Good morning, St. Matthew. We gather on this morning in Itasca on the unceded tribal lands of the Kickapoo, Peoria, Ka-skas-kia, Potawatomi, Mya-a-mia, HoChunk, Winnebago and O-che-thi Sakowin nations, acknowledging the hard past and praying our way into a better future.
And so we pray.
Holy Lord, this morning we gather as a nation that is trying to decide if we are going to sit with our sins and repent, or walk away and pretend that it’s all fine, we’re fine, and life is fine. But if we take the latter option, we will not be all that we were created to be. You created us in wholeness, have called us to wholeness, knowing we are each a part of that larger whole – and yet we far too often have chosen brokenness, breaking ourselves into pieces labelled by race, gender, nationality, faith and a thousand other labels that divide us. As in Eden, we seek our own will, our own way, choosing to change our focus so that we see only what we want to see, believe only what we want to believe. Now, as then, you call us to open our eyes to the reality of our choices and the consequences of our actions. We have sinned, we have broken the hearts of our siblings and neighbours, and yours, Almighty God. On this day when we celebrate the freedom of Black folk, lead all of us to acknowledge the wounds of the past, so that we might build on fresh base the visions and hopes of wholeness for tomorrow.
In your whole and freeing name we pray, Amen, Ache
In all our lessons this morning, there is a throughline of action. Everyone is called to stay the course. Elijah has quite rightly hidden from Jezebel – she was quite a corrupt queen and again and again, Elijah has called her out and thwarted her plans. For this he was celebrated, but then he spoke the Lord’s word of repentance to the people of Israel and they turned on him. Understandably, he is fed to the back teeth with proclaiming the word of God – it has brought him hardship and persecution, because the Queen and the people do not want to hear that word. And so he escapes to the desert and hopes to die a quiet and peaceful death under a broom tree. But God comes and says no – there is more to your journey, more stories to tell. And Elijah is sent back.
The 22nd Psalm is the one Jesus quotes from the cross; it is a Psalm of despair, 28 verses that open with the cry “My God, My God why hast thou forsaken me?” Jesus did not want the cross – we have the prayer at Gethsemane to tell us so. But Jesus knew that his call might very well take him to that wood and those nails. He knew that he would stay – no matter how hard staying was. A theologian once said that we the created are never apart from God in that God is always with us, in life and in death – but that in Jesus’ death, as he was God, and God cannot die, there was a moment in which Jesus, in his humanity, was utterly alone as no-one has ever been. Yet even in this moment of brokenness – Jesus stays the course, and even comes to affirm the wholeness thatis to be found in God and in God’s kin-dom.
And then there is Paul’s letter to the Galatians – where all the brokenness of humanity is made whole and woven back into what God intended; we are called to proclaim a world in which the only definition of ourselves is the acknowledgement of our being equal creations of the Creator. It is radical in 2022 to proclaim “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female” – and it has been since it was first written. In God’s creation, there are no carved-up bits of Divine love and grace – it’s full on, all the time and we are created and called to live in that love.
Which now brings us to the Gospel, to the healing that flows from Christ to the wounded, demon possessed man. That healing is complete, the kind of healing that doesn’t just make you better but restores you to yourself. I want us to linger with that; to sit with a healing that is not just part of the expected, a Band-Aid on the soul, a limp we learn to walk with, a deficit we come to accommodate – but a complete return to wholeness. It is nearly impossible for us to take this in, because we want to say that we know what wholeness looks like. We have a default of what is perfect, of what is true, of what is healed. Close your eyes right now. Picture the absolutely most perfect being you can imagine. Be honest – Who pictured a woman? Who pictured a person of colour? Who pictured a person of gender difference? Who pictured someone who is deaf? Who pictured someone who doesn’t speak English? The truth is we are most likely to pick someone that we think of as whole as someone more like us than not – and we tend to see someone different than us as not quite right.
When Jesus healed the man in the Gospel lesson today, we are told he is restored and that the people are terrified by this change. Hang on to that – they aren’t scared by the demons that plague the guy, nor even really bothered that a herd of pigs was suddenly demon possessed and committed mass suicide – no, what scares them is the restored man! Why? Cuz now there is no way to exclude him; to name him as being an outsider. And the man’s place in this society has been to be their outsider. The society is structured so that it functions best when everybody stays in their lane; if those lanes are eliminated or disturbed so is the society.
Ok I am going to say some things now that are hard to hear. We in the United States are not that different from the townspeople. For reasons that are far too complex to go into here, the white European folks who came to these shores looking for a fresh start decided very early on that the society they would build would be based on colour, with White AngloSaxon folks, especially men, at the top. So the very structure of our institutions and expectations is built to preserve that belief. White folks disenfranchised Native folks to steal the land, enslaved Black folk to work the land, exploited Brown and Asian folks to harvest the land, and women of all hues were to bear children, cook supper and look pretty, living only to serve their men. Now if you ARE a White Anglo Saxon man – this is a pretty good deal and changing that broken structure – healing it to a wholeness that includes ALL people equally – is gonna hurt. It doesn’t take much to find people then who do not want that structure to be healed – who are happy with the brokenness.
But brokenness is not where God leaves us – God from the moment of creation to today is always, always, always about restoring wholeness. Even as we had to leave Eden because of our choices, God was laying plans to bring us back to wholeness in Christ. “For all of you are one in Christ Jesus.” We might say that sounds like paradise, but most of us, with our own expectations of what that paradise should look like, will walk away from what God is offering. We do that in a thousand little ways, ways that we acknowledge and in ways we don’t even see. And if we do see it, we reject the voice that tells us to change our ways.
My mother’s father had a lot of people who thought he was a great guy, and if you fit his expectations, he was. But if you didn’t, well … so sad, too bad. He and Archie Bunker had a lot in common. I recall him saying once, as my mother tried to explain civil rights, “The problem with the Blacks is that we let the women go.” And in his own way, he was right. As equality comes into the picture, as healing sweeps through and restoration begins, things change.
In 1863, under political pressure (and I’d like to believe, growing moral conviction) President Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation, that ended legalised slavery in the United States. And that should have been that, right? Of course it wasn’t, because of those structures that refused to change, that wasn’t that. And those structures were not about to announce their death. So the word of freedom did not make it to all enslaved people, and many had no idea that the world had begun to change. On June 19th, 1865, General Order No. 3 by was issued by Union Army General Gordon Granger proclaiming freedom for enslaved people in Texas. Yet even then, many enslavers delayed letting folks know until after the crops were in. But when the news inevitably hit – it was Freedom Day! It was living into a world where wholeness was speaking into the broken void – and healing was possible.
The programme, Finding Your Roots, with Dr Henry Louis Gates, Jr., had an episode with Queen Latifah. The show traces the guests’ genealogy. Many of them do not have a clue about their ancestry, and the gift of learning their stories is a deeply meaningful journey. For many Black guests, their stories are shaped, scarred and twisted by the experience of slavery. It is heartbreaking to see how many guests face census rolls where ancestors are a hashmark and a price, if they are captured at all. However, in Queen Latifah’s case, they were able to find records that took her all the way back to the 1730s and the paper that gave freedom to her 4-time great grandmother. Latifah took this knowledge with her royal calmness, and also with her deeply rooted passion. It was, she said, proof that her family had roots in this land, roots that extended back to before the founding of the United States, roots that said this is as much her country as anyone’s. And again, in her determination to change the world, she told Dr Gates, “So many people talk about leaving, about heading to Canada. I am not going anywhere. This is my country.”
There are a lot of reasons to leave the place that gave you such pain, to find somewhere new to begin again. The man Jesus heals wants very much to go with him, to leave. The townspeople really want Jesus to go, and probably would have loved for him to take the healed man with him. But Jesus tells him – this is where you belong. This is where you are called to stay; to tell people the good news simply by being your healed self. This isn’t an easy call, but it’s the call that God gives to those who are healed. The call to stay and share the good news. The society we live in isn’t afraid of demons or swine stampedes – but it’s terrified of having to lose its high functioning dysfunction and live into God’s wholeness. So God calls us to stay, to live whole lives where we are and speak freedom to a world in love with slavery. And Jesus assures us God created us for wholeness, that the Spirit will sustain us, and he himself will always be with us.
That’s the great good news – we have been freed to live in freedom!