I preached this sermon Sunday June 23, 2019 at The New York Avenue Presbyterian Church. This sermon was preached honoring world Refugee Sunday. We gave thanks for the refugees, asylum seekers, and immigrants in our church and communities. The first scripture was Psalm 42. The second scripture, which this sermon is based on was the story of Jesus and the Demonic from Luke 8:26-39.
I would love to hear from you response and stories to the question asked here: How has Jesus Christ saved your life?
The weekend after Travon Martin was shot, we said nothing in church. He wasn’t lifted up in the time of confession, in the sermon or in the prayer time. His presence wasn’t included amongst us that day.
I grew up in a multi-cultural Los Angeles in the 80s and 90s. We lived near immigrants from Central America and Vietnam, and I am multi-ethnic in my own identity — half Chinese and half white. We celebrated our cultural diversity by appreciating different languages and ethnic foods — yet by not talking about race directly, I was implicitly taught that we were living in post racial America. Or, as it is also known today — I was taught color blindness.
For my first call into ministry, my husband and I moved to Ithaca, New York from Washington DC. We lived downtown, where the majority of our neighbors were white, and the church I served was majority white people except for a large contingent of Karen ethnic minority refugees from Burma. I held three false assumptions: #1 There were very few people of color, including black people, living in this town; #2 There were no racial tensions and because of these first two #3 Race didn’t need to be addressed.
But then that week happened. Travyon Martin, an unarmed black boy, was shot in Florida. The news covered it. Our friends were talking about it. But neither my colleague, who is white, or I said anything.
Jesus appeared that day in the form of Professor M, who is black, a Professor at Cornell University. I had baptized Lorraine’s grandchildren. She had been on my search committee. I had sat across from her at many a Wednesday night church potluck supper. With a combination of directness and kindness, Professor M let me know in no uncertain terms that we had missed the Gospel message for that day. She let me know that she expected me to do better. It was through Professor M that Jesus appeared opening up the opportunity to be set free from some racist assumptions, to be opened to the reality of violence against people of color, especially those who are considered to be black and brown in our country.
Where has Jesus spoken into your life setting you free from the power of sin and death inviting you instead to life lived abundantly in the power of the resurrection? Or put more simply, think of a story, in your own life when Jesus set you free….
The story of Jesus and the demonic is that kind of story of God’s freeing power. It is indeed a strange one —- this idea of processing a man. Many us avoid this kind of story. We aren’t sure what to make of it. We think of demons either in terms of some kind of cartoon caricature dressed in red with horns and a spiky tail or something much more scary buried deep within our world and maybe even within our very souls.
These demons are not something we are comfortable talking about; Just like the community did to Legion — we try to shackle them, bury them, put them in the tomb, and it is for that very reason that we are called by Jesus to stare directly into the face of these demons and command them to come out.
I started with the demon of racism. We each are coming to our own stories of when we began to see; stories where we are called to dig deep into our assumptions and our stereotypes.
Xenophobia is another demon driving our country apart. We have read about the horrors going on inside the detention facilities on own country’s southern boarder:
- There are three girls ages 11 to 15 who are taking shifts caring for a sick 2 year old boy because there is no adult around caring for them.
- Other children report eating frozen food that hasn’t been heated or rice for every meal.
- Some children report not having a shower in two weeks.
- There are no toothbrushes, no soap, the only blankets are foil ones.
- Lights are on all night long, the a/c is blasting too cold, there isn’t enough access to bathroom facilities.
These thousands of children sleeping on concrete floors are the same ages as the ones who come up here for children’s time. As a country we are giving into the demons of fear, turning to a brutal anger, which have turned to abuse.
Our hearts break. But it doesn’t have to be this way. This is not who we are.
When we were living in Ithaca, NY we got to know some of the refugees from the Karen minority group from Burma. Ms. H was one of the high schoolers in that community. She lived in a refugee camp in Thailand until she was 14, living in basic conditions, sometimes without enough food or medicine, but always with her family.
Her family came to Ithaca to be resettled when she was about to start high school. She had gone to school in the refugee camp in Thailand, so she knew some English. It was hard, but teachers and people from the church gave her extra tutoring. In 2014 she graduated from high school and was the first person in that refugee community to go onto college. After college, she went on to get her masters in nursing. For the past five years as she has continued her education, she has returned back to that refugee camp bringing methods for water purification, a medical clinic, and English and math classes. She has encouraged others who came to upstate New York as refugees to do well in school and join her in going back in the summers bringing back knowledge and hope. I look at Ms. H and I see Legion, the man that Jesus set free.
She is different from Legion, of course. She hasn’t had to battle the demons of the mind or of the heart. Her immediate community and family have been her rock and support. She was never cast out. But outside of her nuclear family, like Legion she bore the wounds of warfare and religious persecution. They tried to kill her family and to wipe out everyone in her ethnic group. She grew up with family but in a refugee camp isolated and excluded from all the privileges of being a citizen of this world.
Her story is more hopeful. But we know too of millions of refugees, asylum seekers and immigrants, who because of violence and economic desolation live a life unrecognizable to most of us. It is an act of hope in the face of death — it is in hopes of the resurrection — that we see families and individuals crossing desserts and mountains and rivers on flimsy rafts trying to get to this country, a country built on the resilience and faith of immigrants. These citizens of the world, who come with gumption, bravery and resilience are being turned right back to the literal tombs they are escaping from.
We will not stand for this kind of demon to take over the souls of our country.
This Biblical story connects deeply with our own story today. It begins in the county of the Gerasenes. There are two important things to notice here: First, the good news of Jesus’s message that all are called as God’s beloved created in the image of God, this Good News has traveled beyond the immediate audience of the Jewish people. This good news has spread abroad to the world. And second, the country of the Gerasenes is on the opposite side of the sea of Galilee. Just like Jesus telling the story of the Samaritan man, opening us up to the story of the foreigner, Jesus in this story of the demonic is literally crossing to the other side — crossing over to wrong side of the religious tracks. He is going to the place considered to be the abyss.
When Jesus arrives, he meets Legion. This is a clue in the story that those first century listeners would have cued into. Legion is the Roman name for a large military unit meaning that the Roman army is the cause of this man’s violent and destructive behavior and the whole society is possessed by the effects of violence of the empire.
When we read the story this way that this man is possessed by the powers of empire and that the community too is possessed by these powers that seek to control, this story starts to feel not so far removed. This story is our story today.
There are the demons in this world, demons that get their power from those political and social forces that we give into at the expense of the Gospel message.
These are demons that we seek to push away until they appear with devastating regularity
- with a shooting of a person who looks black or brown by police
- with gun violence in our very city, that some 29 people over Memorial Day weekend where victims of gun violence, a violence that we have ignored because it has mostly been on the other side of the river, where the people with power do not live
- and with the demons of what is going on in the detention facilities on the border — with children the same age as mine the same age as the one I still nurse at my breast and the one I teaching how to read.
I am afraid for the soul of our country. But I am not without hope.
This hope comes when we dig deep and recall our own stories — that story I asked you to consider in the beginning: Where in our own life has Jesus set you free? It is a question that might catch us off guard.We don’t often talk about our personal experiences with Jesus. But at the heart of it, these stories of personal experiences are what drive us, define us, and what embolden us to dig deeper into who we are called to be.
In the letter to the Philippians, in the section that is called the Christ hymn, we hear those life changing words that Jesus, though he was in the form of God, emptied himself taking on the form of a slave, taking on on the form of human flesh, bearing our sufferings and knowing our joys.
It is this Jesus who knows us so deeply — this Jesus who has already bore our deepest sins, who knows us in the core of our beings, who commands the demon within Legion to come out — and then who sends Legion, right back to be the healer of that very community that had shackled him. Jesus not only heals Legion but makes him a healer.
With the power of knowing the weight of the shackles and deep experience of the desperation of the living in the shadow of the death of the tombs, Legion is called to tell his story of Jesus setting him free.And because the community knows his story, they will listen.
We are Legion. We are the community. We are the ones who have been commissioned as healers. We are the ones who must be healed.
What is your healing story?
Where has Jesus set you free?
Tell it so that we may live.