Today we commemorate Juneteenth. The day in our nation’s history when the last of the enslaved people in this land were finally told they were free. We have this story of Elijah running from the bad masters, King Ahab and Queen Jezebel, and it is in the silence that he hears the voice of God. And I wonder how many escaped slaves hid in caves or other places and were frightened at every sound they heard. The wind sounded like everything around them was being torn apart and every vibration seemed like a massive earthquake that would reveal their hiding place. Then, when there was silence, they would move on to the next hiding place, always moving toward freedom, they hoped.
When enslaved people heard this Psalm, I’m sure they identified with the yearning and the despair. ‘I will say to the God of my strength, “Why have you forgotten me? And why do I go so heavily while the enemy oppresses me?” While my bones are being broken, my enemies mock me to my face.’ In the context of our nation’s peculiar institution, these words have a different meaning.
And Paul tells the Galatians, “But now that faith has come, we are no longer subject to a disciplinarian, for in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith. … There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male or female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.” I doubt this passage was read in the slave states-not when the enslaved were present, anyhow.
This past week, we remembered the 9 who lost their lives while attending a Bible study at Mother Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, S.C.-they invited a young man to join them and he opened fire on them. Then we got the news of 3 people being killed at St. Stephen Episcopal Church in Vestavia Hills, Alabama. Again, the man was invited to join them in their potluck meal and he opened fire on them. In the first case, we are reminded that there are still people in our country who are stressed at the idea that those who are different should be treated with equality as the Emancipation Proclamation stated. Although, we are still not there by any means.
And, we see this tension between treating others equitably and the fear of how that will shift our daily lives in today’s Gospel. Jesus steps out of the boat and encounters a man who is naked and out of his mind. The man recognizes Jesus for who he is and the demons possessing him beg Jesus to leave them alone. The demons leave the man and he returns to normality and the Gerasenes ask Jesus to leave. They are frightened of the power he exhibits. They were stressed by the idea that things could change for the better that easily. That a man oppressed by possession could be healed and return to normal, scared them. And, one wonders if they were frightened at the idea that treating this one man with equity would shift their whole way of thinking. What if he took a job they wanted? What if he competed for other resources, like housing? What if they had to consider every person in their town as an equal?
These are the fears that destroyed Reconstruction after the Civil War, that brought oppressive literacy tests to register to vote. That brought about the rise of hate groups and Jim Crow laws and red-lining of neighborhoods in cities all across the country. The list of ways that African Americans were held back seems endless.
Some of my coworkers and friends attended the Poor People’s Campaign rally in Washington, D.C. yesterday. This campaign has picked up where Martin Luther King, Jr. left off: uniting folks who are trying to unionize with folks who are fighting for clean water with folks who are fighting for voting rights with folks who are in recovery with folks who want access to medical care with folks who are fighting against predatory lenders with… the list goes on.
My hope is that we will keep inviting the stranger to join us, that we will keep talking about and fighting for equity, and that we will set aside our fears about changes that might affect our own lives. I remember, as a child, passing a white two-story house-nothing special, just a wood framed building. We would pass it as we got closer to my grandparents’ house in Southern Indiana. My mother had pointed it out to us one time and I always watched for it with wonder. She told us it was part of the Underground Railroad and in my mind it was elevated, an icon of resistance and freedom. And it caught my imagination and held it for years.
I would like us to imagine what the world could be and how we can work to meet that goal just as the owners of that house back in the 19th Century were willing to risk breaking the law because they could imagine a world without slavery.