Rev. Dr. Joyce Antila Phipps
Old First Church, Middletown, NJ
June 14, 2020
Texts: Hosea 14: 1–9; 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 euphem-istically used to be called a woman of the streets or an unwed mother.
Then, on top of that she breaks all the rules. She enters uninvited. She reaches out to wash the feet of a man in a society where that form of touching was not permitted. The icing on the cake, of course, is being in such intimate contact that she kisses his feet and then washes them with her tears and dries them with her hair.
So, what happened after Jesus tells this unnamed woman 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 twentieth-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 a slave and certainly did not experience any freedom as the result of being cleansed of the spirit of divination.
What really does happen to people––to us––when all of a sudden we’re given a new lease on life, as it were? When the cancer goes into remission? 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.
Hosea in his promise of redemption and restoration gives a promise by God that disloyalty will be healed, the orphan will find mercy, and that Israel will blossom like a vine and will flourish like a garden.
There’s a catch, of course: Israel must return to God and seek forgiveness. Just as Assyria could not save ancient Israel, so our reliance on military might, especially misused military might, will not save us from the calamity which has overtaken us. What calamity? We may ask. Just take a look around.
Our calamity is not just in shutting down our economy. Our calamity is in shutting down our souls. Long before Covid-19 barreled in on top of us like a hurricane, we had warnings of staffing problems in long-term care facilities. Long before the wind toppled the trees, we knew there were two economic systems, one for the rich and one for the poor.
Many of us have tried to address the clear and gross inequities in the lack of health care, good educational systems, and disparity in wages. We know that although we have made some progress at least here in New Jersey, the disregard for these issues from Washington permeates our society spreading like a cancer in our body politic.
Both Hosea and Jesus saw the intimate connection between personal and societal sin, for what we are experiencing now is the result of both. As a society, we have taken advantage of the low wages many make to keep prices low; when the pandemic hit, those workers did not have the luxury of working remotely from home. They had to work regardless of the danger.
We have the opportunity now to really turn around for low-wage workers, most of whom are minority group members. And if the pandemic was not enough to shake our foundations, the murder of George Floyd––there is no other word for what happened––should force us into looking at how minorities are treated by law enforcement.
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 little 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. Someone 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, 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. Then we can make real and effective change in our society for justice and equity.
Let us pray: Eternal Guardian of our lives, open our hearts to your Spirit. Give us strength, courage and wisdom to make the changes we need to make in our world to live more fully in your grace. In the name of him who gives us strength, even Christ Jesus our Lord, Amen.