A New Birth of Freedom

Proper 7C-22

Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

I gassed up the minivan this week. You know what that means.  For the first time ever, I paid more than $100 to fill my tank. The tank wasn’t on even empty. $5 gasoline (and $6 in some places) is easy to complain about.  But then in oil rich Norway the price per gallon is more than $10 today. They set a higher price to discourage consumption and to better reflect the true cost of pumping petroleum and spewing carbon. I wonder, have we become like the Israelites in the desert complaining to Moses because they have nothing but manna to eat?  How much am I willing to sacrifice for an energy future more in line with my personal values and my Christian faith? I tell you it’s been tough for me to shake the car habit even a little bit.

St. Paul teaches us Christ erased the distinctions of ethnicity, economic status, and gender. His statement affirming the fundamental dignity and equality of all people from Galatians is beloved, “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.” (Galatians 3:28).

We affirm this value as Americans. Yet, for the first time in our nation’s history, we seem poised to prohibit abortion after conception without exception for rape, incest, or the health of the mother. Studies show denying woman access to abortion has negative consequences for woman’s health, increases the rate of poverty throughout the life of the mother and child, and tends to reduce overall educational attainment. (The Turn Away Study, by ANSIRH, 2022) Moreover, children who are unwanted born to parents who are unprepared and/or unwilling are more likely to become involved in criminal behavior as teens and young adults (Abortion and Crime, Freakonomics, 2019).  Are we prepared to respond to these challenges? Are we willing to put the extra resources we need in place? If not, what is pro-life really about?  Is it just anti-woman?

What we say yes to and what we say no to sketches the outline of our lived faith. How far are we willing to go to put our words into actions? What are we prepared to sacrifice to live those values in society? Today, Jesus and the disciples set sail to the Gentile side of the Sea. I get the feeling the disciples didn’t really want to go. The trip was risky to begin with. They nearly drowned on the way over and their first experience on foreign soil confirmed their worst fears about the unclean Gentiles. Why couldn’t Jesus leave well enough alone?  I think the people of Gerasa would have preferred that Jesus to stay home too. Sure, life with a demoniac was a little crazy at times, but they had learned to cope. They kept him chained and out of the way. Problem solved. The solution worked for everyone –everyone except the so-called demoniac. Jesus came and upset their whole way of life, their very livelihood as pig farmers, ran downhill and into the sea.

The gospel of Jesus brings liberation for something as well as liberation from something that must always cost something.  Our gospel today is about more than the healing of one man.  It is about the healing of an entire community through the peace and shalom, instilled in one man. It’s about a man with no name, with no family, whom Jesus claimed and called. Jesus said to him from the boat. Your congregation is standing right behind you. Now, go and tell” (Luke 8:39).

We are all one in Christ. We like to affirm and receive the personal affirmation without accepting the full weight of consequences for loving our neighbor. Today we celebrate our newest national holiday, Juneteenth, and acknowledge the most recent addition to our liturgical calendar, the commemoration of the Emmanuel nine.  We come face-to-face with the legacy of our own ugly history with slavery. We see just how far people of faith are willing to go in subverting the gospel in order to sustain a way of life that wrings a fortune from the destruction of other people’s lives.

On July 21,1656, Elizabeth Key became the first woman of African descent in the North American colonies to sue for her freedom and win. Her defense, was in part, that she was a baptized Christian, therefore, entitled to her freedom. Key was born in 1630 in Warwick County, Virginia, to an enslaved African woman. Her father was a white planter named Thomas Key. Key was baptized in the Church of England, and, because she was an “illegitimate child,” placed in indentured servitude. After a lengthy legal process and appeal to the General Assembly Elizabeth, won her freedom based on her father’s status and baptism.

This loophole threatened the newly forming industry of chattel slavery. It was soon closed.  In 1667, eleven years after the General Assembly played a crucial part in Elizabeth’s victory, the same legislative body passed a bill declaring that the “conferring of baptism does not alter the condition of the person as to his bondage or freedom.”  In a related action, another bill would soon declare, in complete contradiction to legal tradition, that slaves could not inherit anything from their fathers. Any person born of an enslaved woman was a slave, regardless of who their father was.  Both laws were copied and spread throughout the American colonies.

Our first reading from the Prophet Isaiah spoke of God’s own breaking heart.  “I was ready to be sought out by those who did not ask, to be found by those who did not seek me”, God says (Isaiah 65:1). It may be one of the most paradoxical questions of all time: “How is it possible that anyone could reject unconditional, life-giving, Divine love?”  Why do we resist taking steps toward health when what we are doing is so obviously destructive?

Today’s readings are filled with reference to outsiders: Canaanite religious practice, a naked madman, a cemetery, the Roman legions, a swineherd. However, Paul calls Christians to live as if the outsider—the Greek, the slave, the woman—is one with the insider—the Jew, the free, the man. It is not surprising that many slaveholders of the pre-bellum South did not allow their slaves to be baptized, for that would have rendered the slave as one with the slave-owner.

Jesus invites us today to take a little trip. Jesus invites us, along with the disciples to cross over to the other side.  We are called to traverse the boundary that separates us each other to forge authentic and just relationships that lead to a better life for all.  We are called and equipped to travel, tempest-tost across the turbulent and often chaotic seas that separate God’s people from one another. Giving praise to the One “who breaks the darkness with a liberating light; [we] praise the one who frees the prisoners, turning blindness into sight. [We] praise the One who preached the gospel, healing every dread disease, calming storms and feeding thousands with the very bread of peace.” (Praise the One Who Breaks the Darkness, ELW #843)