Sunday, June 23, 2013

The shape of freedom

Living in ordinary time: Faith and freedom
Galatians 3:23-29; Luke 8:26-39

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What a mind-boggling, wild and crazy, over-the-top story
we just heard from the Gospel according to Luke.
If this was made into a movie,
I don’t know whether it would be classified as
an action film or a horror film,
a comedy or a tragedy.
It’s all four.

There is this naked madman,
who speaks in the voices of many demons,
who lives outside in the elements, in a cemetery,
who at one time, was tied up in chains and kept under guard,
but he broke the chains and ran off.
Jesus arrives by boat,
and man runs up to him, falls down on the ground in convulsions,
and starts screaming.
And then Jesus, with just his words,
commands the demons to come out,
and the man is suddenly in his right mind, and puts clothes on.

Unfortunately, when the demons leave the man,
they enter, with Jesus’ permission, a large herd of pigs.
And in a chaotic scene, both comic and tragic,
the pigs stampede down into the lake and drown.

This was not a welcome turn of events for the pig-keepers,
who ran back into town and reported the catastrophe.
And when the townspeople came to investigate,
they found the man, now sane and clothed.
And then they went berserk,
afraid of Jesus, afraid of the man, afraid of the new reality.
They begged Jesus to please leave their town.

In a culture where hospitality is such an imbedded virtue,
that it’s shameful not to welcome a stranger . . .
to have a visitor show up on your shore,
and then within moments, to send them packing,
shows just how extreme this story really is.

Wild, bizarre, and out-of-control,
is what this is.

And to think that this morning, right now, all over Harrisonburg,
and in churches around the world who use the lectionary,
this same wild story from Luke 8 will be read aloud by someone.
And in some churches,
when the reader concludes, they will somberly say,
“This is the Gospel of the Lord.”
And the people will respond, with no hint of emotion,
“Praise to you, Lord Jesus Christ.”

If the readers were honest, they should probably say,
“Really? This is the Gospel of the Lord?”

So where is the Gospel here?
What is the Gospel in this stranger-than-fiction story?
How is this good news?

Just think about the main characters here.
Let’s see the story through their eyes, starting with Jesus.

So Jesus, in just the last seven days or so —
if you read the previous two chapters in Luke—
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,
told a bunch of parables,
received the gushing affection of a sinful woman
in a Pharisee’s house,
and dealt with his meddling mother and brothers.
It’s been a full week.
So he got into a boat with his disciples,
and crossed the Sea of Galilee.
The text doesn’t say why, but I’m speculating
Jesus is following his usual practice of getting away
to a place of quiet after a period of ministry frenzy.
He may have been hoping for some off-duty down time,
in a sleepy little town that didn’t know him.
But wouldn’t you know, on the way there, a storm came up
and his disciples panicked.
So he had to go back on duty,
calm the storm, and teach the disciples a lesson on faith.

Eventually . . . Jesus gets to the other side of the lake,
takes a deep breath . . . quietness, at last!
Then out jumps a screaming naked man.
And chaos ensues.
And Jesus gets chased back into his boat by the townspeople,
and the man begs to come with them.
Seems like the story that unfolded in this Gospel text,
was the last thing Jesus wanted, or needed.

And how about through the eyes of the demon-possessed man?
Where is the Gospel?
This man was bound, in every way imaginable.
bound physically, with chains and shackles,
bound spiritually, with a legion of spirits
that exercised complete control over him,
bound socially, stigmatized, ostracized, marginalized,
living in the cemetery,
in forced separation from his people.
Really, living this way, he had no people.
When you think of everything it means to be human—
to be self-aware, have self-control, be in relationship,
give and receive love—
this man had none of that.
He even lost his name.
He was more beast than man, and was treated that way.
And after his freedom from the demons?
He still frightened his townspeople,
he still had no home to go to,
he begged to go away with Jesus,
and was refused.
Where is the Gospel for him now?

And we can easily see how
this is a bad-news story for the other characters.
The owners and keepers of the pigs
were suddenly bankrupt.
And now that the man was sane,
the townspeople were crazy with fear,
and the whole social order was turned upside down.
Seems like nobody knew who they were anymore,
or where they stood.

And the disciples are completely silent in this story.
Shell-shocked, I imagine,
just getting through the trauma of sailing in a storm,
they get out of the boat,
and all they could do,
as this chaos unfolded before them,
was just stand there, bug-eyed, mouths hanging open.

But this is the Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ . . .
the Gospel . . . of our Lord Jesus Christ . . .
Right there, in that phrase, is the answer to our question.
The Gospel is not in how people feel,
or how they react,
or what they say in response.
The Gospel is not even precisely in the events themselves.

The Gospel is in the person and work of Jesus.
Jesus Christ is the Great Liberator.
Jesus breaks any and all kinds of chains—
physical, mental, spiritual, social.
That is the good news.
That is the Gospel.
Regardless of what we think of it.
Regardless of how it makes us feel.

This liberating Gospel of Jesus Christ,
the Gospel that frees us to be the whole persons
God created us to be,
that Gospel is sometimes welcomed,
and sometimes it is not.

It certainly was not welcomed by the legion of demons.
They knew their gig was up.
They were powerless to hold onto this man,
in the face of the freedom-giver.
So they begged for, and were granted,
a change of residence, from man to pigs.
Their new home . . . turned out to have a very short-term lease.

And the Gospel of freedom Jesus brought
was not welcomed by the people of the town.
Were they were upset that Jesus destroyed the pigs?
But I think more likely, they were afraid
because Jesus destroyed the town’s stability.

As difficult as it was sometimes
to deal with this demon-possessed man in their community,
they had found a way to deal with him.
He stayed on the margins, in the cemetery.
He was the designated outcast who makes the system work.
Modern family-systems theory have a term for that.
The “black sheep.” Or the “identified patient.”
A problem person fills a useful, though unhealthy,
role in a community.
The community—be it family, or neighborhood, or church—
can focus their anxiety and energy
on the obvious problems of the one,
and thus avoid dealing with the complex problems of the whole.

But now, with the healing of the one, the liberating of the one,
their system was out of balance again.
Maybe they didn’t know how to relate
to this new whole man in their midst.
They knew how to deal with him as a half-man,
a wild creature at a distance.
But now what?
What to do when he returns to their community,
with a name, living next door,
going to work, going to market.

Power that binds people,
power that oppresses—
that power we know is fearful
and difficult to face.
But sometimes,
equally troublesome, equally mysterious,
and just as difficult to face,
is the power that liberates.

The power of God that sets people free,
that breaks the bonds of oppression,
that causes chains to fall,
that power can be fearful.
Freedom can mean a loss of security, of control.
Freedom can mean we don’t know where we’re going to end up.

At least bondage is predictable.
When we are chained to a wall,
we know where we’re going to be tomorrow and the next day.
But after the chains fall off,
we don’t have a clue.
We have to learn how to be free.
Maybe that’s why some persons who are abused,
find it so difficult to leave their abuser.
It’s frightening to stay. But it’s also 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.

That’s the thing about freedom that our culture doesn’t understand.
We tout freedom as a pure and simple and ultimate human good,
that everyone should want to have,
no matter what the cost.
We oversimplify the ideal of freedom.
We think of freedom as simply throwing off restraints,
the ability to shape our own destiny,
without anyone there to stop us, or restrict us, or restrain us.

Jesus was the ultimate freedom-giver.
But as for the free-for-all style of freedom
that our culture idealizes—
I don’t think Jesus even recognizes that as freedom.

True freedom has a shape.
Freedom is not lack of any borders or boundaries.
Freedom is shaped like Christ.
And since Christ is shaped like God.
And God is love.
We can also say freedom is shaped like love.
Freedom and love.
They are both beautiful and life-giving realities.
But you don’t want to enter into them lightly.
You weigh the cost.

Our mistake is that we put all the focus on just the first step,
getting rid of the chains that bind us.
Obviously, that is a necessary step, and a welcomed step,
and a huge step.
But it’s only a first step.
The next step is to figure out who we really are at the core,
and living fully into that God-given identity.
It only takes one moment for chains to fall.
But it can take a long time, maybe a lifetime,
to discover the depths of a life that is truly free in Jesus.

Jesus knew that, so when he refused to allow
the formerly demon-possessed man to leave town with him,
he was doing the man a favor.

The man needed to return to his people, to his community,
and take the more complicated and difficult path
to a Christ-shaped life of freedom.
A truly free life in Christ will have
certain contours, shapes, and parameters.
And he could only find out what those were,
if he were situated in a Christ-shaped community.
Freedom, in community, is not the kind of freedom
Americans are so fond of talking about.
And we talk a lot about freedom.
There is hardly anything in American society
we value more than freedom.
In a week and a half America celebrates Independence Day.
Churches champion freedom of religion.
There is nothing we despise more in other cultures,
than a lack of freedom for their citizens.
The national debate right now is all about whether,
for the sake of national security,
the government may ever limit our freedom and privacy.
Actually, I agree with this cultural value
that freedom is human right,
and freedom is a gift of God.
I’m all about freedom.

But we misunderstand freedom,
if we stop caring once the chains are broken.
Because for followers of Jesus,
release from bondage is the starting point.
That’s when we start to learn the depths of freedom
within a community of followers of Jesus.

Freedom in Jesus,
is having a free and open opportunity
to trust more fully in person of Jesus,
to nurture a Jesus-shaped life,
and to submit ourselves to one we call Lord.
Yes. It may be hard for us freedom-loving Americans to get this,
but spreading our arms wide in freedom,
and bowing our whole bodies in submission,
can coexist.
Freedom and boundaries, must co-exist.

Because freedom has a shape.
And for us, the people of God in Christ,
that freedom is shaped like Jesus.

That’s what Paul was talking about in Galatians 3,
that we read this morning.
He was concerned that the Christ-followers in Galatia understood
they were no longer under the “custody of the law,”
“locked up,” as he put it in v. 23, until faith came, in Christ.
He wanted them to know that their salvation came by grace,
through faith in Jesus.
But listen to how he describes this freedom, this “lack of custody”—
“So in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith,
for all of you who were baptized into Christ
have clothed yourselves with Christ.”
This is not freedom from, but freedom in.
Freedom takes its shape in Jesus Christ.
When we are baptized into Christ,
when we are clothed with Christ,
we are defining the shape of our freedom.

God continues to offer us freedom in Christ Jesus.
Whether or not we are ready for it.
Whether or not we welcome the change that comes from it.
We will never be free,
until we accept the shape of that freedom,
in Christ and in community.

Jesus’ invitation still comes to us,
an invitation to be free, and to follow.

Let’s sing that invitation, in Sing the Story #49
We often sing in our voice, words directed to God.
Here we are singing in the voice of Jesus, words directed to us.
As we sing, let us listen to Jesus with our heart,
as Jesus said to the man in the tombs, and says to us today . . .

I will come to you in the silence
I will lift you from all your fear
You will hear My voice, I claim you as My choice
Be still, and know I am near

I am the Word that leads all to freedom
I am the peace the world cannot give
I will call your name, embracing all your pain
Stand up, now, walk, and live

Do not be afraid, I am with you
I have called you each by name
Come and follow Me, I will bring you home
I love you and you are mine

—Phil Kniss, June 23, 2013

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