Turning Around


Rev. Dr. Joyce Antila Phipps

Old First Church, Middletown

June 16, 2019

Texts: Acts 16:16-24; Luke 7:36-8:3

      I’ve always wondered what happened to some of the characters we read about in some of the more familiar Bible stories. A woman comes into the house of Simon the Pharisee––he’s a Pharisee in Luke but a leper in Matthew and Mark––and anoints Jesus’ feet with expensive ointment. Referred to as a “sinner”––and for a woman of that time, you know what that means; for women, it’s always something sexual. Perhaps she’s what euphemistically used to be called a woman of the streets or an unwed mother.

       Then, on top of that she breaks all the rules. First, she enters uninvited. Then, she reaches out to wash the feet of a man in a society where that form of touching was prohibited between non-married persons. The icing on the cake, of course, is being in such intimate contact that she washes his feet with her tears and dries them with her hair. So, what happened after Jesus tells her that her sins are forgiven? Where does she go?  What does she do, especially in a society that would not have recognized that forgiveness as valid? Did she turn her life around?

        And then there is the unnamed slave from whom Paul casts out the unclean spirit. The text does not tell us what happened to the slave after she lost her usefulness though we find out that Paul and Silas end up in jail for, well, let’s call it unlawful conversion of property, to use a twenty-first century legal term. Perhaps the slave was just cast aside or sold because she was of no further value to her owners; perhaps she was put to work in another, more insidious way. She was still a slave and certainly did not experience any freedom as the result of being cleansed of the evil spirit that gave her the capacity for divination.

         These stories make us ask what really happens to people, even to us, when all of a sudden we’re given a new lease on life, as it were? When the cancer goes into re-mission? When the operation is a success? What do we do with the rest of our lives? A lot of that, of course, depends on what has gone on before, our resources, our opportunities. Many of us, once cleansed of a burden, cannot figure out how to turn our lives around. We find we are still trapped. We don’t know how to get out of our situation. We don’t know how to make the change real in our lives.

       Slavery is not just a physical condition of bondage, though, God knows, there still is real slavery in the world. Although legally abolished with our Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution, slavery in other forms continued through the rapid industrialization that held millions of men and women in its grasp working twelve to fourteen hours a day for the robber barons who became the benefactors of our major cultural institutions.

         Today, we have what is called human trafficking, which results in the use primarily of women and children usually for sexual purposes. In fact, if you go to the State Department website, you’ll find the newly released report for 2018. I urge you to read it. It’s an eye-opening document. This form of slavery just doesn’t happen elsewhere; it’s going on, right here in the United States and its victims are just as enslaved as was the woman in Acts.

         The most powerful slavery is that of the mind that leads us to think that we cannot change our situation. I see this in victims of domestic violence. Most of us who have never really listened to a victim of domestic violence think of a woman being beaten or killed; but domestic violence is gender neutral and exists in all kinds of relationships. The most insidious form of domestic violence is not physical but psychological creating the feeling that we cannot change our lives. We feel trapped. We are trapped.

        It’s especially insidious when victims are immigrants who are often afraid to go to the police for protection. The policies of ICE – Immigration and Customs Enforcement – have exacerbated this situation since 2017 by stalking the halls of criminal and civil courts, picking up people who are there as victims of violence.

         Sometimes it takes years to get past this virtual slavery. I’ve known “L” for almost ten years. From Peru, she married a U.S. citizen who abused her and then left her living openly with another woman. He continued his abuse and when she sought protection, he threatened to take her children away. She was so trapped by this fear that although immigration law gives her a way to protect herself, she could not make the necessary steps. She almost stopped when she had to get fingerprinted to show she had never been arrested. “They’ll turn me over to immigration,” she cried. “My boys, what will happen to them?”  

        The creep who controlled her life had trained the children to keep an eye on her; one of those twerps actually asked who I was once when I called her home. “A friend,” I replied. “My mother doesn’t have any friends,” the kid re-sponded. She acted with the utmost secrecy. When she received her green card, she sat in our office and sobbed when she realized that now she was free. Now she is a citizen and out of the reach of her former husband.

          We usually read the story of the woman washing Jesus’ feet as a story of repentance. Although it’s not easy to repent, it’s even more difficult to turn our lives around in the face of the enormous psychological pressures we experience to leave things as they are. I repent for something every day; sometimes, it’s a small thing, other times, not so small. But the real question I face, we all face, is how do we make the real and necessary change in our lives to turn things around? What is it that we have to do?  

        First, we have to admit that our sin or problem is real and probably part of a pattern. Recognizing the problem, the real problem, helps us to reframe our thinking. Then, rather than taking it all on, chop it up into manageable chunks. Just like we can’t eat a whole meal in one bite, we can’t take on a serious problem in our lives in one fell swoop. Sometimes deciding on the easiest chunk to tackle first, even though it may not be the most serious part of the problem, helps us toward turning our lives around. That’s because if we are successful in one small thing, that success encourages us to continue and take something more difficult.

         Fortunately, God has given us the tools to turn our lives around. We are sentient beings; we have inherent abilities. We just need to use them. We are spiritual beings; we have the ability to be open to the Spirit; we just need to listen. As persons of faith, we can draw on the strength we achieve through something considered quite old fashioned: prayer.

        Prayer is not just asking God for something. Prayer is opening ourselves up to God’s presence in our lives and listening to what the very center of our being tells us. Some-one once said that courage is fear that has said its prayers. It is the key of the morning and the bolt of the evening; it is the most potent instrument of action. It does not change God; it changes us.

         Unlike the woman who was forgiven and the slave who had lost her value, we live in a society where we can really turn our lives around. We need to be open to the ways to do that; we need to be open to God.

         Let us pray: Eternal Guardian of our lives, open our hearts to your Spirit. Give us strength, courage and wisdom to turn our lives around, to make the changes we need to make to live more fully in your grace. In the name of him who is the instrument of your grace, even Christ Jesus our Lord, Amen.