Today, June 19th, is Juneteenth, a holiday our church has incorporated into our Sunday worship for the past few years. This is a lightly edited version of my sermon from this past Sunday.
Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. (2 Corinthians 3:17)
Imagine being an enslaved person in Texas at the beginning of another hot summer in 1865. Given the state’s relative distance from the rest of the divided nation and given that Texas itself saw little action during the Civil War, it had been relatively easy for plantation owners and enslavers to hide the news of the Emancipation Proclamation which had been signed by President Abraham Lincoln two and a half years earlier. And so, despite this federal proclamation of freedom, these enslaved women and men toiled under the old status quo of bondage and terror. Imagine being an enslaver and, having heard the proclamation of freedom, choosing to cover it up. Here were people who understood that liberation had come and yet who willfully, purposefully did all they could to obscure and withhold freedom from those who were dying for it.
The freedom about which the Apostle Paul wrote to the churches in Corinth was a freedom from bondage to the law. God had given his covenant law to his people as a template for flourishing. And yet, as we often do, the people had focused on the law not as a sign of God’s covenant love. Instead, they devoted themselves, in Paul’s words, to the letter of the law. They made keeping the law a sign of their righteousness and it quickly became a deadly burden, captivity even. The good news Paul taught in this passage was that the Holy Spirit brought freedom from the condemnation of the law. In Christ, we see through the condemning letter of the law and find instead the covenant of love and freedom that God always intended for us.
Now here’s the thing about God’s freedom: it is comprehensive. For example, in a passage that Jesus will one day borrow for his own mission, the prophet Isaiah’s vision of God’s freedom is good news for the poor, liberty for captives, release for the prisoners, comfort for the mourners; it includes rebuilt ruins and renewed cities; it involves inheritance, ancestral lands, and everlasting joy. Yes, we have the capacity to turn something like God’s covenant of love into a letter which condemns, but God’s desire for our good is so complete that nothing but our total freedom can quench it.
On this Sunday when we remember the news of freedom which finally reached those enslaved image bearers of God, news which had been delayed but which could not be denied, it’s worth spending a few minutes with God’s character of freedom. The enslaver could not hold back the freedom cry. The flesh traders, the kidnappers, the powerful men who had turned human plunder and exploitation into the nation’s most profitable sector, none of them could turn back the word of freedom. The most their pitiful power could do was to slow it down. History tells us that when that transformative word reached the now-freedmen and freedwomen, some simply walked away, never to return. Others negotiated for a wage. In one documented instance, a man named Jourdon Anderson wrote to the man who had enslaved him with a reparations bill: he’d added up the long hours he and his wife had worked, and he figured he was owed a cool $11,680, surely enough to bankrupt his former enslaver. Spouses and parents who’d been separated from each other, stolen from each other, began the search to be reunited. They built schools and churches and elected hundreds of Black representatives to every level of public office. Freedom changes everything. And the Apostle Paul reminds us this morning, that where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom.
There are always those who would hinder the Spirit’s freedom. Sometimes the foe is visible and obvious: one who enslaves, exploits, plunders. Other times the foe is subtle: a heart which condemns, a memory which captures, deeply held assumptions which conceal the Spirit’s freedom fruit. Scripture tells us that we have a common enemy who despises our freedom, the evil one who desires our demise. But our Lord Jesus is near, even in those oppositional places, through the presence of his Holy Spirit. And so this morning, I’m asking us to remember that freedom prevails by the Spirit’s presence. In other words, despite the existence of sin and evil in this world and in our hearts, God’s loving freedom will prevail because the Holy Spirit is present. The incarnate Son of God who walked the Galilean hillsides hundreds of years ago is now manifest by his Spirit in and among his followers everywhere. Freedom prevails by the Spirit’s presence.
I use the word prevail intentionally: freedom overcomes, perseveres, outlasts. Prevailing assumes opposition and there is always opposition to freedom. The Corinthians felt condemned by the letter; Black Texans remained captive after emancipation, a result of opposition. But Paul is clear: Don’t be deceived. Freedom is here because Jesus is here. The condemning voice is loud, but Jesus triumphed over condemnations of every kind. The schemes of the enslavers were brutal, the plots of violent men were depraved, the complicity of a nation built on stolen land and plundered bodies was total… but Jesus raised in victory over enslavers and lynchers and the powerful who washed their hands in as a show of innocence all the while trafficking in subjugation and suffering. Jesus triumphed even over these oppositions.
When Jesus was hung from that crucifixion tree, the powers and principalities thought that they had prevailed. The spiritual forces of evil were under the delusional impression that the divine hand which had restrained their worst impulses had finally been removed. But what had Jesus said earlier? “Very truly I tell you, it is for your good that I am going away?” (John 16:7) Why? Because having returned to his Father, Jesus would send his presence, the Holy Spirit. Rather than eliminating Jesus, the Spirit of Jesus has now been poured out on all who believe. There is exponentially more Jesus now and so there is also more freedom.
Now, the spiritual forces of evil have always worked to obscure God’s freedom. The freed Black women and men were faced with onc deception after another: enslavers tried to keep them captive; governments failed to compensate them with the land they had been promised; white mobs attacked Black citizens as they voted. The more of their freedom they claimed, the more violent and devious were the attacks to conceal and dismantle that freedom.
It was no accident that at many early Juneteenth celebrations, the Statue of Liberty was featured prominently, a reminder to everyone of the liberation that was the freedperson’s birthright. Neither was it accidental that these celebrations often included a reading of the Emancipation Proclamation: ...all persons held as slaves … shall be then, thenceforward, and forever free; and the Executive Government of the United States… will recognize and maintain the freedom of such persons, and will do no act or acts to repress such persons, or any of them, in any efforts they may make for their actual freedom.
In response to the deceptions of captors, oppressors, and enslavers, these citizens stood boldly in their freedom. No matter what the liars said, they were free, and they intended to live their freedom.
Do we see this kind of freedom today? We see people fleeing violence on the southern border, gun violence in our city, and violence toward Asian Americans. We could go on. Unquestionably, our situation is radically different from those Texans who had to wait over two years for the news of their liberation, but if we’re honest it can be hard to see freedom’s advance. It can seem as though the forces opposed to freedom are more powerful than God’s desires for the flourishing of his entire creation.
Do we see freedom? There are those who don’t want you to see freedom. Some believe that more freedom for you means less for them so they work actively against it. There are people in our city and suburbs who have secured enough success and stuff for themselves and have turned away from those who struggle and suffer. Others of us can’t seem to see freedom. There are, for example, young people in our neighborhoods who see no roadmap to a free and flourishing life; they’ve seen too much loss already.
If God’s freedom prevails, why don’t we see more of it? Listen to Paul’s claim again. “Where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom.” Is it possible that in our struggle to see freedom we have forgotten that the experience of freedom, like the rest of our discipleship to Jesus, is a matter of faith, not sight?
In John 3:8, Jesus said, “The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit.” You see, the joyful proclamation that the Spirit brings freedom is also a gentle invitation to see what Jesus sees.
Jesus was surrounded by powerful men who wanted his attention: religious leaders, soldiers, kings, and representatives of the empire. Yet most of his time was spent on the margins and among the marginalized. While others planned for freedom by way of a bloody revolt, Jesus was calling a kingdom of righteousness and peace into existence beyond the gaze of controlling power.
Jesus raised the little girl to life, and freedom took a step forward. He healed a blind man’s eyes and freedom took a step forward. He restored a woman to her community, silenced the religious leaders with their condemning letter of the law, washed his disciples’ feet and freedom stepped forward. Jesus gave himself over to bloodthirsty and violent men, men for whom freedom was a threat and not a promise, a curse and not a blessing. Jesus, the free-est person in the universe, became captive for us and our salvation, for us and our freedom. And freedom leapt forward.
Do we see freedom? Ask yourself, what does Jesus see right now? Do you see people getting free by giving themselves to Jesus? Do you see marriages getting restored? Do you see volunteers gathering each week to water and weed the Jackie Robinson Garden? Will you be among them in a few weeks when they begin sharing fresh veggies with our neighbors? Did you hear that our friends at Southside Blooms actually grew during the pandemic? They’re now growing more flowers on more abandoned lots, employing more young people, producing more local honey, and on July 1stthey’re opening their first storefront facility. Do you see the state of Illinois being the first in the country to ban cash bail?
Do you see freedom? What does Jesus see? May I suggest that Jesus sees young people being mentored, he sees overly incarcerated people walking out of prison, he sees brothers who have too much money giving it away to brothers who don’t have enough, sisters who have access to halls of power opening doors for the sisters who don’t. Jesus sees people getting free because where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom.
Perhaps you’re struggling still to see freedom. Ask yourself, Where is the Spirit of the Lord not? Show me the place in God’s creation where the Spirit of the Lord is not present. Show me the group of people among whom the Spirit of the Lord is not present. Show me the circumstance, the moment, the season that was too painful, too unjust, too wicked for the prevailing Spirit of the Lord Jesus Christ. Was there ever a debt so debilitating, a grief so great, a lament so long as to overcome the Spirit of the Man of Sorrows, the God who is acquainted with grief, the Son of God who suffered? Was there ever a place or a people so forsaken that they overwhelmed the forsakenness of Calvary?
Where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. And let us shout this truth over our city this morning: There is not a single square inch of this creation where the Spirit of the Lord is not present! Open our eyes, Holy Spirit. Open our hearts. Help thou our unbelief. Let us see what you see. Show us your freedom.
Believing that the Holy Spirit brings freedom opens up new ways for us to live. Think again of the Black citizens after the Civil War. They were technically free, but white people regularly opposed them, sometimes violently. This is one of the things which makes Juneteenth so significant. Each June 19th, African Americans would gather publicly in their cities and towns. The day would often begin with a church service before migrating to a parade through the city’s major thoroughfares. Then, people would gather in a public park and the freedom celebration continued with food and festivities. And when white dominated town councils tried to stop these public celebrations, wealthier members of the Black community (like Robert Church in Memphis) purchased land so that no one could stop these visible demonstrations of freedom.
This, I believe, is an image of God’s freedom. We don’t simply believe that freedom prevails, we live and seek that freedom. The African American citizens who gathered in public spaces knowing that their presence agitated the racists, that the White Citizen’s Council and the Ku Klux Klan were looking on, were not content to think about their federally sanctioned freedom; they didn’t want to hold freedom in their hearts; freedom wasn’t an invisible ideal to hold onto when things got hard. No, those early June 19th worship services and parades and public celebrations were more than a commemoration of the past- they were a proclamation of freedom into the future. A testimony that freedom is always meant to be lived.
Holy Spirit-empowered freedom is not an abstraction. This freedom works its way into us; it changes how we see the world around us, but this prevailing freedom also ensures that we will prevail. If God’s freedom prevails, then you’d better believe that God’s free people will also prevail. We can hear this conviction in Dr. King’s last words in his final speech at the Mason Temple in Memphis (1968): I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land! And so I’m happy, tonight. I’m not worried about anything. I’m not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.
Think of Isaiah’s freedom proclamation again, the one Jesus would one day apply to his own life and ministry. The reason the promises rang so powerfully was not because they were a beautiful articulation of liberty from sin, sickness, and suffering. It’s because the people who first heard these words were desperately in need of an experience of God’s freedom. The poor were ready for the good news; the brokenhearted were ready to be put back together; the captives were ready for liberty; the mourners awaited their God’s comfort and those who grieved anticipated the day when mourning would be exchanged for joy, despair for praise.
Their cities had been laid waste; the walls which symbolized security and prosperity had been pulled down. They were a people who needed far more than a description of freedom, a theory of freedom, a sermon about freedom. They needed an experience of divine freedom which would enter their situation and allow them to endure. This is the word of God which Isaiah spoke to a besieged and beleaguered people. It was an active and accomplishing word, a word that would prevail.
How many know that this is the freedom word our world is desperate for today? We have been set free by Jesus. What is it that we are doing with our freedom? Jesus said in John 8:36, “if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed.” And what do people do who’ve been set free by Jesus? What do people do who understand that where the Spirit is there is freedom? What do people do who can stand amidst the rubble of captivity and condemnation with an unshakable conviction in the prevailing nature of God’s freedom? We seek that same freedom for everyone. Free people, free people.
I know this has been a hard season for many of us. Our losses have been great. The grief has been persistent. The opposition has been real. Do we actually have the ability to peer through all of this and find Holy Spirit freedom breaking in? Do we have the energy to be agents of freedom ourselves? To proclaim the saving and liberating gospel of Jesus to those bent down by the letter of the law? To those who’ve yet to hear the gospel of grace? Do we have the courage to stand in our freedom against the spiritual forces of evil whose lies have infected our systems and societies? To stand against the powerful interests bent on disenfranchisement and disinvestment?
The Holy Spirit of God who is himself freedom everywhere in creation is the same Spirit of freedom who is in you. The same Spirit of God who animated the saints before us, the women and men who had every reason to believe that their captivity would be permanent and who yet lived and breathed and agitated for freedom, that same freedom Spirit is alive in you.
Because the Spirit of the Lord is upon you, freedom is upon you. And so, through you, anointed child of God, filled with Spirit of freedom, good news will be proclaimed to the poor; the brokenhearted will be restored; captives willbe freed and prisoners released; the Lord’s jubilee will be announced; mourners will be comforted and those who grieve will be granted crowns of beauty; spirits of despair will be exchanged for garments of praise.
(Photo credit: Clement Eastwood.)
I’ve got some speaking engagements and time away with family coming up, so the newsletter will be even more irregular during the summer. Thanks to everyone who takes the time to write back. It’s gratifying to know what you’ve found helpful or, occasionally, frustrating. If you think of it, please pray for peace in our beloved Chicago during these warmer months. Thanks!