Posting a sermon form June 21, 2012
“It is the sound of freedom calling.”
It is hard to hear that sound sometimes. It is easy to feel trapped, that there is no way out of a situation that feels like slavery. We get stuck sometimes, in old habits and patterns, in relationships that aren’t working, and in jobs that drain and depress us. We slave away trying to make ends meet, knowing that it is, in the end, hopeless.
But freedom is calling us, just as it was in Galveston on that day so long ago. In amazement and disbelief the slaves heard that not only were they now free, but that they had been free for months, for years even, but no one had told them and they did not know.
“Two and a half years after President Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, the slaves of Texas learned that they were free. Later attempts to explain this two and a half year delay in the receipt of this important news have yielded several versions that have been handed down through the years. Often told is the story of a messenger who was murdered on his way to Texas with the news of freedom. Another is that the news was deliberately withheld to maintain the labor force on the plantations. And still another is that federal troops actually waited for the slave owners to reap the benefits of one last cotton harvest before going to Texas to enforce the Emancipation Proclamation.” (juneteenth.com)
It is important to remember that the Mexican-American War which was fought in the years 1846 to 1848 had a lot to do with slavery as well as with imperialism.
American settlers in Texas were illegal immigrants who brought their slaves with them, but slavery was illegal in Mexico and became one of the main sources of conflict between the American Settlers and the Mexican government. When the Republic of Texas was annexed by the United States, over the bitter objections of the anti-slavery movement, war with Mexico was inevitable.
“Generally, the officers of the army were indifferent whether the annexation was consummated or not; but not so all of them. For myself, I was bitterly opposed to the measure, and to this day regard the war, which resulted, as one of the most unjust ever waged by a stronger against a weaker nation. It was an instance of a republic following the bad example of European monarchies, in not considering justice in their desire to acquire additional territory.”
“Grant also expressed the view that the war against Mexico had brought punishment on the United States in the form of the American Civil War:
The Southern rebellion was largely the outgrowth of the Mexican war. Nations, like individuals, are punished for their transgressions. We got our punishment in the most sanguinary and expensive war of modern times.”
We should not be proud of the Mexican American War, a war in which we basically stole the lands of California, Nevada, Arizona and Utah from Mexico. I wish those who are so hostile to modern day immigrants would remember this history.
But back to Juneteenth, which was the shorthand name given to the event by the slaves, almost all of whom were illiterate because it was a crime for them to be taught to read.
When the proclamation of freedom was read, after the initial shock, there was much jubilation and celebration. Many of the newly freed slaves left immediately.
“North was a logical destination and for many it represented true freedom, while the desire to reach family members in neighboring states drove some into Louisiana, Arkansas and Oklahoma.” Settling into these new areas as free men and women brought on new realities and the challenges of establishing a heretofore non-existent status for black people in America. Recounting the memories of that great day in June of 1865 and its festivities would serve as motivation as well as a release from the growing pressures encountered in their new territory. The celebration of June 19th was coined “Juneteenth” and grew with more participation from descendants. The Juneteenth celebration was a time for reassuring each other, for praying and for gathering remaining family members. Juneteenth continued to be highly revered in Texas decades later, with many former slaves and descendants making an annual pilgrimage back to Galveston on this date.”
“On January 1, 1980, Juneteenth became an official state holiday in Texas through the efforts of Al Edwards, an African American state legislator. The successful passage of this bill marked Juneteenth as the first emancipation celebration granted official state recognition.”
The holiday is not well known outside of Texas and outside of the African American community, but is one that I think is worthwhile for all of us.
What if you were free and didn’t know it? What does that mean? From the beginning of slavery, people hear the sound of freedom calling and did all they could to make it so. They ran away from their masters, risking death. Runaway slaves were killed or tortured, branded and mutilated. The risk was great, but still they ran.
What would you risk for freedom? We all hear freedom calling us, but we don’t always have the courage to answer the call. What is holding you in chains? Chains can be physical, but they can also be emotional, psychological and spiritual. We all have them: habits, addictions, patterns developed from how we were brought up perhaps, perceptions tainted by where we have lived, by our experiences and by our assumptions. What would happen if we were to cast them aside?
Now I am not advising that you all quit your jobs tomorrow or leave your families. But if you are feeling trapped in some situation, some aspect of your life, some attitude of mind that you just can’t shake, it might be useful to imagine what it would be like to really feel like you were free. As our opening hymn, I think we all wish we knew how it would feel to be free.
So try this. Think about something you would like to do for yourself; something that when it crosses your mind even as a faint hope, your first response is “I can’t.” Can all of you think of something like that? Whatever it is, there are probably plenty of reasons why you can’t do it. The list of why you can’t is probably a long one: not enough money, not enough time, and too many other responsibilities.
My fourth grade teacher was fond of saying, “Can’t lives on won’t street.” Ever heard that one? I hated the expression. I mean, there are some things you just can’t do even if you want to.
Many times, however, I think we say “I can’t” not because something is truly impossible, but because we don’t want it enough to spend the time or take all the risks that would be involved. There may be obstacles, but they are not really chains but merely limitations that we can choose to accept or not. We are much freer sometimes than we think we are.
Let me give an example. Let’s say you really hate your job. Not just getting up and going to work, but every minute while you are on the job you are miserable. You feel like you are wasting your time doing something that has no meaning for you. The boss is a real creep. Your co-workers are dull. The work is mind-numbing and exhausting. Some of you have been in that kind of situation and some of you still are. You want to quit, or at least complain to the boss, but you are afraid.
But what is the worst case scenario? You will be fired and won’t find another job. You will get behind on your rent and you will lose your home.
You won’t have enough to eat, you will get sick, and then you will freeze to death under a freeway overpass. It could happen. It does happen.
Most likely, however, you will find another job, and maybe even one you like better. The slaves in Texas had to weigh their chances of freedom very carefully. The odds were never good. Almost all of them were too afraid to take the risk of attempting to escape.
Then, on Juneteenth, they discovered that not only were they finally free, they had been free for a long time and just didn’t know it. If they had decided to run earlier, the journey to safety and freedom was not nearly as long as they had imagined.
A poem by Kristina Kay called “We Rose”
From Africa’s heart, we rose
Already a people, our faces ebon, our bodies lean,
Skills of art, life, beauty and family
Crushed by forces we knew nothing of, we rose
Survive we must, we did,
We rose to be you, we rose to be me,
Above everything expected, we rose
To become the knowledge we never knew,
Dream, we did
Act we must
There is no shame in being afraid, but it is important to know that there is almost always at least some choice involved. The choice may just be to survive, to dream, and to wait for the time when action will become possible.
That day will come.
“I feel it more and more
It’s the rumble of freedom calling
Climbing up to the sky
It’s the rumble of the old ways a falling
You can feel it if you try”