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.”
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.
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.
“Behold, how good and pleasant it is when brothers and sisters dwell in unity. It is like the precious oil on the head, running down on the beard, on the beard of Aaron, running down on the collar of his robes! It is like the dew of Hermon, which falls on the mountains of Zion! For there the Lord has commanded the blessing: life forevermore.” Psalm 133
I have always found this tiny psalm to be curious. The image of sacred oil poured on God’s priest in such volume that is runs down his beard and onto the collar of his holy vestments does not exactly sync with my idea of unity. Get the Kleenexes! Dew on Mt. Hermon also is a puzzling analogy, this gentle water that covers an entire mountain! What they both have in common is a sense of pervasiveness. The oil and the dew are in abundance and they both are symbols of the Spirit which hovers consistently over the face of the earth and among all people.
Unity is like that. When people are living in harmony with one another it covers everything that has been divisive, it gets into the crevices of partisan debate and intellectual and ecclesiastical pride. The result of unity is abundance and provision for all. Psalm 133 says it is a blessing and it leads ultimately to everlasting life.
Unity is the oil and the water that is the fuel and sustenance that best drives the church into mission and ministry. Only as we are in unity can we get the job done with all of our varied gifts and graces working together for the good of the whole. Unity is often mistaken for uniformity of thought and heart but it is much deeper than that. It is a passionate commitment to stay in communion with one another despite even huge differences. It is born of the love that “bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things and endures all things.” (I Corinthians 13:7)
Dwelling in unity is my prayer for the United Methodist Church. For years we have been a church divided over many social issues but in particular the practice, ordination and marriage of people who are lesbian and gay has taken center stage at every General Conference. Since 1972 there have been paragraphs in our UM Book of Discipline that forbid homosexual people from being ordained and our churches and pastors cannot perform holy unions or same gender marriages.
At the 2016 General Conference the bishops were charged with the task of leading the way in finding a solution to this impasse once and for all. What resulted was the creation of a 32-member “Commission for the Way Forward” (a group of highly diverse United Methodists from all over the world) who studied and prayed and worked on a plan for the bishops to consider for presentation at a specially called session of General Conference. The work has been done with grace and faithfulness for almost two years.
At the spring (April 29 – May 4, 2018) meeting of the Council of Bishops we voted to recommend the following:
Having received and considered the extensive work of the Commision on a Way Forward, the Council of Bishops will submit a report to the special session of the GC in 2019 that includes:
All three plans for a way forward considered by the Commission and the Council. (“The Traditionalist Plan,” “The One Church Plan” and “The Connectional Conference Plan.”)
The Council’s recommendation is “The One Church Plan.”
An historical narrative of the Council’s discernment process regarding all three plans.
According to the bishops the rationale for this response is to invite the church to go deeper into the journey of the Council and Commission. The Council makes all the information considered by the Commission and the COB available to the delegates of the General Conference and acknowledges that there is support for each of the three plans within the Council. The values of our global church are reflected in all three plans. The majority of the COB recommends the One Church Plan as the best way forward for the UMC.
We will have conversations about this proposal at our sessions of annual conference this year. In addition all of the documents will be available for further reading and study after July 8th. This will give our interpreters time to translate the documents into our ten international languages. In the fall we will be holding town hall meetings on each district to discuss these plans further. Members of our delegations will also be available for additional meetings and conversation in order to receive feedback and answer questions.
The General Conference will ultimately vote on this recommendation at the special session that will be held February 23 – 26, 2019 in St. Louis, MO. There are 12 delegates from the Philadelphia Area (8 from Eastern PA and 4 from Peninsula-Delaware) who will be among the 864 delegates from this world-wide church. What comes out of this General Conference will be the final decision of the church. We will have more conversations and meetings after General Conference to interpret the decisions and to plan further into our future together.
We are still on a journey and as we travel together we will pray, we will have respectful conversation, we will study and seek the Word of God. We will continue to be in ministry and mission to a world that Christ loved and died for. We will engage in justice ministries and works of compassion and healing. We will preach good news of salvation to all.
Through it all my prayer is for the unity of the church; unity that is pervasive and life-giving. Ultimately when we dwell together in unity we will be blessed and it will best enable us to be a blessing to the world out of love for Christ.
My District Committee of Ordained Ministry had put my ordination interview on hold, so I could be interviewed again. I had no role models at the seminary for women in ministry leadership. Only the librarian was a woman. All the other leaders else were men, white men, except for an Asian professor who taught Greek and New Testament.
Then came word of the Consultation for United Methodist Clergywomen in Dallas, Texas, in January 1979. I wanted to go so badly, but money was an issue. So going to Dallas was a clearly a pipe dream. That was until the United Methodist Women of my home church (Lansdowne UMC in Baltimore) stepped up to the plate and sent me the money to attend the consultation.
It was life-changing and inspirational. It gave me the courage to keep following my call, as I saw capable, bodacious clergywomen preaching and leading with grace and skill. Those faithful women of Lansdowne will never know just how much it changed the course of my ministry.
Other bishops have been similarly blessed by women and women’s groups. Bishop Joaquina Nhanala, episcopal leader of Mozambique and South Africa, received support from the Women’s Fellowship of the Mozambique Annual Conference for Theological Studies. She became the first woman elected to the episcopacy from the continent of Africa. But first, scholarships from United Methodist Women helped her follow her call to ordained ministry and prepare for the leadership she is now providing to the church.
“I am a product of United Methodist Women,” Bishop Nhanala has said, adding that she’s not alone. “A lot of women are now in a position to have a say because of the efforts of United Methodist Women.”
Bishop Rosemarie Wenner, recently retired from leading the UMC in Germany, was the only female UM pastor in her country when she considered going into ministry. She became the first women outside the U.S. elected to the episcopacy in 2005. Women inspired and supported her along her path of ministry as well.
United Methodist Women continued to change my own life. Later when I served Christ UMC of the Deaf, a deaf congregation in Baltimore, Md., the UM Women’s Division sent our entire UMW unit to the Women’s Assembly. The women were inspired by the vision for mission with women and children and youth that they had never experienced before.
They were asked to sign a song on stage in front of 10,000 women, and the song was “God of the Sparrow, God of the Whale.” I remember one of the lyrics was “God of the ages, God near at hand, God of the loving heart.” I felt the “loving heart” of God through the generous gift of mission from the UMW to this humble unit of women at that amazing Assembly gathering in Kansas City, Mo.
In 2012, as a fairly new bishop, I was able to give back to the UMW by writing the book study for their Mission u topic, The Church and People with Disabilities. It gave me a chance to write from my passion for ministry among people with disabilities. I hoped to teach the church how to provide access to and empower such people, and thus learn that disability does not mean inability.
As I plan to attend the May 17-20, 2018 UMW Assembly in Columbus, Ohio I can only wonder who will be inspired next to be a bishop, or a pastor, or a missionary, or a servant who will lead the church into the future? We celebrate our own Barbara Drake, who will be consecrated a Deaconess at this event.
No doubt, others will follow in her footsteps in the years to come because of her servant leadership model. Mission inspires mission; and constantly, women lead women into higher forms of mission and ministry around the world.
As they celebrate 150 years of ministry, the UMW has a bright future of empowerment through mission and loving hearts. These women continue to inspire me with their relentless call for justice for women and children and youth everywhere. They are touching lives each day and making a difference in our world and in our church.
Speaking of births, however, I invite us all to begin our United Methodist heritage celebration a month early, on Sunday, April 22, in order to commemorate the birth of our denomination from merger and reorganization 50 years ago. That labor-intensive birth happened on April 23, 1968. But it came after nearly a decade of prayerful negotiations, General Conference legislation and prevenient mergers of racially segregated annual conferences—like ours—until the glorious day of delivery when we finally became The United Methodist Church.
The Methodist Church merged with the Evangelical United Brethren Church—both denominations being offspring of earlier mergers themselves. The new denomination abolished Methodism’s Central Jurisdiction, created in 1939 to unify and segregate annual conferences with predominantly black churches and members across the nation, like our former Delaware Annual Conference.
So, in 1968 and in the years that followed, after a history of divisions and dubious mergers, we finally got it right, for the most part. Getting it right meant reorganizing churchwide agencies and creating legislation and special commissions to monitor our still-unfinished journey toward racial and gender equity and denominational inclusiveness. For that same journey and others, it also meant creating special programs and funds, Special Sunday offerings and eventually, missional priorities.
It meant—and it still means—living into our divine call to manifest integrity, generosity, grace and other bedrock Christian values, as we strive to become what our own annual conference approved as its vision statement in 2017: United in Christ, Committed to Transformation.
We are 50 years old as a denomination this year, and we have made much progress. But there is much more to be done. I pray that our life expectancy, our arc in history, is long, with no end in sight, and that it will forever bend toward justice, in James Russell Lowell’s famous words.
The year 1968 was one of emergent change, not only in our church, but across our nation and throughout society. There was turbulent racial conflict, violence in our streets, war, protests and questions about the relevancy of the church.
The Rev. Dr. Albert C. Outler, a prominent theologian at the time, cast a vision for the Uniting Conference in his address on the morning of our merger ceremony. He called for the new church to be steadfast in unity and committed to ecumenism and evangelism in word and deed. He also stressed the need for the church to reform itself from being an insulated institution to actively demonstrating the presence of the living Christ.
In order to reform, he said, we needed to be “…a church united in order to be uniting, a church repentant in order to be a church redemptive, a church ‘cruciform’ in order to manifest God’s triumphant agony for mankind (sic).” When he finished, the 10,000 people at Dallas Memorial Auditorium gave him a prolonged standing ovation.
Dr. Outler’s call is still with us today as we celebrate 50 years of United Methodism. If each one of us would take to heart these principles of unity, ecumenism, evangelism and reform, we could become the church that our founders envisioned many years ago, as they sought to spread “scriptural holiness” across the land.
“This is the day the Lord has made,” said Outler. “Let us really rejoice and be glad in it—glad for the new chance God now gives us.”
Indeed, for the next month, from April 22 through May 20, and for months and years to come, let us really rejoice and be glad in this faithful, if not faultless, heritage we share as United Methodists. Let us clothe ourselves in love, seeking always to be transformed as those redeemed through grace. And let us be glad for our unity in a Christ who “binds everything together in perfect harmony” (Colossians 3:14). Yes, glad “for the new chance God now gives us.”
Please read and share these recent accounts, resources and ideas to help celebrate our United Methodist history, as we celebrate 50 years together. Also, be sure to view the compelling, 11-minute historical video that shares diverse views on the in 1968 merger of the EUB and Methodist denominations and related concerns.
Republished from The Bishop’s Blog.
For the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. 1 Corinthians 1:18 (NRSV)
No one wants to be called a “fool.” In American Sign Language the sign for “fool” looks like a person (represented by a forefinger) being struck with a fist of the other hand. Indeed, fools might be considered fortunate if only their egos are bruised.
The word “fool” conjures up images of weakness, gullibility, and stupidity. But like many things about the counter-cultural, and at times counter-intuitive, faith that we practice, as true followers of Jesus Christ we can gladly—and wisely—proclaim that yes, we are fools.
The Apostle Paul wrote to the Corinthians: “We are fools for the sake of Christ… When reviled, we bless, when persecuted we endure, when slandered, we speak kindly.” (I Corinthians 4:10 a, 12 b)
Easter this year falls on April Fool’s Day (offering a second 2018 coincidence, after Ash Wednesday fell on Valentine’s Day February 14). The secular occasion’s origins are also religious. April Fool’s may go back to the time of Pope Gregory XIII, who changed the Christian calendar so that the first day of the year was January 1 and not April 1, as had been the case under the Julian calendar. Some people back then continued to follow the old calendar. Those who did were known as “April Fools” and were subject to tricks and ridicule.
We who follow Christ’s ways can be rightly called “fools” because we don’t follow the world’s way of dealing with adversity. Christians bless, endure and speak kindly when we face persecution and adversity.
That’s what Jesus did when he spoke seven times while hanging on Calvary’s cross, suffering and dying from a brutal crucifixion. He uttered humble words of love, forgiveness, care, assurance and faith. This kind of grace under pressure attitude is not foolish or weak but extremely powerful. It demonstrates an awesome power of mind and heart that transcends painful but superficial agonies to accomplish a greater purpose.
It can change the world. It always has, and it always will.
Linda Brown just recently passed away at the age of 76. Her legacy of counter-cultural determination will live on forever. Her father, an African Methodist Episcopal clergyman, sued the Board of Education in Topeka, Kansas, for refusing to admit his daughter into an all-white public school. That school was in walking distance, while the all-black school was several more miles away.
The case went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, which on May 17, 1954, ruled unconstitutional and thus, ended, the unfair “Jim Crow” segregation laws that forbade children of color from receiving an equal education in public schools attended by white children. Those laws were part of a racist, oppressive culture that had to be countered and overcome.
Linda and many other black students began attending formerly white schools. They were subjected to much racist abuse and rejection; yet, they remained steadfast, teaching the world that racism, hated and evil are no match for love.
A successful student, Linda never received a grade lower than a “B” in any of her classes. She later became an educator in a Head-Start program serving low-income, mostly black families. (Chicago Tribune).
Easter will fall again on April 1 in the year 2029. But we can be April Fools every day, all the time, as we move through the world with the counter-cultural attitude of our risen Lord.
Mere mortals may have mocked and mourned his demise on Good Friday. But He got the last laugh on Easter Sunday, as He turned death into life and through love overcame hate. And the foolishness of the cross (I Corinthians 1:18) became the greatest movement in human history.