On Juneteenth and the Work Left to Do

It’s been a big week of commemorations this week. On Wednesday night we gathered to lament, pray, remember, and recommit to work for racial justice as we commemorated the Emanuel 9. On Friday was the 155th anniversary of Juneteenth, the longest running African American holiday. But what is Juneteenth? To be honest, I didn’t know until I was in graduate school. The Emancipation Proclamation issued by President Abraham Lincoln on January 1, 1863, had established that all enslaved people in Confederate states …“shall be then, thenceforward, and forever free.” But it was more complicated than that. In reality, the Emancipation Proclamation didn’t instantly free enslaved people. June 19th, or Juneteenth marks the day when federal troops arrived in Galveston, Texas in 1865 to take control of the state and ensure that all enslaved people were freed, it was the last place where the message needed to reach. The troops’ arrival came a full two and a half years after the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation. Juneteenth honors the end to slavery in the United States. It’s an Independence Day. Freedom Day. It sounds like a nice neat ending to a very problematic part of our nation’s history, but it’s not that simple. The racism that built this country on the backs of enslaved people still persists today. 

As cries against racial injustice continue throughout the country I am reminded of Jesus’ words in our Gospel this morning: Nothing is covered up that will not be uncovered, and nothing secret that will not become known. Just in the last week we have begun conversations about the work of anti-racism, and a committee has been formed to help facilitate that work here at Holy Trinity. These first actions give me hope that our congregation, the greater church and many others in the country are starting to finally look at racism differently, something that is long overdue. 

Jesus describes a time that is horrible and chaotic, not unlike the horrible chaos in the wake of the Civil War, and the horrible chaos that our siblings of color are experiencing right now. We can trust Jesus and the message he brings because he doesn’t sugarcoat that reality. He speaks truth to how hard the call to bear witness is. As a denomination that is 96% white it is our job to lead the work of dismantling racism, without operating under the assumption that we should do it to feel good about ourselves, because it’s not about us. Just last week we heard Jesus call the disciples that they received the Gospel without payment, and so they are to give without payment. The work of anti-racism is not about what we get out of it. It’s about our siblings in the diverse beloved community. That’s what the beloved community is all about: caring for one another and not just ourselves within it. Peace, like confessions without meaningful actions, are illusions. As the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said in his sermon on this very gospel text entitled “When Peace Becomes Obnoxious” “Peace is not merely the absence of some negative force—war, tensions, confusion but it is the presence of some positive force—justice, goodwill, the power of the kingdom of God.”

As the text from Matthew opens this morning, A disciple is not above the teacher, it is instead enough for the disciple to be like the teacher. Jesus tells his hearers and us that we’re gonna screw it up, but also gives us the grace to learn from that and to do better. I’ll be the first to admit that I’ve made mistakes. I remember my final study session before completing my M.Div. at Wake Divinity. It was my toughest exam and at 3:00am I decided insomnia had won the night and discovered that my classmate Cam was also burning the midnight oil. We decided to meet in the library to make use of the time before the final. As we reviewed the topic turned toward liberation theology and in the middle of answering a question Cam stopped me. He leaned forward, shook his head, made eye contact with me and said “You know…you don’t have to get quieter every time you say African American.” There was no accusation, no judgment, just a statement of fact. I sat there dumbfounded by his words. Without realizing it, I had been censoring his identity for fear of messing up and offending someone who I deeply respected. It was uncomfortable and Cam had me sit in that uncomfortable state to process, to learn from my mistake, and gave me the grace to grow from it. It’s something I will never forget as long as I live and will always be grateful for. As we begin to engage  anti-racism I want you to think of ways you want to commit to doing that work, even if you mess up along the way and share them in the comments. I’ll give three minutes for you to do so.

[THREE MINUTE OPEN SHARING]

Let us pray: Holy and righteous God, you created us in your image. Grant us grace to contend fearlessly against evil and to make no peace with oppression. Help us, like those of generations before us who resisted the evil of slavery and human bondage in any form and any manner of oppression. Help us to use our freedoms to bring justice among people and nations everywhere, to the glory of your Holy name through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen. 

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