Sunday, June 19, 2016

High-definition freedom

Luke 8:26-39

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When we prayed for Orlando last Sunday morning,
    only a few hours after the attack,
    it was only with scant details of what was unfolding there.
    We heard there were 20 dead, and that was shocking enough.
    But it later became clear
        that 50 had died,
        that the victims were targeted because of their sexual identity,
        that the shooter claimed loyalty to the Islamic State,
        that he was known to be mentally unstable,
        and that he had legally purchased a military-style assault rifle.
    When we absorbed all those disparate facts,
        and considered the implications,
            our grief deepened,
            our anger intensified,
            our fears and anxieties were raw and on full display.

    Stories of courage and sacrifice emerged
        from those directly involved.
    Some profoundly compassionate responses came forth,
        even, unexpectedly, from some politicians
        not known for humility and vulnerability.
    Yet, there were others—political and religious figures—
        who did respond as we expected,
        with finger-pointing and blaming and hateful rhetoric.
    And those comments were strongly repudiated and condemned,
        as well they should have been.

    Meanwhile,
        real families were suffering,
        spouses and lovers were grieving,
        parents were in anguish.
    Any many of us, far removed from Orlando,
        moved about in a state of disbelief and numbness and weariness,
        not really knowing what to do,
        except lament, pray, and hope for a better day coming.

After a week of what we might call nationwide trauma,
    I can’t help but approach today’s lectionary scriptures
        with this in view.
    It wouldn’t much matter which texts were handed to us.
        They would be read in the light of this past week.
    We come to the text, as well we should,
        “with the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other,”
            as theologian Karl Barth has been famously quoted.

So I went to this astounding Gospel story in Luke,
    of Jesus healing the demoniac,
    with the news from Orlando echoing in my awareness.

The connection may not be immediately apparent to you,
    but stick with me.
_____________________

When I go to the Gospels,
    I look, naturally, for Good News.
        Which is what “Gospel” means.
    So where is the good news in this story?
    Which characters are experiencing this
        as a welcome turn of events?

Perhaps it’s an easier question to ask,
    “Who’s having a bad day?”
    I can think of several.

Jesus, for one.
    At least humanly speaking.
    He’s trying to get away for some peace and quiet
        after a full and stressful week of ministry around Capernaum.
    Quick review of the week:
        healed the servant of a Roman commander,
        raised to life the dead son of a poor widow,
        fended off questions from John the Baptist’s disciples,
            and the Pharisees,
        told a bunch of parables,
        responded to the scandalous behavior of a woman
            in Simon the Pharisee’s house
            (which I talked about last Sunday)
        and dealt with his meddling mother and brothers.

Jesus needed a change of scenery,
    a break from his work,
    so he got into a boat with his disciples,
        and crossed the Sea of Galilee.
    Nothing like waves lapping up against a wooden hull,
        boat gently swaying as a gentle breeze fills the sail,
        to help a person relax and forget about work for a while.

    Except, that didn’t happen.
        A storm came up.
        His disciples panicked.
        So Jesus went back to work,
            miraculously calmed the storm,
            and taught them a lesson on faith.

So Jesus gets to the other side of the lake,
    maybe takes a deep breath . . . ahh! . . . rest at last!

And they are immediately confronted by a screaming naked man.
    Chaos breaks out.
    The whole town swarms on him, says go away and don’t come back.
        And the man begs to get in the boat with them.
        Never a dull moment!

Good News is scarce for the other characters in the story, too.
    It’s hard for them to appreciate what’s unfolding before them.

Need I point out what a terrible day it turned out to be
    for the owners and keepers of a herd of pigs?
    Suddenly they are bankrupt and have nothing to build from.

The townspeople as a whole are also upset.
    Maybe in part, because of the great economic loss
        sustained by one of their farmers.
    But also, no doubt,
        because they didn’t know what to do with a man
        who once had been chained in their cemetery,
            and probably functioned as the town scapegoat,
            filling his role as the “black sheep” of the community,
                now sitting fully clothed, and sane,
                and needing to be reintegrated into the community.
    The social order everyone had adjusted to was now out of order.
        With the healing of the one,
            the system was out of balance again.
        Nobody was sure who they were anymore,
            or where they stood.

As for the disciples of Jesus, they are silent.
    Shell-shocked, I imagine.
    They just survived sailing across the lake in a storm,
        and no sooner do they put their feet on solid ground,
        and another storm breaks out.

Well, surely, there is one character here,
    who has just had the best day of his life.
    Here must be where the Good News is to be found.
        In the life of the demoniac.

This man was bound, in every way imaginable.
    bound physically, in chains and shackles,
    bound spiritually, occupied by a legion of spirits
        that exercised complete control over him,
    bound socially, living in isolation in the cemetery,
        stigmatized, ostracized, marginalized to an extreme.

Everything that we assume is part of being human—
    being self-aware, having self-control, being in relationship,
        giving and receiving love—
        before Jesus came, this man had none of that.
    He even lost his name. At least he doesn’t get named in the story.
    He is just “the demoniac.”
        More beast than man, and treated as such.

    Well . . . after the chains fall?
        After his freedom from the demons?
        He was still rejected.
        His sudden sanity frightened his townspeople,
            to point he apparently still felt unsafe in town,
            had no home and begged to go with Jesus,
                but Jesus refused him.
    Where is the Gospel for him now?

Power that binds, is a fearful thing and hard to face.
    But sometimes, power that liberates is equally troublesome,
        and challenging to deal with.
    Freedom can mean a loss of security, loss of control.
    Freedom can mean letting go of a predictable future.

At least bondage is predictable.
    When we are chained to something,
        we know where we will be tomorrow.
        When we are free, it’s anyone’s guess.
    Maybe that’s why some persons who are abused,
        find it difficult to leave their abuser.
        It’s frightening to stay. But it’s more frightening to leave,
            and walk down a road you know nothing about.
            Even if everyone else says it’s a good road.
            It may not feel that way
                to someone contemplating freedom for the first time.
_____________________

Our modern western culture doesn’t give us much help in this regard.
    We’ve all been taught that freedom is the ultimate good.
        Freedom is what our forefathers fought for, we’ve been told.
        It’s the cause behind every war since then, we’ve been told.
        It’s why our enemies around the world hate us—
            they hate freedom, we’ve been told.
            Or are jealous of it, one of the two.

    But we grossly oversimplify freedom.
        Freedom is more than throwing off what binds us.
        Freedom is more than being able to shape our own destiny,
            with no one to stop us, restrict us, or restrain us.

I think we all agree, Jesus is a great liberator.
Jesus himself said it, “If the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed.”
    But I don’t think our culture tends to see freedom
        the way Jesus saw it.
    Our culture idealizes a free-for-all style of freedom.
    We like to say, the only thing that can limit our freedom,
        is if our freedom gets in the way of someone else’s freedom.
        If what I do, in the name of freedom,
            harms, or limits, or restrains someone else,
            I have violated the universal law of freedom.
        And we can agree, as far as it goes.

    But Jesus had more in mind than breaking chains.
        True freedom has a shape.
        It has definition, even high-definition.
            Just using the word “definition”
                is a form of limiting freedom,
                because definition draws a line,
                    and high-definition draws a finer line.
            When I define freedom,
                I restrict what can, and cannot, be called freedom.

        Freedom is not absence of all borders and boundaries.
        Freedom has a shape.
            And we who follow Jesus, say
                freedom is shaped like Jesus.
_____________________

One way I’ve found it helpful to talk about freedom,
    is to say that freedom is the capacity to be and become
        the person God created us to be.
    We were created in the image of God.
        All of us.
            No one here disputes that.
        We were all made to be God’s image bearers,
            to give glory to God,
            to reflect God’s glory with our lives.
        Freedom is finding our way clear to become that.

    But freedom is easily, and often, suppressed.
        I can lose my freedom in two ways.

        First, powers outside ourselves can prevent us from becoming
            the full and whole human being God intends us to be.
        This may be the power of an individual, a community, a society,
            or other powers beyond us,
                systemic powers, spiritual powers.
            Those in power over us may use coercion,
                or may exercise abusive power against us,
                or in some way violate our freedom to be the person
                    God intends for us to be.
            In other words, they do violence—
                they suppress our freedom to fulfill our created purpose.

        Secondly, we can undermine our own freedom.
            We may fail to recognize we have a created purpose.
                So while no one is coercing us, or violating us,
                    we still aren’t free.
            We may be floundering,
                because we resist letting our lives be contained
                    by any clear definition,
                    or disciplined life practices.

Christian freedom is more than breaking chains.
    The free Christian life is a journey of continual discovery.
        It’s finding out who God intends us to be,
            and opening ourselves to being transformed into that
                by the power of the Holy Spirit.
        And equally, it’s a journey of walking with others,
            to help them discover God’s intentions,
            help them open to God’s good purposes.
_____________________

Let’s be clear.
    We need to face up to chains that bind us,
        and bind others.
        Bondage is not God’s will. Ever.
            God’s will is to set us free from whatever or whoever
                is holding us bound.
            Chains—whether physical, emotional, spiritual,
                or some terrible combination of them all—
                must be resisted with all our might,
                    and with God’s help,
                    until they break.

    We just need to recognize that when the chains break,
        our work is not over.
        Freedom is more than absence of chains.
        Life can be complicated after the chains fall.
        The freedom we need, and seek, may still elude us.
_____________________

I think of myself as a free person.
    But I am also a middle-class, American, Christian,
        white, straight, educated, male.
    Most of that I got at birth. It wasn’t earned.
    And because of it,
        I have substantial legal, social, and economic standing.
        I am a person of privilege,
            where very little stands in my way,
            preventing me from living a full and peaceable life.
    The same is true for most people in this room.
        We are people of privilege,
            free to arrange a large part of our lives.
        Not entirely, of course. But largely.

But it’s still a matter of daily discipline to live free.
    There are any number of things that can bind me,
        to a life of resentment, bitterness, anger.
    As a person of privilege and power,
        I’m especially vulnerable to the sin of violence.
        It’s not hard for me to limit other persons’ freedom,
            to violate their capacity to be who God wants them to be.
    I may be one of the most likeable, peaceable, gentle,
        and unarmed Mennonite pacifists you’ll ever meet.
    But I am still at risk, at any moment, of doing violence.
_____________________

I don’t understand, and none of us do,
    how someone created to be God’s image-bearer,
    can become so disordered and broken and overtaken by such evil
        as to commit the kind of horrific crime against humanity,
        that Omar Mateen did in Orlando a week ago this morning.

    Everyone—
        from the president to news anchors to people on the street—
        is trying to figure out the answer to that question,
            so we have someone to blame,
            and a problem to fix.

    Even if today we all could agree which of the multiple factors
        was the main factor,
        and came up with the perfect solution to fix it tomorrow,
            we might feel better temporarily, because we did something.

    But tomorrow we still have the problem of evil to deal with.
    Tomorrow, we could just as easily sink down in a mire of despair
        over the pervasive evil in the world,
        and all the violence being done against innocent people,
        and all the unhinged and unbalanced and
            downright evil and abusive people there are,
                some of whom are famous and infamous,
                and some of whom live in our homes,
                    or next door,
                    or sit in our church pews.

And tomorrow we still have before us
    our fundamental calling as human beings—
    we are invited to live fully and freely into God’s intention for us,
        and to relate to others with the same love and understanding.

    We are invited to look to the model human being, Jesus,
        who demonstrated how to live in joy and freedom and hope,
            while surrounded by violence and all kinds of evil.

Even our modern equivalent of the demoniac—whoever that may be—
    who society decides to chain up and confine to the cemetery,
    even that one is endowed with the image of God,
        and deserves to be given love and dignity
            and a high-definition freedom.

    As followers of Jesus,
        we refuse to write off anyone as being less than human.
        We count and report all lives lost.
        We don’t publicly apologize for including the shooter,
            and change the death toll from 50 to 49.
        We are all created in God’s image
            and are all human beings who, by definition,
            by high-definition,
            deserve to live and thrive and have hope for tomorrow.

And speaking of high-definition freedom,
    let’s turn to HWB 411.
    The words of this hymn, “I bind my heart this tide,”
        may not sound a lot like freedom—
        binding ourselves, heart and soul,
            to Christ, to our neighbor, to the stranger,
            to God the Lord of all,
            to peace—
        this is the true, and challenging, and thick, and high definition
            of what freedom looks like.
        May we all devote every moment of our lives
            to pursuing this kind of freedom.

—Phil Kniss, June 19, 2016

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