"O FREEDOM" - JUNETEENTH REFLECTIONS - FR. JOSEPH ALSAY, ST. AUGUSTINE OF CANTERBURY EPISCOPAL CHURCH, OKLAHOMA CITY
Excerpts of A Sermon Delivered by the Reverend Joseph C. Alsay
at Temple B’nai Israel, OKC
on the Occasion of the Juneteenth
June 18, 2021
A month ago, my youngest child, Caleb had to write a report, create a tri-fold exhibit, dress up as and recite facts about a famous historical character. He chose Abraham Lincoln. As part of his exhibit we listed a few of the many accomplishments Lincoln achieved during his life-time. The Gettysburg Address, 13th Amendment and The Emancipation Proclamation. I have to admit that Caleb looked so cute bedecked in a white shirt, black slacks with matching suspender, a fake beard and black felt stovetop hat. I’m told that he did a great as he quoted facts about Ole Honest Abe.
Yet, I suspect that he did not understand or comprehend the weightiness of those historic events. And, thank God, as a child of the 21st century, he doesn’t have to intimately and experientially relate to the reasons which necessitated those words and events. But it pains me that on January 1, 1863, President Abraham Lincoln, President of the United States of America, had to issue an executive order of emancipation.
The inhumanity of slavery, human cruelty and the pernicious practices of ordinary people confuse and confound me. It goes against the first core Jewish value expressed by this congregation: B’tzelem Elohim “In God’s image.”
That’s why the African-American liberation and the Exodus story are uniquely connected. American slaves found comfort in the biblical story of Moses and the Israelites, seeing themselves as the Israelite slaves and crying out to God to one day be free.
So, the story of the Exodus and the history of American slavery offers us examples of resilience from two communities who have suffered great and unspeakable atrocities.
Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, in a 1963 speech about religion and race, said “that equality is a good thing, a fine goal, may be generally accepted. What is lacking is a sense of the monstrosity of inequality”. History is made not just by the vicious attacks of bad people, or the heroic conduct of saints, but also by the silence of generally good people
This fight for equality has gone on so long and yet for some, the Promised Land still seems so far away.
On this night one day before millions will celebrate Juneteenth. On this night--one day after the president sign a bill into law making the 19th of June a federal holiday. On this night –this sacred Shabbat, in this “house of prayer for all people,” 156 years after that fateful event, we celebrate the promise of liberation but also realize that it is a clarion call to continue the hard work that remains to be done.
Yes, Juneteenth is a word that glows with wonder. Juneteenth is a celebration commemorating the ending of slavery in the United States. On June 19, 1865, Major General Gordon Granger arrived in Galveston, Texas and announced that all slaves were now free.
I can imagine that when those slaves made their way back to now, their former master’s home to pack their few belongings they began to sing that old spiritual “O Freedom” Knowing that they were about to embark upon a long and arduous journey that lie ahead.
Juneteenth invites us to reflect upon the fact that, liberation is not a one-time event. It is an ongoing project beckoning us to write the vision of freedom and issue renewed proclamations of “freedom now.” Juneteenth signifies the fact that freedom and liberation is both behind and ahead of us.
So, let us be emancipated from our silence and our apathy. Let be about the work of: Tikkun Olam “repairing the world.” Let us turn from building walls to building bridges. Let us not turn away from those who are different but towards our friends and neighbors and build instead alliances and commitments to work together so that we can all reach the Promised Land together. Amen.
~Fr. Joseph Alsay, St. Augustine of Canterbury Episcopal Church, Oklahoma City, Oklahoma
Various Clergy and members of St. Augustine contribute to authoring the blog on a variety of topics.