Perhaps to some, it may seem unusual for this particular congregation to have a Juneteenth service, though we have held a Juneteenth service before. In some parts of this country and in some congregations, Sunday Juneteenth services coincide with Juneteenth celebrations in various towns and states. For those who may not be familiar with Juneteenth, it celebrates the final emancipation of the slaves from slavery on June 19th, 1865, Texas and Louisiana being the last to free slaves, more than two years later.
I did not learn about Juneteenth in grade school. That is, in and of itself, a tragedy. As more than one person has said, “African American history is American history.” Our failure to teach consistently about this delay – its reasons, hardships, and consequences—is also part of our history. What does it say about our United States, that we observe July 4th, the founding of our country and our freedoms, but do so knowing only some—white, landed men– were free at that time? What does it say when we refuse to celebrate when all people of these United States were truly made free by our governing powers?
Here we are in church and we celebrate freedom here because God celebrates freedom. The story is told throughout our scriptures that God frees the oppressed and lifts up every human spirit. Just the story of Joseph’s rise to power in Egypt is a powerful example of how the oppressed will not remain oppressed, not in spirit, and not in body, and not for eternity if God has anything to do with freeing the human spirit and humankind from its tendency towards sin and injustice.
But why does justice delay? Justice herself will not delay in showing up, but people surely do delay in acknowledging that justice is present. Justice resides in every human heart that sees that something is amiss, that something is not just off, but rotten, and that something must be reckoned with, so that what is unhealthy and unsustainable will be made well and sustainable. l have read that the delay of granting emancipation was a matter of Texas and Louisiana not getting the news in a timely fashion though I have my doubts. True, news may have taken a while, but I suspect that the leaders and people holding power back then did as some do even now—they only heard what they wanted to hear which was pretending to hear nothing.
Word travelled then as now, but if the Word was seen to be conflicting with one’s interests—particularly, one’s way of life, well, then it is easier to pretend that the word was somehow delayed. Yet, God’s Word will not be delayed. Even then, Justice herself bent down low to whisper in the slave’s ear that not all people divided the world into owned and free, even then Justice bent down low to whisper in the plantation owner’s ear that his wealth and her social status were just a foil for hell and bloody civil war, even then Justice was bending low to be present in the child of the slave yearning to be seen as fully human and fully equal, even as inequality raged around her.
Our scripture passage is about Jesus sending out the disciples—the twelve—to all the surrounding towns. And it is clear that Jesus brooks no delay in the sending. The fields are rich for harvesting, but the laborers are few. There are those who will listen to justice as she calls, but few who will be ready for the long labor that it takes when people foment to delay and frustrate that justice. There is no delay in the sending; the delay is in the purposeful interception of that news. The delay is in the refusal to receive and the refusal to grant an audience to that news by the powers that be. Jesus knew this. Which is why he says to travel lightly, to go to where you might at least get a fair hearing, and to try to search out and stay with the worthy in whatever town or village where you visit. When you enter the house of a worthy person, send your peace upon that house. But if you find otherwise, let your peace return to you. And then this, “If anyone will not welcome you or listen to your words, shake off the dust from your feet as you leave that house or town.” Jesus knows that the message and mission of those disciples will not tarry, but it will not be received by everyone. Indeed, the message may be refused. Still, they are to try…and then, without delay, move on to the next town if people refuse to listen.
There must have been some fear in those disciples as they went from town to town, trying to figure out who might give them welcome, who might give them lodging, and who might be open to a new way of being in the world that saw the Messiah of Justice as here and now, and not in some future time and space. And I imagine those first emancipated slaves wondered the same thing about the news of being freed persons… Who would give them welcome? Who would give them fair pay for a day’s work? And who would be open to a new way of relating to humans based on something other than skin color and social subservience?
“See, I am sending you out like sheep in the midst of wolves,” says Jesus, and surely the disciples quaked with fear that the wolves would eat them alive. And just to be clear, Jesus tells them that they will be handed over to councils, governors, and kings, and powers of all sorts because of the kind of Word, the freedom word, that would be spoken. God’s Word does not delay; when it shows up, the unsettled world will try to silence it, with flogging physical or mental, public or private.
Friends, how do you handle delay of your most important aspirations? Could you withstand the agony of waiting two years, 10 years, or 400 years for your emancipation from whatever grips your soul or deems you unfit for the kind of life to which God calls you? How would you personally hold up if you saw your children or your children’s children told time and again that life was “just like this” and to live means to accept a kind of status quo that you do not deserve?
William Shakespeare wrote, “Defer no time; delays have dangerous ends.” So, too, did Langston Hughes believe when he asked, “What happens to a dream deferred?” Dreams can wither, fester, run so sweet and nostalgic that they make us sick as a country and as a people. Dreams can become burdensome with their inequality and ultimately explode with suppressed rage. Dreams do not delay either; they are always flickering, always present, but the strength of dreams can change as one gets tired of shaking off the dust one too many times. Surely Jesus knew this, even as he encouraged the disciples to spread the word to his own and beyond: that the blind see, the lame walk, those with leprosy are cleansed, the deaf hear, and the dead are raised. The poor will have good news delivered to them—not old news—not two year’s old news—not 400 year old news—but good news delivered NOW.
Which is to say, my sisters and brothers, that we are carriers of the Word. We are to insure that the Word reaches someone’s ears—not tomorrow, not next week, but now. We are like those disciples, sent out together to towns, villages, and communities, to spread the message that God’s love, God’s justice, and God’s desire for human flourishing does not delay and will not brook delay. We are entrusted to carry the message before councils and governors, before judges and juries, before kings and queens, presidents and powers-that-be. Two years was a long time to wait for the slaves of Texas and Louisiana to hear the news that they were free. In the future, will the reason for our delay be subscribed to the history books because we say we didn’t get the message? Will we say that the pandemic prohibited us? What of our delay over the past 50 years? What reason will we give? Justice is still whispering her presence in our ears.
One can always find a reason to delay. Our delays can become denials in time. Our delays for justice can become dangerous.
Jesus did not delay. Nor should we.