Freedom, chains, or life among the tombs

Proper 7C

June 19, 2022

Today is Juneteenth, a brand-new federal holiday celebrating the end of chattel slavery in the US. It has its origins in Texas, where African-Americans have observed it off and on since that first June 19th, 1865, when two months after Lee surrendered at Appomattox, confederate forces in Texas finally surrendered, and General Granger of the Union Army issued the order enforcing emancipation in Texas. It is a day for us both to celebrate the end of the evil of slavery but also to take note of all the ways that slavery has shaped the United States and its legacy continues to burden us more than 150 years later. 

It is a celebration of freedom, a celebration of our nation coming to understand that the lofty values expressed in the Declaration of Independence extended beyond the rights of white men, to include ultimately all people, men and women, black and white. But to observe Juneteenth means that we also have to recognize and lament all of the ways we have failed to live up to those expanding values. As Clint Smith eloquently writes in the chapter on Galveston in his book How the Word is Passed, slavery didn’t end in Texas on June 19, 1865. Slaveholders continued to enslave people for years after. 

In her extended meditation, On Juneteenth, Annette Gordon-Reed reflects on how our history and especially the history of her homestate of Texas, is shaped by mythologies and mythological figures—the cowboy, the oilman—while erasing other figures and realities, like the fact that slavery drove the Texan fight for independence from Mexico and the importance of slavery and the slave economy to the state. 

Even as we mark this occasion, our hearts also go out to our Episcopalian siblings at St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church in Vestavia Hills, AL, where another shooting took place at a potluck gathering Thursday evening. It reminds us that there is no place in our nation, no person in our nation who is safe from the violence perpetrated with guns and that our nation remains deeply beholden to the myth of redemptive violence and the worship of guns. 

All this of course against the backdrop of the January 6 hearings as we learn more and more about the dangers faced by our democracy on that day, and the ongoing threat to democracy posed by many of those same actors. We know more now as well about the many ways Christian nationalism is intertwined with the ideology of the groups supporting that insurrection.

These evils, these demonic forces hold us in their grip, bind us, and even when we seem to break free and allow us to imagine a future of freedom, of justice and equality, we often creep back to the comfort of the chains that limit us, keep us and others in bondage.

In today’s gospel reading we hear one of the most fascinating and rich stories in the gospels. It is by far the longest of the many stories telling of Jesus’ encounters with demonic powers and forces. The rich details we are presented encourage us to think of the action taking place on several levels: the individual, the man possessed by Legion; the social and communal; the political and imperial, and, of course, most importantly the cosmic.

First of all, geography. I have repeatedly stressed the importance of paying attention to geography in the gospels, and especially in Luke. With his two-part work of Luke and Acts that tells the story of the move of the gospel from Galilee, to Jerusalem, to the world, this incident is the only time in Luke that Jesus enters Gentile territory, crossing the Sea of Galilee to the territory of the Gerasenes.

Second, there’s the demoniac. His description, naked, living among the tombs, is the description of someone who has lost his identity. He has no home, no family, no place in society. He might as well be dead, which may be one reason he’s living among the tombs.

The third thing I want to point out has to do with the demons and the herd of swine. When Jesus asks the demon for its name, they reply, “Legion, for we are many.” Fearful that Jesus might return them to the abyss, which in the ancient world was the dwelling place of demons, they ask him to cast them into a nearby herd of pigs, and promptly stampede into the sea to perish. The name Legion brings to mind the Roman army and while it’s likely that we are meant to think that there are as many demons as soldiers in a legion (6000), it’s also possible that the story as a whole is meant to convey a confrontation between Jesus and the Roman Empire. Coincidentally, one of the legions stationed in Palestine had as its figurehead a boar, and more generally, a fertile sow was one of the ancient symbols of Rome. So while Jesus is confronting the powers of the demonic, he is also confronting imperial power in this story.

The story ends in an odd fashion, completely consistent with its overall strangeness. The man is restored to his senses Luke describes him sitting at Jesus’ feet, clothed and in his right mind. When the people see him healed, they are fearful and beg Jesus to leave them. He does so, returning by boat with his disciples to Galilee. But before he departs, the healed man begs Jesus to allow him to come along. Jesus tells him no, instead, he should proclaim what God had done for him, so the man returns to his home, “proclaiming throughout the city all that Jesus had done.”

There is a great deal that is intriguing in this story, but what I’m most struck by this week is the fear of the city’s residents. They see the demoniac clothed, in his right mind, and sitting at Jesus’ feet, and they are afraid. Now many commentators will say that their fear was caused by the news of the pigs being drowned in the sea, or by the possibility that their economic livelihood was at stake if Jesus continued to perform such mighty acts among them. I’m not so sure.

Jesus is a foreigner here, an outsider. He comes for no apparent reason, or perhaps only for this reason, to encounter this man who was possessed by demons. He heals him, restores him to his senses and to his community and in so doing he isn’t threatening a way of life or economic well=-being, he is threatening the very order of the universe. He demonstrates his power over the forces of evil, demonstrates that many of the assumptions the inhabitants of this place held dear, can no longer be taken for granted. If the demons obey him, what else might he be capable of? What other trouble might he stir up?

Now the story begins to challenge us and our assumptions. As hard as it may be for us to believe that Jesus cast out demons, it may be even harder for us to believe that Jesus Christ continues to work in that way in the world today. It’s almost unimaginable to us that the reign of God, proclaimed by Jesus Christ nearly two thousand years ago and demonstrated with his mighty acts, may be in our midst already. It’s hard to believe that our faith, our community can work miracles like Jesus did; that we have power over the forces of evil in the world; that we can restore people to their right minds.

In fact, of the characters in this story we’re more like the Gerasenes than the possessed man. We’re more like those people who saw evidence of Jesus’ power and proclamation, grew fearful, and asked him to leave their country. It’s likely that we’re more comfortable in the place we are, whether as individuals or as a congregation, than we would welcome the frightening, world-changing power of Jesus Christ in our midst. 

We can’t imagine that we might be freed of the demons that possess us—the demons of white supremacy, gun violence. We look around in despair at the world’s situation and watch as the fears of a different future cause reactions that seek answers in the past, try to turn back the movement toward greater gender and racial equality, diversity, LGBTQ inclusion.

We are living among the tombs. We are surrounded by the monuments previous generations built for themselves, not just buildings of course, but a culture and society that privileged the few, stealing their lives, their land, their futures. Now we are in the same place, with our actions and inaction, condemning future generations to live on a globe transformed b climate catastrophe. 

Jesus comes to us, comes among us, and offers us new life, the vision of a way forward into the future. Will we risk following him into the unknown, with no signposts to lead us forward? Will we risk the possibility that as we follow him into the future, we will experience new forms of life, new ways of being, encounters with all sorts and conditions of people? Or will we ask him to leave us alone, so we can continue to live among the tombs?

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