Monday was Juneteenth, which remembers the day in 1865 when troops finally brought the news of emancipation to the remote coastal town of Galveston, Texas. This news came more than two years (!) after the Emancipation Proclamation had already been signed. In the meantime, from January 1863 to June 1865, a quarter of a million people remained enslaved and unaware of the freedom that was rightfully theirs.
Juneteenth celebrates the end of slavery in America, and rightly so. But it also reminds us of the long delay between freedom declared and freedom realized. It reminds that there are powers of wickedness at work in the world — in leaders, in institutions, in systems, in ourselves — that hold people in bondage and injustice. It invites us to lament all the ways true freedom is not yet fully realized on this earth and to pray and act with renewed zeal for God's kingdom to come.
I loved the way Sunday's gospel reading from Matthew 10:1-15 picked up these themes. Here's Eugene Peterson's translation:
"Jesus called twelve of his followers and sent them into the ripe fields. He gave them power to kick out the evil spirits and to tenderly care for the bruised and hurt lives. . . . Jesus sent his twelve harvest hands out with this charge:
'Don’t begin by traveling to some far-off place to convert unbelievers. And don’t try to be dramatic by tackling some public enemy. Go to the lost, confused people right here in the neighborhood. Tell them that the kingdom is here. Bring health to the sick. Raise the dead. Touch the untouchables. Kick out the demons. You have been treated generously, so live generously.'"
Jesus invites his disciples to become participants in his ministry, to take the liberating news of the kingdom out to the people who need to hear it most. And so Jesus invites us, too.
In our modern context, we rarely see overt oppression by demons; we more often see the oppressive power of sin at work in our lives and institutions. But the resurrection is God's decisive proclamation that humanity has been freed from this oppressive power. Now we live in the long delay between freedom declared and freedom realized. Wherever we see the power of sin oppressing ourselves or others, in whatever area of our lives or world, however big or small, we cry out to God for deliverance. We act faithfully in accordance with Jesus' teaching. We announce and trust his power to set free. And we wait and hope for the full, once-for-all realization of that freedom. We keep proclaiming and enacting the kingdom in this way until we reach "Galveston" — the people and places and institutions and systems that seem the farthest out from the reach of God's liberating work.
How might you imagine this work in your context? How or where might Jesus be sending you "to kick out the evil spirits and to tenderly care for the bruised and hurt lives"? Where's the "Galveston" in your own life? I'm asking these questions too, and I'm praying for us all.
I have such fond memories of singing "Lift Every Voice and Sing" each year at elementary school assemblies to mark Juneteenth (I grew up in Texas, where it was already a state holiday). As a child, I barely understood the significance of these words; as an adult, I'm still learning. This hymn is both a powerful lament for past pain and a stirring prayer of hope. I encourage us all to read, pray, and enjoy these words this Juneteenth.
Lift every voice and sing
Till earth and heaven ring,
Ring with the harmonies of Liberty;
Let our rejoicing rise
High as the listening skies,
Let it resound loud as the rolling sea.
Sing a song full of the faith that the dark past has taught us,
Sing a song full of the hope that the present has brought us.
Facing the rising sun of our new day begun,
Let us march on till victory is won.
Stony the road we trod,
Bitter the chastening rod,
Felt in the days when hope unborn had died;
Yet with a steady beat,
Have not our weary feet
Come to the place for which our fathers sighed?
We have come over a way that with tears has been watered,
We have come, treading our path through the blood of the slaughtered,
Out from the gloomy past,
Till now we stand at last
Where the white gleam of our bright star is cast.
God of our weary years,
God of our silent tears,
Thou who hast brought us thus far on the way;
Thou who hast by Thy might
Led us into the light,
Keep us forever in the path, we pray.
Lest our feet stray from the places, our God, where we met Thee,
Lest, our hearts drunk with the wine of the world, we forget Thee;
Shadowed beneath Thy hand,
May we forever stand.
True to our God,
True to our native land.