Sunday, May 3, 2015

Easter 5B -- May 3, 2015

Not One Good Reason

Sharing a meal with our PCUSA mission co-workers in Juba, South Sudan

NOTE: Sermons are aural events; they are meant to be heard, not read. The text below -- which was not delivered exactly as written -- may include errors not limited to spelling, grammar and punctuation of which the listener might be unaware and with which the preacher is unconcerned. 
Then an angel of the Lord said to Philip, “Get up and go toward the south to the road that goes down from Jerusalem to Gaza.” (This is a wilderness road.) So he got up and went. Now there was an Ethiopian eunuch, a court official of the Candace, queen of the Ethiopians, in charge of her entire treasury. He had come to Jerusalem to worship and was returning home; seated in his chariot, he was reading the prophet Isaiah. Then the Spirit said to Philip, “Go over to this chariot and join it.” So Philip ran up to it and heard him reading the prophet Isaiah. He asked, “Do you understand what you are reading?” He replied, “How can I, unless someone guides me?” And he invited Philip to get in and sit beside him. Now the passage of the scripture that he was reading was this: “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 his generation? For his life is taken away from the earth.” The eunuch asked Philip, “About whom, may I ask you, does the prophet say this, about himself or about someone else?” Then Philip began to speak, and starting with this scripture, he proclaimed to him the good news about Jesus. As they were going along the road, they came to some water; and the eunuch said, “Look, here is water! What is to prevent me from being baptized?” He commanded the chariot to stop, and both of them, Philip and the eunuch, went down into the water, and Philip baptized him. When they came up out of the water, the Spirit of the Lord snatched Philip away; the eunuch saw him no more, and went on his way rejoicing. But Philip found himself at Azotus, and as he was passing through the region, he proclaimed the good news to all the towns until he came to Caesarea.

Maybe you remember about 5 or 6 years ago, when an organization called, “City Reachers,” raised over $600,000 to print and distribute 250,000 copies of the New Testament to subscribers of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.  Do you remember that?  Copies of the full color, glossy New Testament with scenes of Pittsburgh on the cover was given out to pretty much everyone in the Pittsburgh region. 

I remember at the time being vaguely uncomfortable with the fact that the organizers chose to only distribute the New Testament, effectively leaving out half of the Bible.  I also wondered how effective it is to merely put a Bible into someone’s hands without a community of faith attached to it. 

In our story from the book of Acts today, someone has gotten Scripture into the hands of the Ethiopian eunuch.  The text tells us the man had gone to Jerusalem to worship.  And we can safely assume that his attempt to worship had probably not gone especially well.  The text doesn’t say it, but we know from the book of Deuteronomy (23:1) that a eunuch would most likely have been barred from entering the synagogue due to Jewish purity codes.  And as a Gentile, he would probably not have gotten beyond the court of the Gentiles.[1] 

But despite all that would have prevented him from worshipping in the synagogue, this outsider is reading a scroll of the prophet Isaiah. 

The eunuch is probably a tad confused.  On the one hand, he just experienced outright rejection from the gatekeepers of religion, who considered him an impure and unacceptable outsider.  On the other hand he probably keeps running into verses like this in the prophet Isaiah:

On that day the Lord will extend his hand yet a second time to recover the remnant that is left of his people, from Assyria, from Egypt, from Pathros, from Ethiopia,* from Elam, from Shinar, from Hamath, and from the coastlands of the sea (Is. 11:11)

Or this one:

For thus says the Lord:
To the eunuchs who keep my sabbaths,
   who choose the things that please me
   and hold fast my covenant,
I will give, in my house and within my walls,
   a monument and a name
   better than sons and daughters;
I will give them an everlasting name
   that shall not be cut off.  (Is. 56:4-5)

What he reads in Isaiah doesn’t quite line up with what the eunuch experienced in Jerusalem.  So what is going on?  Is the eunuch invited to God’s party or not?  Is he in or out of God’s household?  With only the words on a page to guide the eunuch, it’s impossible to know.  Is what he’s reading only about Isaiah and his situation?  Or does Isaiah have something to say to the eunuch as well?

People spend a lot of time debating what is the “authority” of Scripture.  But it seems that Luke, the writer of Acts, is less interested in the literal authority of Scripture and more interested in the authority of those who interpret and read Scripture in light of the good news of Jesus.  Like all of those people in Pittsburgh who received a New Testament with their Sunday paper, the eunuch has got a Bible.  He also has life experiences. What he needs is someone to read the Bible with him, engage him exactly where he is, and help him to see how God is present and active in his life.

In this case, that encounter is not going to happen in a synagogue or a church or any other divine place.  It’s going to happen out in the middle of nowhere.  On a wilderness road.  The Holy Spirit is about to blow and what happens next is amazing. 

As many of you know, I grew up in the church and spend my entire childhood deeply involved in all sorts of church-y stuff.  I went to Sunday school, youth group, sang in the choir, went to three different vacation bible schools every summer, and played on the church basketball team.  By any measure, I was a well-churched child.

But here’s the truth.  I didn’t know much about the Bible.  I think, like the eunuch, I wanted to know more about God, I wanted to understand Scripture, but I couldn’t find the key to making it relevant beyond a rule book of do’s and don’ts and how to be a good girl.  I had the book in my hand, and I could read all the words, but none of it shaped my heart or my mind or anything in my life.  And once I went to college, I left my Bible on a bookcase in my old room with my basketball trophies. 

It wasn’t until much later that the Bible began to open up to me in a real way.  I came to love Scripture because I love literature; as a passionate reader, I was slowly drawn back to Scripture because so many of my favorite authors framed their stories by referencing Bible stories.  It was in conversation with those authors that I began a life-changing relationship with Scripture.  The Holy Spirit was at work, I have no doubt.   Soon, my curiosity about these stories led me to a weekly lectionary study group.  There I encountered a really wonderful teaching elder and a group of people as curious as I was about what was up with this Bible that most of us had heard about all our lives but still understood so little. 

At some point, I said to myself, with great fear and trembling, “What’s to prevent me from going to seminary and maybe, maybe spending the rest of my life living into and talking about and thinking about these stories?”  Eventually, I couldn’t keep that question inside my own head anymore and I began asking it out loud. And it was that little group of fellow travelers and my trusted teacher in that lectionary study group who said, “Why there’s no reason at all you shouldn’t go to seminary.” No good reason at all. 

In our text today, Philip has been sent away from the action in Jerusalem and out to a wilderness road.  We shouldn’t be too surprised that all of this action happens out in the middle of nowhere, because that seems to be where the Holy Spirit does most of its best work in most of the Bible stories. 

And as Philip is traveling on this wilderness road, he runs into the eunuch who is reading scripture and, as was the custom back then, he’s probably reading it out loud.  There would be no reason on earth for Philip to approach this man of an entirely different race and ethnic group.  Philip is a second string player for an upstart religious movement, and the eunuch is a royal court official riding in a really nice chariot.  Yet the Holy Spirit sees the possibilities.  What might happen if two very different men of very different backgrounds  have a conversation?  So the Holy Spirit sends Philip over to the chariot. 

“Do you understand what you’re reading?” says Philip.
 “How can I, unless someone guides me?” says the eunuch.

And although we are not told all of the details of the conversation that occurs between Philip and the eunuch, we can tell that something important happens in that chariot.  That in the conversation of the two men, side by side, reading the text together, the eunuch learns that God’s story of redemption, resurrection and love was not just a story for the religious folks back in Jerusalem.  Through his conversation with Philip the eunuch began to another possibility.  He reads the text of Isaiah with Philip and sees the connection between himself and Jesus.  This outsider to the temple discovers that the story of the suffering servant who was rejected, despised and humiliated is his story as well.  The words on the scroll came to life in a way the eunuch could not have discovered all by himself.  He needs Philip to help him see that God’s story is his story as well.

But I am pretty sure something also happens to Philip in the conversation.  New Testament scholar Mitzi Smith notes that in the book of Acts, the Holy Spirit continually brings the new church into contact with unlikely people.  Philip was snatched up by the Holy Spirit doing as it pleases and not boxed in by human expectations or limitations.[2]  And soon, Philip finds himself bending and moving with the Holy Spirit in ways he wouldn’t have imagined before his encounter with the eunuch.

“What is to prevent me from being baptized?” says the eunuch, eager to enter into a new life and new understanding.  Philip could probably have come up with at least three good reasons to not baptize the eunuch – Gentile, foreigner, impure.  Philip could have used any one of these reasons to exclude the eunuch from the household of God.

But in the end, the Holy Spirit drives both men into the water.  Because as far as Philip could tell, the good news of Jesus meant he had no good reason at all to not baptize the eunuch.

Before the two men studied the words of Isaiah together, the text was a bunch of words on a page.  But the words come to life as the two men leap into the baptismal pool.  A joyful, crazy, unlikely but entirely splashy and visible sign of an always present, always active, often quiet and invisible grace.

So we can send all the Bibles into the world – into hotel rooms and on front porches and over vast oceans.  We can drown the world in Bibles, stacked on top of one another, circling the globe. Again and again. 

But until we send our bodies into the world and climb into unfamiliar chariots and encounter the story of God’s grace for ourselves, the Word of God stays dusty and dry, ink on a page, signifying nothing. 

We can read the Bible night and day, safe in our churches and our living rooms.  We can quote scripture chapter and verse.

But until we send our bodies into the world, none of our personal piety will make one bit of difference in another person’s life or in our own.  Our understanding of God will stay very, very small.  The Word of God will remain locked in a small box, tucked up on a shelf, gathering dust while eunuchs and inner city kids and frightened police officers wonder it is that God seems so far away from them. 

For too long, the church has been locked up, unavailable for comment, and primarily concerned for its own purity and safety and image.  Too afraid to change its mind and scared to death of being sullied by the muck of everyday life.  But if we look at Jesus, we know that’s not the path we’ve been called to follow.

How many chariots do we walk by, every day, preferring the safety of our own space?  How can we learn to tell the difference between an accidental encounter with a stranger and a holy opportunity created by the winsome and wildly unpredictable Holy Spirit? 

How many opportunities do we miss everyday to have our understanding of God enlivened by the dozens and dozens of Philips that God sends to us.  How often do we prefer to hold on to our own understanding of how God works instead of allowing someone else to tell us how they see God at work in us? 

I had the deep privilege of meeting the head of PCUSA World Missions this week.  Rev. Hunter Farrell was in Pittsburgh on Monday and Tuesday, fresh from a meeting in Louisville in which it was announced that World Mission will have a funding gap of a little less that $1 million dollars in 2016, which means we will lose nine mission co-workers.  In 2017, the gap will be $4.5 million dollars, which will result in the loss of 40 missionaries.  Right now we only have 165 mission co-workers.  Only 165 people to cover the entire globe.

What is at work in the PCUSA, I think, is not a literal poverty, but a poverty of spirit.  If we prioritize our own buildings, our own property, our own theologies, our own way of being in the world, and do not fund the sending of missionaries equipped to help heal a world in deep need, then why are we here?  Why does the church – any church – exist at all?

Because there are days in which I do not have the good sense to keep my mouth shut, I told Hunter and others gathered at the meeting that the PCUSA does not have a money problem despite all evidence to the contrary.  We have a spiritual problem.  A enormous spiritual problem.  We give lip service to resurrection and the power of the Holy Spirit when the truth is we are too worried about our own survival.  We are too freaked out by our convictions about who is pure and who is not and what heresy someone is committing to see our own heresy in not doing what Jesus told us to do. 

I believe the North American church will only be saved by relationships with people who are not like us, just as Philip and the eunuch were saved by one another.  We write off the need for mission in our cities and in the world at our own peril.

If we keep going as we’re going, we will indeed lose the message of the Gospel entirely and be nothing more than a nice group of people in a rapidly shrinking social club who will not be missed by anyone when we finally disappear for good. 

Like I said.  There are days when I cannot keep my mouth shut.

The prophet Isaiah says, “On that day the Lord will extend his hand yet a second time to recover the remnant that is left of his people, from Assyria, from Egypt, from Pathros, from Ethiopia,* from Elam, from Shinar, from Hamath, and from the coastlands of the sea.”(Is. 11:11) 

From Assyria to Egypt to Pathros.  From Emsworth to Homewood to Baltimore to South Sudan to Nepal.  What in the world are we doing here this morning, brothers and sister?  What in the world are we doing? 

If the church can’t answer the question, I can’t think of a reason for us to be here.  Not one good reason. 

But maybe we’ll begin to find an answer at this table.  Because that’s where the Living Lord, Jesus Christ, meets us.  In our unknowing.  In our confusion.  In our sorrow.  In our fear.  And Jesus greets us joyfully, knowing us fully, and loving us deeply. 

“The new reality the whole church faces is difficult.  But we are Easter people, and just like Jesus’ disciples after the resurrection, there was doubt, there was fear, there was a struggle as to what should be done next.  But through it all, it was the power and presence of the Spirit of the risen Christ which gave them hope to be witnesses in Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria, and to the outmost parts of the world.”[3]

May it be so for us.  Thanks be to God.  Amen.

[1] Paul Walaskay, Feasting on the Word, page 457
[2] Mitzi Smith,
[3] Statement from former General Assembly moderators on funding crisis of mission co-workers. “Presbyterian Outlook” April 28, 2015.