Sermon from the Rev. Joe Hensley, Rector, St. George’s Episcopal Church
Fredericksburg, VA | The fifth Sunday after Pentecost, Year C, June 19, 2016
June 19, 1865. Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation was read to African American slaves in Galveston, Texas. Union General Gordon Granger issued an order stating that “The People of Texas are informed that in accordance with the Proclamation from the Executive of the United States, all slaves are free.” It was two and a half years after the original proclamation of emancipation on January 1, 1863. June 19 has become a day of celebration over the past century and a half. It’s called Juneteenth. In many places it is a celebration not only of liberation from slavery, but a celebration of diversity, a celebration of community, of the gifts that we all bring.
Today’s reading from Paul’s letter to the Galatians has echoes of this. Paul writes these famous words, “As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ, 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.” The words of the hymn say it so wonderfully, “In Christ there is no East or West, in Him no South or North, but one great fellowship of love throughout the whole wide earth.” We’re going to sing that one at the end of the service. As today is June 19, we remember the delayed freedom of the slaves in Texas, 151 years later, we remember that freedom is still delayed for many in our nation, many in our world. We remember that the one great fellowship of love throughout the whole wide earth is still a dream into which we are called to live, but which has not come to its full fruition. In Christ we are all one, but in these days we are reminded that we are still so divided. These divisions have been brought into sharp focus this past week as we respond to another horrible tragedy, a massacre, an unspeakable thing. I say unspeakable because I will not speak of the details. I know we have young ears among us. We can remember what happened last Sunday in Orlando, and we must remember without having to remember the specific events. Many of us have been tuned in and it’s been very difficult, very painful to hear.
Almost exactly a year ago I stood here, in the aftermath of another massacre in Charleston, South Carolina, and as I said then I will say now because it bears repeating: God was there. God was active and involved. God was loving those who were suffering, God loved those who died. This was not an act of God, but God was active. God was there in many ways that we will never know. That is worth repeating, and knowing, and remembering. The question that was on my mind that I know I raised last year was, “Where was God.” The question I’ve been hearing a lot this past week is, “Where were we?” Where did we fail to show up somehow that this would happen again? There’s been a lot of finger pointing and blaming, a lot of desire to know who failed, who messed up, who should have done something sooner so that this would not have happened, who can we pin this on. That’s been the response, repeatedly in our country, that we look for someone else who can take responsibility so that maybe we don’t have to.
We all know that we bear a collective responsibility that we all are to blame in some way, we have all failed in some way to address the problems that we face and the challenges and divisions which are made manifest in acts of chaos and destruction. It feels like we are possessed, that our society is somehow possessed, like the man in the Gospel story, by a power that keeps us out of our right minds, that keeps us wandering in places of death as a society and world. Jesus encounters this man in the Gospel, he’s totally possessed and for a long time, it says, he’s been out of his right mind. For a long time, he’s been seized at times by this unclean spirit that would drive him out into the wild places. I think we have been seized yet again by something that is bent on chaos, that is bent on turning us against one another. This is not unique to our time and place. It has happened over and over at many places in many times, but we need to name it as such. We are acting as if a people that has been possessed by something that has taken us out of our best selves. The question we all have is what do we do about it? How do we proceed? How do we face the sense of dread that so many of us have that we’re stuck, and maybe we won’t get unstuck, we just aren’t sure what’s going to happen and how are we going to come together. That sense that we are all staring into this abyss, because it’s not like Jesus is going to come down from heaven and cast out the demon.
Wouldn’t that be nice? Wouldn’t it be nice if Jesus could come and put us back into our right collective mind and clothe us with love and sing the song, “In Christ there is no East or West.” Wouldn’t it be nice for Jesus to say, “In me there is no Democrat or Republican. In me there is no Jew or Greek, there is no immigrant or native born, there is no slave or free, there is no male or female, no transgender in me, no gay or straight or bisexual in me. We ask Christ to whisper to us, we are all one. You are all one even though you are all different, and those differences are beautiful and wonderful, but what brings you together in me is something greater, something more profound. Wouldn’t it be nice if Jesus could come down and just say those words to us and fix it? Of course Jesus won’t wrap it up neatly in a bow for us, but I actually do believe that Jesus can still cast out demons. I believe Jesus is doing it right here, right now, in this very room. We say we are the body of Christ, and if we say that and if that is true and because that is true, then we are empowered, we are sent out to cast out the evil that enslaves us, to declare freedom to all who are held in bondage, and even if that Emancipation Proclamation is coming too slow and later than we would like, we are to proclaim it. The man who Jesus saved from the demon, he wanted to go with Jesus. But Jesus said no. I don’t think Jesus was sending him away. It says he sent him away as you’re not worthy or something. No, he was sending him as a missionary. He said go to your people and tell them all that God has done for you. Go to your people who were afraid of healing. Remember it said in the story that they were afraid when Jesus came and put the man back in his right mind. They were afraid of change, they were afraid of healing and wholeness. So Jesus said you’ve got to go to your people and tell them what God has done for you. And where do we begin? Maybe we begin by declaring what God has done for us. What God can do and what God will do in us and with us and through us.
I’m getting ready to leave this morning on a trip to Glory Ridge camp down in the mountains of North Carolina. At the 7:45 service we commissioned our group of youth and adults and they’re already on the road, and I’m going to confess to you, I’m going to leave at the peace because it’s a long drive to get down there and I need to be there at a certain time, but I wanted to be there with you all this morning for this part of the service, so I hope you’ll forgive me for scooting out a little early. We are going to Glory Ridge to work alongside some neighbors in the mountains of North Carolina and I hope we’ll be of some help. We’re doing some digging and some scraping and some roof painting and whatever it is they’ve got for us to do down there. But the real reason we’re going is to study up on what God can do with us. What God can do with a rag tag bunch of teenagers and adults who hopefully know their way around a hammer, but not much more than that. What can God do with us? With strangers that we will meet along the way. What can God do with us? What will God do for us? We’re going to study up on that. We’re going to study up on what it means to live as one community, to be clothed in Christ. We’re going to study up on what it means to be able to be returned to our right minds, to be really alive in the Spirit. We’re going to study up and listen, like Elijah did for the sound of the still, small voice, the sound of sheer silence in which God speaks with a fine whisper. We’re going to this place so that we can have some good news to share. So that we, in accordance with the proclamation through the almighty God through Jesus Christ, can say we are all free. We are all free. Even at a time where many of us are targeted because we are lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgendered. Even at a time many of us are targeted because of our race, or because of our country, or because of our religion. At a time when we cry out with the Psalmist, why oh my soul are you are disquieted within me? Why are you cast down? Even at such a time, we are still called to proclaim that we are free. We are called to proclaim that in Christ there is no East or West, in Him no South or North. We are called to offer that one great fellowship of love throughout the whole wide earth and to proclaim what God can and will and has done in us and with us and through us. That work of declaring freedom, of being and staying free it’s hard work, it’s long work, and it is blessed work.