“Neighbor, oh neighbor, it’s time for us to build a liberation ministry,” the Rev. Otis Moss III said at the 9:15 a.m. Thursday Ecumenical Service. His sermon title was “A Liberation Ministry” and the Scripture reading was Mark 5:1-20, the Gerasene demoniac.
“The last several decades people have marginalized putting liberation and ministry together,” Moss said. “People with a broad vocabulary but shallow minds say that liberation ministry is antithetical to the Gospel. I define liberation as the ability to be fully human and divinely directed without barriers to full personhood.”
He shared a story from the Gullah culture of St. John’s Island, South Carolina, about people who could fly.
“These people could fly because, by the power of God’s word, they were connected to their full personhood,” he said.
There was a slave woman in the Antebellum South, who was property — and a problem. She had her 8-year-old son with her as she picked cotton, and was so dexterous that she could pick cotton with her right hand and stroke his cheek with her left.
One day the sun was so intense that she fainted in the field. Her child attempted to wake her because he knew the slave driver would be coming after them and punish her.
“Before the slave driver got there, an old man called ‘Preacher’ or ‘Prophet,’ but whom the owner called ‘Old Devil,’ went over to the woman,” Moss said. “ ‘Is it time?’ the woman asked. Preacher said, ‘It is,’ and he whispered a word in her ear.”
She rose as someone with authority. Her son asked, “Is it time for me?” Preacher whispered in his ear, and he turned into a prince. They joined hands, looked up and took flight. The slave driver stopped. Preacher whispered the word to all the enslaved people, and they flew away.
“Three-fifths of a human being was flying,” Moss said. “The dehumanized and dismissed were flying. The slave driver beat the old man and told him to bring back the property.”
“I can’t,” Preacher said. “Once the word enters, it transforms. When the right word comes, divine transformation takes place.”
“Jesus was starting a liberation ministry,” Moss said. “As he said to the people at Capernaum, ‘The spirit of the Lord is upon me to set the captives free.’ ”
The beginnings of a liberation ministry can be seen in Mark 5.
“Jesus looked at the condition of the brother; he lived among the tombs,” Moss said. “It was an economically depressed area. There were no schools, no health care, no libraries — just death and decay.”
The man had mental health problems and the people in his town tried to incarcerate him.
“That mental health system sounds a lot like America to me,” Moss said. “We would rather incarcerate than help. The largest mental health facility in the country is in Chicago — the Cook County Jail.”
The man with issues ran to Jesus and fell at his feet. He said, “Don’t torment me, rabbi.”
“How did the man know Jesus was religious?” Moss asked. “Some people like to spiritualize the story and say that Jesus had an aura. But the man had run into religious people before, and he was in recovery from religious people who would rather torment than help him.”
Many people are traumatized by religion, by people who will “pray at you, but not for you,” Moss said.
“If religion is the problem, faith is the answer,” he said. “Religion tells you when to stand up and sit down. Faith tells you how to serve, how to operate with compassion. America is in recovery from religion that is more capitalist than operating on the love of God. We lock some people up, tell them ‘three strikes and you’re out.’ Then we turn around and say we have an opioid crisis. We lock up one and say we need help for the other. That is religion not deeply connected to love and justice. Something is wrong, something is wrong, something is wrong.”
Jesus came to the lost who need to be found and the sinful who need to be saved.
“Jesus said, ‘I can lift and transform you,’ ” Moss said. “He is dealing with people we don’t want to deal with. Jesus liked thugs. The chief disciple, Peter, is the thug of the Bible because he carried a knife everywhere and cut off an ear when people rolled up on Jesus the wrong way.”
Jesus, on the cross, told one of the thugs that he would be in Paradise with Jesus that day.
“There was no new member class, he did not need to be baptized or voted in,” Moss said. “I don’t know who will be in Paradise, but I do know one thug will be with Jesus. It must be a gangster paradise.”
When Jesus asked the man his name, he did not answer, but the demons did.
“When we are defined by others, the issues answer before the humanity,” Moss said.
The demon said its name was Legion, a Roman military term for a garrison of 10,000 soldiers.
“What Mark is saying is that the man was possessed by 10,000 Roman policies; he connected the demon possession to the Roman occupiers,” Moss said.
The demon then begins to negotiate with Jesus: “Please send us to a place where we can continue our work; don’t dispatch us into the abyss,” the demon says. Jesus sent the Legion into a herd of 2,000 pigs who immediately committed “pigicide.”
“That was five demons per pig, and they couldn’t handle it,” Moss said. “The man had all 10,000 in him and he had incredible strength. We must recognize the power it takes for people with mental health issues to get up and deal with the things we never have to. We have to honor them.”
The man was set free in a unique way. Three times Moss said: “The demon went into the pigs. The pigs committed pigicide. The people caring for the pigs had to go back and tell the owners, ‘The herd has died, your investment is wiped out.’ ”
“Whenever we connect with God in a way that is not just personal piety, we can upend the economic system of a community,” Moss said. “I have a question — what was pork doing in Palestine? These people were making money off something that should not be in the community.”
But Jesus flipped the script on the economic system.
“With love and compassion, we can change the economic system of a nation,” Moss said.
When the community saw the man clothed and in his right mind, they were afraid. They were not afraid when he was cutting himself and they could put him in chains and make money off him.
“The most dangerous thing is when someone is awake, in their right mind, and knows how to shift the system,” Moss said. “America has issues with people like this. Colin Kaepernick is one of my heroes. He was attacked for non-violent protest, for kneeling during the national anthem. He was just silent.”
Moss told the congregation, “we should remember that we do not sing all the verses” of the “Star Spangled Banner.” Francis Scott Key was upset that enslaved people were fighting for the British in the War of 1812. In the third verse he wrote the lines “No refuge could save the hireling and slave / From the terror of flight, or the gloom of the grave.”
“Why don’t we get upset with people in higher offices who are misogynist, who tell people to go back to their country and try to destroy democracy?” Moss asked. “We have a peculiar way of looking at things. This country is not clothed in its right mind.”
The man, now in his right mind and clothed, wanted to go with Jesus, but Jesus told him he could not.
“The man wanted to leave because he was messing with money,” Moss said. “People were holding on to their doctrine, not their faith.”
The man needed to stay with his family and community because if he had left, they would think he was still ill.
“People never let you forget what you used to be,” Moss said. “Jesus turned his life around so that he could put things in the hands of God. Put things in God’s hands and God will turn them around. When Jesus went to a banquet, he turned water into wine. When I go to a banquet, when the wine is done, it is done. When I go to a funeral, the corpse stays in the casket. When Jesus goes, the dead walk. When I go to the ocean, I get sea sick; Jesus calms the sea. I have a little hang time when I play basketball. Jesus hung all day Friday and got up again on Sunday.”
Moss then concluded his sermon.
“Put it in God’s hands,” he said. “Put it in God’s hands. Put it in God’s hands.”
The Rev. John Morgan presided. Deborah Hazlett, a member of a seventh-generation Chautauqua family read the Scriptures. Hazlett is an actor and teacher currently living and working primarily in the Baltimore and Washington D.C. areas. She is the cousin of Daily staff writer Mary Lee Talbot. The preludes were “Allegro assai,” from “Sonata” by Jakob Friedrich Kleinknecht, and “Trio” by Joseph Musser in memory of Chautauquan Richard Kemper. The preludes were played by Barbara Hois, flute, Rebecca Scarnati, oboe and Joseph Musser, piano. The Motet Choir sang “How Can I Keep From Singing,” arranged by Z. Randall Stroope. Jared Jacobsen, organist and coordinator of worship and sacred music, directed the choir. The Gladys R. Brasted and Adair Brasted Gould Memorial Chaplaincy provides support for this week’s services.