6.19.22 The Rev. Katie Holicky, Assistant Rector
Today we mark Juneteenth. This day honors the pain of slavery and the jubilation of liberation. Over two years after emancipation was declared the war ended, and the Union Army finally had freed up enough troops to go to Texas and enforce it. For the over two years between written emancipation and the time the Union troops arrived, black slaves where forced to labor on. Today we mark the day that white masters in Texas could no longer get away with enslavement. Freedom Day.
In my own family, my husband Phil being Black, Juneteenth is our July 4th. It’s a day to celebrate liberation from the hands of brutal oppressors. Though, it holds a rather particular weight. It inevitably brings up the hard conversation of what it means to celebrate a day marking the liberation of black bodies over two years after liberation was granted. Two years on top of the hundreds of years that black bodies were stolen from their homes, forced to labor, forced to “breed”, black bodies forced to break time and time again for the gains of racist white oppressors. Every year on this day, our family celebrates with joy this story of liberation, looks deeply and painfully into the past, and notes the many ways in which Black bodies in this nation are still not actually free; not treated with the same equity as my own white body.
Friends, this day is of course a day to celebrate progress made in regards to racial justice, and it’s an invitation for us to look in the mirror. It is a time that we can examine the roots of systematic oppression in this nation, in our churches, and in our wider communities. By recounting this story we are reminded just how deep this vein runs. And remember that God is a God of liberation that stands in love and justice against those who are seduced into enacting the sin of racism.
We are called into individual and communal liberation by way of this amazing healing story. Today in Luke we are reminded that this Gospel is one that rings out the cry of the oppressed and draws us into God’s preferential treatment of the marginalized. Luke is starting to lay down the foundation for the ministering in Gentile territory that we see so much of in Acts (FOTW, 169). Jesus has gone into a place that is “opposite” not just geographically; it is a place where many Gentiles live (FOTW, 166). Jesus is showing the disciples how to do this because he will send them to go outside of what they know to different places and people, to those marginalized in ways they are not, to be the liberating love and healing that comes by way of God through him.
This man comes before Jesus in pretty bad shape. He is broken, no longer himself, and suffering greatly. When he responds to being asked his name the man says “Legion” highlighting just how plagued he is by demons. As people living under occupation, they would have known that a legion equals five thousand Roman troops. This directly points to the oppression people are experiencing at the hands of the empire (JANT, 118).
Now, I will get to the bit about the pigs in a moment, but first I want to draw our attention to the end. At the end of this account the man is told by Jesus to proclaim how much God has done for him, yet he proclaims how much Jesus has done for him (JANT, 118). This healing would have put Jesus in further tension with the Jewish leaders and put Rome on alert. In this act of liberation Jesus is also directly confronting the oppressive colonizer.
And the evidence of that lies in the details of the pigs in this story. I want to read you a section of Dante Stewart’s book Shoutin’ in the Fire: An American Epistle. I am quoting from him more than I ever have quoted anyone in a sermon because it feels important, especially today, to not try and summarize these words from a Black man living in the U.S., but to share them in their fullness. Here, Stewart is discussing what brought him and his wife to leave their former mostly white church based upon the lack of just repsonse in the wake of the televised murders of black people at the hands of empire, pointedly by police. He talks about coming across this story as it is told in Mark and writes:
“The man is in chains, cut off from his community, caught between threat and danger; his mind is weary, controlled, and destroyed. In this moment, he is suffering in every aspect of his life: spiritual, social, political, psychological, economic, and physical. When Jesus comes to town and confronts the man, he not only sets his mind free but he also breaks his chains, both restoring his dignity and changing the world that he knew most viscerally: a place of terror, dehumanization, and pain. In the gospel, Jesus casts out the evil spirits from the man, sending the spirits into the pigs. The man is free. Jesus restores his dignity, power, agency but this liberation is not for the man only. This liberation is for the man’s community as well. He is not to be free alone. He is not to experience justice alone. He is not to sing and dance alone.
When Jesus casts the demons to the pigs I wondered: Why would people choose to be around pigs, rendering themselves ceremonially unclean, cutting themselves off from social, political, and religious life? The answer is they didn’t choose it for themselves. Their oppressors did. The Romans would want meat when they came to town on their excursions. The pigs didn’t just represent uncleanliness. They represented the violence toward a people. They represented exploitation, disrespect, and second-class citizenship. No wonder the Romans- and those adjacent to their power- were afraid when Jesus cast the pigs into the sea. They knew what that meant: more loss, more death, more violence. So when Jesus liberates the man, he also intends to liberate the community. He intends to set bodies free from suffering and violence. The man’s response of joy and wanting to spread this message of love and liberation is so important. This represents the hopes of oppressed people all over and the hopes of life in Jesus: freedom to be human, freedom to build a life, freedom to love, freedom to work, freedom to create joy.” (Stewart, 118-119)
That is God’s liberation and God wants that for every human being. And especially for people that others hold down and oppress. God wants more days that mark liberation, more Freedom Days!
Like the man who was healed, we are invited to proclaim just how much Jesus has done. Even when he asks to come with Jesus he is told to stay and proclaim, because Jesus knows the power that individual healing can have on an entire community. This is the good news. Healing and liberation came. They came to this broken man and his community. Freedom Day came. It came after too long of a wait, and yet it still came!
And part of the good news today is also that we know how to do this work together. For example, how many of us have participated in Sacred Ground? Were your hearts transformed? The work of Sacred Ground has brought some amongst us to carry on these conversations and discerning action by way of affinity groups. Groups that keep learning, growing, and acting together. One group in particular who completed Sacred Ground is doing some forensic digging into our history and how we might have benefited from the sin of racism in this community. You might have read some about this in the Friday email. So, the work continues and we at St. Paul’s are a people who are about that very mission of God’s liberation and healing.
Yes, we have made progress, and as long as there’s empire, there will be oppression and so too work for us to do. So, How will we look in the mirror of our past and be honest about where we have been? How will we be about the work of liberation and healing and proclaiming it? How will we be part of bringing about the Freedom Days of the future?
References: Feasting on the Word, Global Bible Commentary, Jewish Annotated New Testament, Shoutin’ in the Fire: An American Epistle