June 21, 2022

Second Sunday after Pentecost, Pastor Kelly Chatman, June 19, 2022

Luke 8:26-39

Grace, peace, and mercy from God our Lord and Savior, Amen.

Some time ago I was visiting the farmers market in the city where I grew up.  As a child I would often accompany my mother at the market.  Not too long ago I was visiting the market as an adult.  I noticed how the buildings surrounding were used as urban art.  One of the statements on the wall of one of the building captured my attention.  There on the building was the statement, “When they buried us, they didn’t know that we were trees.”

I think about that statement, “When they buried us, they didn’t know we were seeds.”  It makes me think of this morning’s gospel lesson.  I think about the people who wonder, is there room for me in God’s kingdom?

My parents were among the millions of Black residents who migrated from the segregated agricultural south to make a new beginning in the industrial integrated north. They traveled to Detroit, Michigan where they began a new chapter in our lives. I was around four years old when our family moved north.

The name that was on my birth certificate was Kelvin Henry Chatman. As I was growing up my siblings started calling me Kelly and that name was the bond of endearment that gave me a sense of belonging as I grew older. Growing up, however I  wondered who this Kelvin was that I had been named after. I assume it must have been some cool relative, or local hero of some kind, but I never knew who Kelvin was.

My senior year in high school I decided to take my summer earnings to go and visit the south where I had been born. One of my goals was to finally learn about Kelvin, the one after whom I had been named. I purchased a ticket and traveled by Grey Hound bus to reach my destination in the south where I was born. I remember the moment finally came when I was sitting around the table and I asked my aunts who was the Kelvin I longed to hear more about. I cannot describe to you how I felt when my aunts informed me that I had been named after my grandmother’s new refrigerator.

In today’s gospel lesson from Luke, Jesus has taken a boat ride to travel across Lake Galilee, the lake around which Israel had built homes, industry, and communal identity. Lake Galilee was a huge lake. On one side of the lake the people of Israel called home. On the other side of Lake Galilee was Gerasene’s called home. The Gerasene’s were gentiles, pagan, an of diverse cultural identity. The east side of Lake Galilee was where they called home.

Jesus traveled from one community and identity to a very different community, where people lived and worshipped differently. When Jesus arrived on the east side of the lake he encountered a man who was overtaken with demons. Jesus asked of the man, “What is your name?”  The man’s answered to Jesus that his name was, “legions.”  Legions, not Kelvin.

We can imagine that the man did not decide to name himself “legion.”  We can imagine that the man was given that name by people in the village. Perhaps it was the Roman occupiers who gave that man his name, much like slave masters might have given names to my ancestors.

Scholars suggest that “legion” was a reference to the number of soldiers prepared for military action. A legion might be as many as 6,000 soldiers. A legion communicated the number of soldiers representing military strength to keep people in line if they tried to free themselves from Roman occupation. For our reflection this morning, we think of “Legion” as inter-changeable with words like, oppression, racism, white supremacy.

So, here we have this demon-possessed man Jesus is talking to named Legion, or perhaps we could say, Oppressed. Jesus, the son of God, a rabbi from the west side of lake Galilee is talking to this oppressed man, who is consumed by demons. The conversation turns as Jesus begins to talk with the demons who had consumed the man.

I invite you to look at the story again, as a story about oppression. Let’s imagine that the demons this story is introducing us to are the product of oppression. This story about the man possessed by demons is our story, your story, my story about what oppression does to us. The man in Luke’s gospel is the product of Roman occupation. He is the product of what “legion” are designed to systematically, what oppression does.

Allow me to explain it this way. Oppression begins when we tell lies about people, when we attach some kind of “misinformation” to people. Let’s look for example at women. When I was growing up, I heard misinformation about women, women were bad drivers. With that misinformation, the justified mistreatment based on that mistreatment was. When we got in the car, who drove? Misinformation leads to justified mistreatment, and then the fulfillment of the cycle is internalized behavior. Internalized behavior is, if I have a dog, every time my dog does something wrong I punish it. If I approach my dog, even though it has done nothing wrong, what will it act like? It will act like it did something wrong.

This is what “legion,” oppression does. It beats people into down and invites the demons to take over. Let’s stay with this some more. Misinformation is if a man is strong, aggressive, an assertive we say he is…a leader. If a woman is strong, assertive, aggressive we say she is…? (Maybe we don’t need to say that.) So the justified mistreatment is make fun of her, do not employ her, do not put her into leadership positions, and the internalized behavior is “dumbing down:”  women don’t act as smart as they are. That’s what the cycle looks like.

When we go into the grocery store and we look at the magazine racks, what do the women look like? Sexualized, youthful, thin. Justified mistreatment is that they can be treated like sexualized objects. Women feel they can’t achieve that look, so they internalize their response, that they’re not attractive. This leads to bulimia or anorexia. The cycle of oppression then continues. We set up those cycles.

Gay, lesbian, transgender people, in a cycle of oppression. Misinformation: these people are pedophiles, unemployable, unsafe, overly sexualized. College friend male was presumed to want to hit on all other men. So the cycle of oppression means there’s misinformation that leads to mistreatment of gay and lesbian people:  “Don’t employ them; don’t ordain them.”

But “when they buried us, they didn’t know we were seeds.”  There’s so much more to those who have been mistreated and misrepresented. There’s more to us than the world sees when it oppresses us.

How important it is for us to be able to come to a congregation where our seed can flower, where we can be celebrated for who we are, as people of God.

On Juneteenth, we recognize how this cycle is realized. I guess you could say, for 256 years, people who looked like me were “legion”. George Floyd, Brianna Taylor, Amir Rice, Philando Castile, black youth, Latinos.  We can look at how we see people of color. The misinformation is that they are aggressive, dangerous, and untrustworthy. The justified mistreatment is police brutality, violence, 9 minutes and 29 seconds kneeling on George Floyd’s neck. The internalized behavior is repeated.

That’s why we celebrate Juneteenth. Juneteenth is a disruption of the cycle. It’s a disruption of the history that denies the contribution of others. Juneteenth is about removing those demons that others incorporate into their identities of themselves because we perpetuate them, because we’re the ones that turn them into Legions.

When I think about this lesson, and when I think about what Jesus does, I notice that the stories of Jesus are stories of Jesus coming to people who are locked into cycles of oppression. Jesus isn’t just some nice guy. Jesus is the son of God, who disrupts the cycles of oppression and enters relationships to lift up people who are oppressed. Jesus comes into the world to bring salvation, and liberation to everybody.

Why did Jesus leave one side of the lake, where he was welcome and comfortable and rooted in one understanding of salvation, to go to the other side where people had different ideas? Where people had different views of faith, where people worshiped and functioned differently?

The movie “42” tells about Jackie Robinson who became the first black person to play for the major leagues. When Robinson entered the major leagues, he was treated with horrible vitriol, with horrible racist responses.

There’s a scene from the movie where Jackie Robinson is on the field being harassed and jeered by the fans, being called horrible racist names, insulted. His teammates don’t come to his defense. The whole crowd is saying terrible things. The movie shows a father saying hateful, racist things, and then his young son begins to join in the taunts and insults, copying the same vitriol.

All of a sudden, another player, Pee Wee Reese, who hadn’t done anything in all that time in Robinson’s defense, comes over to stand next to Jackie, and simply puts his arm around Robinson’s shoulder. While these hateful things are being shouted, Reese just stands there, quietly. Finally, after some time, the crowd calms down, and Pee Wee Reese goes back to his position. The game continues on.

After the game, Jackie Robinson came to Reese and asked why he had done this.  Pee Wee Reese replied, “Because I wanted them to know who I am.”

God comes in the person of Jesus Christ into those places of cycles of oppression, where people feel buried.  God does that because God wants us to know who God is.  Jesus comes to disrupt the cycle. Jesus crosses the lake to free us of our demons.

That’s our calling, too.  As baptized people of God, we want people to know who we are.