seminary, my grandfather liked to tease me by testing my biblical knowledge. Every time he saw me he’s said, “Let’s see what you’re learning in that school. How many of each animal did Moses take on the ark?” I would play along and respond, “That’s an easy one. He took two of each animal.” And he’d smile and say, “Nope, nope, nope. Moses didn’t take the animals on the ark; Noah did!” And I’d smile and say, “You got me again, Paw Paw!”
We have the same kind of mashup taking place in the retelling of the Christmas story in this song. As we know the story, who followed a star to find Jesus? It wasn’t the shepherds. It was the wise men who saw the star in the East and followed it to the Christ child. The shepherds were told about Jesus’ birth by the angels and went to Bethlehem to see him. But in “Rise Up, Shepherd, and Follow” we get an amalgamation of those two stories.
This was not caused by biblical confusion. There’s a strategic repositioning taking place here that would have been empowering to the listeners and singers of this song. The wise men were thought to be wealthy kings or magicians from far-off lands, bring lavish, expensive gifts to welcome Christ. These were not people to whom the slaves could relate. If the wise men were on one end of the social spectrum, the shepherds would have been on the extreme other end. There were few occupations more demanding or degrading than a shepherd. The shepherds themselves were often indentured servants of a landowner, hired or forced against their will to care for the livestock. Because of their nomadic lifestyle, they didn’t really have a home, and they were considered religious and social outcasts who were looked upon with suspicion.
The slaves could relate to being outcasts, to being looked upon with suspicion. In the shepherds, they found a kindred spirit, another group of people without a home. So, in “Rise Up, Shepherd, and Follow,” by replacing the kingly travelers with people of no status, the slaves were subtly creating a revolution in status for themselves. This song is not only sung by them, but about them: “Rise up, shepherd, and follow.” Through the juxtaposition, the slaves became the wise seekers looking for the gifts Christ had to offer, following the star to the place where salvation and freedom could be found.
Of course, on any journey that leads to the Christ child, things have to be left behind. For the shepherds, it meant leaving their sheep to go to Bethlehem. The Bible is full of these kinds of stories. Abraham is called by God to leave his homeland and start out on a journey to an unknown destination. When Jesus called the disciples, they left behind their homes, their families, their traditions, their land, and followed him. The slaves knew what this was like, except they were forcibly removed from these things in their home countries and sold into bondage. They knew that the cost of freedom might be leaving behind parents, children, people who were too young or infirm to make such an arduous journey to freedom. The slaves knew that in order to find freedom, they would have to take heed of the angel’s word and leave some things behind.
The song called the slaves to take their place in a long line of people who gave up things to follow God. The reality of faith is that there is a cost associated with following Jesus, or at least there should be. If you find having faith to be easy, you’re probably not doing it right. True Christianity constantly calls us to leave that which is familiar, to move to a new place spiritually as we follow Christ. “Rise Up, Shepherd, and Follow” is a rallying cry for the slaves to move faithfully from the familiar to freedom.
There are two commands that are repeated over and over in this song. The first is to “Rise up.” When I picture the slaves at work I see them crouching or stooping or bent over in the fields. This song is a call to rise up, to stand up, to take a stand against their oppression and to actively pursue freedom, no matter the cost.
What would it mean for us to “rise up” this Christmas? For the slaves, rising up was a dangerous move that could cost them their lives. Thankfully, we don’t face such extreme consequences…and yet, are we still afraid to rise up? I give so much credit to those who are now rising up against sexual misconduct. Real change is happening because of it. What could we accomplish if we chose to rise up against predatory lending, against scams aimed at the elderly, against systems that perpetuate racist policies or seek to keep people divided? When we as Christians choose to rise up against something, we make a difference. But it starts with having the courage to rise up in the first place. How could you let your faith rise up this Christmas? Who needs you to rise up for them in our world today?
The second command is to “follow.” It’s sung five times in the chorus alone. “Follow.” For the slaves, it meant following the North Star to freedom. What does it mean for us to follow? It doesn’t mean you have to pack up your house and move. But it does mean we may have to pack up some negative thoughts or behaviors that separate us from God. Following Christ means walking in his footsteps, even when it means we walk away from comfortable, familiar situations into the great unknown of faith.
A few weeks ago I followed Christ, in the form of my friend, Liz, to the Hope Center at lunch time. We donned our stylish hairnets and spent an hour serving chicken noodle soup and mac and cheese to the clients that came through. I had about 100 other things I could have been doing at that moment, things that really needed to be done. But people also need to eat and, I would guess more importantly, be looked at in the eye and treated with respect. Where will you follow Christ this Christmas? If it’s somewhere you’ve already been, somewhere you feel completely comfortable, then it may not be far enough.
This Christmas, my prayer for us is that we learn from this song about the importance of courage in a life of faith. We have been given a star to follow, but we can only follow it if we rise up, take our eyes away from our immediate surroundings, and see ahead of us where God is calling us to go. It probably won’t be a place that’s familiar. It may not even feel safe. But it’s where we’re going to find Jesus in this world.
Rise up, shepherds, and follow.