A happy and blessed Juneteenth!

I’ve been reflecting on stories lately. Stories hold magic. Stories have been told around ancient campfires when we were a new species, and they’re told in the dark today in cinemas. But what makes a story a story?

A man buys a house. That’s not a story. Well, it is but it’s not compelling. I have no reason to care. Five words that aren’t worth remembering with all the other words and stories vying for my attention.

A veteran buys a house in his hometown. Okay, that gives me a little more clue. I can picture someone in uniform, chest puffed out in pride as his realtor hands him the keys to a red Cape Cod with the picket fence. Maybe you were picturing a craftsman? What style is your house? What branch of the military are you picturing? While there’s more detail, it’s still not a story.

Stories unlock something in us. They shock us or they lead us into a new understanding of who we are and who our neighbor is and what this life we’re leading is about. Good stories do that. They give us connection. Author George Saunders writes that, “These days, it’s easy to feel that we’ve fallen out of connection with one another and with the earth and with reason and with love. I mean: we have. But to read, to write, is to say that we still believe in, at least, the possibility of connection.”[1]

Stories can provide us connection with folks we, upon initial glance, have nothing in common with. Yet the magic of stories can give connection.

Like with the prophet in the cave. Elijah is filled with zeal for God and gets very dramatic. He’s on the run from Jezebel, fearing for his life. He’s hiding out in a cave and he wants to die.

Maybe you’ve been there. Someone says something to you or about you, and upon first hearing you don’t think much of it. Only later do you realize that there were daggers in those words and you’ve been cut. And maybe, you overreact. You fling yourself down. You want to just die. There’s no coming back from this! Maybe these words wake you up at 3 in the morning with a racing heart and a mind that is shouting.

Elijah is doing that right now. I love the Bible not because the stories happened, but they are happening, right now. All the time. Elijah goes on a retreat. He’s seeking God. He goes out to a mountain and is told by God that God will pass by. There’s a strong wind that splits mountains and breaks rocks, but God wasn’t there. There was an earthquake, but God wasn’t there. There was a fire, but God wasn’t there. And after the fire, sheer silence. Some translations have, “A still small voice.”

Last summer we talked about movies. We’re in the summer blockbuster season, and there will be movies with lots of car chases and bombs poised to explode. Many of those movies I see, but they do not make a lasting impact. Sure, they’re exciting, but I wasn’t really changed afterwards. Sometimes it’s the subtle, quiet story that breaks us open, and we find the divine.

Like the veteran who bought a house. An Air Force veteran wants a new house for large family gatherings. He buys a farm in his hometown in rural Virginia. It’s the type of house that had a name: Sharswood. Okay, we get more details, maybe a picture is forming… but let’s really bring it home in a sentence: Black Air Force Veteran unknowingly buys former plantation house where his ancestors were enslaved.

Now we have a story. It’s dramatic. It has a huge twist and discovery. It will leave us and the characters in the story different after hearing it. Even better, this is a true story featured on 60 Minutes.[2] Fred Miller bought a farmhouse in his hometown. His sister got obsessed with the history and found that it used to be a plantation. As she continued researching, she discovered that one of the outbuildings that they thought might have been a carriage house was actually slave quarters. One of the most preserved examples of slave housing in the country. Now historians and researchers are working to preserve the history and discover how slaves lived in the antebellum era.

Furthermore, they discover one of their ancestors lived there, a great-grandma. It’s a journey of discovery that seems impossible and inevitable. They passed this house every day, it’s about a mile from where they grew up. Here’s what the Miller family knew about their family history with slavery: nothing. The family didn’t talk about it. It was too painful. It wasn’t mentioned at all. And the kids didn’t ask. The phrase to end conversation was, “That’s grown people business.” When the movie Roots came out, it opened something up in their spirits to see their story on screen. Yet even then, they didn’t ask or talk about their own family history.

Sharswood has opened up something within the family. They can talk. And in talking, they are healing. In healing, they are learning. Discovering roots. Discovering history.  Air Force Veteran unknowingly buys former plantation house where his ancestors were enslaved. Could those ancestors ever imagine their ancestors would one day live in the big gothic style house? Probably not in their wildest dreams. The present-day Millers can scarcely believe it.

Nor could the family imagine that they’d ever discover their own history. Especially since everyone who had insight to the story was dead. It was not until the 1870 census that black folk were listed by name. Now the family can trace back further. Watching the video, you can tell that the family can’t quite put it into words. There are pregnant pauses in the interview. Something that was hurt within the Miller family is being healed. Something that possessed the family and held them in silence and ignorance is being cast out. Something that was bound within them, is being freed.

In many family stories, there are things we just don’t talk about. We place them like the demon-possessed man: in the tombs, chained up, and we try out best to never talk about him and ignore his screams. Yet Jesus crosses the lake and the first person he visits in the entire region of the Gerasenes is this possessed and outcast man. They find him naked. Skin darkened and chapped from exposure to the elements. He’s living in the tombs, where things are meant to be dead and silent.

The demons recognize Jesus immediately. “What do you want with me, Jesus, son of the Most High God?!” Jesus asks after his name. “Legion.”

Legion. I don’t think this name is an accident. Legion means there was more than one. Too many to be named. Some demons might not have had an actual name, they were just troublesome. Like that feeling that awakes you up at 3 a.m. That demon doesn’t have a name, but I know that one. Or the low-level anxiety that has no cause. Or the feeling you get when a certain name is mentioned. Or the grief that arrives unannounced and makes a pleasant afternoon bleak. Those demons don’t have names, but we know them. They are Legion.

Legion is also the name of who was oppressing the Jewish people. The Romans. We don’t talk about them. We do our best to ignore them. Don’t make waves. Keep your head down. A Legion of the Roman army comprised between 3,000 to 6,000 soldiers.[3]  Romans saw farmers and the peasant class as unclean, less-than, and expendable and treated them harshly. Taxing them to keep them at the lowest level possible.

What that does to people is traumatize them. They believe they are who others say they are. Unworthy. Unclean. Expendable. As author Toni Morrison writes in her classic book Beloved, “Definitions belong to the definers, not the defined.”

It’s a long road to cast those demon definitions out. And usually it’s not just one name, it’s a Legion of names. Given to us by those who claim power over us or have power over us: adults, bullies, bosses, teachers.

Yet Jesus sees these names given to the man, all the demons. The legion of them that are keeping the man in a place of death. In a twist, Jesus listens to the demons. They don’t want to go into the Abyss. This is where the story becomes a story worth telling. Jesus sends the demons into the pigs feeding on a hillside. The herd then rushed down the bank and into the lake and were drowned.

The Bible isn’t true because this happened, it’s true because it’s happening. I once had a man in my office. He had extremely low self-esteem. I listened and just couldn’t seem to get through to the man. We met often and always he rarely spoke about his worth and worthiness, and nothing I said was making a difference. Until I told a story about myself using the names he called himself. He got really mad, very agitated. “No one should call you that! No one should treat my pastor like that! You have so many great qualities!” And he listed an embarrassing amount. Which I thanked him for. Then pointed out that the names I used weren’t said about me, they were ones he said about himself. He saw it then. And broke down. And cried. He found the help he needed and is doing OK, but sometimes it takes seeing it in others before we recognize it in ourselves.

Maybe the demoniac couldn’t see the harm he was causing his community. Maybe his community couldn’t see it either until the harm went into the pigs and killed the herd.

Evil is always self-destructive. That level of harm is never redemptive. Even when evil gets what it wants, it will eventually run itself off a cliff and drown in its own devices. Maybe then the man and the community saw what they did. And when confronted with the enormity of the evil and seeing the man dressed and in his right mind, they reacted. They feared Jesus. They asked him to leave. And Jesus does what they ask him to.

The man who was possessed wanted to go with him. But Jesus told him to stay home. “Return home and tell how much God has done for you.”

Jesus did not want the man who has just found his freedom to then chain himself to Jesus. Often, we religious think Jesus just wants our obedience. That’s it. No, Jesus wants our agency. God wants us to see ourselves as the gift to the world. We were created in love. God knew us before we were formed in our mother’s womb.[4] And God has plans to prosper us, not to harm us but to give us hope and a future.[5]

Jesus knows like Toni Morrison wrote, “Freeing yourself was one thing, claiming ownership of that freed self was another.”

The man stayed home. He had to claim ownership of his story. A story that was relegated to the margins of the town, shrouded in shame and silence. Now the man, in his right mind, is restored. The Legion of things possessing him gone. He might not have the words for it just yet, but he feels like he has returned to himself and found his home again.

Just as the Miller family in Virginia. The deathly silence around their family history of slavery is gone. What they didn’t have words for, they are finding. They are finding healing. Rootedness. They are returning to themselves. The Legion of things possessing them are gone, and they are claiming ownership of their freed selves. Which is what Jesus wants us to do. To tell our stories and give our gratitude for what God has done and is doing for each of us.

The Rev. Dr Chris Williamson said, “Some Christians expect us to trace our sins back to Adam, but not to 1619.” That’s the year when slavery hit our shores. 1619 marks the beginning of race-based bondage that defined the African American experience. Juneteenth is wonderful day to celebrate freedom and our history. Yes, we were bound in the tombs with the sin of slavery. Yes, we were bound and in the tombs of white supremacy. Many are still there. It’s not just affecting lives back then, but even now. Laws banning Interracial marriage were passed in Maryland in 1664. They weren’t off the books until Loving v. Virginia in 1967.[6]

Many want to deny this sin or look away from it. As the sin is Legion. There were laws. There are behaviors. There were ideologies backing up this sin, and it’s everywhere. From laws past and present to biases we don’t even know about. We must seek to cast out this demon and restore ourselves to ourselves.

Casting this out might seem way bigger than us. Other generations tried and failed. If the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr with all his genius and gifted prose couldn’t get the job done, then what makes us think we can? Stop looking at the wind, the earthquake, the fire. Start smaller. Start with silence. Listen. Listen to the voice of God speaking the story of the Miller family.

Listen to Second Baptist. Listen to the celebration out on our square today. Read the story in the Joy of Medina County magazine. The Medina Diversity Project has a great article about the Ruffins and Pam Miller talking about what Juneteenth means to them entitled, “Ten Things White People Can Do to Celebrate Juneteenth.”[7] They are small things we can do to celebrate black folk. Read books, plays, poetry from black authors. Search out black history and recognize its importance. Support black owned businesses. Listen to the music of black artists. Visit an exhibit or museum dedicated to black culture. Donate to organizations committed to supporting and fighting for the black community. Listen and learn from difficult conversations about racism and police violence. Deeply consider the wound of racism on the hearts of every Black American. That is what the article suggests.

In these small ways we can cast out the sinful Legion of racism and white supremacy. Small ways. 10 minutes on the square is all I ask. Or write a note to Pastor Arthur and Tracey Ruffin thanking them for bringing the party here and for being such good neighbors.

I’ll get us started as I end with the title poem from Amanda Gorman “What we Carry” from her book Call Us What We Carry. Here the images of land. Of lives. Of community and of language. May this give words to where we are at. May it drive home the story of the Miller Family and their home Sharswood which was also the home of their unnamed, unknown ancestors. May this cast something out of you that you don’t quite have words for.

“As kids we sat in the grass,
Fished our hands into the dirt.
We felt that damp brown
Universe writhe, alert & alive,
Earth cupped in the boat of our palms.

Our eyes waxed wide with wonder.
Children understand:
Even grime is a gift,
Even what is mired is miraculous,
What is marred is still marvelous.

Ark: a boat like that which preserved Noah’s family &
animals from the flood. The word comes from the Latin word arca, meaning “Chest”, much like the Latin word arcere, “to close up, defend, or contain.” Ark can also mean the traditional place in a synagogue for the scrolls of the Torah.

That is to say,
we put words in the ark.
Where else to put them.
We continue speaking/writing/hoping/living/loving/
That is to say, we believe beyond disaster.

Even endings end
at the lip of land.
Time arcs into itself.
It is not a repeat, but a reckoning.
Days can’t help but walk two by two—
The past & present, paired & paralleled.
It is the future we save
from ourselves, for ourselves.

Words matter, for
Language is an ark.
Language is an art,
An articulate artifact.
Language is a life craft.
Language is a life raft.

We have recalled how to touch each other
& how to trust all that is good & all right.
We have learned our true names–
Not what we are called
but what we are called
to carry forth from here.
What do we carry, if not
what & who we care most for.

What are we,
if not the price of light.
Loss is the cost of loving,
A debt more than worth every pulse & pull.
We know this because we have decided to

The Truth is,
One globe, wonder-flawed.
Here’s to the preservation
of a light so terrific.
The truth is, there is joy.
In discarding almost everything–
our rage, our wreckage,
our hubris, our hate,
Our ghosts, our greed,
Our wrath, our wars,
on the beating shore.
We haven’t any haven
For them here. Rejoice, for
What we have left
behind will not free us,
but what we have left
is all we need.
We are enough,
Armed only
With our hands,
Opened but unemptied,
Just like a blooming thing.
We can walk into tomorrow,
Carrying nothing,
but the world.[8]

Works Cited

[1] George Saunders, A Swim in a Pond in the Rain: In Which Four Russians Give a Master Class on Writing, Reading, and Life.

[2] The title is “Man unknowingly buys former plantation house where his ancestors were enslaved.” https://youtu.be/oPk2F3rxetk

[3] John Dominic Crossan, The Historical Jesus: The life of a Mediterranean Jewish peasant. Harper Collins, New York, NY: 1991. 221

[4] Jeremiah 1:5

[5] Jeremiah 29:11

[6] Brian McLaren, Lisa Sharon Harper, and Gigi Ross, “Learning how to See Podcast, May 27, 2022 episode entitled Christianity, Race, and Politics.”

[7] https://buff.ly/3xKsAfU

[8] 202-205

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