“Juneteenth” Jer 31: 31-34; Romans 3: 19-28; Jn 8: 31-36
On June 19, 1863, Union General Gordon Granger arrived on Galveston Island, TX, where he read this “General Order No. #3”:
“The people of Texas are informed that in accordance with a proclamation of the Executive of the United States, all slaves are free. This involves an absolute equality of personal rights and rights of property between former masters and slaves, and the connection heretofore existing between them becomes that between employer and hired labor. The freedmen are advised to remain quietly at their present homes and work for wages. They are informed that they will not be allowed to collect at military posts and that they will not be supported in idleness either there or elsewhere.”
This momentous news came to people in this corner of the Confederacy a full 9 months after President Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation became law. These slaves had been freed for almost a year without knowing it. There was much rejoicing on that June 19th—or Juneteenth, as it came to be called. Juneteenth is a celebration of freedom—a recognition that all people are beloved of God and have equal worth and dignity.
In some ways, Juneteenth parallels the church festival we observe today. Martin Luther (and other reformers who preceded and followed him) plumbed the Scriptures, seeking truth, and preached and taught what they found there—that though all have sinned, yet we are not condemned, but saved by God’s grace and mercy, not by our own capacity for right conduct or thinking.
Maybe you remember that the church authorities of the 16th century did not warmly receive Martin Luther’s critique. Dr. Luther and many of his colleagues were excommunicated, and a fatwah was issued for Luther by the Holy Roman Emperor and the Pope. While hiding in Wartburg Castle, he translated the Bible from Hebrew and Greek into German, the language of the people. Once he discovered the miraculous news of God’s grace in today’s reading from Romans, he worked with a frenzy to share the good new of freedom with as many people as possible. Luther relied on latest technology—Guttenberg’s remarkable printing press—to publicize this Good News far and wide. Neither Luther nor President Lincoln created freedom for their people. They simply articulated the Good News in a definitive way for the people of their time. As Luther relied on Guttenburg to spread the Good News, Lincoln made sure news of the Emancipation Proclamation was delivered by circuit riders all over the nation.
Maybe you thinking, “This is all very interesting, but what do these history lessons have to do with us here and now? Many people—especially white people—might feel like the folks in John’s Gospel: “We have never been slaves to anyone, why are you talking to us about being set free?” Or, “We’ve always had access to the Gospel in our own language, so what’s the big deal?” Whether or not your biological family tree includes stories of human trafficking, all of us, as people of faith, trace our heritage to our Biblical ancestors. And the whole book of Exodus is about our ancestors struggling to become free from slavery. Much of what’s recorded in the prophets and history books of the Bible was written to or by prisoners and exiles in Babylon and elsewhere. Whether in the last century or many centuries before, we all do indeed come from a line of former slaves.
My guess is that most of us have also struggled with enslavement. Many people are slaves to addictions like alcohol, drugs, gambling, shopping, eating, or sex. Some are slaves to huge debt, credit cards out of control, or worries that keep us from being generous by perpetuating the myth that we will never have enough, never be enough. Often people of faith—even good Lutherans—are slaves to their own perceptions of how good they ought to be and how far we are from hitting the mark.
Neither the Reformation nor Juneteenth can be relegated to the past. The need for both is urgent and relevant. As long as anyone anywhere is still enslaved in body, mind, or spirit, Reformation and Emancipation are needed. As long as people are misled and abused by the Church and the Gospel of Christ is misused to scare rather than to emancipate them, there is a need for circuit riders and reformers to spread the truth about freedom to all who live in bondage. God’s grace is available for all, but many do not know, have not heard, that they are free indeed.
Of course, even if they do hear that in Christ they are free to live and love without fear, it doesn’t mean that they will immediately experience new life. Freedom did not come to the Israelites immediately after they crossed the Red Sea and the Egyptians were swallowed up in it. It took more or less 40 years for our forebears to throw off the mentality of people who were in bondage. Throughout Exodus our ancestors complained about how hard it was to be responsible for their choices and actions. They longed to return to Egypt, where the days were hard, but at least they got three meals and a bed. Similarly, in this country, in the days and months that followed Juneteenth, many of the newly freed slaves continued to live as if nothing had changed.
In this country the living conditions of the newly-freed slaves sometimes actually deteriorated for awhile because, now working for wages, many became debtors to their former “owners.” Technically, they were free, but their circumstances didn’t change. For many former slaves, the concept of leaving and going anywhere else seemed impossible, the choices and challenges too daunting. If you know anything about abusive relationships, you understand.
One of the reasons that Christians need to gather together regularly for worship and other church events is because we need to hear and see and taste and feel the Good News again and again. We have to be reminded that we are free indeed. We buckle under the weight of the economic, environmental, personal, and political crises of our time, and we need to hear one another whispering Psalm 46: “We will not fear, though the earth should change, though the mountains shake in the heart of the sea, though it waters roar and foam; though the mountains tremble with its tumult.” Or to sing it, perhaps as Luther put it in this last verse of his musical setting of Psalm 46 we just sang: “Were they to take our house, goods, honor, child, or spouse, though life be wrenched away, they cannot win the day. God’s kingdom’s ours forever.”
This message of hope, liberation, and eternal life is not for us alone. Who else in our context needs to hear a liberating word? And what might that word be? Whose worth needs to be affirmed? Who is unable to recognize that the good news of freedom in Christ is good news for them? As Christians (little Christs), we follow Jesus, and Jesus constantly traveled among the excluded and disenfranchised. No matter how inconvenient or scary it is, we are called to pick up the work of announcing freedom where others have left off, however daunting a task it seems.
How does one little congregation participate meaningfully in change with such global ramifications? How do we introduce others to the Bible that we barely read or understand ourselves? What is God up to in our community, and how do we partner in it? These are hard questions. There may be days when we’d all really rather go back to Egypt, where we were in chains, but at least we recognized the roles handed to us and knew how to meet those expectations. Freedom is unpredictable and scary. There is no map through the desert. There is no handbook for how a freed slave is to behave.
But know this truth and let it make you free: no matter how feeble our attempts to be faithful, no matter how often we think we’ve hit on the next great ministry idea only to watch it collapse around us, no matter how small or weary we may feel, we have been crafted in God’s own image. We are empowered by the Holy Spirit to spread the Good news that in Jesus, all people are loved, accepted, and significant. We are equipped with all we need for proclaiming the Good News that everyone has access to God’s family table. With freed slaves in Galveston and medieval peasants in Germany, let us pass on to others what we have learned: we are free at last! Free at last! Thank God Almighty, we’re free at last!
Amen. Let it be so!
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