It was a day not unlike the day before it, with one exception, this would be the first day of freedom. The day was June 19, 1865, and the place was Galveston, Texas. The war had been raging for five years. Hundreds of thousands were dead. The American landscape had changed forever. Most historians place the ending of the US Civil War to the day when Robert E. Lee surrendered to Ulysses S. Grant in Appomattox Court House, Virginia. But for those left in bondage in Texas, the war did not officially end until June 19, 1865.
Texas was the last of the former Confederate States to free their slaves. On that day in June, by General Order Number 3, the Emancipation Proclamation was finally enforced, and those in bondage were set free. Last year, after 156 years, President Biden signed a law designating June 19th as a Federal Holiday in recognition of that day in Galveston.
When our country was founded, 89 years before those events in Texas, owning another human being was legal. The Capitol Building and White House in Washington, DC, were built by slave labor, and much of the agricultural production was provided by slave labor in sometimes unbearable conditions. Slavery and the fact that this country was built on the idea of freedom is part of our history, although some would like us to forget it. You can mask it in whatever language you wish, but slavery was the main reason brothers took up arms against brothers and fought the Civil War that still rages in some parts of this country.
Although many knew that the institution of slavery was sinful, I cannot hold those who founded that country to the same standard as our 21st Century sense of morality. I am not saying it is correct, but times were different, and morality was different, but that does not mean we should sweep it under the rug. History, just like theology, needs to be studied and taught with a critical lens and the unvarnished truth. Unfortunately, America has a pretty poor track record when it comes to the historical as well as the modern treatment of minorities. We can and must do better.
But today, we hear a story of another kind of emancipation, spiritual emancipation.
The story from Luke’s Gospel is a story of the awesome power of God. The demons feared it, the possessed man was saved by it, and the local people did not know what to make. Finally, Jesus reveals that God has power over evil and compassion for those who are lost.
Jesus and those with him arrive in the country of the Gerasenes, which is on the eastern bank of the Sea of Galilee. As Jesus stepped out of the boat, he was met by a man who had lived most of his life among the tombs. Scripture tells us he was naked and would often throw himself into the fire and do other things to harm himself. He was sent there in chains because the people of the nearby town were afraid of this man.
Scripture does not provide us with a lot of detail. We do not know the man’s name or the names of his parents. However, we know that the man is so worn out from his ordeal that he survives, shackled and under guard and in the caves near the water. He is an outcast from his community.
It is usually at this point that preachers will attempt to explain his condition using modern psychological terms because we do not like things we cannot explain, like demon possession. Now, I do not think it is at all like the movies, such as the exorcist, but I am a believer in such things as spiritual warfare. However, regardless of the terms, we want to use, this man’s life is out of his control, and he has been reduced to being chained for his protection and that of the society around him.
Jesus confronts the demon and asks what their name is, and the reply is Legion as an indication that the influences on this man were many. Unfortunately, this is a reality for many, even those of us who call Jesus Lord. Sometimes there are so many forces around us that pull us in one direction or another that it can seem like we have lost all control. Concerns about employment, health, finances, broken relationships and the day-to-day details of our lives can all conspire to make us feel like we have no control.
It is important to note that the unclean spirit is the first to recognize the divine in Jesus. The question asked is not “who are you?” but “what are you going to do with us?” Recognizing the presence of God is not the same as committing oneself to that presence. The unclean spirits’ only concern was for self-preservation, so much so that the only way they could see a way out was to ask to be sent into the beats that would be their final destruction.
Often in life, we see no way out; we are so lost that asking for help seems beyond our control. We might accept God’s healing and forgiving power and love in our lives, but our human instincts drive us in different directions.
Just as the man in the story seems to have no will, we often resist change and flee to what is familiar, living a life that makes little or no sense from a faith perspective. Only when the man fell before Jesus did he find any kind of hope. So likewise, we find peace and transformation at the feet of our savior, not in the shelter of a life directed by other influences.
But those living in the town, those who knew this man and his struggle, were not so quick to accept this transformation. How many times have we witnessed someone who has changed and repented, yet we approach them with skepticism? I am not saying that we should welcome everyone, we need to be cautious, but the point here is that the demon was quicker to accept the authority of God than the townsfolk were.
They feared the Son of God more than the unclean spirits and demonstrated the emotions that sometimes accompany an encounter with the holy. There is some truth that we sometimes prefer the troubles we know to changes we do not.
Right there in front of them was the awesome power of God. The man was not only healed but the demons had been destroyed. The man’s life was visibly changed; he was no longer the victim but the victor. His life has been transformed, and he has been given a new chance at life. Yet the people asked Jesus to leave, and in so doing, they forfeited any opportunity to further benefit from this awesome power of God’s love that he brought with them.
Jesus tells the man, “Return to your home, and declare how much God has done for you.” Then, Jesus sends the man back to be among his own as a witness. The man is a recipient of life-changing grace and has a story to tell.
In a few moments, we, like the man in the story, have an opportunity to share in that lifesaving and life-transforming grace. We will gather around the table and consecrate the elements that have been provided for us. This is not something you or I do on our own, but together with the Holy Spirit, we transform these simple elements into something holy in the same way that the same Holy Spirit will transform our lives into something Holy. This is the Lord’s table and not ours. We do not come to it as some reward for obeying all the rules; instead, we humbly approach this table as imperfect people. We come and ask the question, “What will you do with us?” And the answer is, forgive, love, and transform.
Take this gift freely given but do not hold on to it. Instead, we must “Return to our homes and tell of the awesome power of God and all that God has done in our lives.”
What is it that possesses us? What is it that we have to fall on our knees in front of Jesus and leave there, at his feet? Trust that God will forgive and trust that God will help you make the change that you need to become his disciples in the world.