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This sermon was originally preached on June 19, 2022 at Oak Grove Lutheran Church in Richfield, MN. The service may be viewed here.
Second Sunday after Pentecost Lectionary Texts:
Isaiah 65:1-9 | Galatians 3:23-29
Gospel Text (included below sermon ): Luke 8:26-39
Oh Great God, Mothering Spirit, Liberator and Life-giver, greet us this morning with fresh ears and open eyes that we may love each other well. Amen.
In October 2009, after a few years of touring as a solo artist in nashville and partnering with a non profit doing humanitarian work throughout Africa, I traveled to Gulu Uganda with a group of 9 other artists where we painted murals at an orphanage and school, and met with about 100 women living openly with an ostracizing HIV positive status. While there, we also had the opportunity to attend a local church in a small village on the outskirts of Gulu proper. That Sunday’s worship was an incredible, spirit-filled service that lasted 4 hours but truly only felt like one, if you can believe it. The service was fluid and seamless, and it was easy to feel connected to Spirit and everyone gathered.
But there was one man in particular who captured our attention because at various points in the service, he fell to the ground in convulsions. I say “fell,” but that doesn’t quite describe the force with which he hit the dirt of this large straw-covered church: It was more like he was thrown to the ground, except that, to our eyes, it was just him, violently falling and then rising uninjured.
We were told this was common for him; that his demons were known and had been confronted many times, and that his pastors and community were working on his exorcism -- it was just taking some time. But they told us not to worry; it was all well under control.
Some of us were shocked to hear them speak so freely and confidently not only about this demon possession, but about their own efforts to keep on casting them out, week after week, while fearlessly welcoming him into the presence of God.
And as we thought about and discussed the whole thing throughout the rest of that day, we realized something profound, which altogether transformed what we'd witnessed. I know it will sound wild, and trust me when I say we went over and over it. But I n the end we all agreed to what our collective experience and memory confirmed: It was at the name of Jesus Christ that this beloved man fell, every time.
I’ve never seen anything like it before or since. But I remember and think of him every time I read today’s story and consider how the naked, raging demoniac must have felt and been received among his Gerasene community. Unlike our Ugandan friends who were committed to their neighbor’s freedom, the Geresenes had apparently accepted his possession as the norm, had given up trying to free him, and had abandoned him to the torment of demons, shackled and chained among feral pigs and the dead, right up until the moment Jesus came to him. And Jesus, unafraid and clear on what he was dealing with, boldly stepped into that ritually unclean place and commanded the demon to leave him, asking for its name. The demon also knew the One they faced and so they him: “My name is Legion, for we are many.” And Jesus cast them out to drown, finally setting the man free.
The rest of the story is honestly not great, at least not for his community. Verses 35 through 37 tell us that those who witnessed his miraculous dispossession did not celebrate the man’s liberation, but were in fact “seized with such great fear” that they, like Legion, begged Jesus to leave. But the liberated man testified anyway and became the first in Luke’s gospel to bring the good news of Jesus Christ to the Gentiles.
So what does any of this have to do with us here, today, in Richfield MN USA?
Well, to begin with, I am reminded of something I recognized back in 2009 and has come to mind again at various times especially over the past five or six years as the hatred at the heart of our nation has been uncovered: Through the election of overt racists to public office across the country; through the FBI’s own statistics showing that the greatest domestic threat to the USA is the homegrown white nationalist; through the January 6th insurrection and the recent mass shooting of Black shoppers in New York and the attempted terror attack on Pride goers in Idaho; and that is this:
Demon possession and the forces of evil are not mysteries confined to straw huts in rural Uganda or to the pages of Holy Scripture, in stories that are routinely dismissed by rational enlightened minds as literally anything other than what they are. Instead, they are real, they are now, and they are here.
In fact, I cannot think of a better way to describe the many-faced and ever-evolving monster that is White Supremacy than a Legion of demons possessing our Political and Spiritual body.
This is especially resonant today, June 19th, as our Black neighbors celebrate Juneteenth and commemorate the day in 1865 when the news of emancipation finally reached the shores of Galveston TX, where 250,000 enslaved persons had yet to be freed or to even hear of their liberation which had been granted 2 ½ years earlier. It is also a day to commemorate the grief and rage of knowing that at least 17 million of their African ancestors died either in the deep waters of the Atlantic’s middle passage, or in the chains that bound them as soon as they arrived on these lands, which became their and their descendents’ true hell for hundreds of years. For white folks, Juneteenth is an invitation to celebrate their freedom and remember what it cost and how long it took for that demon, slavery, to be named and cast out. “My name is Legion, for we are many.”
It is resonant too when we consider that even though the emancipation proclamation declared that all people enslaved in **Confederate states were henceforth freed from their chains, such freedom was only theirs IF they could make their way, uncaptured, to Union territory -- where slavery was still very much legal -- and become Union soldiers in the Civil War. Indeed, emancipation only did so much against the demonic forces of slave patrols, overzealous slave masters, and a northern army desperate for more soldiers to send into battle and certain death. “My name is Legion, for we are many.”
It is resonant when we consider that all federal and state legislation that proceeded emancipation made explicit provision for slavery to continue, including in the 13th amendment, which abolished slavery for everyone except those persons convicted of a crime. In fact, not even chattel slavery was fully abolished in all of the United States until 9 years ago when Mississippi became the 50th and final state to ratify the 13th amendment. So yes, while chattel slavery and the private ownership of human beings is finally and fully federally illegal, many state constitutions including our very own here in Minnesota, still permit forced labor as the penalty for criminal conviction. “My name is Legion, for we are many.”
It is resonant, too, when we consider how our Legion of demons has evolved over the last 159 years. To this point, I offer up the counsel of Reverend Traci Blackmon who had this to say last year, when Juneteenth was declared a federal holiday. I invite us to bring our own mindfulness into concert with what she is showing us:
“I am mindful,” she says, “that Emancipation cost neither President Lincoln nor his cabinet anything; and that the slave holders who voluntarily obeyed his executive order received $300 in reparations per freed slave, even as those freed people received nothing for their generations of stolen bodies, snatched children, and expropriated labor other than their mere release from legal bondage.” “I am mindful,” she wrote, “that such feigned acts of solidarity,” like the turning of Juneteenth into a federal holiday, “ring hollow in light of the [hundreds of] bills introduced in [at least] 48 states that…would restrict voting access. “I am mindful of federal lawmakers who unanimously vote to celebrate Juneteenth but refuse to enact the John Lewis Voting Rights Bill (H. R. 4) or the For the People Act (S.1) to protect the voting rights of the descendants of those freed on the day the nation now cheers. I am mindful that while announcements flood the headlines of this new federal holiday, governors are using state power to ban accurate teaching of American history in this country and thwart the intellectual engagement of Critical Race Theory in institutions of higher learning. I am mindful that we celebrate Juneteenth as a holiday in a country that, since 1900, has repeatedly failed to pass anti- lynching legislation.”
I would add to hers my own awareness of policies which over the years have explicitly targeted free Black folks for incarceration — like reconstruction vagrancy laws and Jim Crow era segregation laws — and to policies which have targeted them in practice if not on paper, like the war on drugs, redlining, and stop and frisk.
“My name is Legion, for we are many.”
I invite us to hear her wisdom, join her lament, and attend her call to reject the norms that have made the idea of confronting our nation and church’s Legion of demons scarier than the demons themselves, and made so many of us so fearful of the Christ who casts them out that we send him away rather than welcoming him to free us.
Friends, please hear this not as condemnation, but as an invitation to contemplation, and know that I say all of this to the mirror as much as you, as I am particularly reminded of all the ways white supremacy continues to show up in my own body. Like how I still bristle at the notion of “whiteness” itself, or the idea that I might become a better neighbor by shedding it without flaying myself. I notice white supremacy in the bile that rises in my chest and sours my stomach when my Black sisters boldly name my racist words and actions. It’s in the shame that creeps into my back and down my arms, and turns into hot tears that fill my eyes each time I’m reminded by these beloved siblings that they neither want nor need me to ride in as a white savior to free them from anything, but instead wish I would sit with the discomfort of confession until both implicit and overt, ingrained and expressed white supremacy are rooted out of my own bones, out of my own home, out of my own church and nation.
I am acutely aware of how white supremacy still dresses up as fear — like my fear of coming here today to say any of this to you, because what if the call to collective remembrance, recognition, and repentance actually pushes you away from the gospel of Jesus which is liberation from Legions, not only for Black folks, but for us white folks too? What if this abiding truth — that Jesus is offering US freedom — is somehow drowned by all the scary, over-politicized buzzwords now flying around this holy backyard?
So I call our attention back to the unnamed convulsing men in the book of Luke and in that Ugandan church. Men whose demons like white supremacy, remain a scary and mysterious Legion, but were nonetheless obedient to Christ.
I incline our curiosity toward the gospel text coming in two weeks time, when, in Luke 10, Jesus will grant to his disciples — to the seventy two and, yes!, to you and me — the very same power and authority to cast out demons in His name.
And I implore us with all grace and humility to continue the legacy of our white abolitionist ancestors like George Gaston, Samuel Adams, Reverend John Todd, and John Brown who risked their money, their reputations, and their lives to escort freedom seekers to liberation along the Underground Railroad.
I Implore us to carefully, tenderly, and intentionally align ourselves in solidarity with our Black siblings whose full liberation has not yet been realized.
And I impore us to commit ourselves to the work of facing, naming, and casting out the Legion of demons that is white supremacy whenever and wherever we may find it — in our city, in our church, in our homes, in ourselves — for as long as it takes for them to flee to the abyss.
And may we, now in our right minds and clothed in righteousness, become that liberated man who goes out to our people and preaches this same gospel until everyone is truly free.
26Then [Jesus and his disciples] arrived at the country of the Gerasenes, which is opposite Galilee. 27As he stepped out on land, a man of the city who had demons met him. For a long time he had worn no clothes, and he did not live in a house but in the tombs. 28When he saw Jesus, he fell down before him and shouted at the top of his voice, “What have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? I beg you, do not torment me”--29for Jesus had commanded the unclean spirit to come out of the man. (For many times it had seized him; he was kept under guard and bound with chains and shackles, but he would break the bonds and be driven by the demon into the wilds.) 30Jesus then asked him, “What is your name?” He said, “Legion”; for many demons had entered him. 31They begged him not to order them to go back into the abyss.
32Now there on the hillside a large herd of swine was feeding; and the demons begged Jesus to let them enter these. So he gave them permission. 33Then the demons came out of the man and entered the swine, and the herd rushed down the steep bank into the lake and was drowned.
34When the swineherds saw what had happened, they ran off and told it in the city and in the country. 35Then people came out to see what had happened, and when they came to Jesus, they found the man from whom the demons had gone sitting at the feet of Jesus, clothed and in his right mind. And they were afraid. 36Those who had seen it told them how the one who had been possessed by demons had been healed. 37Then all the people of the surrounding country of the Gerasenes asked Jesus to leave them; for they were seized with great fear. So he got into the boat and returned. 38The man from whom the demons had gone begged that he might be with him; but Jesus sent him away, saying, 39“Return to your home, and declare how much God has done for you.” So he went away, proclaiming throughout the city how much Jesus had done for him.