Grace to you and peace from God our father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus the Christ, Amen.
One hundred and fifty-one years ago in Texas, the last slaves in the South were told the good news that the Civil War was finally over, the North was victorious, and they were free at last as decreed by the Emancipation Proclamation. This was June nineteenth, 1865, which later became Juneteenth, which is today.
Only, when the news finally arrived in Texas, which was at the very edge of the United States at the time, they also found out that they had already been declared free over two and a half years BEFORE. So for two and a half years, these slaves had effectively been emancipated, and didn’t know it. For two and a half years, they were free but not free at the same time. It was not until the Texas border had been crossed and the Emancipation Proclamation read in the hearing of the people, that everyone heard the good news of freedom.
Just two days ago also marks another anniversary. On June 17th, 2015, a white man attended a Bible study at Mother Emmanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina. He opened fire and killed nine people, including their pastor, Clementa C. Pinckney. Reverend Pinckney had graduated with his masters of divinity from an ELCA seminary with a friend of mine. And the shooter, a self-admitted white supremacist, had been brought up in an ELCA church. This was just a year ago, just days before the one hundred and fiftieth anniversary of the first Juneteenth. On hundred and fifty years later, there are still people out there that don’t want to believe Paul when he says that there is no slave or free, that we are one in Jesus Christ. Add easy access to weapons of mass murder to the mix, and you have a recipe for tragedy that just gets repeated, over and over again.
In fact, this kind of tragedy has become so abundantly present in our cultural climate that the Merriam Webster dictionary lists THIS sentence as an example of the word “Tragedy”: “The situation ended in tragedy when the gunman shot and killed two students.”. At some point, this kind of violence became common enough to become as part of a dictionary definition in the English language. There it is. And there it is, and there it is again. As if ripped straight from the headlines.
How are we supposed to live, work, go to school, or raise families hearing about these tragic events of violence nearly every day, nearly every hour? Should we close ourselves off because the news is just too heartbreaking for us to bear, or because it doesn’t apply directly to us, in order to wait for Jesus to come back and fix everything? Or should we instead, on the opposite end of the spectrum, become so fanatical and zealous for what is right that we risk completely alienating our friends, classmates, coworkers, and family members who aren’t on board with us? Both are temping but neither one is an ideal option. And neither one is how God would have us live in our world saturated with the suffering we inflict on one another.
Martin Luther, that bothersome little monk we all know and love, wrote five hundred years ago that we as people of God, we live in two kingdoms, or realities, at the same time. We are part of God’s kingdom, both the one that is to come and the one that breaks into our lives right now with resurrection and new life. We also live in the kingdom of the world, the reality of stop and go lights, presidential elections, mortgages, car loans, and voting. And here in our lives right now, they cross, and sometimes crash into one another.
I recently got a Luther Rose magnet for my car, so it’s a decal I can move around. I joked on Facebook when I voted in the NJ primaries that I should put the Luther Rose on the LEFT hands side (your left), the “left hand kingdom,” the kingdom of the world, as I did my civic duty. But really, whether I move Luther rose is on the left hand side or the right hand side, I am never just acting in one reality or the other. I am always in both, acting in both, at the same time, as citizen, and as pastor, as tax payer, as Lutheran, as consumer, and as beloved Child of God.
We can’t build a wall between our two identities, as much as we are tempted to. Because experience teaches us that the forces of evil in this world are all about building walls and fortifies boundaries – between nations, between people, between us and who God calls us to be.
Experience also tells us, at least if the word of God is true as we have heard it proclaimed, that while evil fortifies boundaries, Jesus defies them.
Just before today’s Gospel story, Jesus got in a boat and said to his disciples, “Let’s to go the other side of the lake.” Seems innocent enough to us, two thousand years later. But Jesus might as well have said to his disciples, “Get in the car, we’re headed to the other side of the tracks.” The country of the Gerasenes was not a place that any Jewish person at the time would be keen to visit. It was an infamous place, with people who were gentiles, people who were different, a place full of unclean things, like the poor pigs. And so, naturally, Jesus being Jesus, he was eager to go. Here he is, at it again, crossing the lake, crossing boundaries, much to the disciples’ dismay.
On the other side of the lake they found a man living in a place of death, physically and emotionally. His reality was hell on earth. He was tormented night and day, living in the cemetery among the graves, and was likely at this point regarded as dead by his family and friends. He was a slave to his demons, bound by them even as he broke all the chains that had been placed on him, unable to free himself.
Judging by his reactions after the fact, this man desperately wanted to be rid of his demons. But do WE want to be rid of OURS?
This week, our ELCA Presiding Bishop Elizabeth Eaton shared this: “We live in an increasingly divided and polarized society. Too often we sort ourselves into like-minded groups and sort others out. It is a short distance from division to demonization.” (HERE For the entire letter)
We still live with demons. Our demons have just become more devious. Our demons cause us to see other people as demons.
The man’s demons were named Legion, the same name as a company of four to six thousand soldiers. Our demons have the same name, because they are many. They have names that we are more familiar with that we realize.
First, though, let me tell you what these demons names are NOT. These demons are NOT named Gay, lesbian, Transgender, Bi and Queer. These are not categories of evil spirits to be cast out, though for far too long the church has, at worst, said this this was the case. Or at best, the church has too long stood by while others have taken it upon themselves to cast these people out, most recently by using bullets and in the name of a god we would not recognize.
No, instead, let me tell you what Legion’s TRUE names are: Their names are places around this country that have become synonymous with violence and death. Their names are Columbine.
Their names are the things that actually do possess us:
and, perhaps most insidious of all, Silence.
These demons bind us and drive us into the tombs, into places of death. We become their slaves, held in thrall by their favorite minions, hate and fear. We are held captive to these demons and cannot free ourselves. We may even feel as though we belong to them.
That’s the reality of the world talking, the left hand kingdom. It may be where we live, but it’s not where we ultimately belong. Most of the time, you’ll see my Luther Rose on the right side of my car, to remind me that at the end of the day, that’s where I belong, as part of God’s Kingdom. I belong to God, a God who brings about life, and not death, who is about love and not fear, who is about welcome and not about walls that divide us.
That day, Jesus crossed the lake, crossed boundaries, and double crossed some demons in order to save a man from this place of death. No lake is too wide, no place is too remote, no boundary that Jesus cannot cross. Jesus shows us the power of the living God - to call US too out of places of death. Because not even death is a boundary Jesus cannot cross.
That day, Jesus looked the demon Legion straight in the eye, said, “Not this one, not today, this one’s mine,” and he cast the demons, by means of pigs, into the lake, to be gone forever. On Good Friday, and every day of OUR lives, Jesus looked sin and death straight in the eye, and said about YOU, “Not this one, not today, this one’s mine.” And three days later, not sin, not death, not even the stone door of the tomb could keep him from crossing back into life, bringing all of us with him, and making us one.
We belong to Christ. We all have been clothed with Christ in our baptisms. As Paul wrote, “there is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”
We are still living in both kingdoms, though, where these distinctions are very much alive and these demons are still at work. But we live in the tension by knowing who we are and whose we are. We are bound and we are free. We are citizens and we are Christians. We are sinners and we are forgiven. We have died and we are alive. We are followers of Jesus, who lived by crossing boundaries, welcoming strangers, and reconciling divisions. We are followers of Christ, who died, and lives, and reigns triumphant in the kingdom to which we belong.
And so, we like the man that Jesus healed, can tell all about what God has done for us. We are a people who can say to the demons of the world, “Enough. No more. Not today.”