Juneteenth 2020: Introducing Rev. Dr. Stephen W. Pogue, Pastor, Greater Centennial A.M.E. Zion Church, Mt. Vernon, NY

Shabbat Shalom and Happy Juneteenth.

There’s a song on the new Bob Dylan album—and I mean new, as in released today—called “Crossing the Rubicon,” in which Dylan invokes the old phrase attributed to Caesar, who, in the year 49 BCE, upon crossing the river Rubicon which separated Italy from Gaul, committed to a course of action from which there was no turning back — and which led to a war against rival Pompey and the Roman Senate.

Crossing the Rubicon.  No turning back.  We have reached such a Rubicon moment in American life—indeed, multiple such crossings from which there will be no turning back.  Whatever comes next after this terrible global pandemic will not be the same as what came before.

And whatever must come next in our country’s unfolding saga of justice denied and opportunity withheld, when it comes to our relationship with Black Americans and all American communities of color—whatever must come next cannot be a turning back to the way things were before, the way things have too often been.

And, it so happens, as my colleague and friend Rabbi Noah Farkas, who serves the congregation of Valley Beth Shalom in the LA suburbs, points out, “[i]n this week’s Torah portion Shlach Lecha, the Israelites have reached their point of no return” (emphasis added).  

Moses sends out 12 spies, one for each tribe of Israel, to scout out the land that God has promised them.  Fully ten of twelve return impressed with the lush landscape and natural resources but frightened to death of the so-called “giants” who live in the land, whom, they fear, will eat the Israelites for lunch.  And so these disheartened spies lead a campaign to demoralize the rest of the Israelites.  Their campaign slogan is, “Let’s go back to Egypt.”

But they’ve already reached their Crossing the Rubicon moment.  Once the Israelites taste the fruit of the promised land, there is no going back to Egypt.  No going back to bondage, oppression, the invisibility of the Israelites’ lives under Pharaoh.  No, there is only going forward.  

My friends, for us, now, especially, there is no going back.  No going back to the Egypt of denial and defensiveness when we talk about race in America.  In recognition of the urgency of this Rubicon moment, we have reached out to our community partners in the interest of listening, learning, partnering, and shouldering together both the pain and the responsibility to face our fears and move forward together.

The congregation of Greater Centennial A.M.E. Zion Church in Mount Vernon, and its pastor, our friend, the Rev. Dr. Stephen Pogue, have stood with WRT, and we with them, in times of joy and sorrow.  When, five years ago this week, a white supremacist committed mass murder in the Mother Emanuel Church in Charleston, our congregations stood in solidarity.  When, almost two years ago, a white supremacist murdered Jews in prayer at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, Dr. Pogue and our Greater Centennial friends were there for us.  

Today, this Juneteenth, must not just be a moment for pledging solidarity, not just a moment to affirm that Black Lives Matter, but also, this must be a time for our WRT community to listen to the voices of our neighbors and heed the demands that our respective faith traditions—and that our common God of justice and mercy—now ask of us. 

It is, as always, a distinct pleasure for me to introduce my friend and yours, Rev. Stephen Pogue.

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