Tuesday, July 6, 2010

July 4, 2010 - All the Wrong Places, All the Wrong People

Acts 8:26-40

The Eunuch is reading from Isaiah, talks about being shorn, cut off. But Isaiah is a book of hope for outcasts, captives, the poor, the lames, the sick, and even the eunuchs. Freedom for the marginalized. What it means is to encourage and affirm one another to live in the Good news of the God of Israel whom Jesus taught and revealed.

An encouragement to accept people who are different for whatever reason, without prejudice or partiality. The universal embrace of God, to be instruments of God’s restoration.

Thus as the gospel moves into the world, it gathers under the wings of God’s mercy more and more of those who have been lost, pushed away, and forgotten. This story is a personal story of the recovery.

3 questions asked:
1. How can I understand unless someone guides me?
2. About whom does the prophet write?
3. What is to prevent me from being baptized?

We are currently sharing stories of the faith of the early church as recounted in the book of Acts. One scholar has suggested that the book of Acts is like a church history, not that dusty tome stored on the shelves of seminaries that all good students must read and understand in order to pass some church history class. No, instead the yellowed fading pages that you are handed when you arrive at a church, stapled in the corner, telling the story of that particular church. Not always telling all the story, just the best parts.

But the book of Acts is misleadingly titled. Its traditional name, “Acts of the Apostles,” is true enough – except the apostles are not the ones driving the action. The apostles are busy organizing a reform movement and new institutions based in Jerusalem. And Acts shows the Holy Spirit continually calling into action the people who make up this new assembly, blowing the breath of God into new and distant places and bringing new, boundary-pushing people into fellowship with Jesus. The Spirit, not bound by human constraints ("we've never done it that way before"), is continually pushing the limits of who God welcomes and where this good news is to be proclaimed.

Acts was written by the same person who wrote the Gospel of Luke. That gospel takes us to Jesus’ resurrection and ascension while Acts takes us from that point on to Pentecost, the birth of the Church, and to its growth and spread throughout the known world.

One question that Acts also asks questions about who’s in and who’s out. The very first Christians assumed that you had to be Jewish before you could be Christian. People who wanted to join the Church had to become Jewish first, had to follow the Law, had to be circumcised if they were male, had to observe the dietary and purity restrictions.

Who’s in and who’s out? Only those who are fully Jewish are in. But Acts tells how the Spirit led the Church to reach out. The gospel reached across those boundaries. Gentiles were welcomed. Circumcision was no longer required. Adherence to the Jewish dietary restrictions was lifted.

Who’s in and who’s out? The love of God in the good news of Jesus reached out beyond what everyone thought the boundaries were. God’s amazing love reached out and claimed those on the outside, the poor, the outcast, the sinner, the Gentile, the leper, the woman, the mentally ill, the prisoner.

So we find Philip going down to the city of Samaria and preaching. And he turns out to be really good at it: a 1st century Billy Graham, and his first time out, too. He had the moves, he had the words, he had the miracles—Philip was a star. Even though he’s in all the wrong places. Samaria!

But he was a man after Jesus’ heart, because he wasn’t afraid to cross the line into Samaria, where no self-respecting Jew would be caught dead in those days; in fact, Philip was the first disciple to leave the old neighborhood.

Peter and John, back in Jerusalem, heard about Philip’s success. They heard about how the Samarians had actually accepted the word of God from a rookie and been baptized, which sounded like mission impossible to them. But the reports were true: Philip had converted a whole city of Samarians. Who would have thought it? In all the wrong places.

It was a major coup for the Christians, their first big missionary success. I bet Philip couldn’t wait for his next preaching assignment. He was pumped when he saw that angel of the Lord coming, bearing a message he could just imagine: Your mission, your next appointment, is to the big city.

But you know what that angel said? “The wilderness road. Jerusalem to Gaza. Desert.”

I bet Philip was stunned, you could have knocked him over. Perhaps he asked politely if there had been some mistake, and hadn’t the angel read the report about Samaria, don’t you think Philip could really contribute more, make better use of his gifts, if the angel sent him to a major metropolitan area where there might actually be some people to listen to him…etc. etc.

But no: the angel is firm. The wilderness road. Jerusalem to Gaza. Desert.

No one really talks about it, but for an up-and-coming missionary like Philip, those words had to be a blow: disappointing, sure, and even downright insulting. Because your efforts in that city were so successful, Philip, we are assigning you to a deserted stretch of road without a single village! What a waste of talent. No human being in their right mind would do such a thing—which is our cue, by the way, to immediately suspect that God is involved.

God directed Philip and the good news of Jesus that he was sharing to a place where he encounters a eunuch, one of those males not fit for the community of God. Who’s in and who’s out?

Philip is obedient: he goes where he’s told. He doesn’t pull a Jonah move, get on a boat so God has to send a whale after him. But I do notice that Philip is not what you would call proactive in this story. He’s on that wilderness road, where he’s supposed to be; he sees the man in the chariot, but does he approach him? Nope; not until the spirit orders him to. Which tells me that Philip, was pouting because even he would have to be suspicious of a scene this ludicrous. What? You mean he’s not the only one on this road? Someone else is there, too? What a coincidence! And, somewhat unusually, that person is an Ethiopian eunuch, and he is reading aloud from Isaiah? Who else would concoct this but God?! It sounds like, The kingdom of God is like a shepherd, who leaves ninety-nine sheep so he can go look for one that was lost.

Here is Philip, walking the hot highway road, and he sees an Ethiopian, dark skinned, tall and no doubt large since Philip recognizes him as a eunuch. Certainly the Ethiopian must have looked impressive, a large man with obvious wealth. Not only did he have a chariot, but someone was driving it. He had the luxury of sitting and reading. He obviously was an educated man with significant power since he was a court official of the Queen of Ethiopia. Indeed he must have had exceptional wealth to be able to own his own copy of the writings of the prophet Isaiah. An impressive and perhaps even intimidating man.

Philip was a preacher; he should have seen it a mile away: The kingdom of God is like an Ethiopian eunuch, sitting in his chariot, in the desert, at noon, reading aloud from Isaiah. But Philip just sits there until the Spirit pokes him. And somehow, I doubt he converted the city of Samaria by going up to complete strangers and kindly asking them, “Do you really understand what you’re reading?”

The Bible often tells of insignificant people who are important in God’s eyes but this seems to be the opposite. Royal job, important man, powerful, but unwelcomed in God’s house. Deut. 23:1 shall not be admitted. Thankfully he is not reading Deut but Isaiah…the remnant from Ethiopia and Eunuchs will have a better name than sons or daughters. So which is it? In or out? Welcome or not? The Evangelist comes to help him understand.

The Ethiopian's answer is interesting. He does not do what most powerful men do; pretend that they know the answer lest they look ignorant or foolish. This is the temptation of most men, and some women, to never look vulnerable, especially to those with less power.

Yet, here is a rich and powerful man willing to admit, he is ignorant. Not just to an equal, but to a poor foreigner. I wonder why that is? Could it be because his being a eunuch, his difference made him understand the cruelty of those who lord power over others. Men over women, women over their servants or children? I don't know, however somehow this man, has what we Christians call a "teachable heart". He is willing to listen, and not only listen, but listen to the unlikely people; a poor foreigner along the road.

So the Ethiopian Eunuch invites him into his chariot, and invites Philip to guide him. The text is from Isaiah, "Like a sheep he was led to the slaughter, and like a lamb silent before its shearer, so he does not open his mouth. In his humiliation justice was denied him. Who can describe this generation? For his life is taken away from the earth."

The Ethiopian Eunuch asks, "About whom, may I ask you, does the prophet say this about himself or about someone else." Notice his question is not a command, but full of courtesy, even respect for Philip as a teacher. There is no demanding questions from a petty tyrant, but gratitude for the gift that Philip is. We see in this foreigner, a reflection of the graciousness of God. Here we see the work of God preparing him to receive the Good News, and the call to be a Christian.

Is this God’s word for me? Sheep shorn, slaughtered, who will recount the generations? Humiliation and justice denied.
God’s word is not just “back then” but Jesus said, “Today…” The news is even better than the eunuch could expect. Not only does God understand the experience of being humiliated and ostracized, Jesus experienced it personally.
“In Jesus this stony road of suffering is transformed into a highway of exaltation.” Out of his anguish he shall see light, the righteous one, my servant shall make many righteous. (Isaiah 53:7).

Do you really understand what you’re reading? They aren’t exactly kind words. They aren’t even polite, actually, if you look the man Philip is talking to. Look at him: the man is an Ethiopian, which means that he was gorgeous (because in those days the Ethiopians were considered the most beautiful of all people in the ancient world); the man has a chariot and a scroll, which means that he was rich since that’s the only kind of thin rich people had; he’s the Queen of Ethiopia’s treasurer, in charge of all her money, which means that he was powerful. Beautiful, rich, powerful, and—a eunuch, a castrated male, which means that in the eyes of Jewish law, he was a mutilated outcast, forbidden to even enter the temple. No one was allowed to talk with him, or have a meal with him, or even touch him, no matter how beautiful, rich, and powerful he was. Do you really understand what you are reading? I don’t think Philip wanted to read or to even talk to this man. I don’t think he wanted to look at him.

Here is the troubling part for me. Philip was a deacon; he was all about kindness and social justice. He fed widows. He served the poor. He preached in Samaria, which took guts, I can tell you. But I think preaching to a eunuch basically rocked his world. It challenged everything had been taught. I don’t think Philip knew how to preach to a eunuch and still be a Christian.

How can I, the eunuch replies, without someone to guide me? How can I, when you won’t let me in your church? How can I, when you are so afraid of me that you won’t even talk to me? Do I really understand what I’m reading?! No! I’m sitting here in the wilderness, trying to make sense all by myself, in my chariot, and I’m stuck here—unless, of course, you’d like to climb up and sit beside me.

I notice that Philip doesn’t exactly volunteer for the job. But he doesn’t say no, either. It’s hard to, when there’s a live person right in front of you, and a Spirit that keeps bossing you around. I imagine Philip taking a deep breath and saying, “Okay, Lord; if you’re going to go to the trouble of these special effects, I guess I’d better play along, but next time, maybe you could blow my circuits with a lost sheep, instead of sending me an Ethiopian eunuch sitting in a chariot in the desert, reading aloud from Isaiah? Give me a break!”

So together they read Isaiah, and Philip told the eunuch the good news about Jesus, and it turned out Philip was a good preacher this time, too; really good. So good, in fact, that the eunuch lifted up his eyes, and he saw water in the desert. Did you get that?! He saw water! And while Philip was mulling that one over, the eunuch turned to him and said, “What is to prevent me from being baptized?” You see, the eunuch really did understand what he was reading. He understood so well that he believed the impossible: that God loved him, an Ethiopian eunuch, sitting in a chariot in the desert reading Isaiah with a really scared guy called Philip. God loved him, exactly as he was, and all he had to do, now, was show up at the font to be baptized. Because that’s what baptism is: the mark that God loves us, not because of anything we do, but because of who we are.

What a miracle. Two guys sitting in a chariot in the middle of a desert, reading the Word of God together. Two guys deciding that maybe the world was bigger than they’d imagined. Two guys realizing that nothing can separate us from the love of God.

Everything about this story is incredible. Did you really expect to see an Ethiopian eunuch, a man at once powerful and marginalized? Add to this the fact he is either a very marginal Jew, or a God-fearer who has found in the God of Israel something that speaks to him. And speaks strongly enough for him to acquire and study the holy writings of Israel. Have you ever tried to read a Hebrew scroll while bouncing along a wilderness road? The appearance of the water itself is a surprising thing in the desert – but perhaps not as exalted or lush as painters have imagined it. We picture an oasis, but it might just as easily be a humble waterhole.

The eunuch asks: “What is to prevent me from being baptized”?

Well, almost everything. When you think about it, almost everything! Roadblocks: cut off from the land, cut off from the covenant, cut off from God by his loyalties, never to be a “full member.”

But Philip hears the Spirit speaking, “Absolutely nothing.” Walls of prejudice and prohibition that stood for generations came tumbling down blown over by the wind of the Spirit. In God's kingdom...Lost and humiliated = found and restored.

And grace is at work in our lives, opening us to the reality of our need for salvation; and the reality of the Kingdom of God unfolding in the world through Christ. How mysterious that God can even use evil done to us as an opportunity for grace. I have difficulty accepting that God causes evil to happen to us, but I do believe that God can bring good out of evil. The cross is evidence enough for me to believe that. God can use even deathly shame to bring about good.

Just like the Ethiopian being a eunuch, whether by birth, injury, or abuse, he likely would have been the brunt of jokes by other men. Perhaps this was why he was so curious about the story of the suffering servant in Isaiah. He may have personally known what unjust humiliation meant.

However the Good News was that this man did not choose the way of bitterness and condemnation of the world, but rather developed an openness to what others may offer. He has an unexpected life giving humility. This is fertile ground for the Good News of Jesus Christ. And Philip tells him that this scripture is talking about Jesus, and he tells him the Good News.

And as they were going along the road, they came to some water, and the Ethiopian Eunuch says, "Look there is water! What is to prevent me from being baptized?" Notice he doesn't say, "Please, can I be baptized?" I wonder if he saying, "Is there anything preventing a eunuch from being baptized?" For you see, this man with all his power, wealth, education, while in Jerusalem would not have been allowed in the temple. Only those considered "whole" could enter, and his condition would have kept him on the outside of temple-Judaism. Would Philip be the same, and prevent him, a Eunuch from God's presence?

How delightful the text is that Philip gives no verbal response. He says nothing, but obviously the Eunuch knows he is indeed welcome, and more than welcome, since he says, "Stop the chariot, and goes down to the water to be baptized by Philip and becomes the first African Christian. Why doesn't Philip say anything? Perhaps it when we are in the presence of the obvious work of the Holy Spirit, nothing needs to be said, and nothing more needs to be done. We just do what God wants us to do!

When you can see that, you can see springs of water in the desert. Look, here is water! What is to prevent me from being baptized? Philip knew there was a time to preach and a time to shut up and wade into the water, and this was one of those times. Because he finally understood what he was reading, too, once he climbed up into the chariot. Reading scripture with the eunuch changed Philip’s life, and it changed the church, too. Philip saw: there wasn’t anything to prevent this man from being baptized. There never had been, except for Philip himself.

It’s hard when we find ourselves in all the wrong places, with all the wrong people. It might even be easier to serve a meal to them rather than to climb up into a chariot and sit right next to them, and read from the same bible, and share the good news about Jesus, and see in that person’s eyes how it will change their life. Look, here is water! What is to prevent me from being baptized!?

In the midst of limits (wrong places, wrong people), the spirit inspires us to challenge those limits when right relationships with God and neighbor are at stake! God’s active presence is enabling the mission of the church especially among those whom our traditions marginalize.

Who’s in and who’s out? That’s the difference between God and humans. God is like this, forever moving outward, creating out of love, embracing out of love. But humans are sinful and like this, constricted, driven to protect what is theirs, to cling to what they think is theirs, and to draw lines and boundaries to keep out people who scare them or who are too different from them.

All of us have ended up on the outside of those lines and boundaries. We’ve been told that we are too young or too old, too pretty or too ugly, the wrong sex, the wrong political party. We went to the wrong school or lived in the wrong place. We didn’t have enough money or didn’t belong to the right club or organization. We weren’t smart enough or educated enough. Who’s in and who’s out? Nearly all of us know what it’s like to be out. But the amazing love of God in Jesus reaches out wide across all lines and boundaries saying, “My love is for you, too.”

When the eunuch’s story (and ours for that matter) is refracted through the story of the cross and resurrection of Jesus, it becomes a narrative of redemption, restoration, and hope.

But listen. Listen to the Spirit telling you to go to that unlikely place. Listen to the questions and the stories of the people around you. Pay attention to the interaction between the words of scripture and words of peoples' lives, of your life. Share the goodness of God as you have experienced it. The Holy Spirit is still blowing, especially in the edgiest places of life. With the Spirit at work, what is impossible for humans becomes not only possible, but immediate, compelling, and real. Places and situations that might seem God-forsaken become the sites of revelation and blessing.

We might wonder where in our churches and in our communities the Spirit is blowing right now? Perhaps, for a hint, with the eunuch and Philip we might read again the words of the prophet - "In his humiliation, justice was denied him" - and go to the places where human humiliation becomes the opening point for divine glory. And that is a good place to ask a few questions.

Finally the Spirit snatched Philip away, and the eunuch saw him no more, and the eunuch went on his way rejoicing. Rejoicing is the response to God's grace, that is why we gather here!

But we know from history that the eunuch did more than rejoice, for he carried the Good News to his country, and it quickly spread such that the Ethiopians are amongst some of the oldest Christians on the planet. And if you ask them how they heard the Good News, they will tell you this very story and rejoice. AMEN.

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