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Sit Beside Me

Acts 8:26-40

Acts 8:26-40: Then an angel of the Lord said to Philip, “Get up and go toward 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 worshipand 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.

*****

This week Caitlin, the kids, and I went to Reality Ministries’ annual talent show, which this year sold out every seat in DPAC. The talent show is Reality’s big public event and it is one of the most joyous days of the year, where friends with and without disabilities dance and sing and show off their gifts together. A couple of weeks ago I talked about how almost 20% of the US population has some kind of disability, but a lot of them, especially people with disabilities like autism or Down’s Syndrome are hidden away in group homes and sheltered workshops; but at Reality’s talent show, those very people get to take center stage and share their gifts with our whole city. They get to say, “Hey, we’re here, and not only does ignoring us hurt, but you’re really missing out too!”

It’s such a gift to see my friends visible and honored like that, and I know they love it, too, not being shushed or corrected, but celebrated. It’s not always like that for many of them. We have one friend who is the most outgoing, hospitable person you’ll ever meet, sometimes in ways that are considered inappropriate in “normal” settings. When I worked for Reality and we went out in the community, she would try to meet as many people as she could, it didn’t matter if a couple was having an intimate lunch or if a very important business man was doing very important business things into his blue tooth headset, she wanted to say hi, and people are usually kind but you can see their discomfort and, after a minute, impatience. When I saw this happening, my first instinct was to correct, “Don’t bother them, don’t interrupt, let’s keep to ourselves.” But as the summer went on, I began to wonder, “Why? What’s soooooo important that this person shouldn’t make her presence known? Why does ‘appropriate’ mean ‘Keep to yourself so that everyone can go about their business?’” Sometimes, maybe more often than not, we “normal” people need to be interrupted. Maybe God is with the people we think are interrupting us.

This is what Philip found in our story this morning as he made his way from Jerusalem to Gaza. He’s walking down a wilderness road (by reputation a dangerous road). You can imagine that being by himself in the wilderness, where he might be set upon by bandits and robbers, he wants to move along as quickly as he can. He’s not looking to make friends in the wilderness. But on his walk he comes upon a chariot, and in that chariot is an “Ethiopian eunuch” who is reading the Bible. In that moment, Philip has a choice, and it’s a choice many of us face more often than we might think (it’s a choice people face when my friend from Reality walks up to them): Do I keep going about my business or do I let myself be interrupted? Am I going to be efficient or present? Am I so sure that God is taking me to Gaza, or did God send me to Gaza so that I could be here?

There are great possibilities in these little moments that we so easily pass up. Isn’t it interesting that when we look back on our lives, the most significant moments are almost all interruptions, and yet we expend a great deal of energy minimizing interruptions. Whole swathes of time, years and decades, blend into each other as we do the same things day in and day out, but the moments that stand out, the memories that shape us, tend to be, in the moment at least, the interruptions: that day you met your partner, that day your child was born, that time you made a new friend who would turn out to be your best friend, that person you saw around all the time but you finally introduced yourself and ultimately they joined this church. Moments like that break with your “normal” and rearrange it so that you have to find a new “normal.” That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t have routines (we’re creatures of habit) but if we aren’t willing to be interrupted from time to time, we’ll miss some very important things (and people) who God wants us to see. Imagine if Moses had seen the burning bush and just said, “Don’t have time for that. Gotta get back to the sheep.”

But there are also larger reasons why this is so hard. Not only do we have a lot going on, but there are some people whom we’ve learned not to see, whom we believe (whether we admit this to ourselves or not) that it’s ok for us to ignore; there are some people who we're supposed to ignore, if we want to be good, respectable people. You know who I'm talking about: there are some people who are just lazy, they’re violent, they’re helpless, they use drugs, they’re too angry, they don’t even try to be polite or appropriate. Some people are just difficult by default and many of us use that “knowledge” to filter out who is worthy of our time and who isn’t, to whom we really listen and whom we don’t. We’re busy and we wear blinders.

The labels were different, but this was the case in Philip’s day, too. He walks up to the chariot and sees that the person there is an “Ethiopian eunuch.” A eunuch. This is not a random detail. Leviticus 21 reads: 18 For no one who has a blemish shall draw near [to worship], not one who is blind or lame, or one who has a mutilated face or a limb too long, 19 or one who has a broken foot or a broken hand, 20 or a hunchback, or a dwarf, or a man with a blemish in his eyes or an itching disease or scabs or is a eunuch. Likewise Deuteronomy 23:1 says: No man with damaged genitalia shall be admitted to the assembly of the Lord.

(Words like these are why it's so important that both Christians and Jews have reading practices that say "Hey, maybe not every letter of Scripture applies to every situation. Maybe there are some Scriptures that the Spirit wants us to "loose" instead of "bind.")

Apparently, according to the Letter, there are certain people who, because of their bodies, don’t belong by default. A eunuch was someone who did not fit. This character wasn’t really a man (not by any of the common markers of what it meant to be a man), but isn’t a woman either. Their identity is somewhere between (or beyond) those categories, and so this person doesn’t fit what’s “normal.” This person is also a Jew (having gone to take the Candace’s offering to the Temple for her), and yet they can’t draw near to worship for themself. They don’t fit. They don’t quite belong. They shall not join the assembly of the LORD. I think it tells us everything we need to know that this character’s name is not recorded. The Ethiopian church, one of the most ancient branches of Christianity, traces it’s origins to this very story, and so this character might as well be known as the apostle to the Ethiopians, and yet even in the Bible they’re just “an Ethiopian eunuch.”

So Philip is in between, trying to get from one stable place to the next, and comes upon an in-between person who does not really belong in one place or the next…and that’s exactly where the Spirit wants him to be, that's exactly who the Spirit wants him to meet. Based upon his own prejudices, which as we know of our own are deeply seated instincts, you would expect him to keep on walking to Gaza, but the Spirit stops him and keeps him in that fluid place with this fluid person and says: Go up to the chariot and join them.

Join them. That’s the Spirit’s call. The two of you gathered together shall be an assembly of the Lord. Get out of your own way, and join. That's the Spirit's call, still.

When Philip walks up to the chariot, he hears that the Ethiopian eunuch is reading from the book of Isaiah, and at the Ethiopian’s invitation, he gets up and sits beside them. They sit side by side, not with Philip standing over in a position of authority, but side by side. From that position, Philip tells his new friend what he sees, the Good News of a Jesus who is not a triumphant king but a suffering servant, a savior who refused the markers of masculinity (Jesus did not wage war or make money or bear children or show cleverness in the courtroom, which were the ways someone showed they were a man). Philip tells of a savior who’s body was also marked on the cross and bears those marks for all eternity in the resurrection. I wonder if for the very first time, having heard their whole life that they don’t really belong, the Ethiopian eunuch heard God saying “Yes, of course you belong, too.”

And in response the Ethiopian says, “I want in. I want to be a part of what God is doing and I can’t even wait.” So Philip baptized them right there on the side of the road. Philip joined the Ethiopian eunuch and sat with them and in turn they wanted to join the work of Jesus. Philip didn’t say, "God will heal you, God will make you whole, God will make you normal" (and so Philip didn't have to demand they become those things before he sat with them). Philip joined and sat, and when he was there, side by side with the Ethiopian eunuch, the Spirit brought out new facets of the Gospel. The Spirit showed Philip a Gospel that spoke belonging to one who had been excluded. But more than that, in a way Philip also received that Gospel from the Ethiopian eunuch. It's not just that Philip "includes" this person, but that the Ethiopian eunuch includes Philip in a facet of the Gospel he might've otherwise missed. The Spirit was at play between the two of them and the Scripture to speak the Gospel for that moment.

And my friends, that’s our call, too. I know that there is a great deal of hand wringing about the future of the church, and our own community is concerned for the future of Ephesus. How will we get people to join the church? Where is the magical fount of young, upwardly mobile families? But maybe that’s the wrong question. Maybe we’re hurrying through this wilderness in hopes of some stable destination, when God is calling us to be the ones who join our neighbors right now. Maybe the people in our communities who are invisible and ignored, who have been told they don’t belong, whose bodies or abilities make them inappropriate in a setting like this, who have been told their concerns aren’t the kinds of things we talk about here, maybe they have something to teach us about the Gospel if we’ll listen and sit beside them wherever their chariots are headed. Maybe there are people all around us who the Spirit wants us to meet if we’d only let ourselves be interrupted. Would we notice such interruptions as the gifts the might be? Or are we do busy getting ourselves to Gaza?

Our friends at Reality Ministries have said, “We’re going to sit side by side with people who have intellectual and developmental disabilities. We’re going to orient our community so that they are at the center of who we are,” and in doing so they’ve found new life, new possibilities for friendship and belonging that are truly beautiful. There’s no reason we can’t do likewise. God’s Spirit is calling to the church, to this church, “Never forget that everyone belongs in the love of God, people with disabilities and Ethiopian eunuchs and crucified messiahs, the panhandler asking for money, the familiar face you see every week when you go to your breakfast spot, septuagenarians and ex-vangelicals, and you and me, too.” So let’s look; let’s stop hoping our neighbors will join us and start joining them in what they’re doing; let’s sit side by side, and see where God’s Spirit takes us from there. Amen.

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