Genesis 18:1-15, (21:1-7), Psalm 100, Exodus 19:2-8a, Romans 5:1-8, Matthew 9:35-10:8, (9-23)
I’m grateful to serve a congregation that separates holidays from holy days. There will be no invitation to have all fathers stand and be recognized this third Sunday in June, and no gifts of shaving cream or crosses made of nails or other “manly” things. Mother’s and Father’s Day are fraught for many reasons, and imbuing these days with holy sheen is a distraction, at best, and more often harmful, hurtful and idolatrous. We didn’t sing Patriotic hymns on Memorial Day, and we won’t be waving flags on July 2.
That being said, I feel differently about our newest national holiday, Juneteenth. A few years ago, I was on vacation on Juneteenth Sunday, and worship was led by a group in the church, with a focus on contemplation and spiritual disciplines. I returned to a message from one of our members, sharing her deep hurt that there had been no mention of Juneteenth in worship. She had come to see us as co-conspirators in the work for justice, and the church’s silence on the occasion to celebrate the liberation of slaves hurt her soul.
Juneteenth commemorates the day that emancipation was finally announced to and enforced for the estimated 250,000 enslaved in Texas. This happened two and a half years after Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, and more than two months after General Lee surrendered. Even then, it wasn’t the end of legalized chattel slavery in the United States. The Emancipation Proclamation only freed the enslaved in the Confederate states. Delaware and Kentucky, both slave-holding Union states, were not emancipated until the ratification of the 13th Amendment in December of 1865. The transformative journey to freedom has never been a short or straightforward trip.
Making space in worship for Juneteenth invites us all to reckon with our not-so-distant past, and to confess our ongoing complicity in systems built upon the lie of White supremacy. William Yoo’s excellent book What Kind of Christianity: A History of Slavery and Anti-Black Racism in the Presbyterian Church should be required reading for us all. Juneteenth is both a holiday and a holy day because it affirms that we worship a relentlessly liberating God.
All of the texts for this Sunday, including the semicontinuous and complementary readings from the Old Testament, point us to God’s liberating work. Sarah waited a lifetime for God’s promise to be fulfilled. It may have been delayed, like the news of freedom to Texas, but God remained faithful. Just as Sarah invited everyone who heard about her good news to laugh with her, our celebration of God’s liberating power is a communal one.
In Exodus, we read of God’s assurance to the recently liberated Israelites. They are not defined by their enslavement, but rather by their place of privilege in God’s realm. The psalmist praises God for having heard the cries of God’s people and bringing deliverance before again assuring God’s people of God’s faithfulness to all generations. Paul points to the true hope that does not disappoint, even in the face of suffering.
In Matthew’s Gospel, we read of Jesus’s compassion for the harassed and helpless, who are like sheep without a shepherd. His response is to commission the disciples to go out, foreshadowing the Great Commission yet to come. It’s a wonder that any disciples remained after Jesus’ cheery picture of evangelism: You, too, could be arrested, flogged, despised, hated, and at the center of deadly family conflict!
But discipleship is not without some perks. Jesus gives the group authority to cast out unclean spirits and to cure every disease and sickness. This is liberating power! It restores health and wholeness and wellbeing to those who were harassed and helpless. As the disciples learned, the enslaving and oppressive forces of this world cling tightly to the systems that uphold and perpetuate oppression. Even the restoration of health to the sick was a threat to their power. Anything that disturbs the status quo is a threat to those who have created the systems that sustain it. Backlash is inevitable. Many preachers know this to be true.
This week’s readings underscore God’s liberating work throughout history, and the endurance that is still necessary as we participate in the same work today. It’s difficult. Sometimes we feel discouraged and think our effort is in vain, but then the Holy Spirit revives our souls again. Our hope will not disappoint. Those who have spent a lifetime weeping will laugh with joy in the fulfillment of God’s promises. Those who have been enslaved and oppressed will be freed. All who suffer will find healing.
- When did you first learn about Juneteenth? How familiar do you think your congregation members are with the holiday? Are there local celebrations or Juneteenth traditions in your community or region?
- Jesus warns the disciples about the difficulties they will face in their commission. What difficulties have you or members of your community faced in the course of following Jesus? Are there particular things you have chosen not to do to avoid potential negative consequences? Do you think that following Jesus must necessarily cause conflict or strife?
- Paul directly connects suffering with endurance and hope. How is this connection helpful in considering our call to work for justice and the alleviation of suffering? What potential theological pitfalls might you want to address or avoid?