The Second Sunday after Pentecost
Today is Juneteenth, a brand-new federal holiday (observed tomorrow) honoring the day that the last enslaved people in the confederate United States, in the state of Texas, heard the good news of their emancipation. It happened in 1865, a full 2 ½ years after the Emancipation Proclamation was read aloud by President Abraham Lincoln, declaring ‘that all persons held as slaves within said designated States, and parts of States, are, and henceforward shall be free.’ It would still be another six months before slavery was fully ended in the whole of the United States, with the passage of the 13th amendment to the constitution. June 19, 1865 meant freedom only to some of those enslaved in this country. Yet the commemoration of this day has continued as a day to celebrate African-American culture and the resilience and power of a people who have long struggled to be free. Even when forces were and are still aligned to oppress, African-Americans in this country claimed the joyful celebration of freedom. What a witness this is for all of us in this world. That’s the gospel, right there.
Today’s story from our gospels shares another great story of freedom, the healing of the Gerasene demoniac. And it’s such an accurate story for how freedom unfolds. Not the pigs and all that, necessarily, but the way everyone in the story reacts when freedom comes. This good news is hard to take.
This man has been enslaved for years by demons, raving and harming himself and others. The only solution the villagers can find to this, apparently, is to further enslave him, bind him in chains and shackles in the hopes of controlling him. But he keeps breaking those chains and running away, freed in one way, but still utterly possessed. He either gets recaptured every time this happens or perhaps comes back himself, unable to make it on his own, unable to truly be free. And then Jesus appears, and the man begs him for help – knowing or at least hoping that here at last he might find freedom. And he does: Jesus heals this man possessed with demons and restores him to his right mind, restores him to life. The man is freed from what has held him in literal and emotional chains for so many years.
Pause for a stanza of a poem by Drew Jackson, a Black pastor here in New York with a book of poetry riffing on the gospel of Luke. Of this story he writes,
When he came through my hood
I finally understood
what we mean when we say
God is good.
All the time.
So of course the man wants to stay with Jesus, the one who brought this healing and life to him. He’s lived in such external and internal chaos for so long, it may feel terrifying to set off on his own, in his right mind, to create his life anew. He’d rather cling to Jesus, maybe hoping that Jesus might set rules and control him too, going forward. Legion, as the poet Jackson writes, ‘oppresses from the outside and takes up residence inwardly.’ But instead, Jesus sends him off, utterly free, and gives him only one rule: to go and preach to his people about what God has done for him. And he does. He is fully healed and fully free; he is able to step into this freedom now, and share it with all those he has known and will meet. It’s such a powerful story of joy and life. God is good, all the time.
But the Gerasene villagers don’t seem to see it that way at all. Please go away, they say to Jesus. This has completely freaked us out. We can’t bear it. I suppose we can understand. Those pigs were maybe their livelihood, and they’d all spooked and thundered down to drown in the sea, and they didn’t know what Jesus was going to do next to destroy their economic system. Or maybe their sense of security depended on there being someone out there in the tombs they could try to control, a kind of scapegoat to foist all their fear and anger on. Or maybe it was just the trauma of the whole experience: raving violence sent to drown in the chaos and tumult of the sea, running wildly instead of kept shackled under lock and key. What else might break free? What else might happen? Please, Jesus. Just go away.
Freedom is so close we can taste it. So powerful we want to celebrate it even when it’s not fully guaranteed. And yet we are so afraid to truly be free.
Juneteenth is a bittersweet reminder: a celebration of freedom, but also a witness that once we thought it was a good thing to own other people, and to create a construct of race based on our desire to turn other people into commodities, objects. And oh yes, we still do today. We have all kinds of ways laced into our economics and society to keep people in their place, to use and exploit, to be used and exploited – manipulated into votes to keep corrupt leaders in power, exploited into consumers and laborers to line the pockets of the rich, enslaved by our own stoked-up fears to isolate us and separate us from one another. We live and breathe a caste system that operates inside of us as well as outside. And it is so hard to break free of it.
But our hope is founded on one who lived freedom in every ounce of his being. Jesus made time for people of every kind of background, gathering together in his intimate circle people with wildly different politics and status – a tax collector making himself rich off Rome, a Zealot plotting the overthrow of the empire, fishermen who had never thought about politics at all. For women made unclean by societal rules, he had a healing touch. For children rendered invisible in the economy, he had an embrace. For a rich man stuffed with possessions, he had love; for criminals crucified for their crimes, he had forgiveness. In every encounter throughout his life, right through to his death, Jesus offered freedom to every person without exception – even when they themselves could not accept it. And then with the empty tomb, he gave us all freedom even from the fear of death. Do not be afraid, Jesus says over and over again. There is nothing to fear. You are free.
A colleague shared with me this week a song by the band Florence and the Machine, called ‘Free,’ which has a glorious video, by the way. The singer lays bare her daily struggle with anxiety and fear, but then sings these beautiful words:
Is this how it is?
Is this how it’s always been?
To exist in the face of suffering and death
And somehow still keep singing
Oh like Christ up on a cross
Who died for us? Who died for what?
Oh, don’t you wanna call it off?
But there’s nothing else that I know how to do
But to open up my arms and give it all to you
Juneteenth is a reminder of freedom. A reminder that we make no peace with oppression, that we resist every effort to shackle and enslave others. A reminder that even in the face of all that is still not right in this world, we can be free. A reminder that Jesus calls us into a freedom that celebrates despite it all, that is resilient and strong and opens up its arms to give it all away, and does not rest until all are truly free. God’s work of liberation continues, inside of us, through us, despite us. ‘Return to your home, and declare how much God has done for you,’ Jesus tells us. They’re all so afraid. Live, and be free. Because God is good, all the time. All the time, God is good. Amen.