This past Wednesday marked the celebration of a holiday many of us may not be familiar with, but is celebrated in communities across the country: Juneteenth. Juneteenth is a celebration most often remembered in African American communities, often called Freedom Day or Juneteenth Independence Day, commemorating the freedom of slaves in Texas, and by extension, freedom of all African Americans from slavery.
On June 19th, 1865, General Gordon Granger sailed into and occupied Galveston, Texas and read the Emancipation Proclamation, sharing the good news with the now-former slaves of Texas that they were no longer enslaved. The weight of bondage would be lifted and the former slaves would be free men and women. Texas was the last state in the Confederacy to fall, and so the last place in the former Confederacy that the slaves were freed. So the African American community has taken that day ever since to lift up and celebrate freedom from bondage.
This morning we read about Jesus, who sailed across the Sea of Galilee to the land of the Gerasenes, where he freed a man held in bondage.
As soon as he stepped on the shore, Jesus was met by this man. Right from the get-go we can tell something is wrong. This man is out of his mind, going around naked among the tombs, the shackles he had broken probably still clinging to his wrists and ankles. He’s a picture of uncleanness: his nakedness, his living among the dead, his possession by demons keeping him erratic and uncontrollable, all put him out of decent society. He’s like all the most unnerving stereotypes of a person on the street all rolled into one. And he has no concept of conversational norms since he gets right up to Jesus, falls down on the ground and shouts at the top of his lungs demanding to know what Jesus wants with him.
Then we get some interesting background about this man possessed by demons. He was often put in chains by the townspeople and put under a watch, because they couldn’t control him. But when the demon would give him the strength to break his chains, he did something unusual: he ran off to the wilds. Every pop culture description of demons would expect us to have him go on some kind of violent rampage in the town, not run away. But that’s not what happens. Instead, this demon—these demons—want him isolated.
Legion isn’t a name meaning “lots of them” in the first century. It was referring to the very real 6,000-man military unit that composed the Roman Army. It was the occupying force that made sure the Peace of Rome was maintained through the law of violence and the order of oppression. And like any oppressive regime, Legion wanted to isolate the Gerasene man so it could torment him without interference. It wanted to cut him off from anyone who could help him, like how the Texan government kept the Emancipation Proclamation from the ears of the slaves by isolating them in the farthest reaches of the Confederacy; or how the Sudanese government is isolating its citizens as they demand democracy; or like the Chinese government is isolating Uighur Muslims in reeducation camps for the crime of valuing their faith; or like the current administration is isolating refugees in detention centers. Legion sought to isolate the man so that his neighbors couldn’t see him, and so wouldn’t think to help him.
And the irony that occurs is that Legion sees and recognizes Jesus, the Son of the Most High God, and begs him to do one thing: don’t send them into the abyss. The abyss, the place of ultimate isolation. “Don’t do to us what we’ve done to this man.” Like evil everywhere, Legion demanded special treatment it would never think to offer its victims. But the most confusing part might be that Jesus grants Legion’s request. He lets the demons go into the pigs!
But I imagine he did that because he knew what would happen next. Evil on the level of demons is only able to destroy or be destroyed; to afflict or be afflicted; to break or be broken. And the pigs embodied that truism by rushing headlong into the sea and drowned—the very sea that Jesus had demonstrated complete mastery over when he calmed the storm as they crossed it. Far from outmaneuvering Jesus, Legion showed just how incapable evil is of overcoming the liberating power of God.
And that’s exactly what happened to the Gerasene man. After who knows how long, the voices finally stopped, his mania finally ended, and the possession that had so completely dominated his life was over. He was in his right mind. And the people of the town came out to see—but they didn’t celebrate. They weren’t overjoyed by the miracle that had occurred. Instead, they were, the text tells us, afraid.
Afraid of what?
I know a lot of commentaries suggest it was something as crass as the herd of pigs going into the sea that sparked the fear in the people. If Jesus could do that, what other power could he inflict on them? How else would Jesus’ miracles disrupt their economic lives? But another commentator suggested something deeper: the people were afraid of not having the benefit of the demon-possessed man on the edges of their society. They could tolerate evil as long as it could be used to their own ends.
As long as Legion kept ahold of the man, they could blame him for all kinds of problems even if he had nothing to do with them. They could attribute high prices to the workings of the demon in the wilds. They could blame lack of jobs and uncomfortable social changes on the evil machinations of the demon. They could point to the demon-possessed man any time someone got sick, or there was a natural disaster, or Rome raised taxes. But now they didn’t have that evil to use anymore.
They couldn’t do that now, because Jesus opened their eyes to see the full humanity of the man they had let loose in the wilds. Suddenly he wasn’t the nameless, faceless evil on the edges; he was a human being with hopes and fears and dreams of his own. And as scary as it can be to see the full humanity of someone we had been using as a convenient scapegoat, it’s also a truth that liberates us to be part of what God is doing in our midst.
Because God in Christ liberates us from the power of sin that wants us to scapegoat people to begin with. Christ opens us up to seeing the full humanity of those on the margins, from the poor person to the criminal to the drug addict to the refugee to the homeless person to the mentally ill person. Christ works to free us from the possession of comfortable lies that rely on dehumanizing others. Christ liberates those possessed by Legion—and by those possessed by their own fears.
So whatever it is that is possessing you—whether powers that seek to isolate and torment you, or fears that want to scapegoat your neighbor and deny their full humanity—Jesus liberates you. Jesus frees you from the shackles that keep you from loving your neighbor, serving the needy, speaking up for the oppressed, reaching out to the lonely, and living the truth of the kingdom. By his coming he named you free, and even if the news is late in getting to you, it doesn’t make it any less true or real. And sometimes that much freedom can be scary, because we’ve gotten so used to being in bondage. But with that freedom, Jesus commands us to do one thing: go and tell everyone how much God has done for you.
Your eyes are opened and you are freed. Thanks be to God. Amen.