You all deserve extra credit for showing up to church on New Year’s Day. I’ll be sure to put a little gold star next to your name in the register.
I don’t know how you celebrated last night. Maybe you stayed up late. Maybe you went to bed early. But because you made it to worship this morning, I’m going to tell you something special. I’m going to tell you about how the new year was celebrated in America 154 years ago.
Back then, in some parts of the United States, enslaved communities were sometimes given a few days off from their labor between Christmas and New Year’s Eve. On New Year’s Day, it was back to the bitter toil of slavery.
And sometimes, if they were fortunate, they were able to spend those few days with family members who were enslaved in other regions. For those who were fortunate enough to have these days off, this was likely the only time they would see those loved ones all year.
So New Year’s Eve meant saying goodbye for another year. It ended with the pain of leaving loved ones, and in many places, New Year’s Day became known as “Heartbreak Day.”
But New Year’s Eve in 1862 was different. Earlier that year, Abraham Lincoln had issued his Emancipation Proclamation. The proclamation was to become official with the president’s signature on January 1, 1863.
So as 1862 became 1863, there was great anticipation. Everything was about to become new.
Gathered together as they often were on New Year’s Eve, African Americans were, in some communities, joined by white Americans, and they eagerly awaited the news that the Emancipation Proclamation was signed and officially the law of the land. They eagerly awaited word that they were free.
Later in the day, the word came. And in communities across the United States, it was announced:
“A proclamation was issued by the President of the United States, containing, among other things, the following, to wit: “That on the first day of January, in the year of our Lord one thousand eight hundred and sixty-three, all persons held as slaves within any State or designated part of a State..., shall be then, thenceforward, and forever free; and the Executive Government of the United States, including the military and naval authority thereof, will recognize and maintain the freedom of such persons…”
And so, as the online African American lectionary put it, “The freedom words that had been woven into sweet-grass baskets, hidden in the words of Negro Spirituals, preached aloud at campground meetings, sung to black babies in sleepy-time songs, had now become the law of the land.”
And for those who had been enslaved, everything had become new.
The Judeo-Christian tradition is a liberation tradition. It is a movement for freedom, the kind of freedom that makes all things new.
Let us not forget how God heard the cries of his people in Egypt, enslaved to Pharaoh.
Let us not forget how God sent prophets to challenge the economic oppression inflicted upon people 8th, 7th, and 6th centuries.
Let us not forget how God’s favor rested upon Mary and Joseph and their son Jesus, the one anointed by God to save and redeem people from the sins of society.
Through liberation, through freedom & redemption, all things are made new.
However, all things are not made new overnight. Not even a presidential proclamation can make all things new overnight. It’s an ongoing process. All things are being made new every day, and the Spirit works with us to continually make all things new day after day. Because the work of building God’s kingdom on earth must take place every day.
All things were made new when Moses led the Israelites out of Egypt, but the struggle continued.
All things were made new when the prophets spoke of peace and an end to oppression, but the struggle continued.
All things were made new when Jesus healed the sick and comforted the oppressed, but the struggle continued.
All things were made new when the Emancipation Proclamation went into effect, but the struggle continued.
All things were made new when the Civil Rights movement brought greater equality and justice to America, but the struggle continued.
The struggle continues because there are always those who want to go back to Egypt, go back to slavery, go back to the way things were.
Today - in the year 2017 - we are enslaved to hate and fear. We are enslaved to greed. And as a result, African Americans and other minorities are being incarcerated at alarming rates, and they are being denied their right to vote. They are being treated unfairly in our courts of law. They are living in communities of violence and poverty. They are being subject to illegal arrests, searches, and seizures. Far too many find themselves once again awaiting freedom as a new year begins.
In 1970, the year before I was born, America had 350,000 prisoners in our prison system. But then Richard Nixon started insisting that we were “a nation of laws.” He declared a war on drugs, and we started treating addiction as a crime instead of a health issue. And the prison population began to rise.
Ronald Reagan tripled funding for the war on drugs, and decreased funding for health and social services. We know now that this war on drugs and increased focus on “law and order” was meant to play into the fears that white democrats had of blacks. And it got more white men to join the Republican Party.
And it was incredibly effective. George Bush won his election against Michael Dukakis by using images in his campaign ads of Willie Horton, a black man, to raise the fears of white America. The Democrats learned from this, and when Bill Clinton ran for president, he declared that he was tough on crime. As president, he supported three strikes laws and mandatory minimum sentences. He funded new prisons and the militarization of police forces. Crimes that once were considered minor now landed you in prison.
And the prison population that was at 350,000 in 1970 rose to over 2 million by 2000, and has kept rising to over 2.3 million today.
All this, while crime rates have actually been going down.
Today, 40% of the prison population is made up of African-American men, even though African American men only make up 6.5% of the population at large. 1 out of 3 Black men in America will spend at least some time in prison. In the south, 30% of African American males have lost the right to vote due to criminal conviction.
Nobody who says that they are “tough on crime,” or that they are for “law and order,” will publicly admit to being racist. Yet our war on drugs and the growth of the prison industry is intentionally designed to remove African Americans out of the general population and deny them the right to vote.
It is time to make all things new.
This is a profoundly religious and spiritual issue. We know that God always hears the cries of those who are being oppressed. God heard the cries of the Hebrews in Egypt, and sent Moses. God heard the cries of those who suffered under Israel’s unjust economic policies, and God sent the prophets. God heard the cries of the people under Roman oppression, and sent Jesus.
The oppressed are crying out today. And the question is: who is God going to send? Is it you? Is it me?
Anytime someone is being oppressed; anytime someone is having their rights denied; it’s Jesus who is being oppressed and who is having his rights denied. Jesus is with the poor. Jesus is with the vulnerable. Jesus is with those who are treated unjustly, because he was treated unjustly.
And we are his followers. We are the body of Christ.
All of us must work together to overcome the evil that exists in our own time.
All of us are called by the Spirit to use the power that God has given us and help make all things new in our own time.
On this New Year’s Day, it is more important than ever that we do this.
I am so thankful for the ministry of Bixby Knolls Christian Church, because we are uniquely situated to address issues like these. It’s as if God had created us specifically for this purpose.
We have in our own congregation many who have overcome in the past, in a huge variety of ways. People who have overcome racism and prejudice for one reason or another, in one way or another. Some of their stories we have heard and some we have not. But God knows all our stories, and God is calling us together to once again overcome the evil and hatred that exists.
Attend the Regional MLK Worship Celebration on Saturday, January 21.
Watch “13th” on Netflix. What a remarkable film! It’s just called “13th.” You can remember that.
Pay attention to news about how minority groups are being oppressed. Listen especially to the voices of minority groups.
Recognize your own enslavement to fear, to greed, and your blindness to privilege. If you’ve never been stopped on the street or been denied any opportunity because of your skin color, of if you’ve never had the legality of your marriage questioned, or if you’ve never felt that your religion was under attack, then consider how you might work so that all Americans and all of God’s children can enjoy the same liberty and freedom you have.
The good news is that God hears the cries of oppressed people and has promised to bring those cries to an end (v. 2). The Bible also looks to the day when all empires of oppression and unjust social structures will eventually fall and be subject to the judgment of God.
The good news is that God calls you and I to this task, to bring justice to the people of the world, to release the captives, and set free those who are oppressed. We will overcome. And all things will be new, again.