How It Feels To Be Free

Luke 8:26-39

26Then they arrived at the country of the Gerasenes, which is opposite Galilee. 27As he stepped out on land, a man of the city who had demons met him. For a long time he had worn no clothes, and he did not live in a house but in the tombs.

 28When he saw Jesus, he fell down before him and shouted at the top of his voice, “What have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? I beg you, do not torment me”— 29for Jesus had commanded the unclean spirit to come out of the man. (For many times it had seized him; he was kept under guard and bound with chains and shackles, but he would break the bonds and be driven by the demon into the wilds.) 30Jesus then asked him, “What is your name?” He said, “Legion”; for many demons had entered him. 31They begged him not to order them to go back into the abyss. 

32Now there on the hillside a large herd of swine was feeding; and the demons begged Jesus to let them enter these. So he gave them permission. 33Then the demons came out of the man and entered the swine, and the herd rushed down the steep bank into the lake and was drowned. 34When the swineherds saw what had happened, they ran off and told it in the city and in the country.35Then people came out to see what had happened, and when they came to Jesus, they found the man from whom the demons had gone sitting at the feet of Jesus, clothed and in his right mind. And they were afraid.36Those who had seen it told them how the one who had been possessed by demons had been healed. 

37Then all the people of the surrounding country of the Gerasenes asked Jesus to leave them; for they were seized with great fear. So he got into the boat and returned. 38The man from whom the demons had gone begged that he might be with him; but Jesus sent him away, saying, 39“Return to your home, and declare how much God has done for you.” So he went away, proclaiming throughout the city how much Jesus had done for him.

Someone wrote this week that we know the Holy Spirit is up to something when a Bible story of a man bound by chains and shackles is assigned to Juneteenth, a holiday on which we celebrate the day America’s black slaves in Texas were finally freed.  

Although the Emancipation Proclamation was signed on January 1, 1863, it wasn’t until June 19, 1865 that freedom came to enslaved people in Texas, the last state in the Confederacy with institutional slavery.

Juneteenth may feel like a relatively new thing to many white Americans, but the truth is that Juneteenth has been celebrated since 1866, at first in churches and community gatherings in Texas, then throughout the South, then finally throughout the country as the Great Migration scattered African American families around the nation. Although Juneteenth just became a Federal holiday in 2021, each U.S. state has formally recognized the holiday since 1979, the year I graduated from high school.

As I read about Juneteenth this week, I have to admit I felt pretty stupid for not knowing more than a few basic facts about the holiday. 

How is it that I could grow up as a white woman for 60 years and know nothing about a day so deeply meaningful to my African American brothers and sisters. 

The answer to that question is simple. I didn’t know about the day because it wasn’t even on my radar. 

I know about the 4th of July. I have eaten potato salad and watched fireworks and waved the American flag my whole life. I celebrated Independence Day, because it was about my freedom as a white American. 

Freedom for black Americans didn’t happen until long after 1776..

It pains me that I never bothered to celebrate the freedom of those who were brought to our nation in chains, or mourn the deaths of those who died on their way here.

It pains me that because my ancestors and I were never been held captive by demons like slavery or structural racism, it has been too easy for me to ignore the day celebrating freedom for my fellow citizens of this deeply divided country.

It pains me, because I know the demons of structural racism continue to roam freely throughout this country. 

Slavery has been officially over for more than 150 years, but the demonization of people of color continues. The exorcism of the original sin of the United States is incomplete. The long shadow of racism looms over all of us and it poisons us

Did you hear that my white brothers and sisters? The demons of structural racism have poisoned us.

The lies of racism bind up all of us in chains.

The lies of racism are are affront to the God. 

We are not loving our neighbors when we stay silent about or participate in those systems that harm our siblings of color.

It pains me that I know more about this story in Luke than I do about Juneteenth. 

And yet, I believe this story from Luke can enlarge our understanding of how God sees what we do to one another. 

This story demonstrates God’s desire for all of us – all of us – to live free of the demons that want to destroy us. 

This story shows us how far God will go, and has gone, in Jesus to rescue and restore us to our right minds.

This story actually begins in the verses before it when we see Jesus and the disciples sailing across the Sea of Galilee. 

Jesus has fallen asleep. Suddenly, a terrible storm blows up, rocking the boat and filling it up with water. The disciples panic and wake up Jesus. They shout, “Master, master, we are perishing!!” Jesus gets up from his nap and, just like that, rebukes the storm. 

After everything has calmed down, Jesus turns to the disciples and rebukes them. Jesus says to them, “Where is your faith?”  

The disciples are both amazed and more than a little freaked out. “Who is this guy? Who is this guy who can command wind and water? If even the wildness of the natural world is under his command, what else can he do?”

The disciples will soon find out what else Jesus can do as they arrive in the country of Gerasenes (JERASCENES) – a Gentile area opposite Galilee. 

Almost immediately, Jesus is confronted by another raging storm, only this time it is embodied into a single man. This man is out of his mind, out of control, naked, homeless, and living in a graveyard. The people in town had tried to contain him by putting him in chains and shackles, but the man had regularly broken out of them and escaped back into the wildness on the edge of town.

Jesus is crossing out of Jewish territory into an unclean place in more ways than one. No self-respecting Jew should be in that place, Gentile territory, among the dead, with a seemingly deranged naked man. 

It’s important to pay attention to where Luke places this story. The people of Gerasene are all living under the occupation of the Roman Empire. 

Luke, as he was writing this gospel, had likely seen or heard what the Romans did to Gerasene during the Jewish uprising against Rome in the 1st century AD. 

The demons that attacked Gerasene were no haunting apparitions or sneaky little devils, but legions of Roman soldiers who slaughtered the men, imprisoned their families and basically burned down the city. Many of the tombs referenced in this text are probably filled with Geresene people killed by the Romans.

By placing this story where he does, Luke may want us to consider it in the context of the generations of war, captivity, and exile that has shaped the lives of the people there. 

And this man who meets Jesus at the shore line has probably suffered more than most. 

Perhaps he has lost those he loved most. Perhaps he suffered a debilitating illness or injury. Perhaps he has been traumatized by the endless wars that were part of life under the Roman empire. Perhaps generations of violence have seeped into his skin and taken hold of him from the inside out.

Most poignant in this story is that the man has lost the name once given to him at his birth.  Now, the man’s name is suffering. His name is violence.  His name is homelessness. His name despair. 

Now, the man’s name is Legion – a unit of 6000 Roman soldiers. Legion — representing the power of Rome over this man’s life.

Jesus also lived through under Roman occupation. Yet his movements and attention seem unhindered by the violence that plagued others in his time. Jesus crosses boundaries and borders with ease in a world in which lines marking class, religion, and culture are tightly drawn, and violence tears communities apart. Jesus crosses boundaries onto raging seas and into the raging souls of people like this man. 

And maybe you’ve noticed, throughout the gospels, it always seems it is the people most on the margins, most despised, possessed by demons of despair… 

These are the people that seem to recognize Jesus right away and correctly identify him as Jesus, son of the most high God. 

These acts of recognition, this deep knowing of who Jesus is reminds me of the slaves who were taught about the Bible by their Christian masters. 

Somehow, the slaves were able to hang on to the liberating message of a God who rescued the Israelites from slavery in Egypt thousands of years before.

They were able to recognize this human Jesus 

Who healed the sick. 

Who restored the broken-hearted. 

Who fed the hungry. 

Who restored tortured souls like their own. 

The slaves fell in love with this Jesus who was killed by powerful masters who looked an awful lot like their own masters. 

The slaves held on to the promises that after Jesus’ horrific death came resurrection, and a promise of eternal life beyond the tortured lives they had known on earth. 

The slaves held on to the stories from scripture in which they could place their own stories. They held on to the story because it took them to a place where they could somehow imagine how it feels to be free.

The violence of slavery has never gone away. In this imperfect world, violence never does go away. Violence swirls around us. Rearing its ugly head. Invading our lives, harming our souls. 

In this story from Luke, we see demons of violence displaced from the man into that large herd of pigs. 

And I do feel sorry for the pigs.

I feel sorry for the pigs the same way I feel sorry for the Egyptian babies who died because of Pharaoh’s lust for power and control.

I feel sorry for the pigs the same way I feel sorry for the babies who died because of Herod’s paranoia and fear about a king being born who would challenge his power.

I feel sorry for the pigs in the same way I feel sorry for children killed in classrooms or elderly people gunned down at a church potluck.

The demons gotta go somewhere. Violence is always going to land somewhere, usually on the most vulnerable. Children. The elderly. The homeless. 

When Jesus released the man from his suffering and restored the man’s soul, it was terrifying for the other people in town. The demons were on the loose. What could possibly save them now? Who would save them from the misery and the violence that defined their lives?

The answer to that question was standing there right in front of them, watching those demon-filled pigs sink to the bottom of the ocean.

Jesus was right there. Right there! With the healed man, clothed and shiny and clean sitting at his feet the feet. 

And instead of asking Jesus to heal them, the people of Gerasene told Jesus to leave. 

After years of being stomped on and exploited by the Romans, the people of Gerasene preferred the devil they knew. No matter how much it hurt, no matter how bitter the poison. They didn’t want to learn from Jesus and they didn’t want to be healed by Jesus. They preferred the devil they knew.

The man wants to go with Jesus and the disciples, into the boat and away from that terrible place and its terrible memories. I can hardly blame him. But Jesus says no. Stay here. Keep telling the story. Even the bad parts of the story about the tombs and the nakedness and the pigs. Tell them about this guy who showed up in a boat and turned out to be the Messiah.  Keep telling the story, as long as you’re able, to anyone who will listen.  Tell them how it feels to be free. 

Tell the story. Until that day when Jesus comes back and all of us, every one of us, will truly be free.

Juneteenth is a day when we tell the story. Even the bad parts. For as long as we can to anyone who will listen.

Juneteenth celebrates an ending of slavery, but also the beginning of the hard work we still are engaged in today:  the work of reconciliation and restoration and reparation.  The work of building beloved community for all.

Because demons are not what Jesus wants for us. For me. For you. For anyone. And when it comes to racism, one of the demons Jesus has no interest in us taking on is guilt. You know, that thing I began this sermon with – how guilty I felt for not knowing much about Juneteenth. Guilt isn’t a big thing with Jesus. In fact, guilt is a demon that will keep us far away from Jesus and far away from the community we’ve been given to love. 

Instead, we who call ourselves the church of Jesus Christ can run to Jesus just like that man who knew he couldn’t free himself. And we can work. And we can listen. And we can pray. And keep telling the story for as long as we can to anyone who will listen.

I listened to a version of a jazz song written by Billy Taylor in the 1960’s. The words of this song can be a prayer for us on this Juneteeth.  They are a prayer for all of us as we celebrate freedom, knowing that the demons still lurk in the halls of government and business and education and corporations and yes, even in the churches. We can pray like this