Well, as I mentioned at the top of the service today, we are celebrating Juneteenth here in the United States. It is the day that we celebrate the emancipation of enslaved black Americans on June 19, 1865. Now, although President Abraham Lincoln had signed the Emancipation Proclamation, two and a half years earlier, in 1863, that news was kept from 1000s of enslaved black Americans in the South, in states that were still under Confederate control. In fact, places like Texas refuse to even acknowledge the Emancipation Proclamation.
But on June 19, 1865, Union troops arrived in Texas, the very last state to still have slaves, and to announce that all people were now emancipated. They were free. Every single year since then, people in our country have celebrated June 19 – Juneteenth. But it was only last year that President Biden signed into law, the Juneteenth National Day of Freedom, making Juneteenth a federal holiday.
And that's really wonderful. But you know, there are many people in our country who don't want us to be talking about slavery anymore. They especially don't want teachers teaching about our nation's racist past to students, especially to white students, because they don't want to make white students feel guilty or bad for being white.
Now, of course, all that is ridiculous. It's very important that we teach and that we know and that we acknowledge our nation's painful past, not to make people feel guilty, but so that we can heal, and so that we can grow stronger as a nation.
One of our UCC national officers, the Reverend Traci Blackmon, gave a speech this week in which she said, “Unless our country reckons with its racism, it will continue generation after generation.”
And that is the truth. We must reckon with it. Racism is evil. Slavery was evil. Now, I am not saying that our founding fathers and mothers were evil people per se. But they allowed evil to exist in their homes, in their country, and in their beliefs – evil that dehumanized people and oppressed people and kept them bound.
This is a beautiful Sunday morning, it is the first week of summer, and I'm sure you don't want to come to church to hear about evil. We'd much rather be talking about more pleasant things. But you know, the lectionary reading, the Gospel reading, for the Second Sunday after Pentecost, that I just read for you is about evil. As we just heard, it's about a man who was enslaved, and shackled literally in chains and possessed by a demon, by a force of evil.
Now, we in the progressive church, we are rational thinkers, I often say we don't ask you to check your brains at the door before coming into church. So I know those terms – demons, and evil and devil – might be problematic for some of you. Most of us here at Douglas UCC, we've grown in our concept of God. We no longer think of God as some old judgemental man up in the sky with a long gray beard and sandals. We now understand God isn't a person. God is the force of love and light that dwells with us and within us.
So since we've grown in our concept of God, it is time for us to grow in our concept of evil and of the devil. The devil is not a person. It's not some red guy with horns and a pitchfork that lives in some fiery pit below the Earth. All of the world's major faith traditions, Hinduism, Buddhism, Taoism, Native American spirituality and even Judaism, the religion of Jesus – none of them believe in the red guy with horns and a pitchfork. The only religion that believes in that is Christianity.
The devil was never described in the Bible. That concept of the devil as the red guy who lives below the earth was created by the Christian church hundreds of years after Jesus died. They took a Greek god, Pan, who had horns and hooves, and they fashion the devil after him. Because Pan was known as the God of the Wild. Now, you may remember, Jesus, before He began His ministry at the age of 30, spent 40 Days and nights in the wilds, in the wilderness. And we are told that there he wrestles with the devil.
He was not wrestling with a red guy with horns and a pitchfork. So, who or what was he wrestling with? Who or what was he talking to when he said “Get behind me Satan?” Well, the Hebrew word for satan doesn't mean red guy with horns and a pitchfork. Satan means adversary, opponent, stumbling block. It's whatever it is that keeps us from fulfilling our divine purpose.
You may remember later in Jesus's ministry, he says to Peter, his Apostle, “Get behind me, Satan.” He wasn't saying that Peter was the devil. He loved Peter. Peter was his rock, his right hand man.
But if you remember, Peter was trying to stop Jesus from going into Jerusalem and fulfilling his divine purpose. Jesus in the wilderness is wrestling with his demons, with the voice that's telling him to focus on worldly things. That voice that was speaking to him in the desert, was it an outer voice? Or was it an inner voice?
You know, there are some people who think that Jesus knew that He was God from when he was a baby in a manger, that he was perfect. But if so, then why would he have to overcome temptations at the age of 30? Jesus was fully human, just like us. He had to wrestle with his demons. He had to wrestle with those thoughts that we're putting his focus on worldly things, rather than on spiritual things. So the voice that he's hearing is the voice of the human ego.
And my friends, that is the purpose of the spiritual path, we are trying to stop listening to the voice of the ego, the voice that's always trying to keep us in fear and division and separation, the voice that's always trying to tell us that we are separate from God and separate from one another.
The purpose of the spiritual path is to stop listening to that voice. And to attune ourselves more fully, to the voice of the Divine. Some contemporary spiritual teachers have referred to the word ego, egoity, as an acronym, standing for Edging God Out.
Because that's what the ego tries to do, Edge God Out so that you don't hear the truth about yourself and one another, but lies. It's why Jesus in John's gospel calls this adversary “the father of lies,” because that's what the ego is, the father of lies.
Slavery existed in America, not because some red guy with horns and a pitchfork was making it happen. It happened because people we're attuned to the father of lies, to the ego voice that lies and tells people who's superior and who's inferior, who's worthy, and who's unworthy.
Slavery, of course, doesn't exist in our country anymore. But there sure are a lot of people in this country who are still listening to that lie. They're perpetuating that lie. And they believe that certain people are superior, and other people are inferior. The rise of white supremacist groups in our country should frighten each and every one of us. But do not despair.
We are not powerless. We have been given the power. Notice what Jesus does when he's faced with the father of lies. Scripture tells us. It says he spoke truth. That's what we, my friends, as followers of the way of Jesus are called to do. In the midst of the lies, the conspiracy theories, the groups of people who are so filled with hate and division, we are called to speak truth to them, even if our voices are shaking.
But we're also called to do as Jesus did. By wrestling with our own demons, we also have to look in the mirror. And we need to examine the lies that we believe, that we've unconsciously taken on about certain groups of people and their worth. And we also have to look at the lies. We tell ourselves about our own worth.
Jesus said, “You shall know the truth, and the truth shall set you free.” So what is the truth about you and about one another? Well, the truth is, you and all people are children of God. You and all people were made in the very image and likeness of God. You are God's beloved, and so is everyone else, which means we are all one. It doesn't matter our race or religion, or sexual orientation or our gender identity. All people are worthy. When we know that truth of our oneness, our oneness with God and our oneness with one another, then and only then will we truly experience freedom, emancipation from the bonds of the ego.
And so all my friends, on this Juneteenth, on this Emancipation Day, let us be people of freedom and truth. And may we the followers of Jesus, continue his work of building that kin-dom. A
A just world for all people
Rev. Salvatore Sapienza
Words of Integration & Guidance
By Rev. Raymont Anderson
One major reason people honor and celebrate Juneteenth is that it stirs the fires of aspiration and attunes our inner cry, “Keep your eyes on the prize!” It cries out from beyond the graves of our ancestors upon whose shoulders we now stand. It focuses us on the power of faith and it reveals the fortitude of a people who endured and thrived in spite of opposition, terror and oppression. It also acknowledges and honors the support of the abolitionists who were deeply committed to and invested in ensuring freedom and justice for those enslaved. Celebrating Juneteenth is our way of honoring freedom as an inalienable human right and as our essential nature. It is up to each of us to actualize the principle of freedom into a clear, committed intention and then to demonstrate and live it. In our Declaration of Principles, we proclaim, “We believe the ultimate goal of life to be a complete emancipation from all discord of every nature, and that this goal is sure to be attained by all.” This is our mandate. We must live this with the understanding that I am not my brother’s keeper — rather, I am my brother, I am my sister, I am my gender-rich sibling. Rugged individualism might seduce us into focusing solely on the individual while ignoring the work needed to emancipate all — everyone — from every discord of every nature. Emma Lazarus, whose words appear on the Statue of Liberty’s pedestal, reminds us, “Until we are all free, we are none of us free.” This Juneteenth, “a just world for all” is our clarion call to freedom.
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