Dragged into the marketplace, by Pastor Lee Lever

Dragged into the marketplace

John 17:20-26; Acts 16:16-34                            

I recently spent a Saturday at Jackson Square in the French Quarter of New Orleans, a hustling, touristy place. Jackson Square has a wrought iron fence around a small park the size of a city block. Inside the square are benches, cement paths, flowerbeds and trees.  At the center of the Square is a statue of General Andrew Jackson. On the outside of the twelve feet high wrought iron fence is where painters and artists and other vendors set up their booths and displays.

Across the street to the Northwest of the square is Saint Louis Cathedral. As I walked by the entrance of the cathedral a wedding party came out through the front doors into the marketplace of the square where there were painters, jewelry makers, street bands, magicians, and fortune tellers. The fortune tellers invited anyone passing by to sit down and engage in palm reading or a tarot card session. I was intrigued that the fortune tellers chose to set up shop in the shadow of the Christian cathedral in front of them with Saint Peter Street to the left and Saint Ann Street to the right. I wondered if they were thinking that they were positioned well for the tourists who had a spiritual disposition and might be enticed by a fortune teller. I was tempted to sit down for a session with the fortune teller but the person I was with reminded me that we were on our way to coffee and beignets.

In Acts 16 the Apostle Paul and Silas, encounter a fortune-telling slave girl as they were going to the place of prayer, to the Lydia church in ancient Philippi. In this city Paul had initiated conversation about Jesus in a fairly benign way. He found a group of interested people and they got together periodically and talked about Jesus. On the way to that meeting place a fortune-telling slave girl follows Paul and his friends shouting, “These men are slaves of the Most High God, who proclaim to you a way of salvation.” A very high compliment indeed!

After many days of this, Paul was annoyed and commanded the spirit of fortune-telling come out of the slave girl. The spirit left the girl immediately. We do not hear about the girl again. And I find myself troubled by this. Lydia, the rich businesswoman and her spacious home are mentioned several times in the description of Paul’s activity in Philippi. The slave girl is forgotten. What happened to her? We do not know her name.

She had men who were using her spirit for economic gain. They must have been some rough characters with local connections because they were able to drag Paul and the people with him into the marketplace in front of the local officials and Paul and his friends ended being beaten and thrown into jail and we read the dramatic story about an earthquake and their release and the conversion of the jailer and his household.

But what about the slave girl? What happened to her? Did her owners let her go? Or did they make money off of her in some other way?

Here is what a pastor friend of mine (Joanna Harader, A Spacious Faith) wrote about this text:

Despite what the Pauline apologists would argue, it seems obvious to me that Paul does not care about the girl.

He doesn’t look at her, she follows him around–she is always behind him. He doesn’t speak to her, he speaks only to the spirit that inhabits her. And once the spirit is gone, this nameless slave girl, now without her means of making money for her owners, simply drops from Paul’s consciousness. She disappears from the story.

I am bothered by the fact that Paul never really sees this girl, but I trust that she is seen by God.

I am bothered by the fact that Paul never speaks to her, but I trust that, in her new life, the gentle voice of the Holy Spirit comforts her and guides her.

I am bothered by the fact that we do not know this girl’s name; but I trust that God knows her name.

And even though Paul abandons her, that possibly her owners abandon her, that even the narrative of Acts abandons her, I trust that God does not abandon her; that this slave girl continues to be part of the story of the early church, part of the narrative of God’s activity in the world.

In our modern world human traffickers make money selling human beings or selling the forced services of a human being. Here are some facts about human trafficking or human slavery today.

  1. Globally, the average cost of a slave is $90.
  2. According to some estimates, approximately 80% of trafficking involves sexual exploitation, mostly of women and girls, and 19% involves labor exploitation.
  3. There are approximately 20 to 30 million slaves in the world today.
  4. According to the U.S. State Department, 600,000 to 800,000 people are trafficked across international borders every year, of which 80% are female and half are children.
  5. Here in the United States, The National Human Trafficking Hotline receives more calls from Texas than any other state in the US.
  6. Between 14,500 and 17,500 people are trafficked into the U.S. each year. California, Texas and Florida have the highest numbers relating to human trafficking.
  7. Global human trafficking generates a profit of $32 billion every year. Illegal drugs and arms make greater profits.
  8. Traffickers can sell one person’s services hundreds of times.

People are vulnerable to human trafficking for various reasons. People who are in a new country, who don’t speak the language, who believe they have no rights, who are desperate to leave their place of origin are perfect bait for traffickers. Teens, especially those who are escaping bad home lives are often naive about their rights and about the different helping systems. The most marginalized members of our community – newly-arrived foreigners, and youth on the street – are vulnerable due to lack of social support and our willingness to overlook their need.

I hope the slave girl was released by her owners and found her way to Lydia’s home.  I hope she became part of that Christian community and found freedom and healing from her past life.

We are all part of the economic system. Most of us are part of humane systems of negotiating the price of our labor and our expertise and are able to navigate the needs and wants of our lives.  For many in our world it is not the case and many are at the mercy of dehumanizing systems of exploitation.

We live in a culture where economics dominate. Everything seems to be measured by profit and loss. How can we be faithful to the way of Jesus as we encounter the marketplace? What are humane ways of measuring the worth of a human life?

At the beginning of his ministry Jesus stood up in his community and said:

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.

In times of economic anxiety and anger, I pray that we can be a community of faith living into the spirit of Jubilee and living the way of Jesus. The marketplace is always trying to drag us into its way of living and seeing the world where more is never enough. The rich deserve their reward. The poor deserve their lot in life. And we must do whatever it takes to preserve this way of life. There is a higher calling.

We are called to be a people who know when we have enough. We are called to be generous with our wealth. We are called to help the poor and confront systems of injustice. And we are called to walk in the way of peace, expecting resistance as we live out this way of life, this journey of faith.

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