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A Note from Pastor Bruce

Beloved People of God,

This month we celebrate the national holiday-the 4th of July-in which continues to be one of the greatest experiments in human history. Those who gave their lives and imaginations for the birthing of this country thought of themselves as partners with God. This is not to say that they were all Christians. Many were, some however, were Deists-most notably Thomas Jefferson. But this grand experiment that would eventually be named the United States of America was understood, from its very beginning, as a great partnership between God and human beings.

Freedom compelled many of the first immigrants to this country to make that arduous and dangerous journey. For some, it was about freedom of religion. Most European nations had adopted a particular expression of the Christian faith as their national denomination. The early Puritans did not fit the Anglican mold and sought a place where they, along with Quakers and other dissenters, could freely worship as they chose. For others, it was the allure of self-determination. This was the possibility that a person could discover their own future. They would not be locked out of opportunities by virtue of birth or classism. For others, freedom of speech was a great hope.

However, not everyone came to this country of their own volition. And, in fact, were brought here through force and violence. Henry Louis

Gates Jr. shares in The Root, “Between 1525 and 1866, in the entire history of the slave trade to the New World, according to the Trans-Atlantic Slave Database, 12.5 million Africans were shipped to the New World. 10.7 million survived the dreaded Middle Passage disembarking in North America, the Caribbean and South America. (1.8 million died in the journey.) And how many of these 10.7 million Africans were shipped directly to North America? Only about 388,000. That’s right: a tiny percentage.” But slavery would grow to include over 4 million of God’s children and the impact slavery has had is beyond measure.

One of the great components of those who created this nation was the realization that, by its very nature, this is an ongoing experiment that can realize errors, confess sins, repent, and work toward a better reality for all. Legislation to recognize June 19, or "Juneteenth," as a federal holiday passed overwhelmingly in the House of Representatives Wednesday, June 16, 2021. The bill passed unanimously in the Senate the prior day.

The bill recognizes June 19, 1865, the day enslaved people in Galveston, Texas learned slavery was ended, as a public holiday. President Abraham Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation had freed all enslaved African Americans in rebel states two and a half years earlier.

I believe this is a step forward as we strive to align our priorities with the Kingdom of God in which God desires for all of us to be free and to celebrate our freedoms. But I’m aware that there are those who wonder why we may need a holiday like this or a month like Pride month, in which I am writing this letter.

If you have such questions, I invite you to read Pastor Fritz Wiese’s letter entitled, “Word from Wiese.” Fritz is a longtime friend and colleague who grew up in Chicago but moved to and attended high school in Worthington, OH and now serves in Georgia. His words are important to hear as Christ followers. His letter follows.

Word from Wiese

Not My Holiday?

16 June 2021

Do you ever feel like an imposter at certain holidays?

You’ve heard me recall that my neighborhood growing up was racially and ethnically diverse. If you walked west from my house, the proportion of Irish Catholics surged. So St. Patrick’s Day was a big deal. Chicago actually dyes the Chicago River green in honor of the festivities. Each March 17, Irish flags festooned my little league baseball diamonds of John F. Kennedy Memorial Park, honoring the nation’s first president with strong Irish Catholic connections. But while my parents (sometimes) reminded me to wear green to school, I felt like a bit of a phony compared to my Catholic schoolmates with Irish last names like O’Sullivan, Murphy, Riley, and O’Connor.

Likewise, late-May through mid-June is a time when many of us might query how we should feel and think about three important dates. On one hand, some folks might internally be wrestling with the following hesitations:

“Memorial Day? No one in my immediate family died while serving our country.

Juneteenth? No one in my immediate family is African American.

Pride Month? No one in my immediate family is LGBTQ.”

But what if ALL these dates are opportunities for ALL of us to grow both as Christians who see all people with no dividing walls (Galatians 3.27-29) and Americans who value “liberty and justice for all?”

For instance, even though no one in my extended family died while serving in the military, I use Memorial Day to teach our children

that while the world’s a wonderful place, it’s also a tough place. That from time to time, certain forces will try to rise up and treat other humans in very disturbing ways. And in the course of our country’s history, we’ve had brave folks willing to die ensuring the rights and dignity of not only U.S. citizens, but those around the world. So, we take time to remember them with honor, gratitude and reflection.

Secondly on this point, June is known as PRIDE month. It’s a chance to teach our kids that our family members and friends whose sexuality is different than the majority, have often felt like marginalized 3-strikers (as we’ve explored in sermons) who have not been afforded the opportunity to fully experience our country’s value of pursuing what makes for a happy life and the Bible’s value of covenantal relationships.

Thirdly, this week our country acknowledges a day more of us are learning about: Juneteenth. First recognized June 19, 1865, it celebrates President Lincoln signing the Emancipation Proclamation. Yes, we celebrate emancipation, but we also take a big gulp of humility and sorrow that our country NEEDED a day to do this, because we were actually enslaving each other, the repercussions of which still exist today in some measure. In the same spirit, we remember this month that 100 years ago, 36 square blocks of African American businesses, churches, schools and homes were burned to the ground in Tulsa, Oklahoma.

So let me suggest we are not IMPOSTERS for any holiday or special occasion our country acknowledges. Each special day is a ripe opportunity for all of us to explore afresh Jesus’ Great Command, “to love God by loving people.” True, at first we might not see a direct connection, like I didn’t with St. Patrick’s Day before I heard the amazing story of St. Patrick. But in a spirit of prayer and humility, Memorial Day, Juneteenth, and Pride month, can each, in their own ways, be special opportunities of growth and meaning for all of us. Collectively, our prayer is we are becoming a “more perfect union” as our fore-parents hoped.

The Right Rev. Michael B. Curry, Episcopalian Bishop, with whom we are in communion partnership, shared a wonderful quote. He shared a wonderful insight about our call as a church to develop real relationships with all God’s people. He states, “Our commitment to be an inclusive church is not based on a social theory or the ways of the culture, but on the belief that the outstretched arms of Jesus on the cross are a sign of the very love of God reaching out to us all.”

At St. Stephen, we hope to embody the values and behaviors of our faith. By doing that, I believe, we shall be a congregation grateful for the civil freedoms we have as well as calling this country to a better reflection of God's reign. That's why we take time to celebrate these holidays, that they may be made holy days in our lives. May we be, as individuals, a congregation and a nation, the bearers of peace and a church where love lives.

See You Sundays (and Thursdays),

Pastor Bruce

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