“Faith & Freedom” Colchester Federated Church, June 19, 2022, (Luke 8:26-39) Second Sunday after Pentecost

This morning’s Gospel story is strange.  Luke sets the scene by telling us that Jesus and his disciples sailed to the Gerasenes’ land.  Now that detail might not mean much to us, but Luke’s audience would have understood that this story situates Jesus among Gentiles.  Because he sailed across the lake to the land of the Gerasenes and there he encounters an outcast who is quite literally living among the dead.  The man was from the city and possessed by demons, he is naked and homeless.

We can easily pass off this story of the Gerasene Demoniac as unhinged.  After all, a legion of demons come out of this man, enter a herd of pigs, and rush down a bank to drown themselves.  Though let’s avoid the temptation of thinking that this Gospel story is irrelevant.  Because the thing about demons is that demons don’t care if we believe they actually exist or not.  The great preacher Fred Craddock said, “Not believing in demons has hardly eradicated evil in our world.”[1]  It doesn’t mean that we don’t have things in our lives that hold us back from God.  It doesn’t mean that we don’t have things that make us feel less than or overwhelmed or weighed down by something that’s destroying us inside.  We may not call any of that demonic.  And we should obviously refrain from calling people “demons”.  But that doesn’t make Bible stories about exorcisms irrelevant. 

We can see that as soon as Jesus steps into the country of the Gerasenes, the man with the demons was right there in front of him.  Jesus wasn’t on his home turf anymore and encounters someone in deep spiritual pain.  Jesus doesn’t leave the man where he found him—he helps him out of this abyss.  Jesus was no stranger to adversity and suffering.  So he acts like a friend to the man with the demons. 

The reaction of the people of the surrounding country to this healing is both fascinating and sad.  The people see the man healed and ask Jesus to leave them alone because they are seized with great fear!  Granted this story has economic implications.  Can you imagine the monetary loss that the owner of those herd of pigs that drowned in the lake incurred?  Maybe that person was among the crowd who asked Jesus to please leave them alone.  Maybe that’s more understandable.  When asked to leave, Jesus gets back in his boat and returns from whence he came. Though he does so knowing that the healed man would be able to return home and be restored to his community. 

Stories about Jesus exorcising demons are ultimately about healing and transformation.  They are stories about helping people who are suffering to experience wholeness by meeting them right where they are.  At the end of this Gospel story, the man who had been on the outskirts of his community—living in the tombs, naked, sometimes under guard and bound with leg irons and chains—is both healed and restored to his place among his people.  This is the classic pattern of healing and restoration that we can see time and again in the Gospels.  Though Jesus doesn’t take him up on the offer to go with Jesus as one of his disciples.  Instead, Jesus tells the healed man to return home: “Return home and tell the story of what God has done for you.”[2] 

When we encounter the healing power of God—a God who desires us to live lives of wholeness and love—perhaps that can be scary at first.  Especially if we are used to being bound to something that has held us in place.  Because even if that reality has caused us pain, at least it is familiar.  Remember that the Israelites bitterly complained in the wilderness and some people even wanted to return to slavery in Egypt because at least they wouldn’t starve to death out there in the wild.  The Israelites said to Moses and Aaron in Exodus 16, “Oh, how we wish that the Lord had just put us to death while we were still in the land of Egypt.  There we could sit by the pots cooking meat and eat our fill of bread.  Instead, you’ve brought us out into this desert to starve this whole assembly to death.”[3]  The people just escaped slavery, and this is the reaction!  We sometimes find ourselves in our own abyss is the point.  But as Christians we know that new life in Christ means that our lives have changed or will change somehow.  Change in and of itself can be scary. 

It is interesting that this Gospel story from Luke is in the Lectionary on Juneteenth.  Juneteenth is now a Federal Holiday.  It celebrates the emancipation of enslaved African Americans—it is a holiday that celebrates freedom.  The CORE Commission here in town (Colchester’s Openness to Respecting Equity) will be hosting its first annual Juneteenth celebration today from 9-1 at the Farmer’s Market right across the street.  The CORE Commission will have a table set up with educational materials, children’s games, and a time of sharing from members of our community about what Juneteenth means to them.

Juneteenth can remind us that we are all created in the image and likeness of God.  Freedom is one of the cornerstone values of this country, but not all people experienced freedom upon setting foot on these shores.  Those of us who are younger in particular may take some of this history or even the power of communication for granted.  These days news spreads almost instantaneously given our technology, especially social media platforms.  The news cycle always seems to be about breaking news.  But the history of Juneteenth reminds us that here were enslaved people who had no idea of certain events that had occurred to grant them freedom.  President Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation took effect on January 1, 1863.  Congress passed the 13th Amendment officially abolishing slavery on January 31, 1863.  Though these were national events that would have seemed like they were taking place in another world if one were a slave on a plantation in a place as far flung as Texas, especially given the reality that many who were enslaved were not taught to read or write.  How would that person know anything about emancipation?

Major General Gordon Granger issued General Orders Number 3 on June 19th, 1865.  This is what Juneteenth commemorates.  This order declared, “The people of Texas are informed that, in accordance with a proclamation from the Executive of the United States, all slaves are free. This involves an absolute equality of personal rights and rights of property between former masters and slaves, and the connection heretofore existing between them becomes that between employer and hired labor.”[4]  The truth is that it took years for the news of emancipation to reach those who were enslaved in Texas. 

Henry Louis Gates Jr. wrote a marvelous essay about Juneteenth that appeared in both The Root and PBS online and shared, “When Maj. Gen. Gordon Granger issued the above order, he had no idea that, in establishing the Union Army’s authority over the people of Texas, he was also establishing the basis for a holiday, ‘Juneteenth’ (June’ plus ‘nineteenth’), today the most popular annual celebration of emancipation from slavery in the United States. After all, by the time Granger assumed command of the Department of Texas, the Confederate capital in Richmond had fallen; the ‘Executive’ to whom he referred, President Lincoln, was dead; and the 13th Amendment abolishing slavery was well on its way to ratification.”  News traveled so slowly.  But freedom won the day.  Let us remember and give thanks to God for faith and for freedom.  Amen.

[1] Fred Craddock as quoted by Kathryn Matthew Huey, UCC Sermon Seeds for February 1, 2015 (Fourth Sunday after Epiphany, Year B).
[2] Luke 8:39, CEB.
[3] Exodus 16:3.
[4] From General Orders, Number 3; Headquarters District of Texas, Galveston, June 19, 1865, as quoted by Henry Louis Gates Jr., “What is Juneteenth?”, https://www.pbs.org/wnet/african-americans-many-rivers-to-cross/history/what-is-juneteenth/

Photo by NASA on Unsplash