The following is notes for a lay sermon at First Universalist Church of Rochester, NY, on July 24, 2016.
Before the present announcement that Harriet Tubman’s face will appear on the $20 bill, all I knew about her was that she was connected with the Underground Railroad.
I’ve since learned something about her, and come to realize that she is truly a great American – but with a different kind of greatness than that of historical figures such as George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, Alexander Hamilton, U.S. Grant or Benjamin Franklin.
It is not just that those others were white, and she was black. It is not just that they were all men, and she was a woman. She was poor and illiterate, and earned her living through most of her life by physical labor. Unlike her, they were commanders and lawgivers at the pinnacle of power. She showed the power and position are not necessary for greatness.
What did her greatness consist of? Her greatness consisted of the willingness to risk everything for freedom – first her own freedom, and then the freedom of others.
As a young girl, born into slavery, she resisted efforts to force her to accept submission, and eventually escaped. Then, at great personal risk, she returned to the place she had been held in bondage, and rescued others.
During the Civil War, she volunteered as a scout for the Union Army and led other enslaved people into freedom. During the final phase of her life, she supported equal rights for both African Americans and women.
She lived according to the ethic of Jesus in a way that few people today, including Unitarian Universalists, can understand. She had a deep faith in God, and was guided by her visions of God. She shared everything she had with those more in want that she was, and trusted in God to provide.