Sermon: From Chained to Changed

[Sermon given on Sunday, July 19, 2016 (Proper 7 – Year C) at St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church – Kansas City, MO by the Rev’d. Fr. Marcus G. Halley]

‘Return to your home, and declare how much God has done for you.’ So he went away, proclaiming throughout the city how much Jesus had done for him.

Luke 8.39 (NRSV)

Grace and peace be unto you from God our Father, from Jesus Christ our Risen Lord and Reigning Savior, and from the Holy Spirit who empowers and enlivens our time together.

I want to begin by naming the fear, anxiety, and confusion that I know I am feeling and I believe a lot of us are feeling in this room in the wake of the horrible events that occurred in Orlando, Florida last week. The senseless, hate-filled murder of 49 LGBTQ Latinx people in the Pulse night club is difficult to fathom. Personally, this has been an incredibly hard week for me and I have spoken with enough of you to know that you share that sentiment and heartbreak. I also want to thank those of you who checked in on me and other members of this community. Perhaps those small gestures of love and support are evidence of the in-breaking of the Kingdom of God even, or perhaps especially, in the midst of so much evil. Every one of us is a pilgrim sojourning through an unforgiving wilderness in need of moments of refreshment and welcome. Every day, in whatever ways you can, as often as you can, be that moment for someone. Welcome. Embrace. Love.

This week also makes the anniversary of another horrific event, the murder of 9 African American men and women at Mother Emanuel AME Church last year by a self-avowed white supremacists intent on starting a race war. These two examples of trauma are only compounded by our individual struggles, battles we fight in silence – scary diagnoses, economic uncertainty, strained and fracturing relationships, incredibly difficult trials that seem to be suffocating us. We bring all of that into this holy space, into the presence of God.

So for a moment, I want each of us to take a deep breath and settle into the presence of God, for where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is liberty, freedom, and peace that passes all understanding.

I want to share a legend of liberation and salvation. It is told in African American circles in various forms, with different characters, and differing levels of detail, but with a common message. Virginia Esther Hamilton, an award-winning African American children’s book author, in her 1985 book “The People Could Fly”, popularized it but it predates her by several hundred years. It is a story that originated somewhere in the low-country of South Carolina, on St. John’s Island and it goes something like this:

There was a time when all Africans could fly, but somewhere along the way, through lack of trust in the High God and through human shortcomings, we lost that gift. As the legend is told we used to have great big, black wings that would catch the slightest breeze and lift us high into the sky.

But when the slavers came, they so brutality crushed the spirits of those whom they captured, that they forgot about their wings. Their names were taken from them – Igbo, Akan, Bokongo, Fulani, Ghana, Wolof, Mbundu, Asante and so many more – and they were called “slaves.”

They forgot how to fly.

Now there was a plantation on St. John’s Island where there was a cruel master who was known to work his slaves so hard that they would die of exhaustion. It was said that he had such a disregard for sacred human life that he would simply go out and buy more new slaves to replace the ones who had died.

Among the group of displaced African people called “slaves” on the plantation on St. John’s Island was a woman tending her child and picking cotton. As the legend goes, she had such skill and dexterity that she could pick cotton with one hand and tend to her infant son with the other. One day she was picking cotton and her body, exhausted “under the weight of being a problem and property at the same time,” collapsed under the stress and weight.

Her infant son, so young yet fully aware of what might happen if the overseer found her, tried to desperately to awaken his mother from her exhausted state, but to no avail. The slave drivers noticed her and quickly mounted their horses intent on making an example of her, but as they moved across the wide cotton plantation with the sun high in the sky another man got their first. The community called him “Moses.” The cruel master called him the “Devil.” When he got there, the little boy looked at the man’s smiling face as if to ask “is it time?” The man smiled back, bent down to the woman and whispered in her ear, “Kulibah.” He went over to the boy and whispered the same thing in his ear, this time a little louder, “Kulibah.”

Suddenly, the woman, infused with strength from beyond stood to her feet. The others who were working in the field stopped to witness this marvelous sight. It was as if she was being reborn right before their very eyes. She looked defiantly as the slave drivers were galloping towards her and, after grasping her son’s hand, they both looked toward the sky, and…

…they flew.

Well, those slave drivers fell right off their horses at this marvelous sight. The old man ran to the others and began yelling “It’s time! Kulibah! KULIBAH!” As the Africans heard the word, they began to fly. Each of them took flight with such grace and beauty that it is hard to put into words.

The slave drivers, having regained their composure, grabbed the old man and beat him to within an inch of his life. They tried to compel him to bring the people back, but the more they beat him, the more he smiled. Finally, the old man looked at them and said, “I can’t bring them back. Once the word is in them, it will never leave them.” And with that, his body died, but his spirit took flight.

As The Rev. Dr. Otis Moss, Senior Pastor of Trinity United Church of Christ, tells the story, he says that the word Kulibah “originated on the shores of West Africa and literally means ‘God is in you.’ [The old man] didn’t create it, he just spoke it.”[1] The old man dared to speak a word, to create a new world of possibilities, and to set people free.

Dear friends, this story has the fingerprint of God all over it.

This liberating, saving power is part of the very character of God and when we get to Jesus Christ, that liberating, saving power put on flesh and walked among us because the love of God is not passive; it is active. John 3.16 says that God loved the world so much that God gave the Son into the world. God’s mission, God’s love, God’s salvation, God’s liberation put on flesh and walked among us, to dance amongst the grave yards of our deepest fears and darkest moments and to make us truly, abundantly free.

Don’t believe me? Ask the man at the center of today’s Gospel, the so-called “Gerasene Demoniac.” By his own admission he possessed by a “legion” of demons. The response of the community to this brother in trouble was not one of support, but one of chains. When we meet him, he is trapped in an endless cycle exchanging the chains of the community for the chains of the evil spirits.

That is, until Jesus showed up on the scene.

Jesus shows up to disrupt that cycle, the put an end to the pathology. Jesus comes to liberate us into the abundant love of God.

The freedom that God calls us into is an abundant freedom. The Rev. Traci Blackmon, Executive Minister of Justice and Witness for the United Church of Christ, suggests that we humans struggle with the concept of “liberation… and we reach for emancipation in its stead.” She says, “God does not emancipate. God liberates.” The difference between emancipation and liberation is that emancipation only changes who holds the chains, but liberation breaks the chains altogether.

When Jesus spoke to the man possessed by demons, he healed him of the endless cycle of pain and limitation. He spoke a word to him, and once the word is in him, it can never leave him.

Beloved, it doesn’t matter what the cycle is – Jesus comes to break it.

Anxiety? Broken.

Fear? Broken.

Bitterness? Unforgiveness? Smallness? Broken. Broken. Broken.

He breaks it by speaking a truth into us, by reminding us who we really are.

Diagnoses do not define us. Destruction does not define us. Depression does not define us. The very shadow of death does not define us.

God does. We are defined by love and goodness, power and abundance. We might encounter evil and shadows in our lives, but let us never define our neighbors or ourselves by it. Let us always see one another through the liberating lens of love.

I have been asked several times this week “what can we do,” when we are faced with such extreme examples of evil or when we encounter crosses that seem too large for us to bear. Part of me does not know. Part of me gets stuck in the mess of it all.

But another part of me says that we must share the stories of God’s transforming, liberating, saving power in our lives. We must share how God has destroyed our chains. We must share how God has liberated us from closets, from shame, and from pain. We must share how God has healed and is healing us even in the midst of crushing diagnoses. We must tell the tale that we might be afflicted, but we are not crushed. We might be perplexed, but we are not driven to despair. We might be struck down, but we are not destroyed. For no matter what we endure, what comes our way, what obstacles we encounter, what storms might arise, God is doing a work redeeming and recreating this world that the best of Hell is powerless to stop.

We have this treasure, this faith, this claim, this foundation even among the shadows of this world.

And if someone asks you how you can smile in the midst of such strife, tell them this – because our Savior lives we can face tomorrow. Because he got up from the grave with all liberating, saving power in his hands, we can make it through whatever storm we might go through.

That is the word that is in us – love that liberates from the cycles of death and into the abundant life of God. And once that word is in us, it can never leave us. We just have to remember that it’s there.

I don’t know, tell me what y’all think. Seriously. I’d love for us to share stories about how we experience God’s liberating, saving power in our lives.


[1] Otis Moss. Blue Note Preaching in a Post-Soul World: Finding Hope in an Age of Despair (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2015) , 24

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