June 19, 2022
• Rev. Rob Fuquay
This marks my 35th year of being a fulltime local church pastor with the responsibility of preaching weekly in the churches I serve. And after 35 years today is the first Sunday in which my sermon focuses on the celebration of Juneteenth. Now how could that be?
I’m sure many African-American members and guests are asking that question, how could that be? How could a pastor of this many years, someone focused on building positive race relations, not address Juneteenth? The answer is, to my own embarrassment, that just in recent years have I come to even know about Juneteenth and this important part of our American story.
You see it was June 19, 1865 that federal troops under Major General Gordon Granger arrived in Galveston, Texas to inform what was believed to be the last group of enslaved people in the confederate states that they were indeed free and entitled to payment for their labor. The Civil War had ended more than two months before, officially making the Emancipation Proclamation the rule of law throughout the south. But CNN and the internet were not around to broadcast this news. And besides, there were many generals who were not actively announcing this information. And plantation owners weren’t going out to their free labor and saying, “Oh guess what I just heard!”
But on this day in 1865, a day that would since be known as Juneteenth, the news of freedom finally made it to everyone and in many ways became an even truer Independence Day. Because freedom now included all Americans. So how could I not know this?
Well, I don’t mean to blame it too much on my history teachers growing up, but I don’t believe it was emphasized, despite being a real and significant part of history. And if we wonder how that could be, let’s understand that as significant as the Exodus was, celebrating the freedom of 600,000 Jewish people from bondage in Egypt, there is no mention of this event in Egyptian records of the time.
Just because something happened in history doesn’t mean it becomes shared history. So for the first time in my ministry I want to preach today in celebration of Juneteenth, and talk about what H.O.P.E means when we Help Overcome Prejudice Everywhere.
Completeness, a Historical Church Challenge
This was a point James makes in his letter in the New Testament. He is writing to a Christian community, a church, that is not specifically identified. In a sense that means it could be any church, all churches. In chapter 2 James called out their incompleteness. Some guests were welcomed with esteem and honor. They were given the best seats and shown preferential treatment, while others were less esteemed and treated with disregard and disinterest. James doesn’t mince words. “If you show partiality, you commit sin.”
I can imagine the people in the church reading James’ letter and being horrified, maybe even angry. “When did we ever show partiality or favoritism? Ridiculous! We treat everyone the same here. We don’t see differences!” I can imagine some in the congregation wasted no time sending emails to James and threatening to withhold their giving. I know it sounds crazy but long, long ago in a far away land, I hear people did things like that in church.
But James doesn’t write to irritate the members, or at least for the sole purpose of irritation. He writes in the hope that they will see; That they will notice; that they will be aware of the ever so subtle ways they can contribute to the partiality. Overcoming prejudice begins in seeing prejudice. Because what can be worse than treating someone in a discriminatory way is to not even notice it. Worse than intentional favoritism is to not recognize favoritism when it happens. Because when we don’t see it, we don’t see the people it happens to. They become invisible.
There’s an adage that says we value what we celebrate. If we value making money then we’re probably going to celebrate profit gains. If we value health then we’re going to celebrate good doctor reports. And if we value people, then we are going to celebrate what is important to people.
This is why it’s essential that we celebrate Juneteenth, because when I celebrate what you celebrate it says your story matters to me. It says I really see you. You’re there. I see your history. But really, it says something even more important. When we share each other’s celebrations, we realize we share in each other’s stories. All of our stories are bound together in the same narrative.
So James reminds the church of the “royal law.” That’s an interesting phrase. Scholars have pondered what it means. It’s not a normal way of referring to Old Testament law. It sounds like the law of the king. Perhaps James meant that this is God’s law. But that is kind of understood because it comes from the Torah. Of course it’s God’s Law.
Others say it is the law that makes us feel like royalty. That can certainly be true but in this context James is not placating people. He’s warning them. So some scholars say, what James is referring to here is the Supreme Law. It’s the part of the law that stands out, that’s most important. And what is it? “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Treat people as if their story, their history, their hopes and dreams matter as much as your own.
That’s what we are trying to do here at St. Luke’s. Two years ago we declared ourselves to be an anti-racist church. We understand that it’s not enough just to say we aren’t racists. We have to be anti-racists. We have to resist the forces of partiality. So we started by offering book studies, books many of us have not read, helping us see race in a different light. These were very challenging reads for some. But they were also eye opening. We’ve also offered events like Civil Rights tours to help with our seeing and understanding.
A St. Luke’s member, Jean VanLeeuwen, who went on the most recent trip shares what these experiences have meant to her:
On our most recent tour, St. Luke’s member
Jean VanLeeuwen, attended and had this to say:
I became aware that my story was somewhat different from others on the trip, it was an awakening of sorts. Unlike others in the group, much of what I was hearing and seeing was new to me. I grew up in the South in the 50s and 60s, but was oblivious to the injustices around me. To my family, Martin Luther King Jr. was a troublemaker.
Coming to St Luke's in early 2020, and the pandemic isolation, allowed me to engage in the book study, "I'm Still Here," and the ultimate discussions opened up a whole new world. "Evicted" by Matthew Desmond continued to open my eyes, lead to my involvement with the Tenant Advocacy Group here at St Luke's and give me the courage to have conversations about race.
Returning to the Montgomery trip for a moment.... One of the most exciting aspects of the journey was seeking out the opportunity to sit and talk with several of the black participants one on one. That was definitely new for me and a huge blessing.
Going Beyond Just Seeing
But when we see it, when we are willing to recognize it, then we can start to do something about partiality, and when we act it is freeing. That’s another reason we all need to celebrate Juneteenth. This day did not just mean freedom for the enslaved, but the enslavers as well! It was freedom also for those caught up in system of oppression and those who felt helpless to change it. Juneteenth reminds us that We all have something we need to be set free from.
When James writes his letter to the church it does have a provoking force to it. It is meant to stir up a reaction, but for the sake of creating a more just, inclusive, loving community of Christ! And the people who needed to be set free were not just those impartially treated, but those who had the power to act but didn’t see the need or didn’t see the ability or both.
In his book on hope, Timothy Keller explains how perpetrators of oppression are often victims themselves who must be set free. He quotes New Testament scholar Richard Hays, “Those who exercise power to dominate others, to kill and oppress, are shown not only as villains but also, surprisingly, as pawns of forces beyond their control.” And he cites Herod and Pilate as case studies.
It can be easy to be in a position to change the world for the better but feel helpless to do so. And helplessness makes a slave out of us. Helplessness becomes an oppressor from which we must be set free. We want to be a church that not only sees the realities of difference and partiality in our world but also acts to change and make a difference. So look at this video that updates us on our current work in anti-racism here at St. Luke’s…
For a just society to occur it means liberation has to occur for everyone. Some need to be set free from exclusion and others set free to include.
More Than Human Effort Is Needed
Of course, more than human effort is needed. To succeed in the cause of justice and overcoming the evils of the past, we are dependent on the power and aid of God. In his book, The Cross and the Lynching Tree, James Cone quotes Reinhold Neibuhr who said, “Nothing worth doing can be achieved in our lifetime, therefore we must be saved by hope.” This, he says, is why the cross was an encouraging symbol for many black people in American history. Yes, it symbolized torture and shame, but that meant we worship a God who shares such experiences in our lives, and not only that, can redeem such experiences into redemption and the wonderful possibility of a new humanity.
This, Cone points out, is what kept Martin Luther King, Jr going. In his own low moments where the weight of the cross was felt, he experienced God meeting him there giving him the courage to keep going. And some would point out that such courage to keep going led King to his own death. And that is true. But as King himself would no doubt affirm, a dream worth dying for is a dream that cannot die.
That is what the cross means. The dream of a renewed humanity, a redeemed humankind, was a dream that took Jesus to the cross. But the dream did not die there. It is a dream that cannot die and will not die, because it is rooted in the love and mercy of God, the Divine liberator, who will forever be at work to restore and set free until the dawn of a new creation.
That is what hope means and that is what keeps us going to help overcome prejudice everywhere.
In Belmont Abbey in North Carolina there is a very unusual baptismal font. It is hewn out of a giant rock, a rock that was once used by auctioneers to sell slaves. Slaves would stand on the rock as bids were made. When the abbey was built they found this rock on the property and converted it into a baptismal font to symbolize God’s power that is always at work changing the hardness of human hearts into love and acceptance.
The plaque in front of the font reads: “Upon this rock, (people) were once sold into slavery. Now upon this rock, through the waters of baptism, (people) become free children of God.”
When we are baptized we take vows that say we “accept the freedom and power God gives me to resist evil, injustice, and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves.” Baptism is sort of like a vaccination. A vaccination doesn’t make you immune. How many of you got Covid after getting a vaccination?
A vaccination doesn’t make you immune, but it does help you resist. It lessens the impact of the sickness. It enables you to resist.
As we conclude worship this morning, I invite you to come down and pick up an EIO Vaccination Card—an evil, injustice and oppression vaccination card. It has the baptism vow on it and says, “I have been baptized in the grace and acceptance of Jesus Christ and therefore: accept the freedom and power God gives me to resist evil, injustice and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves.”
If you are not baptized I encourage you to pick up a card if you desire to resist prejudice. You may want to get baptized and if so, just….