New Year’s Eve in African American congregations is celebrated a little differently than putting on party hats, toasting champagne, and kissing at midnight. Many African American churches hold a worship service called “Watch Night”. It’s a vigil for what is to come on January 1st. See on September 22, 1862, President Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation which legally abolished slavery in the United States. This went into effect on January 1st, 1863.
This was a joyous day. A day of celebration, a day for many that they could finally breathe. A day, when in many states, being born with brown skin no longer meant you were property. A day of freedom.
But, as we know, the American Civil War did not end on January 1st, 1863, and so neither did slavery. There were still battles to be won, laws to be enforced, and people to be freed the hard way… not just on paper.
And so, January 1st is memorialized and honored, but it is not the celebration of the end of slavery in the United States. That celebration was yesterday, June 19th, which as of this past week is now a federal holiday: Juneteenth.
This is a hallelujah moment. This day, also known as Black Independence Day, is now federally recognized and honored. It is a small win in the battle for racial equality.
The last confederate state to finally be taken to task about its slavery, was Texas. On June 19, 1865 General Granger arrived in Galveston, TX to finally say, “Enough is enough.” And starting on June 19, 1866, this day was a celebration starting in Galveston but quickly moving its away across the country.
We do not celebrate the beginning of the end of slavery, but rather the day when it finally seemed like there would actually be an end.
This is not the day that the abolishment of slavery took effect in the entirety of the United States. It is not the day when all the slaves in Texas were free. It is not the day when every man, woman, and child held in camps and on plantations doing forced labor came to an end. If we are being honest with ourselves…. that day has still not come.
Juneteenth is a day of hope. A day for us to pray for the end of racism, human trafficking, and forced labor not just here, but in God’s entire created world.
I’m going rogue and leading us away from the Revised Common Lectionary this morning. That’s those readings you have pre-set for each Sunday in your bulletin inserts. Because when things like this happen in our world it is important to talk about them. Important to see how God is working in our world today and now.
And I could probably bend the lectionary readings to make something fit, but that would do honor neither to the topic at hand nor to the Bible.
When I think about the celebration of Juneteenth and what that means for us as followers of Jesus, I think about the story that Jesus tells about the lost sheep.
It’s a very short parable that Jesus tells, but it speaks volumes to our faith. Matthew 18:12-14, “12 What do you think? If someone had one hundred sheep and one of them wandered off, wouldn’t he leave the ninety-nine on the hillsides and go in search for the one that wandered off? 13 If he finds it, I assure you that he is happier about having that one sheep than about the ninety-nine who didn’t wander off. 14 In the same way, my Father who is in heaven doesn’t want to lose one of these little ones.”
In just 3 short verses, Jesus reminds us about a very important thing about God: God is always pursuing the one who is not yet saved, the one who is not yet freed… the one who is lost to the 99.
Juneteenth is the celebration of finding that 100th sheep and Juneteenth is about continuing to pursue the 100th sheep. Continuing to pursue racial equality.
If you think about it… it says something about our country that until 2021, we have not had a national holiday celebrating the end of chattel slavery in the United States. And it says something that a majority of white folks have never heard of Juneteenth until 2021. It says there is still work to do.
The sheep is still lost. God is still in the act of pursuing our hearts and minds to transform and change. And only through these transformations will that 100th sheep be found.
And friends, God is still pursuing this sheep, pursuing equality, pursuing the ones that are still not free. This is the good news of God.
Let us end with a prayer. This prayer comes from the ELCA Prayer Ventures:
Gracious God, on Juneteenth, we pray for the end of racism, racial inequalities and hatred in our nation, for an end to all forms of slavery and human trafficking in the world. Living in God’s grace and forgiveness, may we confess and confront our own prejudices and fears, serving as catalysts for change, reconciliation and healing. Amen.