I was talking to a friend a few days ago, who commented that she had heard people talking about the three-day holiday weekend. “When did Fathers’ Day become a national holiday?’ she asked.

Well, today is Fathers’ Day, and we give thanks for all the fathers among us here, and for those who are no longer with us. But you don’t rate a national holiday, or three-day weekend. And neither, for that matter, do mothers.

This is a three-day weekend because tomorrow is Juneteenth, which became a national holiday just two years ago. I suspect that my friend is not alone in being surprised by this new holiday.

Juneteenth commemorates the end of slavery in Texas. Why that merits a national holiday calls for a little history lesson.

President Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863, freeing all slaves in Confederate states, at least on paper. A little more than two years later, on April 9, 1865, the Civil War ended with the surrender of Confederate General Robert E. Lee to Union General Ulysses S. Grant.

Neither Lincoln’s proclamation or the end of the war made much difference to slaves in Texas. Most were probably unaware of either of those things, and white plantation owners were in no hurry to let them know. 

That changed on June 19, 1865, when General Gordon Granger, accompanied by 1,000 federal troops, arrived in Galveston, Texas, and read what was known as General Order No. 3:

“The people of Texas are informed that, in accordance with a proclamation from the Executive of the United States, all slaves are free. This involves an absolute equality of personal rights and rights of property between former masters and hired labor.”

With that announcement slavery in this country officially came to an end. Juneteenth is a celebration of victory over a national sin.

Juneteenth has been celebrated by Black Americans for years. But now it is a holiday for all Americans, one that has special meaning for us as Christians.

As one article I read this week put it, “the Bible is a book written by the oppressed for the oppressed.” 

One of its overarching themes is liberation from oppression — from the freeing of the Hebrew people from slavery in Egypt to Jesus’ proclamation that he has come to let the oppressed go free.

God is always on the side of the oppressed and the marginalized, always calling us to work toward freedom and justice for all of God’s people.

We know that far too often we have fallen short in answering this call. We know that the ending of slavery did not mean the end of oppression for our Black sisters and brothers. We know that the sin of racism is not just a stain on our past, but is still active in the life of this nation here and now.

And so today we celebrate the end of slavery in this country almost 160 years ago.

But this day is not only a celebration of the past; it is a lament for the present and all the ways that Black Americans have continued to be oppressed in this nation. 

And it is a rallying cry for the future, one to motivate us to bring God’s dream of justice and liberation for all people closer to reality.

Peter Englert’s prayer of commemoration for this day sums that up beautifully:

Today we commemorate the end of slavery in America.
This day partially reminds us of the progress made.
This day also partially reminds us of the progress we have not made.
We celebrate the freedom of Black lives in our nation.
We grieve that we have not reconciled racism in our nation.
You created each person in your image.
The two greatest commandments call us to love you with all our hearts, souls, and minds.
Then, to love our neighbor as ourselves.
Your love for us motivates us to love each other.
If we do not love each other, then ultimately we do not love you.
As much as we commemorate and celebrate Juneteenth, we also grieve this day.
We mourn that our Black brothers and sisters have not been loved as our neighbors.
We mourn that throughout our history our Black brothers and sisters have been treated as less than, as if they were not created in your image. 
So Lord, we confess our sins and we repent.
The healing and reconciliation we desire comes from the gospel.
On Juneteenth this year, we ask you to guide our nation.
May the good news of the gospel motivate us to love each other.
May the ideals of our words match the practice of our lives.
May a fresh empowerment of your Spirit unite us together.
May you give us eyes to see and ears to hear your will, and the grace to accomplish it.

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