Free to serve and witness

Free to serve and witness

June 23, 2019.  Ordination and installation Free to serve and witness

Isaiah 65:1-9, Galatians 3:23-29, Luke 8:26-39

Scholars agree that of the many events in the collective life of Ancient Israel, them being slaves in Egypt is amongst the most important one. Being slaves in Egypt set the framework for the institution of Passover, it is the backdrop of their journeying in the wilderness that ultimately ended with them entering the Promised Land under the leadership of Joshua. 

So important was their stay in Egypt that the Bible refers to it time and again. As a matter of fact, the introduction to the Decalogue or the 10 Commandments states: “I am the Lord your God who brought you out of Egypt out of the house of slavery.” Their God is the One who intervened and liberated them from slavery.

Modern theologians to this day are convinced that the God of the OT has a soft spot for people who are enslaved. 

A closer and careful reading of the Bible shows that people are slaves of various powers: In Isaiah 65 people are imprisoned by their own devices, a self-centeredness that does not allow God to be a priority. It is especially important to know that during the time of our Isaiah reading the people of God are prisoners or exiles in Babylon. Isaiah singles out two groups of people for special treatment: The Gentiles and the wicked. Gentiles are to share in God’s love and they will be allowed a place at the proverbial table. Gentiles and aliens will serve God in the age to come. They too will be liberated and they too will be welcomed in. 

The major sin of the wicked on the other hand is that they are responsible for the delay of the coming of the new era. The wicked stand in the way of God bringing about liberation from enslavement. And the most disturbing truth is that the chosen people Israel in fact can stand in the way of God. Israel can in fact be the wicked and Gentiles and aliens can be God’s beloved!

This message for our time is profound: For ancient Israel Gentiles and aliens were seen as unimportant in the eyes of God. They understood their privileged position as proof that God cares and loves them and not others. In a sense they were prisoners of their own perceived privilege. It must have come as a shock to them that God’s love is not limited to them but includes those who they considered unimportant. It must have been quite offensive to hear that they in fact can do what the wicked are doing namely standing in the way of the good work of God!

I suspect that it is not very hard to become prisoners of our own perceptions of privilege and importance. When I read history it seems that human beings are gullible and easy to fool. Who does not want to hear that God loves me more than others? Who is not flattered by the views that I am more deserving? It is easy to consider yourself worthier than others. It is easy to become a prisoner of my own prejudice. It is easy to be blinded by your own views! Author Khalil Gibran is the third-best-selling poet of all time. He said: “We are all prisoners but some of us are in cells with windows and some without.” 

The task of the OT prophet was to provide a window for those who are prisoners without windows. And Israel did not always like what they saw through the windows. 

The NT also picks up this theological strand of enslavement and builds on it. The NT authors also see people as being enslaved by various powers: The most powerful power is called sin. And we have to remember that sin is much more than just a few things I do or what I don’t do. Sin often is seen as a cosmic power, an evil force that compels people to live in alienation from God. People are enslaved to this demonic power and are unable to break free from their bondage. The Apostle Paul is convinced that the yoke of sin can only be removed by God’s work. In other words, human beings are not able to free themselves from the burden of this powerful master called sin. The NT is very clear that it is only by the birth, suffering, death and resurrection of Christ that people are set free from this oppressing yoke!

The Apostle Paul in our Galatians reading states that we were imprisoned by the law. He views the law as a disciplinarian with no heart or compassion. But then at the right time Christ intervened and liberate us and made us children of God through faith.  And the outcome of being children shows the extent to which we have become free: “There is no longer Jew or Greek, male or female, slave or free for all are now one in Christ.” 

The categories that humans use to distinguish between them and us have fallen away. The criteria that once enslaved people into them and us are now irrelevant. In Christ human beings are human beings first and not Greek or Jew. In other words, human beings who are liberated, who are not prisoners view their common humanity as more important than restrictive nationalist criterion like whether you are Jewish or Greek. Similarly, males had a privileged place in the ancient world. Now humankind in Christ is liberated from this sexual discrimination between male and female and they are one in Christ!

This is the windows of our cells. We see what God in Christ wants for us. The reality is that even though progress has been made there is still a long way to go. Even though we are liberated and brought out of our houses of slavery, humankind often prefers the prison cells. 

And we have to admit that we too sometimes find our prison cells more comfortable or at least more familiar. And continuing on this metaphor, even though the door of our prison cells are unlock, open, we prefer to stay in the cell because we are afraid of the freedom God has given us. It is sometimes easier to accept that Jews and Greeks are different, it is easier to ignore discrimination against women, it is easier to stay quiet when people pretend that these prisons of prejudice is the only practical option. 

Which brings us to our Gospel reading, another metaphor of a person being a prisoner. This time the prisoner of demons! This is a wonderful story and any literal explanation misses the depth and richness of it. First of all, the country of the Gerasenes is a gentile, Hellenistic area. That is the first clue! Jesus is going to heal a gentile, a dog! He is naked and he lives in a graveyard. He is not only unclean, he belongs to the dead! This unclean, gentile asks Jesus to help him! He recognizes Jesus, he asks Jesus for help. The power of the demons are immense. 

After the demons begged Jesus to let them enter the large herd of swine he allowed them to do so. Then something extraordinary happens: The herd rushes down the steep bank into the lake and drowned. Jesus liberates the man and now he sits at the feet of Jesus, fully clothed and in his right mind. Luke now calls him “man” even as Mark still calls him “demoniac”. He is now fully restored to being a human being! Great news, right? 

Not so fast. The people of the area ask Jesus to leave. Instead of rejoicing that this man has been liberated and his humanity restored, they “were seized with great fear.”  

This is not an uncommon response when God liberates people for liberation challenges the status quo! Liberation brings something new and unexpected and this is disturbing to people. It causes fear for even a prison cell provides some comfort because it is familiar.

Never underestimate the response of people when God’s Kingdom of liberation and renewal set in. Fear will guide them to respond by getting rid of the trouble maker. Leave! 

The man on the other hand once again begged Jesus. This time to let him stay with Jesus for Jesus set him free. But Jesus send him away: “Return home and declare how much God has done for you”. And the man did just that. Now, the story does not tell us how his people responded to his proclamation. However, we can assume that it must not have been easy. Jesus after all says that a prophet is not honored in his hometown. 

The man was liberated, he was called to serve and witness. 

Our new deacons and Elders are also called to serve and witness. They too have been liberated from their sins and they are called to provide windows to those who are imprisoned by their prejudices, privilege and natural inclination. We all are called too. 

We know it won’t be easy because people often prefer the familiar to the unknown. Even if the familiar is a cell. It won’t be easy for we know people fear the unknown, the other. But Jesus calls us to serve and witness. By the grace of God we have been restored to our common humanity where there is no Jew or Greek, male or female, slave or free for we are all one in Christ! This we have to witness to the world. This is the Gospel, this is about liberation. this is why it is called Good news. Thanks be to God! Amen.