Today is Juneteenth, a new federal holiday observed in virtually every state including Massachusetts, as well as by our Diocese. That means, among other things, our very own Lainey Hurlbut gets the day off tomorrow.
But Juneteenth is not particularly well known or appreciated, at least not by me. So, I begin by reminding you what Juneteenth represents.
The Civil War ended in April, 1865, but it took time for the good news to get around. On June 19—the first “Juneteenth”—Union General Gordon Granger announced the end of the war and the end of slavery in Galveston Texas, just about the most remote part of the former Confederacy. We commemorate that day as the end of legal slavery in our nation.
June 19, 1865 is a great day in American history, and not just for African Americans. On Juneteenth our nation took a giant step forward in living out our national ideals, our commitment to the self-evident truths that all people are created equal and endowed by our Creator with unalienable rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. We had a long way to go then, and we aren’t done yet. But on June 19, 1865, we got a little better. As American citizens, it is good for us to pause and celebrate this day.
But as Christians, we celebrate Juneteenth not only because it moved us a little closer to the ideals expressed in the Declaration of Independence. We celebrate Juneteenth as a moment when Paul’s vision of who we are came into slightly stronger focus. In our reading from Galatians, Paul says “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.”
On Juneteenth, most relevantly, no slave or free. But more generally, Paul insists that despite whatever seems to divide us—Paul talks about ethnicity and social status and gender, to which we could add a whole host of other reasons for division—whatever seems to divide us, we are, in fact, one in Christ Jesus.
What struck me as I sat with this passage was Paul’s use of the present tense. Paul didn’t say that there will be no Jew or Greek, slave or free, male or female. Paul didn’t say that one day we will all be one in Christ Jesus. Paul said that we are one today—for him in first century; for us in the twenty-first century.
As we look around at the divisions in our world, it doesn’t seem much like we are one. That was true in Paul’s time, too.
When Paul first became a Christian, Christians were still overwhelmingly Jews by background and still worshipped with other Jews in synagogues. But that was beginning to change by the time Paul wrote his letter to the Galatians. Christians and Jews were dividing. Christians were moving out of the synagogues or else being thrown out. That process was often painful and sometimes violent. Division between Christians and Jews.
Christians didn’t always get along with their pagan brothers and sisters either. We can read in the Acts of the Apostles about pagan riots against Christians, including specifically against Paul himself (e.g. 19:23f). Within a decade or so of Paul’s letter to the Galatians, the Roman Emperor Nero—one of the crazy ones—essentially outlawed Christianity, and had both Peter and Paul killed. Divisions between Christians and pagan Rome.
Christians were also often divided from each other. Most of Paul’s letter to the Galatians is him fussing at them for “deserting” Paul and “turning to a different [and false] gospel” (1:6). Paul worried that they had cut themselves off from Christ and fallen away from grace” (5:4). And Paul cursed the wrong-headed Christians who were misleading the Galatians (e.g. 5:12). Divisions among Christians.
And yet, in this same letter, Paul assures the Galatians that their divisions are not the most important thing about them. Paul reminds the Galatians that despite their divisions, they were, at some deep level one in Christ Jesus. One with each other. One in a different way with the Jews and pagans among whom they lived. The divisions in Galatia were certainly real. But their oneness in Christ was more real.
Jump forward 1800 years. Our nation was wrapping up a literal war with itself. Many in our nation had been holding other people as slaves. And yet, in the face of those enormous divisions, on Juneteenth, we said there will be no slave or free, and we asserted again our national unity.
And, in 2022, we are plagued with our own bitter divisions. The question for us is, can we affirm Paul’s vision today? Can we see the unity, of our nation and of our world, underneath everything that divides us?
For most people, the answer is often, no. The divisions seem too real. Meaningful unity seems like nothing more than a pious hope.
So, what can we do, as Christian people, to glimpse the unity that Paul saw, the unity that we have in Christ Jesus?
We get help from Elijah in our Old Testament reading.
I love the whole story, but we only have time for the last part. Elijah is in hiding. He is discouraged and afraid. He feels isolated and abandoned by his own people.
Suddenly the word of the Lord came to Elijah. God tells Elijah to stand at the entrance to a cave and be ready to hear God’s message.
A great wind goes by, then an earthquake, then a mighty fire. But the Lord was not in the wind, or the earthquake, or the fire. The Lord came after all that, and the Lord came in “a sound of sheer silence.”
I’m not sure what “a sound of sheer silence” means. But this much is clear. For Elijah to hear God’s voice, he has to ignore all the drama and all the noise. He has to find a place of quiet and stillness. Only then can Elijah hear.
God tells Elijah to go back out into the world, to get back to work. And Elijah’s task involves doing battle with the forces of evil. But first Elijah has to quiet down.
The same is true for us.
We are called to serve God’s world. In a divided world, our service will sometimes involve us in struggles of one sort or another. But as Christian people, we are called always to look beyond our divisions to our deeper unity in Christ Jesus. We are called always to engage with others as God’s beloved children. We are called always to love even those we think of as our enemies.
This morning we celebrate a day when things got a little better in our nation and in our world. But in the near future, each of us will be irritated by somebody doing something that strikes us as wrong-headed. Our task at that time is to remember Paul’s vision, to remember that we are all God’s children, to remember that we are called to Christian love, to remember that we are in fact united in Christ Jesus no matter how divided we seem.
To be ready for that flash of irritation, take some quiet time this week. Silence for a few minutes the barrage of noise around you. Practice listening for God’s voice in the stillness, looking beneath surface appearances to the reality of God underneath everything. Our nation needs that. Our Church needs that. As individual Christians, we need that.
May God help us to do it. In Christ’s name. Amen.
Rev. Dr. Harvey Hill
Third Order Franciscan