Freedom

By John W. Coleman

Adapted from a sermon on Mark 5:1-20, preached July 1, 2018, at Servants of Christ UMC Philadelphia.

The demon-possessed man languishing among the dark tombs in Gerasenes ran to Jesus seeking deliverance from his pitiful plight. His from-bondage-to-freedom story reminds me of a wonderful, upbeat song written by jazz-great Billy Taylor in the 1950s and recorded by the incomparable Nina Simone a decade later.

“I wish I knew how it would feel to be free” is the title and first line. It continues, “I wish I could break all the chains holding me. I wish I could say all the things that I should say. Say ’em loud, say ’em clear for the whole round world to hear.”

That’s an ideal anthem to be sung by anyone who yearns to celebrate an Independence Day, whether here in America on July 4th or in whatever place and time freedom is sought and gained.

I wish I could share all the love that’s in my heart,

Remove all the bars that keep us apart.

I wish you could know what it means to be me.

Then you’d see and agree that every man should be free.

Emancipation from the chains and tombs—real or imagined—that hold anyone captive can be a wonderful thing. Opening hearts, minds and even doors can remove barriers, set love free and enable us to see one another up close, as we really are, warts and all. Then healing can begin.

Imagine that poor, desperate man, haunted and howling in anguish, bearing self-inflicted bruises, alienated from society, just wanting to know how it would feel to be free. Then, imagine him as he comes running out of the tomb and falls at the feet of this holy man who arrives in a boat. Jesus, the Great Physician, is making a house call, bringing a remedy of mercy, deliverance and healing.

It may be a bit ironic that this miracle-worker, on a morning not far in the future, would himself emerge from a dark tomb in a miraculous resurrection that would free from demons, sin and death all those who believe in him.

But why does Jesus come here? Even the demons torturing this sick man want to know. Why does this soul-liberator from Nazareth, this devout Jew leave his home base, his own people, and come now “to the other side of the sea”?  Why?  Because he’s here to keep an appointment with destiny.  He’s here to bring his message and ministry of God’s judgment and grace to the Gentiles.

When Jesus frees him of the ravenous legion of demons, the once insane, tormented man becomes normal, relaxed and clothed in his right mind. The townspeople marvel at this miracle, this beneficiary of Christ’s amazing grace, whose mind once was lost but now is found. The grateful man now wants to join Jesus and his disciples on their journey from there, as they hasten to leave.

But Jesus says no. He tells the man, “Go back and share the news of this life-saving miracle around the Decapolis”—the 10 large cities located in that area.  And so, this man does as Jesus asks. Enthusiastically, he tells everyone who will listen about how Jesus set him free. He becomes a living megaphone, and his miraculous new freedom becomes a means to spread Jesus’ message of hope and ministry of deliverance to Gentiles all around.

It’s like one of my favorite sayings: “When God blesses you, he doesn’t have just you in mind.” He wants you to share that blessing with others—whether it’s healing or hope, or inspiration, or prosperity, or just newfound freedom.

And Jesus? Well, he probably said, “Mission accomplished. My work is done here. Peace out.”

I wish I could give all I’m longin’ to give

I wish I could live like I’m longin’ to live

I wish I could do all the things that I can do

Though I’m way overdue, I’d be starting anew.

“Man is born free,” wrote French Philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau, “and yet everywhere he is in chains.”

Yes, this week, on July 4th, we proudly celebrate America’s Independence Day, when the 13 colonies in 1776 declared their independence from Great Britain.

Two weeks ago, we celebrated Juneteenth, another Independence Day, when America’s black slaves down in south Texas finally learned on June 19, 1865, that they were free, as the Civil War officially ended.

Two Independence Days, nearly a century apart, because, well, the first one didn’t really apply to everyone.

“Man is born free, yet everywhere he is in chains.”

The American criminal justice system holds almost 2.3 million people in jails, prisons and other detention centers.  Black people make up 40 percent of those incarcerated persons, even though they are only about 13 percent of the U.S. population. And increasingly, those black people are women.

“Man and woman are born free, yet everywhere they are in chains.”

Young, frightened children from Central America are brutally separated from their parents who cross America’s southwest border requesting asylum, looking for escape from horrific gang violence and domestic violence back home. The children are taken away and then detained, warehoused by the hundreds, the thousands, in huge government-authorized facilities, while their parents apply for asylum as refugees in this country.

Many of those parents don’t know where their children are and if or when they will see them again, especially if they are deported without an asylum hearing, which is what our President wants.

Yes, we are America, the land of hope, of promise, the land of freedom. Here we are born free. And yet, “everywhere we are in chains.”

People everywhere—in Philadelphia and across our region—struggle with their own demons, with terrible, life-stealing drug addiction, domestic violence, street violence, human trafficking, sexual abuse, poverty, abandonment, brokenness, regret, despair. I could go on.

Their demons come in many forms. Yes, indeed, they are Legion.  And their victims are living in emotional tombs, bound in shackles, spiritually and otherwise.  Some don’t even know, don’t even recognize that they’re wearing shackles.

We are born free!  And yet, “everywhere, everywhere we are in chains.”

“Out of my distress I called on the Lord,” King David sings (Psalm 118:5). “The Lord answered me and set me free.”

Nina Simone sang, “I wish I knew how it would feel to be free.”  Maybe that’s what that demon-possessed man said when he came stumbling out of the tombs, running to meet Jesus.  Maybe that’s what each of us should say, what we should sing, what we should shout: “I wish I knew how it would feel to be free!  I wish I could break all these chains holding me!”

Do you ever feel that way?  Ever?

Because of his demons, the demoniac’s body was unnaturally strong. He could break the chains the townspeople tried to put on him.  Yes, he was strong physically; but his soul, his will was abysmally weak.  He was possessed, like a zombie. He was a slave to his demons.

Even his voice was no longer his, like in those science fiction movies, when the alien being takes over the mind and voice of its human host. When demons take over your voice, your power of speech, your ability to express your true self—well, then you’ve lost your identity and just about everything else.

That’s when you start sounding not like yourself, but like someone else. When you start saying mean, hateful, crazy stuff to people, even to loved ones—saying words that just don’t sound like you, not to anyone who really knows you. Saying stuff that hurts people, stuff that you know you’ll regret later.

This man, so full of demons, was not himself.  He was not clothed in his right mind. He was lost within himself and in bad, hopeless shape.

Until Jesus showed up.  Oh yes, no matter how dark and desperate our circumstances may get, there’s always good news in the kingdom of God.  There’s always a light at the end of even the darkest tunnel.  If you lose yourself or lose your way, Jesus can find you. He proved it then, and he proves it even today: He’ll come looking for you. And he will find you. And he’ll help you find yourself again.

There’s always good news when Jesus comes to the other side, to our side. When Jesus shows up on the scene, he’s a first-responder, coming to our rescue.  He does what others can’t do, because he knows what others can’t know. When he asks, “What is your name?” he already knows that and a lot more about you and me.

In Mark’s Gospel, Jesus just keeps showing up to perform miracles, one after another, after another, after another. He feeds the hungry by the thousands—nourishes their minds, bodies and souls. He heals the sick, makes the lame to walk, the blind to see, even raises the dead to new life.  He’s the master of miracles!

He just keeps showing up and showing out, speaking brilliant words and doing incredible deeds. Through his mysterious parables, he transforms people’s minds.  And through his miraculous powers, he transforms people’s lives.

Well I wish I could be like a bird in the sky.

How sweet it would be if I found I could fly.

I’d soar to the sun and look down at the sea.

And I’d sing ’cause I know how it feels to be free. 

What’s so special to me about this healing of the demoniac is that it’s all about freedom. Real freedom—not just the dubious freedom we celebrate every year at this time. That’s a freedom for some, but it’s a dream deferred for too many other people who still suffer oppression from racism, sexism and other isms that produce bias and discrimination.

Political freedom can be won or lost, given or taken away. It can even be bought. Many slaves saved up their precious coins and dollars and bought their freedom and family members’ freedom from slavery and servitude.

Freedom can be stolen. Many slaves stole their freedom, singing “Steal away to Jesus” as they plotted their escape from brutal, dehumanizing plantations and the cruel overseer’s stinging whip.

Political freedom is a birthright; or it certainly should be. That’s what the Declaration of Independence that we celebrate this week proclaims.

Maybe everyone is not born free; but everyone should be. Men and women of every race, nationality, religion, class and tribe should all have the divine gift and human right of freedom, no matter who they are, or where they live, or who they love.

The caged bird sings, writes Maya Angelou,

with a fearful trill  

of things unknown  

but longed for still;  

and his tune is heard  

on the distant hill  

for the caged bird  

sings of freedom.

We who long for freedom of the soul, we who find ourselves at times trapped in cages with fearful longing—we sing for freedom. Too many of us don’t believe we can fly. Too many of us feel trapped in our cages, our tombs of pain, fear, regret, despair.

We yearn for deliverance; we yearn for freedom. But if we really yearn for freedom, then we must run to Jesus, fall to our knees at his feet, and ask him with every bit of sincerity we can muster: “Oh, Lord, what must I do to be saved?”

“Out of my distress I called on the Lord,” sings the psalmist. “The Lord answered me and set me free.”

Are you free?  Are you free?  Or are you enslaved to anything?  Do any of you have any chains, any shackles you’re carrying around?  Any false idols, or false friends?  Are you bound by chains of addiction to anything—drugs, alcohol, tobacco, sex, pornography, video games, television, anything?  It’s a question for honest hearts to ponder.

Are you bound by chains of confusion? Or of low self-esteem?  Chains of selfishness, of anger or hatred, of regret or guilt or remorse—chains that you know are hurting you, maybe even killing you?  Do you ever find yourself alone in your tomb, crying out in anguish, bruising yourself physically or emotionally, harming yourself through negative thoughts or self-destructive habits?

Are you trying to break your chains? Trying hard to remove your shackles; but they’re too heavy?   Are you’re trying hard… maybe too hard?

I’m trying hard. But I’m also learning everyday not so much to try harder, but to try Jesus. I’m learning to run to Jesus like that demon-possessed man.  When life gets hard, and trying harder just doesn’t work, I ask Jesus to please set me free.

Jesus tells us, “My yoke is easy. My burden is light.”  So, I say, “Free me of my will, my wants and my won’ts, Jesus. Free me so I can take your will and your wants, your wisdom and your love, your pure, unconditional love, more deeply into my heart. I want your voice to speak for me, Jesus, as I live for you more each day.

It’s time to try Jesus, friends. We can’t free ourselves. Not from the kinds of demons some of us face. The freedom we seek and yearn for is a freedom of the soul that can take root in us and spread throughout our minds and bodies, our very consciousness.

It’s a freedom that protects us against Satan’s attempts to bind or imprison us, to steal, kill or destroy us. But it has to come from Jesus, from the one who overcame all sin and death and the one who can free us from sin and death forevermore.

Jesus crossed a raging sea in a boat that was tossed about in a storm, a tiny boat that might have capsized, had the disciples not awakened him to calm that storm.  That’s the miracle that happened just before he arrived and healed the demoniac in Mark’s Gospel. He came to the other side of a raging sea just to seek and heal a dead man walking, to bring back to life a man living in the tombs, struggling with demon possession.

That story is clear evidence that Jesus, the Great Physician, will make house calls. He did it then, and he’ll do it today. Across a raging ocean of time, he comes to the other side to see us.  He has an appointment with us, an appointment with our destiny, an appointment to rid us of our demons, to remove our chains and our shackles, to set us free not just for today…but forevermore.  And as John 8:36 assures us, “if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed.”

Jesus is ready to make a house call to your door today, tomorrow, whenever you ask him, with a sincere, prayerful heart, to come and offer you mercy, to offer you freedom. The Great Physician is here now. And I have good news for you: The Doctor will see you now.  Amen.