This was my sermon from today, Sunday, September 1, continuing some reflections from my recent trip with my clergy colleagues to Tijuana, Mexico and the US border. My sermon from last week entitled, “Displaced Persons” (also reflections from the trip) can be found on my Touring Auschwitz blog, which you may find HERE.
Then an angel of the Lord said to Philip, ‘Get up and go towards 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.
One day while we were in Tijuana, our group of clergy did a quick stop to a local mission to see what all went on there and hear from one of the volunteers. As we walked into the mission, there were hundreds of men standing outside waiting to go in for their meal. The first stop was the hand washing station, then to a table where they would be seated, someone would come and pray with the men, and then they would eat. We learned that at least 1,200 men were fed meals every day. They also had the opportunity to get a haircut and a shave. We were all amazed by how efficient the operation was and there was no one supervisor of the volunteers- everyone juts showed up and did their part to serve those who came there to feel human again. Right before we left, 2 of my friends and I decided that we should take advantage of the opportunity to use the restroom. So we walked to the back of the facility and waited on each other as each used the restroom. As my friend Whitney and I stood there waiting for our colleague, a man from the mission was talking to us in English, asking us where we were from and why we were in Tijuana. We explained that we were traveling with a group of clergy from Indiana. It was then that a man near him tapped me on the shoulder and showed me that he was reading a scripture and prayer book that was in English, and indicated that he needed help understanding what it said. I offered to read it to him, and we turned to the words of the resurrection account of the gospel of Mark:
“As they entered the tomb, they saw a young man, dressed in a white robe, sitting on the right side; and they were alarmed. But he said to them, ‘Do not be alarmed; you are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has been raised; he is not here. Look, there is the place where they laid him. But go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him, just as he told you.”
Then, the man pointed to Mark in his Bible and asked me if that was what I had just read to him in English, and I said yes. He then pointed to another section in his book below the gospel, and Whitney was able to tell him in Spanish that it was a prayer following the gospel. He smiled at us, thanked us, and we went on our way. Whitney and I quickly acknowledged that we had had a “God moment” right there outside of a restroom at a mission center. It all goes to show you that God shows up, even when nature calls!
I share this story with you because although it was brief, it was a moment of clarity for me that we are always to bear the light of Christ, because you never know who will reach out to you for guidance, for encouragement, or even to help someone read the Gospel, sometimes even in a new language. I was reminded in this brief moment that there are so many people that we encounter each day that know nothing of Jesus or the Christian faith, even though they might be surrounded by it in their communities. I don’t know if this man was already a Christian or if he was reading the gospel for the first time- but I felt that I should read it to him as if he was hearing it for the first time, because perhaps he was reaching out for hope in Christ as he sat there in the mission center, waiting for a haircut or hot meal. Maybe he was in the darkest time of his life, and the resurrection text in the Gospel of Mark was just what he needed to get through his day. We didn’t know, but we felt the need give this man the word of God when he reached out. It was the least we could do. Whitney and I were inspired throughout the rest of our day after that, reminded that God shows up sometimes when we least expect it- reminded that we are always called to preach the gospel, and to use words when necessary. That day, our words were a vital piece of sharing the good news with this man, even though we didn’t speak the same language.
As I continued to ponder and reflect upon this brief, but powerful exchange, the story of Philip and the Ethiopian eunuch kept coming to mind. This is one of my favorite stories in scripture because it describes a brief, but powerful encounter between two unlikely men, one of whom was guided by the Spirit to preach the gospel to someone who needed help understanding it. We are told a few things about the Ethiopian eunuch: one, that he is a foreigner, not of Israel. Two, that he is a court official for the Ethiopian queen, and he was a castrated male, which was custom at the time with court officials. Three, that he was coming home from worshiping in Jerusalem. If he had worshipped at the temple in Jerusalem, we can assume that he was not permitted to worship in the main assembly with the men due to his condition and foreign status.
When Philip is led to the eunuch, he is found reading aloud from Isaiah, and Philip asks him a simple question, “Do you understand what you are reading?” followed by an honest response, “How can I, unless someone guides me?” And then, Philip accepts the invitation to guide this man, this foreigner, this man different from him in so many ways, through the scripture, and in turn leads him to Jesus. But it doesn’t stop there- as they go along, they come upon water, and the eunuch, filled with the knowledge and grace of Jesus, excitedly exclaims, “Look! Here is water! What is to prevent me from being baptized?” And without hesitation, Philip guides him to the water to be baptized. This is a turning point in the story of the early church because a foreigner is welcomed into the body of Christ- this Ethiopian eunuch is the first recorded Gentile to enter into Christianity. Not only that, but a eunuch, a man who has never been included in the assembly with the other men, is now fully accepted and welcomed into the community with his baptism in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. He is able to return home to his position and speak about Jesus with full authority as one who has been grafted into what was now a rapidly moving movement, covered in grace and mercy. All of this happened because Philip was compelled to give this man his undivided time and attention for even a brief moment. And in this fleeting encounter, lives were changed, and the early church took huge strides in making disciples of Jesus Christ through word and baptism.
In my brief encounter with the man in Tijuana, I don’t know if his life was changed. I did not know his story, where he came from, or where he was going. I don’t know if he already knew the story of Jesus, or if this was the first time he had ever heard it. I do know that I was touched by our encounter, and that God was present in that moment, guiding my words and stirring my heart. I can only pray that his heart was stirred as well. I will confess that going into this encounter, I had my guard up. There we were, three women surrounded by hundreds of men in this one area, waiting to use the bathroom. When this one tapped me on the shoulder, I did not know what he wanted at first- whether he was going to ask for help or money or say or do something offensive or inappropriate, but instead, he opened the word of God, and God in turn opened my heart, showed up, and worked in unexpected ways.
Through my experience and in reading the story of Philip and the Ethiopian eunuch in light of it, there are several things I am reminded about when interacting with people you might be surprised to find yourself interacting with: one- don’t be afraid to use your words. This man at the mission needed someone to read him the gospel. The Ethiopian eunuch could read, but asked Philip to help him understand it. You have more knowledge than you know- don’t be afraid to share what you know with someone else, or even to help them read the Word of God, even if they might not understand everything you are saying due to language or other barriers. It’s also ok if you don’t have all the answers- the important thing is that you give what you can, and be honest about when you just don’t know. You are still sitting with the person in that moment. You are still doing God’s work.
Two: Your presence is a ministry unto itself. When we were in seminary, we were told over and over again that showing up is half of the job, and after awhile in ministry, I’ve come to believe it. People want to be acknowledged and know that they are worth your time and attention. Even if it’s only for a few moments, show up, let someone know you care, offer assistance when needed, bring them a meal or send a card, pick up the phone, read to someone, let someone know you are there for them. And when it’s someone you encounter for a brief time who might be unknown to you, be open to what your presence might mean to them in that moment, and in turn, what gifts they might offer you in return. You might be pleasantly surprised at what you receive.
Three: Be open to the leading of the Spirit. The story of Philip and the eunuch began with Philip being called to a strange place, and upon finding the eunuch, he was called to engage with him on studying the word of God. Despite the barriers I had put up for myself as I stood waiting to use the restroom that day, my heart was opened when I realized that this man sought my attention to open the word of God and help him to hear it. When are quick to make judgments or assumptions, we close off the work that God is trying to do within us, so we must remain open to the possibilities and encounters we face each day. In other words, sometimes we have to get out of our own way and let God do God’s thing.
And finally, we must not stand in anyone’s way of receiving the good news of Jesus Christ. I love when the eunuch gets so excited about seeing the water and his question is, “What is to prevent me from being baptized?” Also indicating, “What is to prevent me from becoming part of the body of Christ even though I am different?” “What is to prevent me from freely accepting and receiving God’s grace and mercy?” The short answer is: nothing, nothing, nothing stands in the way of these things. So we need to hear that we are never to stand in the way of someone receiving God’s grace and mercy. We are never to stand in the way of someone being welcomed and embraced by the church and the community of faith. We are never to stand in the way of someone hearing the word of God, maybe even for the first time. If anything, we are to aid in that process, to guide someone to the word of God, to walk that person straight to the waters of baptism, not letting anything or anyone stand in the way. Nothing can prevent- nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus.
So as we turn to our time of communion, we are reminded that nothing prevents us from receiving the gifts of bread and cup that allow us to encounter Christ at the table and to receive the tangible signs and gifts of grace and mercy- that physical and spiritual nourishment that we receive together as a community of faith. Communion is that reminder that indeed, nothing separates us, nothing prevents us from being a part of this community and the body of Christ, and that nothing separates us from the love of God. May our eyes and hearts be open to the unexpected encounters, however brief, where God shows up- and God might just choose you to be the words, the hands, or feet of Christ in that moment in order to welcome someone in. Amen.