(Acts 8: 26-40)
Shannon Kershner, a seminary classmate and current lead pastor at Fourth Presbyterian Church in Chicago, began a sermon this past spring by posing a question to her congregation, a question I’m tweaking a bit for our sermon today.
She asks, who or what defines you these days? Who or what tells you where you belong?
Are you defined, she asks, by what you do? Meaning, are you defined by your job, your work – or lack of work. Does that, whatever it is or is not, give you a sense of where you belong?
Or, she says, are you defined by some large role you play? Today is Father’s Day, and for the past fifteen years my life has been defined in some pretty significant ways by being a father. This past April, my brother and sister-in-law had their first child, making me for the first time an uncle. I am more than happy after worship to show you the dozens of pictures I have of sweet baby Riley to highlight this particular role. Are roles in life what tell you where you belong?
Or maybe what defines you right now, Shannon wonders, is what you are no longer. No longer employed, no longer married.
Our area high schools had graduations last week, so lots of folks are wondering how they might be defined by their college choice? I’m reading a book right now recommended by a church member called Where You Go Is Not Who You’ll Be, about the infamous and all-consuming “college search” that is getting closer to being a reality in the Lindsley house. The book seeks to assure both parents and students that, despite the crushing pressure to pursue elite schools at all costs, the data consistently shows that hard work and character determine a student’s eventual success – that “where you go is not who you’ll be.”
What is it, then? Who or what tells you where you belong?
It is that question that lies at the very heart of our scripture today. Acts 8 marks a pivot in the Acts story we’ve been looking at the past few weeks. Before, the work of the apostles focused primarily in Judea and the immediate surrounding areas – in other words, familiar territory. All of that begins to shift in the seventh chapter, with Paul’s conversion that Grace preached on last week. Paul’s calling was to focus not on the homeland but expand to Gentile areas, to places with people not like Paul and the first disciples. Thus, in the first part of chapter 8, we read that word of Jesus begins to reach Samaria, Judea’s sibling rival. This is when we know that the good news of Jesus was venturing outside familiar territory.
So when we get to today’s scripture, we meet Philip – not as well known a disciple as a Peter or Paul, but here he is nonetheless; and he hears the voice of God telling him, Get up and go to the road that goes down from Jerusalem to Gaza. And just to make sure we know this is unfamiliar territory Philip is being charged to, the narrator offers this sidebar: This is a wilderness road.
A wilderness road. We know of this road, do we not? This is the road we find ourselves on when the GPS seems to momentarily take a break and send us down some obscure way that takes us further and further from our destination. This is when we meant to take a right and instead took a left, three lefts ago. This is the ten-mile windy mountain road off 421 to your parent’s mountain house that takes you half an hour to drive.
The wilderness road. And it’s not just the road itself that makes it feel all wilderness-y. It’s what you find on that road. Uncertainty. Unfamiliarity. Unexpected. Unprepared. And Phillip knows this is what awaits him. This is what all of us find at the beginning, all along the way, and at the end of the wilderness road.
So it should not surprise us that Philip finds an Ethiopian eunuch on that road. Nothing could be more “wilderness-y” than an Ethiopian eunuch. For one, he was Ethiopian, a strange sight for any Israelite. And then there was the whole eunuch thing. Eunuchs are a tough thing to talk about in a sermon – they are what my friend Christopher Edmonston classifies as a “PG-13 topic.” He describes them – and I think this is as good a way as any – as “a man whose body was mutilated in such a way that they could be trusted as slaves, especially around women, because there was no chance of any illicit behavior.”
So we have this encounter of Philip the disciple and an Ethiopian eunuch on a wilderness road. Where do either of them belong?
We are told the eunuch was reading the prophet Isaiah when Philip found him. Philip asks if he understands it. Which is a reasonable enough question, because Ethiopians and other Gentiles were not typically versed in Hebrew scripture. The eunuch answers Philip with a question of his own: How can I understand unless someone helps me understand? That, too, is a reasonable question.
And thus begins a conversation between the two, a conversation that neither likely expected when their day started. Borrowing from my sermon a couple of weeks ago, Philip chooses to see this as a “yes…and” and allows the eunuch’s curiosity to become an “in” where faith might bloom. Which it does – Philip is explaining baptism right around the time the eunuch notices some water, and asks, So what is to prevent me from being baptized now? And just like that, he’s baptized.
I read this story, and I am struck by the fact that both Philip and the eunuch are totally out of their element on that wilderness road. Strange territory; unfamiliar surroundings for both of them. And yet, they find in and through each other a sense of belonging, a sense of purpose and meaning, a sense of “this is right where I am supposed to be.” They find that belonging is not as much a place as it is a person. That we all, in a way, belong to each other.
I believe I’ve told you before about this English teacher I had in high school. She was a little crass for my taste; constantly complained when the choir next door sang too loud. But she gave me the greatest gift of those formative school years; a gift I hold on to to this very day. We were discussing The Glass Menagerie, Tennessee Williams’ masterpiece. Commenting on the character interplay, my teacher said, “Class, every person you meet along the way, whether you actually meet them or just know of them, every person becomes a part of who you are.”
We all belong to each other. More than ever, friends, we need to be reminded of this. For we appear to be witnessing what happens around us when we forget. Most of us, I imagine, are aware of what’s taking place along our country’s borders with the treatment of immigrant children. And it has been overwhelming, and I would say heartening, the near-unanimous condemnation from religious leaders across faith traditions and theological spectrums, of the separation of children from their parents, and especially the use of scripture to defend it. Condemnation that includes the likes of our own Stated Clerk of the PCUSA, J. Herbert Nelson, who in a statement released just yesterday said this:
We cannot afford to tarnish the highest values of our nation. We must not punish desperate parents by tearing their children away from them, leaving the parents without access to the children or assurance of their welfare. How have we wandered so far from Jesus’ kind admonition, “Let the little children come to me … for it is to such as these that the kingdom of heaven belongs”?
How have we wandered so far, he asks. It happens when we lose our way on the wilderness road – when we meet someone we do not know, someone not like us, and instead of assuming the best, assume the worst. It happens when we forget the wisdom of my crass high school English teacher – that every person we meet along the way becomes a part of who we are.
You know, we in the church are trying to do a lot these days. We are called to praise God in worship and words and songs. We’re called to speak to justice and work for the reconciliation of the world. We are called, as our youth are doing this very week, to go out into the world and tend to the least of these. We’re called to dig deeper, to learn and study and grow together. The church is called to a lot of things.
But more and more I am convinced, sisters and brothers, that the thing we are most called to, especially in these days and times, is to be a place where people belong. Where they just belong.
And to that end, I want to share with you a story told by renowned preacher and professor Fred Craddock – a powerful story of powerful belonging. Listen:
Nettie (that’s his wife) and I returned to one of our favorite vacation spots, The Great Smoky Mountains. We were at dinner in a restaurant out from Gatlinburg. We were in a rather new restaurant called the Black Bear Inn. It was very attractive and had an excellent view of the mountains.
We were seated there looking out at the mountains when this old man, with shocking white hair, a Carl Sandburg-type, came over and spoke to us. He said, “You’re on vacation?”
We said, “Yes,” and he just kept right on talking.
“What do you do,” he asked. Well, I was thinking that it was none of his business, but I let out that I was a minister. Then he said, “Oh, a minister, well I’ve got a story for you.” He pulled out a chair and sat down.
“Won’t you have a seat,” I said (as if it mattered).
He said, “I was born back here in these mountains, and when I was growing up I attend Laurel Springs Church. My mother was not married, and as you might expect in those days, I was embarrassed about that — at school I would hide in the weeds by a nearby river and eat my lunch alone because the other children were very cruel. And when I went to town with my courageous mother I would see the way people looked at me trying to guess who my daddy was.
“The preacher fascinated me, but at the same time he scared me too. He had a long beard, a rough-hewn face, a deep voice, but I sure liked to hear him preach. But I didn’t think I was welcome at church because I didn’t know who my daddy was. I didn’t think I belonged there, so I would go just for the sermon. And as soon as the sermon was over, I would rush out so nobody would say, ‘What’s a boy like you doing here in church.’
“One day though,” the old man continued, “I was trying to get out, but some people had already got in the aisle, so I was stuck. I was waiting there, getting in a cold sweat, when all of a sudden I felt a hand on my shoulder, and I looked out of the corner of my eye and realized it was the face of the preacher. And I was scared to death.
“The preacher looked at me. He didn’t say a word, he just looked at me, and then he said, ‘Son, whose child are you?’ And he paused, and I just knew he was trying to guess not who my mother was but who my father was, and I was just so terrified.’
“The preacher kept on: ‘Let me see. You’re a child of…um…a child of…..’ And then the preacher exclaimed, ‘Ah, I know! I know whose child you are. Why, you’re a child of God! I do see a striking resemblance!’ He patted me on the shoulder and said, ‘Now go claim your inheritance.’ I left that church a different person. In fact, that was really the beginning of my life.”
Craddock, says, I was so moved by the story I had to ask him: “What is your name?”
He said, “Ben Hooper.”
And I recalled, though vaguely, my own father talking when I was just a child about how the people of Tennessee had twice elected as governor a man named Ben Hooper.
You belong here, sisters and brothers. Because you belong to each other, and you belong to God. The resemblance is striking!
In the name of God the Creator, Redeemer and Sustainer, thanks be to God – and may all of God’s people say, AMEN!
* Because sermons are meant to be preached and are therefore prepared with the emphasis on verbal presentation, the written accounts occasionally stray from proper grammar and punctuation.
 http://whitememorial.org/media/video/grace-enough-for-everyone/, visited on 6.7.2018.
 http://www.pcusa.org/news/2018/6/16/stated-clerk-issues-statement-separated-immigrant-/, visited on 6.16.2018.
 Craddock Stories by Fred. B. Craddock (Chalice Press: St. Louis, 2001), pg. 156-157.