First Congregational Church
June 19, 2015
5th Sunday after Pentecost & Fathers Day
Rev. Dinah Haag, preaching
The teacher (on the phone) said: “You say Michael has a cold and can’t come to school today? To whom am I speaking?” The voice said: “This is my father.” The science teacher asked, “When is the boiling point reached?” The science student said, “When my father sees my report card!”
Little Ole and his father were having dinner and Little Ole asked, “Are bugs good to eat?” His father said, “Let’s not talk about such things at the dinner table, son.” After dinner Ole’s father inquired, “Now, son, what did you want to ask me?” “Oh, nothing,” Ole said. “There was a bug in your soup, but now it’s gone.”
To get all of us on board for this morning’s scripture passage, which is the last half of Acts 8, we should think - Jerusalem - 33-34 A.D. Jesus had ascended back to heaven, Mathias was chosen to replace Judas as one of the twelve apostles, the Holy Spirit birthed the church on the first “Christian” Pentecost, Peter did some preaching and healing and ended up in front of the Sanhedrin, accused of preaching about the resurrection of the dead - in Jesus. The believers were of one mind, expecting Jesus to return at any moment, so some of them sold what they had, moved with others - to live more simply and economically, sharing what they had.
The apostles continued to heal people, the religious leaders continued to persecute the apostles, and finally, Stephan ended up being stoned to death. Arriving in Jerusalem at the same time as Stephan’s stoning, before he became the great Paul, Saul approved the stoning. The result of all that is documented in the beginning of Acts 8, “On that day a great persecution broke out against the church in Jerusalem, and all except the apostles were scattered throughout Judea and Samaria. 2 Godly men buried Stephen and mourned deeply for him. 3 But Saul began to destroy the church. Going from house to house, he dragged off both men and women and put them in prison.”
Immediately before this morning’s passage, Philip, Peter and John were preaching and teaching in Samaria, but meanwhile, back in Jerusalem, a sorcerer named Simon tried to buy the power of the Holy Spirit, which, of course, doesn’t ever work. And then this happened….
26 Now an angel of the Lord said to Philip, “Go south to the road—the desert road—that goes down from Jerusalem to Gaza.” 27 So he started out, and on his way he met an Ethiopian eunuch (from the southern Nile region), an important official in charge of all the treasury of the Kandake (which means “queen of the Ethiopians”). This man had gone to Jerusalem to worship, 28 and on his way home was sitting in his chariot reading the Book of Isaiah the prophet. 29 The Spirit told Philip, “Go to that chariot and stay near it.”
30 Then Philip ran up to the chariot and heard the man reading Isaiah the prophet. “Do you understand what you are reading?” Philip asked. 31 “How can I,” he said, “unless someone explains it to me?” So he invited Philip to come up and sit with him. 32 This is the passage of Scripture the eunuch was reading:
“He was led like a sheep to the slaughter, and as a lamb before its shearer is silent, so he did not open his mouth. 33 In his humiliation he was deprived of justice. Who can speak of his descendants? For his life was taken from the earth.” (Isaiah 53:7,8) 34 The eunuch asked Philip, “Tell me, please, who is the prophet talking about, himself or someone else?” 35 Then Philip began with that very passage of Scripture and told him the good news about Jesus.
36 As they traveled along the road, they came to some water and the eunuch said, “Look, here is water. What can stand in the way of my being baptized?” 38 And he gave orders to stop the chariot. Then both Philip and the eunuch went down into the water and Philip baptized him. 39 When they came up out of the water, the Spirit of the Lord suddenly took Philip away, and the eunuch did not see him again, but went on his way rejoicing. 40 Philip, however, appeared at Azotus and traveled about, preaching the gospel in all the towns until he reached Caesarea.
Thank you, Ann. I don’t know where or when I found this little piece that goes with today’s “other” focus, but I stuck the Ten Commandments for Fishing away for this day. Thou shalt have no other sports before fishing. Thou shalt proudly boast of thy catch. Thou shalt exaggerate wildly about the one that got away. Thou shalt not sleep past dawn. Thou shalt clean thy own catch. Thou shalt not give away the secret of thy success. Thou shalt honor the ones too smart to be caught. Thou shalt practice the sport as often as possible. Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s reel. Thou shalt not reveal the source of thy catch. Thou shalt give thanks to God, creator of all nature, for the catch of the day.
I got this morning’s sermon title from Scott Hoezee of Calvin Seminary, in a question he posed. “Does it strike you as maybe a lot of divine providential fuss to get at just this one eunuch?
For instance, where would this Ethiopian fellow - let alone any Ethiopian - get a copy of Isaiah? Kindles, Flea Markets and Used Scroll sections of the Jerusalem Barnes and Noble just weren’t around in those days. In fact, the Gutenberg press wasn’t invented until 1,400 years after today’s passage, so anything printed was done so by hand - which means scarce and expensive. Any synagogue at the time was “blessed” if they had just a single, complete copy of the Scriptures - meaning Old Testament.
To jump to conclusions, you don’t suppose he stole the thing, do you? Or did he manage to use his wealth to buy it off some Roman occupier who had lifted it from a synagogue? Maybe the man bought it for the Queen of Ethiopia, who may have been a collector of rare manuscripts and he was stacking up a little favor with her. However it happened, lots of things had to go exactly right for this story to have happened the way it did.
An Ethiopian eunuch. We hear about Ethiopian people every so often, sadly, most often when there is war or famine in the country. For those who are wondering what a eunuch is, let’s just say it is a man who doesn’t have male characteristics - like growing a beard.
We don’t hear about eunuchs so much these days, except after a little research, I discovered that just like so many situations, there are a good many people that could have such a label, walking among us. Some of those individuals have chosen to live their lives as such, others are decisions for medical or emotional reasons.
Aside from skin color, I’m pretty much guessing that the Ethiopian eunuch didn’t have a sign around his neck saying Ethiopian eunuch. Yet for some reason, the writer of Acts brings up the double “indictment” of this non-Jewish man.
As Scott Hoezee suggested, maybe this man went home after this encounter to bring the Gospel to Ethiopia. Maybe he had a ministry after returning home. It’s interesting that this man’s name is not given, yet Philip’s name is mentioned nine times in our passage. If the Ethiopian had been named, perhaps we would miss the significance of his ethnicity and his social ranking. So maybe, just maybe, his involvement with this whole story is not about Ethiopians, but about Philip - and us.
Eunuchs were excluded from participation in Temple rituals and from full admittance, as converts, into Israel's community. As a eunuch, he was ritually or religiously far removed from everyday life of Jewish Hebrews. Yet an angel of the Lord told Philip to go down a certain road and the Spirit told him to hang out by a certain chariot. Not one, but two divine beings urged Philip to get to this man. Definitely “Providential Fussing.”
To what end? We know that the Ethiopian learned about God that day, God’s prophecies about the Messiah and how they came true. I wonder what Philip learned that day. Although he had every reason to shun this person, he went to him, sat next to him, and they probably talked about more than just prophetic fulfillments. If they had been in Frankfort for this discussion, they would have discovered that a great-grandfather knew the other man’s second cousin twice removed or some other such connection. Perhaps Philip realized that day just how big - and small - the world is. I’m also guessing, that through their conversation, and upon some reflection, both men realized a little healing had happened sitting on the back of that chariot that day.
I came across an article by someone named Clarissa Pinkola Estes this week. She said, “Ours is not the task of fixing the entire world all at once, but of stretching out to mend the part of the world that is within our reach. Any small, calm thing that one soul can do to help another soul, to assist some portion of this poor suffering world, will help immensely. It is not given to us to know which acts or by whom, will cause the critical mass to tip toward an enduring good.”
We do well to remember that this exchange from two men so different from one another happened during a time when suspicions and paranoia were high. With Saul on the rampage, trust of strangers was probably pretty low. And here are two guys, 180 degrees different in so many ways, receiving an understanding they probably never dreamt of having.
So we can take our cues, practicing and practicing and practicing our faith - a faith that continually seeks understanding rather than an understanding that is seeking faithful followers. God is the ultimate object of our faith, and God remains mysterious, lest God becomes made in our image. And however unlikely it may seem, God’s providential fuss is a power in which to belief, because the chances of such details randomly happening are just too great to leave to mere coincidence. For those opportunities that will come our way this week, let us pray.
Gracious, omnipotent and omniscient God, we thank you for those individuals that came along in our lives, sat down with us, and taught us what is really important in this world. Many today think of their own fathers being part of your providential fuss, and for those people, we are grateful. But for those who were taught by other individuals, even people so unlike themselves, we have heartfelt gratitude for them, too. Enable all of us to listen better to the divine beings that come our way, that whether we are the teacher or the student, we are the richer for listening. For all the blessings you shower on us, divine and otherwise, all your people say, Amen.
Just the messenger. And the collector and arranger of that which has been received. References available upon request.