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Today in worship, Grace Church, is commemorating the anniversary of the full emancipation of Black people from chattel slavery in the United States. Juneteenth (June 19th) was made a federal holiday June 17, 2021, though festivities with special food and music have existed since 1867. It marks the day Union soldiers brought the news of freedom to enslaved Black people in Galveston, Texas, in 1865, two months after the Confederacy had surrendered in the Civil War and about two and a half years after the Emancipation Proclamation freed slaves in Southern states. 

Though it is a celebration of freedom, Juneteenth is as well as an acknowledgement of freedom delayed for white people’s profit. This points us to the justice delayed to the descendants of those enslaved Blacks. As the Episcopal Church comes to a reckoning with our participation in the colonial enslavement project, we are bound by our Baptismal covenant to acknowledge, lament, and repair the culture of white dominance that continues to perpetuate tragedies of injustices for economic gain. God help us.

Sermon written and delivered by the Rev. Tina Rathbone


For centuries, the Bible was the only book enslaved Blacks in America were able to access. The songs of sorrow and hope referenced biblical stories of lament, comfort, and liberation. These songs were first written down in 1867 by white abolitionists. It wasn’t until 1907 when John W. Work of Fisk University in Nashville published the first black collection of songs which he transcribed from listening to formerly enslaved men and women. The Fisk Jubilee Singers used his transcriptions for their fund-raising concerts around the world.

The PRELUDE sung by John Cheek, Give Me Jesus, was transcribed by Work from former enslaved Negros in the South Carolina Sea Islands. They may have learned it from Methodist evangelists but made it their own. It was one of the more popular spirituals, with the singers leaning into their trust in Jesus to answer prayers. 

“The transformation of this song into the theology and experience of enslaved Africans reveals that the focus migrated from millennial concerns for salvation and Jesus’ 1000-year reign on earth to themes of deliverance from this earth, the reunion with family in heaven, and ultimate safety in the presence of Jesus.”

The Johnson brothers are the creators of our SONG OF PRAISE this morning, Lift Every Voice and Sing. “In 1900, when “Lift Every Voice and Sing” was composed, Black Americans were teetering on a fulcrum of history. The visibility and influence of African-American traditions was growing, but Reconstruction efforts had failed to provide widespread opportunities for financial and educational advancement. Moreover, racism stood ready to close any door Black achievers dared to open. For more than a century, “Lift Every Voice and Sing” has held a powerful place in American history. The hymn is known as the Black National Anthem, but it’s more than that. It’s a history lesson, a rallying cry, a pledge of unity, and as people gather to fight for equality and justice, it is an ever-present refrain.”

Go Down, Moses, our SEQUENCE hymn,was sung as a means of communication by Harriet Tubman who was called the “Moses of her people.” Tubman escaped a Maryland plantation in 1849 and returned there more than 19 times over 10 years to free others. Today, we are using the dramatic arrangement of composer Rosamond Johnson, brother of the esteemed author, original founder of the NAACP, and friend of W.E.B. Du Bois, James Weldon Johnson, who had a summer home and writing cabin in Alford, MA, for several years.

The COMMUNION hymn There is a Balm in Gilead is an answer to the question of Jeremiah 8:22, “Is there no balm in Gilead?” Yes! There is a balm for the discouragement and misery of enslavement. And that balm is Jesus. Like Give Me Jesus, it is sung today with hope and comfort for God’s Beloved Community, here on earth, now. 

Our CLOSING hymn this morning is the popular anti-apartheid song of South Africa, We Are Marching in the Light of God.Protesting by affirming God’s blessing is positive and contagious, much like the song We Shall Overcome of the Civil Rights movement here in the United States. It is also a reminder of the effects of worldwide colonialism from which all people should be free.