In today’s story from Luke’s gospel, Jesus travels into new territory to free a man from terrible demonic possession.
Together these two narratives invite us to think about what enslaves us, and about how we can be liberators.
So let’s start with Juneteenth.
On January 1, 1863, in the midst of the Civil War, President Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation. Contrary to popular assumption, the document did not abolish slavery throughout the nation – that would not happen until the 13th Amendment was signed two years later, in 1865.
The Emancipation Proclamation changed the legal status of about three and a half million enslaved African Americans in the Confederate states: the Proclamation declared them to be free. (At the time of the Proclamation’s signing, another half a million persons remained enslaved in the northern states where slavery was legal.)
After the Proclamation was signed, actual freedom for those who were enslaved only occurred when either folks managed to escape north into free states OR where the Union Army was able to assert authority as the war continued on for more than another two years.
Freedom was not only delayed for persons living under slavery because southern landowners refused to recognize the authority of the Union government, but in some cases, because the information was not even available.
Mail service to many regions was extremely slow, and some historians have suggested that slaveholders may well have withheld information about their freedom from their enslaved agricultural workers, in order to continue to benefit from their labors.1
The final territory to receive news of the war’s end and the liberation of the enslaved took place when Union soldiers under Major General Gordon Granger arrived in Galveston, Texas. Some newly-freed people left the plantations to seek opportunity elsewhere or to reunite with family, while others remained in place to explore what a new relationship of employer and employee might look like.
Regardless, the date of June 19 took on great significance for the communities of descendants of those who had lived under slavery, and its importance has now been recognized by Congress as an opportunity for all of us to pause and remember our complex history, but particularly, to celebrate that freedom was, eventually, proclaimed to all.
And on to this morning’s story from Luke. It’s a dramatic story that goes by a fancy name – “the Gerasene demoniac”.
The place the incident happened was not Jesus’ usual stomping grounds. It was Gentile territory that Jesus had not visited before, but unexpectedly decided to visit by journeying across the Sea of Galilee.
Once on land, Jesus was encountered – you could even say “accosted” – by a man possessed by unclean spirits, a “legion” of them. (A military legion customarily has 6000 soldiers.) According to Jewish custom that Jesus and his disciples followed, the young man was not only a danger to himself and others – he had often been chained up by local authorities - but was religiously unclean.
He was so much tormented by the spirits controlling him that he no longer lived among the in the local town but rather dwelt, naked, among the dead in the tombs. Tombs are another place considered ritually unclean.
The unclean spirits, recognizing Jesus’ authority, begged to be released into a herd of swine grazing nearby, rather than be sent back to “the abyss” (where they would be imprisoned and subject to God’s authority). Jesus allowed the transfer, and the swine immediately rushed into the lake and drowned.
The townspeople were not happy about this turn of events; Luke says “they were afraid.” Rather than rejoicing that the young man had been healed, they wanted Jesus gone and asked him to leave. In the context of this Juneteenth commemoration, I can help but see them as being like the plantation masters who undoubtedly did not want the convenience and familiarity of THEIR economic system overturned. We like things to be to our advantage, and the introduction of Jesus’ authority was not welcome in the country of the Gerasenes.
The young man, the formerly enslaved, asked to join Jesus’ circle and travel with them, but Jesus instructed to remain in his land, giving witness to God’s power.
So here’s what I make of this story.
Firstly, God shows up where God is needed. Even – and maybe most especially – among the tombs of our lives, where we are stuck and alone and helpless.
Additionally, God seeks freedom for us – the freedom to live abundantly and without restraint, among others.
And lastly, the way things can happen, can change, when God is at work, can be scary, because we don’t like change. We can even resist freedom and healing, if they upset our familiar patterns.
Adopting Heather’s familiar homiletic strategy of finishing with question to consider during the week, here are the questions I suggest that we think about this week.
What enslaves us, and where are we afraid of change? Many things in our lives can hold us back: health, financial circumstance, and various obligations can restrict our choices, but also, it is psychological and emotional shackles that often prevent our stretching ourselves to live fuller, braver, more generous lives.
God is ready to show up to help us make changes, if we choose to let her do so.
And where, as followers of Jesus, are we called to be the liberators? Where can we be the General Grangers, bringing the word that things don’t have to be the way they have been?
Where can we lend a hand to make space in lives that have been restricted, to provide new options where options have been few?
May God’s Spirit guide our thinking and our acting.
1 “What is the history of Juneteenth?”, brittanica.com
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