“God’s Strange Directions” Psalm 22:25-31
Rev. Sean Weston Acts 8:26-40
Lyonsville Congregational UCC, Indian Head Park IL
April 29, 2018
The Church was having a wonderful time: more and more people wanted to follow Jesus, baptisms took place one after the other, it was amazing. But then a persecution broke out against the church in Jerusalem, and everyone except the twelve apostles fled Jerusalem and scattered into the countryside. Enter Philip: he had been a table server, helping make sure that the hungry were fed each day. I imagine he was content with his role – glad to be part of sharing the love of Jesus in the world. Now the church was on hard times and for whatever reason – we don’t know why – Philip did something new: he began to preach in the city of Samaria and heal people of their ailments.
I suspect that for Philip to start preaching and healing in Samaria he would have needed a pretty direct call from God. After all, Philip and his companions would not have been fans of Samaritans. They weren’t the right kind of people, and they didn’t have the right kind of religion. There was a long-standing rivalry. Yet, somehow, Philip the table server became Philip the preacher and healer and Samaritans were baptized into the church! Boundaries were broken.
It is this Philip that would soon get a message from an angel of the Lord: “Get up and go toward the south to the road that goes down from Jerusalem to Gaza.” Luke, our writer, wants to make sure we know it is a wilderness road.
“Get up and go.”
There is a lot of “get up and go” in Acts, a lot of preaching and healing on the move as the good news of Jesus was spread. What amazes me is that when this angel comes and tells Philip to “get up and go” Philip doesn’t say a word. “He got up and went,” the text says. This is even more amazing because God has told Philip to take a wilderness road, which means there were many dangers – from humans and otherwise. I’m not sure what it says about me but I don’t think I would have been so obedient:
- “Excuse me, angel, but how do I know you’re really from God?”
- “I’m already stuck in Samaria and now you want me to take that dangerous wilderness road, and you won’t tell me why?”
- This was not in my calendar or in the church’s strategic plan!
- I’m making a pretty good name for myself here. Why should I go?
Maybe Philip did ask those questions – maybe not. But he got up and went.
On the road he saw a very strange sight – an Ethiopian eunuch. There’s a lot we don’t know about this man, but we know this:
- He was a eunuch – a sexual minority.
- He was returning from worship in Jerusalem. Whether or not he was a Jew, he probably wouldn’t have been allowed into the temple because of his sexual minority status.
- He was a Black African from Ethiopia – considered “the ends of the earth” for people in Philip’s world. An exotic person from an exotic place.
- He the Treasurer for the Ethiopian Queen Candace. As a eunuch he would have been eligible for powerful roles with royal women. He was a man of power and authority.
This is not the kind of person he associates with. I imagine Philip would have passed to the other side of the road. Better to play it safe.
But then the Spirit spoke to Philip, this time directly: “Go over to this chariot and join it.” Again, whatever Philip’s objections may be, no matter how enthusiastic he was – or not – about connecting with this man, Philip obeyed. He found the man inside studying the prophet Isaiah, and the man invited Philip to join him and explain the scriptures. Next thing you know, the man has heard about Jesus. As they pass by some water, the man asks “what is to hinder me from being baptized?” Next thing you know, the two men are in the water together, strangers in so many ways, yet now equals in the community of Christ. Then God snatched Philip away, and the Ethiopian went on his way rejoicing.
Personally, this is one of the most important stories for me in the scriptures. The book of Acts, over and over again, finds the early church struggling with this question: “who can be part of this Jesus movement?” Do you have to be Jewish? If not, do you have to become Jewish?” “who is in, and who is out?” These are questions that are always part of religious life, whether we speak them or not. And here you find a man who is strange in all sorts of ways – powerful in some ways, yet on the edge in others. Not allowed into the temple.
Nobody – not Philip, not one of the apostles, nobody – planned outreach to Ethiopian eunuchs when coming up with the church’s evangelism plan. Only God could have made that happen. God who told Philip to get up and go. God who told Philip to join the chariot. God who loves the world so much that God will not stop until all people are enfolded into a community of justice, love, and care. God is the one that directed Philip’s steps, down a road he would never have chosen. But Philip said yes to the proddings, and he answered the most important question right: “what is to hinder me from being baptized?” Nothing. For you are God’s child, as are we all, and that’s the only box we need to check. It’s too bad this is so hard for many to understand in church-land 2,000 years later.
Former United Methodist Bishop Will Willimon says this: “…the presence of the gospel out here in the desert of Gaza with this Ethiopian of somewhat murky physical, religious, and ethnic status can only be attributed to the constant prodding of the Spirit. If the good news is being preached out there, it is the work of God, not of people. No triumphal, crusading enthusiasm has motivated the church up to this point, no mushy all embracing desire to be inclusive of everyone and everything. Rather, in being obedient to the Spirit, preachers like Philip find themselves in the oddest of situations with the most surprising sorts of people.”
Maybe you hear that and think the church should have been more on top of their evangelism program, should have been more aware of God’s all-inclusive love that crosses every barrier we humans can think to put up. Why did God need to keep poking and prodding? Sometimes I’m inclined to hear it that way.
But this week I heard the story of God’s relentless prodding of Philip and I felt utter relief. It reminded me that the work of the church, the work of ministry to which we are all called does not depend only on us humans. We are not left to our own devices and plans, not left to figure this thing out alone.
There’s a funny thing that happens in church-land sometimes, which is that we can imagine that everything is up to us. Especially in congregational churches, where we have elaborate decision-making structures designed to include many people, where we value making decisions together – which is good – we can sometimes do this thing where we talk about God but act as if God isn’t really a real and active part of our lives and our life together. I’ve seen this as long as I’ve paid attention to church life. God becomes more of an idea than a presence.
As a pastor, I’m just as likely to get stuck in that place as anyone else, and it leads to some pretty unhelpful thoughts from time to time:
- The idea that the church’s ministry depends completely on me
- The idea that the church’s future falls on my shoulders alone
- Constant worrying that I said the wrong thing, did the wrong thing, don’t have what it takes, am not skilled or gifted enough at this or that important thing. Everything has to be perfect.
One response is to say that things don’t depend on me alone – they depend on us together. And that’s both true and not the whole truth. But the most important response is that the church depends on God. That God is the one who gives us vision. God is the one who prods us towards roads we hadn’t imagined, and invites us to be in ministry in ways we haven’t before with people we don’t know the first thing about. At our best, we are open to hearing God’s voice and following – as Philip was. When our vision fails, God offers new paths. We put in our best efforts, and God works with what we offer. God is good and God is here. No matter what.
- If our efforts seem to fail, God is good and God is here.
- If we are called past our comfort zone, God is good and God is here.
- If we are tempted to believe that everything depends on us, God is good and God is here.
If it had just been up to the human church folks, the church would’ve been hiding in Jerusalem and scattered in the countryside and the story may have ended. But it was up to God back then – and God brought amazing things out of those wilderness moments – a church that broke barriers of class and race and sexuality and religion – a vision so grand it could only be God’s vision.
I don’t know what’s in store for you or for me or for this church. I hope we truly listen for God’s voice, as Philip did. I hope we trust that whatever God has in store for us is good and right, even if it is also scary and hard to understand. I imagine we’ll make our share of mistakes on the way. You and I are only human and even our best efforts are flawed and imperfect. But I do believe this: whatever happens, God is good and God is here. We are not alone. We live in God’s church. We live in God’s world. That is what lifts burdens. That is what gives hope. Amen.
 Acts. Interpretation. Page 72.