(John 3: 16)
For the past few weeks we’ve been reliving the Easter story of our faith – and not just the “day of resurrection” story but some of the subsequent Easter stories that sprung from it. We’ve been doing this in the spirit of the Toni Morrison quote: if there is a book you want to read and it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it. First it was Peter’s story of his encounter with the risen Jesus on the beach; last week it was Cleopas and the stranger he met on the road to Emmaus.
Today, in the final installment of this little post-Easter sermon excursion, we consider the story of Philip and his encounter with an Ethiopian eunuch – an unexpected interaction that became something more than either anticipated. With that, would you pray with me:
Open our eyes that we may see
Glimpses of truth for you and me
Open our eyes, illumine us
Before I tell my story, I want to first lift up another story, an older and ancient story; because this story helps my story make a little more sense. It’s a story you’ve probably heard before in a sermon or bible class. It happened at a time when Israel was not its own, when it was under the rule of another nation. And during that time, two important things took place. One, a young Jewish woman named Esther was made queen of Persia, although only her cousin, Mordecai, knew that she was a Jew. And second, a wicked man named Haman, second in command to the king, became offended one day when Mordecai refused to bow in his presence. And so in his selfish anger, Haman coerced the king to sign an edict that called for the elimination of every Jew living in Persia.
Mordecai got word of the impending genocide and shared it with Esther, begging her to use her position as queen to intervene and save their people. Esther was hesitant at first, until Mordecai offered up what might’ve seemed like a passing thought: Who knows? he mused. Perhaps you have come to royal dignity for such a time as this. And something about that seemed to light a fire Esther, and she went on to create and carry out a plan that in the end led to the liberation of her people and the end of wicked Haman.
I’ve always loved this story! And I guess it’s that last part that speaks so much to mine: Who knows? Perhaps you are where you are for such a time as this.
See, over the years I’ve learned that it’s wise to try to be in tune with what God might be doing in your life at any given moment in time. Every moment is an opportunity for something – big, small, it doesn’t really matter. Every moment has the potential for God to shine through you. And it’s not that I think that everything always happens for a reason or everything is all planned out. For me it’s more that, whatever happens in the course of your day, whoever’s path crosses yours, that is right where God wants you to be.
I’ve seen this time and time again in my life, including my Easter story. There I was, traveling on the road from Jerusalem to Gaza – a wilderness road. Lots of God-moments happen on wilderness roads. Scripture says an angel tipped me off that something was brewing but didn’t provide specifics. Which is par for the course, don’t you think? God is not in the habit of giving us flashing neon signs telling us where to go or what to do. It’d sure be nice if God did! But God prefers that we take the hint and lean into the possibilities. Life is not a script we follow – it’s a story we take part in writing.
Anyway, meeting that Ethiopian eunuch was nothing out of the ordinary – living where I live I’m frequently crossing paths with all different kinds of people. What was strange was that he was reading from the book of Isaiah, one of the ancient stories of my people. These stories were not his, and I was curious why he was reading them.
And see, this right here, this was one of those moments I’m talking about. You feel like a door is opening to……well, to something. And you don’t know what’s on the other side. And so the question becomes, what do you do with it? You’ve been in this moment before, haven’t you? You’re in a coffee shop and hear the name of a dear friend of yours come up in conversation between the two people sitting at the table right next to you. What do you do in that moment? Is this simply coincidence or is it some kind of invitation? Is it “none of your business,” or are you finding yourself in a moment “for such a time as this?”
I’ve learned over the years to lean into that opening when it comes. And so I ask this Ethiopian man if he’s familiar with what he’s reading. Of course, as your expression goes, it takes two to tango. He, too, has to decide what he’s going to do in this moment. He could’ve easily ignored me, or mumbled something, or simply told me to mind my own business.
Instead, he chooses to lean into the opening as well. How can I be familiar with it, he says, unless someone helps me? And that’s all it took. We ended up talking for a long time – I mean, a really long time. And not just about Isaiah. We talked about those who came before him and those who came after. We talked about Jesus, because that’s where the story was heading, that’s where all of our stories had been heading. We talked about how Jesus came to show us a new way of living and being, a way that honors all people, a way that gives voice to the voiceless and brings healing to that which is broken. We talked about this hope that is not just for each of us but for the whole world. My new friend and I talked about all of this as we made our journey together down that wilderness road – which, looking back on it, could not have been a more appropriate backdrop for our conversation.
And at some point on the journey we came upon a small pond off the side of the road – and I heard my new travel companion blurt out, Look, here is water! What’s to keep me from being baptized? And that’s when I knew he understood the essence of Esther’s story, even though he had never read it before: you are where you are for such a time as this. My new friend was no longer a mere listener to the grand story of God’s love for the world – he was an active participant in it.
And so, yes, I baptized him that day. And neither of us have been the same since. That’s the kind of thing that happens when you allow yourself to become part of the story God is compelling you to write.
Now I understand you’ve been hearing a few different Easter stories over the past weeks. That Mark guy sure knew what he was doing, don’t you think? Leaving his Easter morning narrative open-ended so the rest of us would be compelled to write the remainder of it. No one likes an unfinished story, especially one that has so much promise for today and hope for tomorrow. Indeed, if there really is a story you want to read and it hasn’t been written yet, then who besides you will write it?
So let me share a few things from all of this that have become part of my Easter story, and perhaps might become part of yours.
First, I know Mordecai asked Esther to consider if she’d been made queen for “such a time as this.” But can I let you in on a little secret? The fact is that you are always, always in the right place at the right time. Right now is exactly where you’re meant to be. Right now is where God has placed you, whatever moment this might be for you, whatever crossroads you find yourselves at. The people who are part of your life now? They are there because God has put them there for you. This pandemic reality you’re hopefully on the verge of coming out of, with all the hope and uncertainty that lies on the other side – know that God has put you in this moment “for such a time as this.”
Which means the question you have to ask yourself as you write the rest of your Easter story is what you’re going to do with that. My friend saw the pond and said, “Look, here is water!” Tell me – are you going to lean into the openings as you find them? Are you going to view what the world might call coincidences as an invitation? As you go throughout the course of your day and live the life God has given you, know beyond a shadow of doubt that you are always in the right place at the right time. Always.
Another thing I’ve come to realize from all of this is that everyone is a part of us. Everyone is a part of us. I haven’t seen my Ethiopian eunuch friend since that day on the wilderness road, and I doubt I ever will again. But there is doubt that he is part of me, as I am part of him. Everyone is a part of us, no matter how long or how short we know them, everyone is a part of us. The life partner we’ve committed to until the day we die, the lady in the checkout line at the grocery store we chat it up with for not even a minute. Everyone is a part of us.
You see how this changes things, don’t you? It means we think differently about the conversations and connections we have. It means we honor and celebrate the image of God in everyone, whether we know them well or not, whether they look like us or not, whether we care for them or not. It means we treat all people with kindness and steadfast love because we never can cut anyone off completely. And Jesus understood this so well, I think. He knew that this is how God created the world to be; he understood that this is God’s great hope for humanity. We have to learn how to be together and work together and live together because we depend on each other for everything. Because everyone is a part of us.
And the last thing that’s become part of my story is this simple but profound truth – that the God of Jesus, the God of Peter and Cleopas, the God of the eunuch and of me, the God of every single one of us, is intimately involved in our life and the lives of those around us. The God who helps us see that we’re always in the right place at the right time is right there with us all. The God who made it so everyone is part of us lies at the very heart of that holy togetherness. In this world in which we live, it is so easy to lose sight of that. It’s so easy to doubt just how “with us” Immanuel is.
But beloved, this is the common thread that ties our stories together. Life is constantly changing. So much is uncertain. There are beginnings and there are endings, and new beginnings come out of those endings because nothing ever truly ends. One day you’re watching worship from your TV at home and the next day you’re sitting under the Oaks. Who knows what next week will bring?
Friends, as you write your Easter story, a story of beginnings coming out of endings, a story for such a time as this, know that God brings all of us together in those very moments when we need God and each other the most. You’re right where you need to be. Make the most of it.
In the name of 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.