Thursday, March 13, 2003

Rejoice and Proclaim

This is the first sermon I ever preached, in preaching class in the spring of 2003.

Acts 8.26-40

Then an angel of the Lord said to Philip, “get up and go at noon 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 worship and 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 said to 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 is the word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.
Near the university where I studied is an organization, not related to the school, called University Bible Fellowship. People from there wander about in the neighborhood, looking lost, asking the time, etc, and poor unsuspecting people like me, always willing to lend a hand, will talk to them. Within minutes they have discovered your name and invited you to one-on-one Bible Study with them. My freshman year of college I must have met ten of these people—the only one I remember was a man named Gideon. In the space of less than five minutes, I had declined and yet somehow given him my telephone number and the name of the dorm I lived in. I know, I know….dumb freshman, etc…I didn’t answer my phone for 6 weeks at least. I screened my calls through voicemail, which isn’t terribly effective but it worked for a while. He either never called or never left a message—I don’t know which. That’s ok, though!
I always rejoiced when they finally went away. These people were worse than any other itinerant evangelists, because you never knew who would be One Of Them. More than once I was late to class because I’d been accosted by someone from University Bible Fellowship. I felt like they were invading my space, being disrespectful of my belief system that they knew nothing about (neither did I, but that’s beside the point…), and besides they were just generally annoying. My coming to the church was somewhat delayed because of this experience, as I’m sure you can imagine. And once I was in the organized church, I was very wary of sharing my faith with others, because I didn’t want to be like the University Bible Fellowship people, or like the person on the train that you avoid at all cost because you can see that they are trying to evangelize, or like the girl in your science class who uses question periods as a time to proclaim Creationism over Evolution. Besides that, I was afraid. What would happen? What would people think of me? What would the reactions be? And who was I to share the good news, anyway—a random, young, female college student, new to the church, and generally unworthy.

Why is sharing our faith with others so scary? Why is the stereotype one of insensitivity? Philip seems to be pretty comfortable. He wasn’t one of the original 12 disciples, he was probably a diaspora-Jew-turned Christian, and given the age of the church at this time (just a few months after Pentecost) he wasn’t exactly an established member. He was one of the seven chosen to take food to the widows—that’s not so hard, most of us can do that. He went around in Samaria preaching. Well, we’re a class full of future preachers, and we should probably get used to preaching in slightly less-than-friendly situations—after all, the church is not exactly a friendly place to people who simply tell it like they see it right now (from any side of any debate, really)—so many people claim that the church just needs to maintain the status quo. That’s obviously not what Philip did, because now he’s wandering around talking to gentiles, which was uncomfortable to many who wanted Judaism maintained within this new sect. Just imagine for a moment with me that you’re in this scene.

You’re walking along one mid-July morning, having a good time, chatting with some new friends, when one of them says to you, “hey, it’s high noon! I think you should walk around the hill country of Texas by yourself today.” You think, “Are you crazy? Heat, wilderness, noon, alone…what part of that sounds like a personal safety program?” You know it’s crazy, but you go anyway—you’re always up for a little fear-factor-esque adventure. It’s really hot, and you forgot your hat, and you only have one bottle of water. Up ahead you see a caravan of limos. Obviously someone important, plenty of security, it’s probably best to keep back a bit so you don’t get arrested, shot, or just taken into custody for no reason and sold into slavery without a chance to call home first. After all, you don’t exactly look like everyone else down here.
Then it hits. The call. The one that changes everything. You don’t know why this is happening, your family doesn’t understand, your friends claim they were joking, but you go. You run up to the limos. You see the secret service guns trained on you and the cars come to a halt. All in a split second, you hear a voice reading your favorite prophet and you ask through the window if the person understands. You can hardly believe you are talking out loud, but it’s too late now. You look inside, and Alan Greenspan is using this half a moment to think of his status, his ego, his appearances, the press, and the humility brought on by reading something incomprehensible. And, like magic, he confesses his need, opens the door, and scoots over to make room for you.
“Now I’m in for it,” you think. You’re in a limo with the man who controls our economy, and you have no idea what’s going on. He asks a question, you begin to speak, and amazingly, the Spirit gives you the words. An outsider would probably see a tongue of fire dancing over your head. All you had to do by yourself was follow the call and ask a question.

The catch, of course, is that it wasn’t easy. It’s hot out there, it’s the wilderness. The risk taken in approaching the limo is not exactly negligible. Why do it? Well, there’s that whole thing where Jesus tells us to go, baptize, proclaim, etc. If that isn’t convincing enough, there’s also the Book of Order, which states that the First of the six Great Ends of the Church is “the proclamation of the gospel for the salvation of humankind.”

Does that mean we have to be Jehovah’s witness-like evangelists, knocking on doors, or like the University Bible Fellowship, accosting people with one-on-one Bible Study opportunities? Not exactly. Many of us probably don’t normally invite the Jehovah’s witness into our home for tea.
Proclaiming the gospel doesn’t have to be hard, scary, or insensitive. As Christians our duty is to live the gospel, to proclaim it with our lives as well as our words. Sometimes all it takes is asking the question, being with someone, or responding a certain way to a situation.
But sometimes it is hard, sometimes we have to put ourselves on the line. Embodying the gospel happens in so many ways, and anyway Jesus never seemed to worry about his personal safety program. That’s why there are people protesting every afternoon on Columbia Drive—they are using their bodies AND their words to proclaim what they see in the gospel. That’s why there are people tutoring children every day after school, visiting kids in the projects and taking them out of that environment for day trips so they can see their potential, reading textbooks onto tapes for disabled students, volunteering at the Central Night Shelter. Sure, it can be dangerous—sometimes bodily, sometimes to our ego, our self-image, our public image, or at least our self-righteousness. It’s a wilderness road, at noon, and someone is waiting in that chariot just ahead.

As Christians, and as pastors, our duty is to lead people in the wilderness to water, and enable those people to do the same for others. When Philip and the eunuch came up out of the water and Philip suddenly disappeared, the eunuch could have thought, “that was a nice dip on a hot afternoon,” or maybe, “great, I’m dripping, people are staring, and that guy is gone. What now?” But he went on his way rejoicing—like the benediction says, we are to go on our way rejoicing in the power of the Spirit….this is not the rejoicing I was doing when the UBF people finally left me. Meanwhile, Philip was suddenly relocated! He doesn’t appear to miss a beat—he proclaims the gospel at all times. We can do that too. Though we are, of course, to live the gospel in our daily lives, it is when we proclaim the gospel in all its fullness that we are most vulnerable, and most supported by the Spirit. Thanks be to God. Amen.

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