6.18.23 Juneteenth Worship The Rev. Katie Holicky, Assistant Rector Matthew 9:35-10:8(9-23)
Does anyone know who the most photographed U.S.-er (a global term for citizens of our nation) was in the 19th century? For real, shout out your guesses! If you were thinking of the many portraits of Frederick Douglas you were correct! Frederick Douglas believed that being photographed as a famous black abolitionist, orator, and writer was extremely important for black representation. It mattered deeply (and still does) for black and white folks alike to see these images. And you will notice that he isn’t smiling in all but one of them. This is because as a self emancipated former slave he did not feel it right to smile in pictures while black people still suffered under the weight of chattel slavery and then later in his life as he saw his people suffer still with racism and the lack of equality afforded to black people post emancipation (TLOFD).
At this point you may be wondering how I know such a specific detail about Frederick Douglas. Well, I recently finished this graphic novel, “The Life of Frederick Douglass”. (show book with pictures) Through these powerful images and the comic book-like text I was able to gain a deeper understanding of the life and work of this great abolitionist without reading this book, “Frederick Douglas, Prophet of Freedom” (show book) which Phil read. It’s like eight hundred pages long! I highly commend both resources to you depending on how you best absorb historical data.
As I read this engaging account of his life told through his own voice I was struck by how much I didn’t know about his life, especially his journey of self emancipation. It was incredibly powerful to hear of his experiences of slavery from childhood where he was starved and abused, to adulthood when he stood up to a master known as “The Slave Breaker” and fought back (TLOFD). Douglas, after meeting the woman who would become his wife, Anna, made a plan and with help from others and emancipated himself. There is so much more about him that I would love to say here, but what really touches me is the way he took his own experience, spoke of it, and did everything he could to help bring about freedom for all. It is a story that I hold close to my heart as we turn to celebrate Juneteenth.
Over two years after emancipation was declared the Civil War ended, and the Union Army finally had freed up enough troops to go to Texas and enforce it. For the over two years between written emancipation and the time the Union troops arrived, black slaves were forced to labor on. Tomorrow we mark the day that white masters in Texas could no longer get away with enslavement. Freedom Day. As we mark Freedom Day this year, I find it helpful to pause and ponder how God is calling us to deepen our own work around racial justice.
And how does that inquiry compel us into action just as the twelve are moved into action in today’s Matthew reading. The twelve disciples are commissioned and sent out in twos reminding us all that we are never meant to do the work of God alone. But instead, to trust in one another and walk together as those sheep among wolves. This particular naming of the twelve in Matthew is really important, because just like John before Jesus the twelve are sent to reclaim the lost sheep of Israel who haven’t been well cared for by their leaders (TBC, 301). We note that the twelve disciples call to mind the twelve tribes; that they are to start here among their own so that the entire nation may come to be a model for all nations (TBC, 301). And I wonder, how are we being called to help change the hearts of those we are in relationships with and model justice for others?
Interestingly the twelve are given the power of doing (healing and such) and not of teaching which is left to Jesus as the ultimate teacher (TTONL, 99). They are doing, taking action, being God’s presence moving in and changing the world while having the wisdom to know when to move on and brush the dust off. And in taking nothing with them the disciples “invite and enact radial trust and dependence upon God” (TBC, 301).
We are also promised the hardship of being disciples sent out into the world; “The revelation of God’s power, whether through Jesus or his disciples, threatens human power and as a result incites division and violence, even among the disciples’ own families” (TBC, 301). It is a hard truth, especially in our current climate of staunch divisiveness. Doing God’s work, bringing God’s justice in the world will push on the power of the empire and result in division when often all we want is to try and find ways to be together.
This is part of the promise of the Gospel of Matthew. One way to know for sure we are doing the work of the reign of God is that one of the outcomes will be disruption. We are meant to disrupt the status quo and trust that in doing so we are part of God’s inbreaking. Black scholars have noted that such a situation can only be understood within the context of Marcus Garvey’s words, “Men [and women] who are in earnest are not afraid of consequences” (TTONL, 99).
Perhaps my favorite connection to this scripture that God put on my heart this week was that Frederick Douglas, who as an enslaved youth learned to read and started a secret Sunday School for enslaved folks, escaped the brutality of slavery, became one of the greatest abolishist our nation ever saw, and advised multiple U.S. Presidents (TLOFD)… was the epitome of being “wise as a serpent and innocent as a dove”. “The dove was a model of integrity, defenselessness, and purity. By contrast, the serpent was a model of craftiness” (TTONL, 99). And I will add, thanks to a conversation with Mary Lee this week, that serpents also know when they need to shed the skin they have outgrown. Sort of like that “brush the dust off thing”.
While none of us are Frederick Douglas we, as followers of Jesus, are called to this very type of justice oriented work that disrupts and challenges, liberates and transforms the world we live in. Now, maybe none of us will ever become the most photographed person of our century, and still may we as we look to the celebration of Freedom Day we proclaim that this is our legacy too. That we are called to be purveyors of racial justice because that is God’s justice.
May we stay open and creative and trust in the strong foundation of this work that we have built on our work through Sacred Ground, our work in working to offer affordable housing for neighbors at 65 Union Street, and the many other modalities in which we embody racial justice. And may we keep going! May we keep going until we can proclaim an even deeper Freedom Day that is wide and vast enough for every human being to be treated with respect and dignity, for everyone to have enough, and for God’s love to be felt by all. The laborers are few, and we are sheep amongst wolves, BUT STILL we go together hand in hand moving towards a world where we see God’s justice through equity for all people. So, “be wise as serpents, and innocent as doves”. May it be so.
Resources: The Life of Fredrick Douglas, Theological Bible Commentary, True to our Native Land