June 25, 2007

Pastor George Van Alstine

We’ve just come by another important holiday—“JUNETEENTH.â€? What, you’ve never heard of it? That’s probably because y’all are a Yankee!

“Juneteenthâ€? is a popular abbreviation of “June Nineteenth,â€? the anniversary of one of the great events in America’s long, hard struggle toward racial justice. It commemorates the day on which slaves in Texas first learned of the Emancipation Proclamation, which gave them their legal freedom.

You see, Lincoln had made the great Proclamation in September of 1862, but it took two-and-a-half years for the news to reach the ears of the slaves in remote, rural areas of the West. Union General Granger came with 2000 troops into the Port of Galveston. Learning that the news of the official end of slavery was still unknown there, Granger made a pronouncement from a hotel balcony that was greeted with a mixture of disbelief and elation.

The annual Celebration of Juneteenth began as early as 1870 and has continued in various locations in Texas and nearby states ever since. Activities involve parades, street fairs, music, dancing, baseball games, and lots of good eating. Barbecued meats, often the kind folk can’t afford every day, are the center of a great feast. One tradition that brings nostalgic feelings to people who grew up with Juneteenth is red soda pop.

Why did it take two-and-a-half years for the good news to reach Texas? Here are some musings from a Website about the holiday (www.juneteenth.com):

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 by the enslavers 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. All or none of them could be true. For whatever the reason, conditions in Texas remained status quo well beyond what was statutory.

There is a spiritual analogy to the two-and-a-half year delay. This lag-time illustrates a sad reality in the faith journey of many people, who live as slaves to sin long after the Lord pronounces their freedom. They may know about Jesus’ life, teachings, death and resurrection, but have no idea of the revolutionary impact this can have on their lives. There are Christians who have been forgiven of their sins and released from sin bondage, but still slavishly follow their old life habits. Other Christians seem to understand their forgiveness, but are so used to being slaves that they exchange slavemasters, from sin to legalism. They never seem to embrace the full implications of their freedom in Christ.

Maybe we ought to celebrate a kind of “Jesus Juneteenth,â€? reminding ourselves and each other that “for freedom Christ has set us freeâ€? (Galatians 5:1). We ought to party and parade and sing and dance and feast at a barbecue. We ought to toast our freedom in Christ by lifting bottles of red soda pop.