Monday, October 11, 2004

Sermon for Philip

I have a favorite part of the day. It happens about five minutes after Luke and I both get home. I”ll sit down on the couch in our living room/dining room/kitchen, and he’ll start putting away dishes or shuffling through the pile of papers on the table, and he’ll ask “so, how was your day?’ And then start telling all the stories of the day, and he tells his. We tell all kinds of stories. Sometimes it sounds like a play-by-play for the whole day, other times there are funny or frustrating moments to focus on. Whatever the stories are, I know that my day isn’t complete without our little check-in time. There is a closeness that comes from sharing our stories with others, and bringing other people into our stories is exciting.

In some ways, this is how I like to picture Phillip on the road, telling the story of Jesus to the Ethiopian eunuch. The eunuch was returning home from Jerusalem, where he had gone to worship. The laws of Temple worship however would have excluded the eunuch’s full participation. He is still hoping to understand his relationship to God, which we see in his reading of Scripture, when Phillip comes along. In the short conversation that follows, Phillip discovers he has a willing listener for the story that changed his own life. Overcome with excitement, Phillip’s story bubbles and flows out with energy and enthusiasm. And Phillip must have been a great story-teller, because the Ethiopian is so caught up in the tale that he wishes to become part of the community of the story- he wants to be baptized. It was a golden opportunity, both for Phillip the story –teller, and our unnamed eunuch, the community-seeker.

Of course, this meeting was neither accidental nor coincidental. God was already at work in the heart of the eunuch, preparing him to hear the story of Jesus. And Phillip was able to hear the prompting of the Spirit and follow immediately. Now, before we chalk this up to the kind of discernment and obedience reserved for saints with a capital S, lets remember that Phillip wasn’t so in tune that he only needed to be told once. The angel/spirit is guiding him all along the way. He very well may have had second thoughts and nagging doubts. Why on earth would an evangelist go to a wilderness road? It would be dangerous, first of all, and there aren’t likely to be many people around, let alone people interested in stopping and listening to the Gospel proclaimed. This is not the way to get big numbers of conversions, its not an efficient use of resources. We’ve all had the same thoughts when opportunities arise: Its not practical. Its not a good time for me. There’s probably a better way, a better idea, a better person to do this. What makes Phillip saintly was that he chose to go anyway, to trust in the voice of the Spirit to lead him to where God was already at work.

Phillip’s resolve may also have been shaken when he discovered that God intended to work with an Ethiopian court official, the eunuch, that day. As a deacon, Phillip’s work was among the poor, the widowed and the orphaned. Someone in charge of an entire treasury was certainly not visibly in need of alms and support from the church. To make matters worse, he was a eunuch and a foreigner. Phillip had every reason to keep going down that road, to find someone who would fit in with the community more easily, someone whose presence wouldn’t be so objectionable. Perhaps this is why the Spirit must intervene again, calling Phillip to the chariot. Phillip once again answers the call, a baptism ensues, and Christianity is carried to a whole new part of the globe. All from the sharing of a story between people who dared to take a chance, and cared enough to listen.

How often do we miss our chances to teach and proclaim? It is natural to compare ourselves to Phillip’s success and feel like we come up short. Missed opportunities are par for the course. It is with good reason that our confession includes things both “done and left undone”. That is why this story is so encouraging. In today’s fast-paced world of multi-tasking, it is so easy to miss the little opportunities to serve, to love, to tell our story. This is why, even in the midst of a broken world where we are faced with human failings every day, we continue to celebrate our successes. They remind us of who we have been and who we can be. The success of Phillip and the eunuch is that both were able to recognize the moment for what it was (with apologies to Senator Kerry): Right story. Right place. Right time.

It was so right, in fact, that now the whole thing has become another story for our community. So what do we get from telling the story of Phillip’s encounter with the Ethiopian eunuch? We are challenged to find those who are hungry to be part of a story, those who have never been invited to be part of the life of the story. We are reminded that God is surprising, we are reminded that God is already at work in the world. We are challenged to look beyond our carefully laid plans and be open to the opportunities to change lives and be changed. I don’t know what opportunities to listen to the Spirit will face you today, this week, this year. I don’t know what opportunities this community will have to live into the story of Jesus. But I am sure that moments will arise. Some of those moments will be missed, and opportunities will be lost. But stories open eyes and change lives, and this one can change ours. Here is the power of telling stories. Because of Phillip, and because of the Ethiopian eunuch, I am also sure we will be just that much more ready to open the door when opportunity knocks and the Spirit calls.

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