The Harmonies of Liberty

Sermon for Sunday, June 19, 2022 || Proper 7C || Galatians 3:23-29

Lift every voice and sing   
Till earth and heaven ring,
Ring with the harmonies of Liberty;
Let our rejoicing rise
High as the listening skies,
Let it resound loud as the rolling sea.

Great American poet James Weldon Johnson wrote these words in 1900 to celebrate the anniversary of Abraham Lincoln’s birth. Five hundred Black children sang it at a school in Jacksonville, Florida, with music written by Johnson’s brother. The brothers then moved to New York and forgot about the song. Lo and behold, within twenty years, “Lift Every Voice and Sing” had spread throughout the South and soon became known as the African-American national hymn.

It is known as the African-American national hymn because it was written about the Black experience by a Black poet, and originally sung by Black children. At the same time, the hymn expresses in its beginning lines a universalizing wish that opens the song up to all Americans who yearn to unleash greater liberty by working together for justice and equity. “Lift every voice and sing, till earth and heaven ring,” the hymn begins, reminiscent of the psalms of praise: “Sing to the LORD a new song; sing to the LORD, all the whole earth” (96:1). 

The poet then uses a special musical word – “harmony” – “Ring with the harmonies of Liberty.” Johnson could just as easily have written, “Ring with the melody of Liberty.” Both words fit the meter, but he chose “harmonies.” A melody is a single line of music, while harmonies are different voices all supporting and enhancing the tune. In Johnson’s poetry, the song is Liberty, and every singer adds a harmony, creating a beautiful mesh of music “resound[ing] loud as the rolling sea.”

Each of us, no matter our racial group or family lineage, has the opportunity to sing this song of Liberty, adding our voices to those who have been singing it for hundreds of years. We remember these words today on this holiday of freedom. Today is Juneteenth, a recently promulgated federal holiday with roots that go back to the end of the Civil War. On June 19, 1865, Union officer Major General Gordon Granger landed with his soldiers in Galveston, Texas, with news that the war was over. President Abraham Lincoln had enacted the Emancipation Proclamation a full two and a half years earlier, on January 1, 1863, freeing all enslaved peoples throughout the rebelling states. The proclamation was, however, obviously ignored in territory the Union had not reclaimed, and so it was on June 19, 1865, that the enslaved people of Galveston finally learned that they were free of their forced servitude.

The addition of Juneteenth to the catalog of American federal holidays expands our celebration of and commitment to freedom, liberty, justice, equality, and the dogged pursuit of a more perfect union. June 19th completes the vision imperfectly implemented on July 4th. Independence Day declared freedom of the colonies from Britain, but not freedom of all the peoples within the colonies, nor their progeny for generations. Juneteenth and the Fourth of July now stand together as two markers of our continued quest to make this world a better place, a place where the reign of God shines through our baptismal commitment “to strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being.”

In the days of enslavement in the colonies and the early decades of the United States, slavers often used their Christianity as a warrant for owning people. In their misreading of the Bible, they believed it their responsibility to “civilize” the enslaved Africans whom they forced to labor for them. They justified their stark economic motivations with racist dogma dressed up in a desire to “better” the people they thought of as property. In some cases, slavers “Christianized” enslaved people, even baptizing them. In other cases, slavers argued that baptizing enslaved people would mean actually recognizing them as, you know, people. In 1667, the General Assembly of Virginia went so far as to codify in law that baptizing enslaved persons did not exempt them from bondage.

Owners of forced labor camps across the United States used selective readings of the Bible to indoctrinate enslaved people and justify their enslavement. Slavers twisted the letters of the Apostle Paul to their own designs, skimming off a very selective set of verses. These selected verses certainly did NOT include our reading today from Paul’s letter to the Galatians. Paul says, “As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus. And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to the promise.”

With these words, Paul argues that Jesus broke down the barriers and the hierarchies that humans have been creating throughout history. One race or ethnic group is not better than another. One culture is not better than another. One gender is not better than another. Social hierarchies exist for a single, simple reason – so one group can dominate another. In other words, hierarchy does not allow for harmony. Hierarchy sings a very loud melody and forces everyone to sing along, no matter what other tunes might stir their hearts.

Thanks be to God, then, that we belong to Christ, our loving, liberating, and lifegiving savior. And thanks be to God for the witness of those enslaved Christians who heard the true message of the Gospel hidden beneath the twisted interpretation of their captors. Every time I think about this, the grace and power of God absolutely floors me. Even as their captors twisted scripture for their own ends, enslaved people still heard the liberating message of Christ and began singing it in so many of their songs. James Weldon Johnson’s “Lift Every Voice and Sing” is a descendant of those spirituals, a song of hope and lament, a song of mission and solidarity, a song that every one of us can add our voices to as we swim deeper into the liberating love of Jesus.

On this Juneteenth, the last verse of “Lift Every Voice and Sing” is particularly relevant, as we stagger forward amongst the exhaustion of compounding crises. But in the midst of these crises, God is still and always will be present. Johnson writes:

God of our weary years,   
God of our silent tears,
Thou who hast brought us thus far on the way;
Thou who hast by Thy might   
Led us into the light,
Keep us forever in the path, we pray.
Lest our feet stray from the places, our God, where we met Thee,
Lest, our hearts drunk with the wine of the world, we forget Thee;
Shadowed beneath Thy hand,   
May we forever stand.   
True to our God,
True to our native land.

Season 5, Episode 5
“Droid Rights”

In this episode we’re talking droid rights in Star Wars and Star Trek. We’re also continuing our book club, reading Becky Chambers’s award-winning sci-fi novel The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s