Sylvania United Church of Christ
Claimed by God, Responding as Disciples
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The sermon for week May 06, 2012

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May 6, 2012

John 15:1-8
Acts 8: 27-40

Later in the service this morning we will share the community meal we call Holy Communion. We will hear the words of a familiar refrain telling the story of Jesus and his disciples which begins: “On the night in which he was betrayed Jesus took bread.”

The spoken Word, and a simple meal may seem an inadequate and antiquated gesture in light of all that’s going on in the world and in our own lives. But Jesus said, “Do this in remembrance of me,” and so we will pause in our busy lives, and momentarily lay aside the cares of the world to break the bread and share the cup with one another. And somehow in the sharing the sacred memory of Jesus will come alive in us, and we will be changed by an awareness that God is present with us, no matter where we’re from or how we got here on life’s journey.

We will recall how it all began on the night Jesus shared the Passover meal with his disciples in Jerusalem. Jesus stood, broke the bread, and gave it to his disciples. Each of the twelve grew silent and lost in thought as they gathered in the memory of all that had gone before.

At the breaking of bread his disciples recalled another occasion, another meal near the Sea of Galilee. A large crowd had gathered seeking to be healed and to hear him preach. As it was getting late in the day Jesus tested Philip with a question, “How are we to buy bread, so that all these people may eat?” Philip answeredf, “Six months’ wages would not buy enough bread for each of them to get a little.” Then Andrew observed, “There is a boy here who has five barley loaves and two fish. But what are they among so many?” Andrew and Philip would wonder at the meaning of these things when later they had gathered up several baskets of bread left over after the crowd was fed.

On that night during Passover his disciples remembered that Jesus drew them to his side like a mother with words of comfort against the long night which was to come. He planted them in the tree of his life and gave them to each other in love. He offered them the shelter of his peace, the power of the Holy Spirit and the joy of his presence always.

The events of Good Friday and Easter followed in rapid succession transforming the small band of Jesus’ followers into refugees as the persecution of the fledgling Church got underway at Jerusalem. The apostles fled into the country side preaching the gospel to increasing numbers of believers while many signs and wonders were attributed them. The authorities acted quickly to silence this growing movement which led to the imprisonment of several of the apostles and the stoning of Stephen, the Church’s first martyr. In order to escape, the apostles scattered throughout the countryside of Judea and Samaria.

Eventually Peter and John decided to return to Jerusalem and Philip pondered whether to go with them, but an angel of the Lord said to him, “Get up and go down the wilderness road toward Gaza.” It was a road known to be frequented by thieves, and traveled only at one’s own risk. If these words were meant to test Philip once again, this time Philip does not hesitate to take the road less traveled, the dangerous road to Gaza.

And there on the wilderness road Philip encountered, an Ethiopian eunuch, a servant at the court of a foreign queen, riding in a chariot and reading from the prophet Isaiah. His skin was as black as an oil slick and his appearance as exotic and mysterious as the wild and colorful birds that inhabited the wilderness in which the encounter took place. The eunuch had come to worship at the Temple in Jerusalem and was returning home.

In the Law of Moses eunuchs were forbidden to enter the solemn assembly where worship took place. The writings in Deuteronomy and Leviticus describe a eunuch as blemished in a way that forbids entrance beyond the outer courts of the Temple, and even denies them from drawing near other worshipers. Eunuchs fell into the caste of the disenfranchised which included harlots and tax collectors, those who suffer an unclean spirit, blindness or leprosy.

But the Spirit said to Philip, “Go over to this chariot and join it.” So Philip ran up to chariot and heard the Ethiopian reading from the prophet Isaiah: “Like a sheep he was led to the slaughter…” And looking up to see Philip, the eunuch asked, “About whom, does the prophet say this, about himself or another?”

The mysterious stranger invited Philip to join him in the queen’s carriage. And there, in the middle of nowhere, two aliens from the Jewish Temple at Jerusalem sat together in a chariot reading from the prophet Isaiah. It was a passage describing Isaiah’s vision of a future leader for Israel, a vision not of a king or a conquering hero, but a suffering servant. Then Philip spoke to the Ethiopian eunuch the good news of Jesus Christ, interpreting the words of Isaiah as expressing the solidarity of Jesus’ suffering with all people.

As the chariot moved along the road they came upon some water. The eunuch declared, “Look here is water! What is to prevent me from being baptized?”

It would take some time for the early Church to sort out what it might mean to welcome anyone other than fellow Jews into the Church of Jesus Christ. Peter needed to be confronted with a rooftop vision before he understood that God’s grace was intended for all.

The apostle Paul—“a Pharisee of the Pharisees” who thanked God daily that he was not a Gentile, a slave, or a woman—ended up writing these revolutionary words: “There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave not free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”

But Philip was there yet. The eunuch’s question prompted everything Philip had learned as a faithful Jew to come down upon him with all the weight of the Law persuading him to say NO to the eunuch’s request. The fledgling Church had lost its leader and his stand-in, the apostle Philip, was sitting in a chariot with an Ethiopian eunuch in the middle of nowhere asking himself, “To baptize or not to baptize?”

That is the question! It set off a debate in Philip’s mind that continues to this day, questions about our human identity and how we relate to God and to one another, and how Jesus may have changed that equation forever.

And just then the eunuch commanded the chariot to stop. Philip didn’t have the benefit of years of theological reflection on the subject of Law and grace to inform his decision.

There was not an angel in sight. There was only the memory of Jesus promising Philip and his fellow disciples, “I will make you fishers of people.” And the remembrance that on the night he was betrayed Jesus took bread, gave thanks and broke it, and gave it to his disciples and said:

“I am the hungry. Feed me.”
Then, taking the cup, he offered it to them and said,
“I am the thirsty. Give me drink.”
“I am the stranger, knocking at your door in the night. Take me in.”
“I am the naked, confronting you with your shame. Clothe me.”
“I am the wounded and the afflicted. Heal me.”
“I am the prisoner. Set me free.”
“I am the lost and lonely. Walk with me.”
“I am hidden in all the distressing disguises of the poor, the lost and the lonely.”

So Philip came down from the carriage and joined the eunuch in the water accompanied only by the memory of Jesus. The two men stood together in the shallow stream, strangers to each other’s world, with nothing in common except their shared humanity and the ransom of God’s grace. That’s all it took for God’s will to be done, on earth as it is in heaven. And on that day another soul was added to the Church and the eunuch went on his way rejoicing in the goodness of God while Philip, like Mary before him, was left to wonder at these things.

In today’s story from Acts, Philip shared the good news with a stranger he met along the road, and the Ethiopian eunuch came to faith in the same manner we all do.

It is a story of the early Church, a story about how the good news of Christ comes to each of us. In the act of baptizing the Ethiopian eunuch Philip witnessed to his faith in the One who came not to abolish the Law but to fulfill it.

The Law provides a solid foundation for our faith. It is the school master from whom we learn the benefits of a society based on justice and righteousness. Jesus fulfilled the Law by crowning these pillars of our faith with compassion. Jesus taught his disciples that in the midst of an unjust and unclean world, we ourselves can be agents of God’s justice and righteousness for God now dwells in us. The sick, the maimed and the marginalized are no longer seen as sources of contamination but rather potential recipients of God’s grace.

As I pondered all these things I happened to notice an article in the Blade on Saturday morning about Fr. Jim Bacik’s final lecture at Corpus Christi. Fr.Bacik, you will remember, is the featured speaker at our successful “Scientists in Congregations” series on May 21. The photograph that accompanied the article captured the expressions of several listeners responding to what Fr. Bacik was saying, but also to the sad fact of Bacik’s retirement from his role as their parish priest. To many Christians throughout the Toledo area Fr. Bacik is a beloved figure and his leadership will be sadly missed. The photograph reminded me of the final gathering of Jesus and his disciples and how the disciples must have listened so closely to Jesus words.

On the night of his final lecture Bacik chose to focus on one of my chosen mentors, Henri Nouwen. Nouwen’s books have sold more than 2 million copies and I have recommended several of them to friends and family. Nouwen retired from Harvard to join the staff at L’Arche a facility that cares for the severely disabled. In spite of his notable achievements Nouwen suffered from low self-esteem and feelings of rejection and loneliness. Nouwen wrote with brutal honesty of his personal struggles, yet he never admitted openly that he was gay. His personal struggle to deal with his own identity prompted Nouwen to write eloquently of the woundedness that affects us all, and how, with God’s help, each of us can become “wounded healers.”

In his classic book on the spiritual life Reaching Out Nouwen described what he calls our inner poverty, an emptiness which can transform us into worthy hosts for the divine. “It is indeed the paradox of hospitality that poverty makes a good host,” Nouwen writes. “Poverty is the inner disposition that allows us to take away our defenses and convert our enemies into friends. We can only perceive the stranger as an enemy as long as we have something to defend. But when we say, ‘Please enter—my house is your house, my joy is your joy, my sadness is your sadness and my life is your life,’ we have nothing to defend, since we have nothing to lose but all to give.”

Nouwen’s courage in sharing his own spiritual journey helps us realize that spirituality is not a level of achievement to be reached; but rather a part of our identity to be developed with the help of fellow travelers and the guidance of the Holy Spirit.

As we learned in today’s reading from Acts it was not Philip’s idea to go out into the wilderness, but it was there Philip discovered what it means to be the Church. Hospitality in the name of Christ is God’s idea and the power to reach out with compassion toward others belongs to the Holy Spirit.

The Church God created with the outpouring of the Holy Spirit was never meant to be just another human organization, serving human purposes. The Church calls us together as a people, not as the world gathers people—by race, gender, class—but at the invitation of God. When poet Robert Frost penned the line, “Home is where, when you go there, they have to take you in.” He could have been describing the Church.

The Church practices hospitality in the name of Christ by simply following the example of Jesus in showing compassion to our fellow travelers. Compassion is the characteristic most valued in all the religious practices of the world. To offer hospitality to the stranger is to welcome something new, unfamiliar, and unknown into our world. That can be scary! But it’s also one of the reasons we travel!

Strangers have stories to tell which we have never heard before, sacred stories which teach us to look at our world through their eyes. And when that happens we are strangers no longer. Strangers are simply people we’ve yet to meet; or according to scripture, they are angels we entertain unawares.

A spoken word. A bit of bread. A sip of wine. We may ask ourselves as Andrew did “What are these among so many when the needs of the world are so great?” But in the hands of Jesus the little we have to give is blessed and multiplied and becomes an invitation to the whole world to participate in the mercy and compassion of God.
“Look! The fields are ripe to harvest!” Jesus proclaims.

“Reap the return on the Gift which I gave.
The table is ready.
Invite those who are outside in
To hear the good news,
And share this common meal.

Remember with thanksgiving.
Celebrate with joy.
Tell stories.
Love one another.

And Lo!
I am with you always,
In the breaking of the bread
In the sharing of the cup

As the seed is in the flower,
As the fruit is in the cup,
As the end is in the beginning.”

Thanks be to God! Amen

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