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Exodus 6.2-8

Leviticus 25.1-2, 8-12, 39-43

John 15.12-17


Juneteenth / Second Sunday after Pentecost

One of the more counterintuitive stories in the Bible is described in the 11th chapter of Numbers.  It takes place after Moses had led the formerly enslaved Israelites out of their Egyptian bondage, and they escaped Pharaoh’s pursuing army through the miraculous parting of the Red Sea.  No more bondage.  No more back-breaking labor.  No more Pharaoh.  They were well on their way to Canaan, the homeland God had promised them.  What’s more, God had sustained them throughout their journey with manna, a delicacy that miraculously appeared every morning through God’s providence.   But they were unhappy.  In spite of all their good fortune and the promise of more to come, they complained to Moses:  “We remember the fish we used to eat in Egypt for nothing, the cucumbers, the melons, the leeks, the onions, and the garlic; but now our strength is dried up, and there is nothing at all but this manna to look at.”  You heard that right.  They longed for the “good old days” of Egypt, conveniently forgetting that for all the fish and cucumber and melons and leeks and onions and garlic they ate, they were slaves.  Their longing for the food of their past glossed over the return to slavery.  On this June 19th - Juneteenth - 2022, when we are remembering this date in 1865 when, nearly two years after the Emancipation Proclamation, the last slaves were freed, this story seems not only counterintuitive, but also in some ways insulting – insulting to the God who provided for them, insulting to Moses who had already led them nearly to the threshold of the Promised Land, and insulting to the descendants of American slaves, who in some ways are still struggling against many of the same racist attitudes and biases that placed them in chains in the first place.  The longing for a return to the place of their enslavement was not the Hebrew people’s finest moment.

The Bible has a lot to say about slavery and servitude.  And like the story from Numbers about Israel’s ill-conceived desire to return to slavery because the food was good, it gives off some decidedly mixed signals.  In some places the Bible appears to condone slavery, setting out rules for the well-being of the enslaved.  In some places it encourages the enslavement of wartime captives and orders Israel to place entire peoples into servitude.  In some places it is used as a metaphor for a relationship with God.  And in some places it is condemned outright.  These mixed messages were starkly experienced in the southern church both before and after the Civil War.  While many slave holders permitted, and some even encouraged their servants to attend church, many churches were forbidden to read any biblical passages about liberation and manumission.  Only those that endorsed or described slavery as part of the normal social fabric were permitted.  Of course, most slaves knew better simply through word of mouth, and in particular through song, that the Bible opens up an entire vista of freedom and liberty and restorative justice.  Try as they might, it was impossible for slave owners and the plantation culture to keep these biblical stories quiet.

Each of our scripture readings this morning is one of those stories those both slaves and former slaves surely knew, but rarely heard from the pulpits of their day.  The first is probably the best-known, and it remains the touchstone of liberation and abolition to this day.  “I have heard the groaning of the Israelites,” God said to Moses,

“whom the Egyptians are holding as slaves, and I have remembered my covenant. Say therefore to the Israelites, “I am the Lord, and I will free you from the burdens of the Egyptians and deliver you from slavery to them. I will redeem you with an outstretched arm and with mighty acts of judgement. I will take you as my people, and I will be your God.”

The story of the exodus – indeed, the story of a good deal of the Hebrew scriptures – constitutes the unfolding and the fulfilment of God’s promise.  We learn about how the Hebrew slaves escaped to freedom under the wings of God.  We learn how they came to a land of their own and learned how to organize and how to govern.  We learn how they became a great people with legendary leaders like David and Solomon.  And we learn how they slowly forgot the God who had delivered their ancestors and turned to follow other deities.  That is to say, we learn how they became like all the cultures around them, chasing after things that made them lesser people rather than God’s chosen. 

But this is getting too far ahead of the story.  I think a better direction is the idea of Jubilee that Leviticus lays out for us.  Jubilee, alongside its sister idea of the sabbath, represents both a pause and a resetting.  The sabbath – and the sabbatical – occur on the seventh:  the sabbath on the seventh day and the sabbatical in the seventh year.  On the seventh day you shall rest, and in the seventh year you shall let your land lie fallow, that it may be reset and recharged.  Israel was reminded to set aside crops and feed in the first six years in order to be able to let the land rest every seventh year.  It was a way of caring for the creation that provided for them.

While the sabbath was established for the sake of humanity, as Jesus reminded his hearers:  “The sabbath was made for humanity, not humanity for the sabbath;”  and while the sabbatical was established for creation, the Jubilee was established for the life of the community.  After seven sets of seven years – following a sabbath of sabbaticals – the law of liberty and freedom were proclaimed, and every enslaved or indentured person was to be set free.

“And you shall hallow the fiftieth year and you shall proclaim liberty throughout the land to all its inhabitants. It shall be a jubilee for you: you shall return, every one of you, to your property and every one of you to your family… If any who are dependent on you become so impoverished that they sell themselves to you, you shall not make them serve as slaves. They shall remain with you as hired or bound laborers. They shall serve with you until the year of the jubilee. Then they and their children with them shall be free from your authority; they shall go back to their own family and return to their ancestral property.”

Even in those times and places the Bible and Israel’s history and culture countenance slavery, the Levitical code demands freedom and liberation in the year of Jubilee.  I know, it sounds like weak tea to say you can have slaves and release them all only every fifty years, but remember we are looking at a 3000 year old culture through 21st century eyes, and still, at the end of the day, freedom trumps captivity, and liberation overcomes enslavement.

But while Juneteenth is a commemoration of something that happened more than 150 years ago that still reverberates today, it also provides you and me the opportunity to consider the things that want to, well, not exactly enslave us, because that’s too fraught a word, but at the least circumscribe our freedom.  What things prevent us from being our best selves?  As I’ve mentioned before, for about ten years I worked with the students and staff at Recovery High School, which was exclusively for teens who were addicted to drugs or alcohol.  And it was unique among other Recovery Schools because you weren’t forced to be clean in order to attend.  At all the others, if you use, you’re either suspended or expelled; at this one, if you use, you get treatment.  I saw first hand the devastating effects of use, and the heroic efforts of the faculty and staff to provide both help and hope.  Addiction was enslavement, and for some, that enslavement meant death.  There are some folks in this room, some folks in this church, some folks in this community, who know what it is like to fight addiction, and how difficult it is, and how addiction can control the choices we make and damage relationships.  It keeps us from being our best selves for ourselves and for others.

And it’s not just the obvious things like drugs and alcohol.  Ideology can enslave people; material wealth can confine us, or at least its pursuit.  Some are constrained by abusive relationships, by poverty, by lack of adequate health care, by inequitable access to education.  For the past seven years Debbie has been working on programs for Boston Public Schools to provide equitable access to information literacy, which is a fancy way of saying making sure the students in Boston Public Schools have access to library services.  Research – including her own - shows that students who have access to school libraries and librarians do better in school and have more post-high school opportunity than those who do not.  It is a social justice issue that can open doors for formerly undereducated children to break the restraints that have been holding them back.

In John’s gospel, Jesus shows that the way of liberation is through love. “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you… I do not call you servants any longer, because the servant does not know what the master is doing; but I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from the Lord.”  No longer servants or slaves to anything or anyone – not even to Christ – but rather friends.  And no one has greater love than to lay down everything – everything - for a friend.  The way of liberation is the way of love.  Moses liberated the people Israel from their bondage to slavery.  Jesus liberates his friends from our bondage to sin and anything else that keeps us from a healthy relationship with God, with each other, and with ourselves.  And we, liberated by love, are both called and equipped to bring down whatever barriers and break whatever chains continue to constrain our brothers and sisters, that prevent the minority from enjoying what the majority enjoys.  A UCC colleague of mine in Maryland recently confessed that it’s only been in the past five years that she became familiar with the significance of June 19, and I will make a similar confession.  If you had asked me what Juneteenth was, let’s say a decade ago, my best reply would have been that it is a novel by Ralph Ellison, also author of Invisible Man.  On this day, though, let Juneteenth become a time of Jubilee, when all God’s children are freed from the constraints that bind them, freed from the prejudices and bias of the past, freed to live into the love and justice, the freedom and the jubilee, of Jesus.





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