From The African American Lectionary:


Thursday, January 1, 2009
Or Friday, June 19, 2009: Juneteenth

Editorial Note: Since the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation and Juneteenth share important historical and cultural connections, we explore them under the same lectionary moment. Some congregations will choose to celebrate each of these moments separately on different days. Others will elect to celebrate only one of these moments. Still other churches will combine the celebrations as we have done and celebrate them on January 1 or June 19th.

Yolanda Pierce, Guest Lectionary Commentator
Elmer G. Homrighausen Associate Professor of African American Religion and Literature, Princeton Theological Seminary, Princeton, NJ

Lection - Exodus 15: 20-21 (New Revised Standard Version)
(v.20) Then the prophet Miriam, Aaron’s sister, took a tambourine in her hand; and all the women went out after her with tambourines and with dancing. (v.21) And Miriam sang to them: “Sing to the Lord, for he has triumphed gloriously; horse and rider he has thrown into the sea.”

I. Description of the Liturgical Moment

Emancipation Proclamation Day
What a wonderful way to begin this extraordinary new year—talking about freedom. On January 1, 1863, as the nation approached its third year of the bloody and horrific Civil War, President Abraham Lincoln issued a proclamation declaring freedom for “all persons held as slaves.” While this was a bold declaration in sentiment, it did not actually free all enslaved persons from bondage, because it applied only to states that had seceded from the Union, thus leaving slavery legal in the border states and in those parts of the Confederacy already under Northern control.

However, the impact of the spirit of the Emancipation Proclamation cannot be denied; it brought the cause of the emancipation of enslaved people to the very heart of this war. Every battle waged after January 1, 1863 struck a blow to the inhumane institution of slavery and advanced the cause of immediate emancipation. Lincoln’s declaration also legitimized the service of black men into the Union Army and Navy, thus allowing the enslaved to be full participants in the struggle for their own freedom. By the end of the war, almost 200,000 African American soldiers and sailors had fought for the Union and for freedom.

It wasn’t until the ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution, on December 18, 1865, that slavery was truly abolished. However, the Emancipation Proclamation stands as a great document of human freedom, reminding us that words are powerful tools in striking a blow to injustice, inequality, and oppression everywhere.

On June 19, 1865, two thousand federal troops arrived in Galveston, Texas to take possession of the state from the Confederacy and enforce the emancipation of enslaved persons living there. Although the Emancipation Proclamation had been issued two years earlier, actual bodily freedom was slow in coming to the lives of the majority of enslaved men and women living in former Confederate strongholds. For a full two and a half years after Lincoln’s famous address, African American men and women in places such as Texas continued to live under the confines of chattel slavery, some of them completely unaware that they were no longer legally under the oppressor’s yoke.

Juneteenth, also known as Freedom Day or Emancipation Day, is the commemoration of this June 19, 1865 freedom event in Texas. And while the celebration of this day originated in Texas, it is now celebrated throughout the United States and in several countries. Usually commemorated in both public and private celebrations, Juneteenth is a festive remembrance of freedom. Whether at a church picnic or a dance festival in the park, Juneteenth has a celebratory flavor as an entire people look back and wonder “how they got over.” For African Americans, more importantly this day represents the continuing legacy of resistance to oppression and our survival and endurance in the face of genocide due to God’s sustaining power and deliverance.

II. Biblical Interpretation for Preaching and Worship: Exodus 15:20-21

Part One: The Contemporary Context of the Interpreter
In the Akan language of Ghana, “sankofa” is a term that translates to “go back and take.” Sankofa symbolizes the action of taking from the past that which is good, and bringing it into the present in order to make positive changes for the future. As we enter a new year, we must retrieve from our past that which was important to our continued survival and our success – even as we approach the future with a new vision. While the African American past is a painful legacy, there is much joy there, as well. Our foremothers and forefathers were able to pass on a love for community, a love for God, and a love for all people, despite their enslavement. What a good way to begin a year—passing on the things which are most important.

As we celebrate emancipation and deliverance, we must do so with a full recognition of the costs of that freedom. In reverence, we cannot forget the sixty million and more who died during the transatlantic slave voyage and the many centuries of slavery. We must remember those who endured second class citizenship under Jim Crow. We must not forget that the battle for freedom is ever waging. In the spirit of the Emancipation Proclamation and in the spirit of Juneteenth, we must declare words of freedom for all who are in bondage, of every creed, color, nation, and persuasion. Chattel slavery in the United States is over, but slavery continues to exist all over the globe, as in Sudan or in the exploitation of migrant workers. When the Spirit of the Lord is upon us, we are called to proclaim liberty to the captive and release to the prisoners (Isaiah 61:1b). Are we doing all that we can to ensure that all people are free? What a good way to begin the year—fighting for freedom for others.
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