First Congregational United Church of Christ
Great Falls, MT
August 6, 2017
“What is to Prevent Us?”
The Rev. Lynne Spencer-Smith
Acts 8:26-40 (NRSV)
26Then 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.) 27So 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 28and was returning home; seated in his chariot, he was reading the prophet Isaiah. 29Then the Spirit said to Philip, “Go over to this chariot and join it.” 30So Philip ran up to it and heard him reading the prophet Isaiah. He asked, “Do you understand what you are reading?” 31He replied, “How can I, unless someone guides me?” And he invited Philip to get in and sit beside him. 32Now 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. 33In his humiliation justice was denied him. Who can describe his generation? For his life is taken away from the earth.” 34The eunuch asked Philip, “About whom, may I ask you, does the prophet say this, about himself or about someone else?” 35Then Philip began to speak, and starting with this scripture, he proclaimed to him the good news about Jesus. 36As 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?” 38He commanded the chariot to stop, and both of them, Philip and the eunuch, went down into the water, and Philip baptized him. 39When 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. 40But 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.
It was a new program in a farming community. It was back in a time when the benefits of locally produced food were just beginning to become more broadly known in the farming communities of Iowa where large-scale corn, soybean, pork and chicken production ruled. The idea of farmers pulling some of their land out of the production of these commodities to grow things like tomatoes, corn, squash, cucumbers, lettuce and other delicious vegetables was not taking off very well. Nor did there seem to be a strong enough market through which to sell such produce. Even the local family owned grocery stores, as much as they wanted to support other local business people, couldn’t take the gamble to forego contracts with growers from other states.
But Jan was a firm believer in the value of locally grown food, not just the value on those who would consume it, but to the community and the environment. She pulled together a handful of people who shared her passion to develop a way for low income families to receive produce from local growers. As the conversation picked up steam, she kept being confronted with obstacles. Would there be regulations from the health department? Will the local growers be willing to take the risk? Will families be willing take the extra effort to get the produce? What kind of guidelines and restrictions should be placed on the process so that people don’t take advantage of it?
One day, when the obstacles just seemed too overwhelming, Jan sat back in her chair and said, “We have to find a way to remove the stop signs.”
Every time I hear the story of Philip and the Ethiopian Eunuch, I can’t help but think of Jan and her comment about removing the stop signs. I am reminded of that because of the Ethiopian’s question, “What is to prevent me from being baptized?”
We don’t usually think about stop signs set up around baptism fonts. We have the doors flung wide open as we welcome people of all ages to come to the water and affirm the grace of God that has already been bestowed upon them. You want to be baptized? Let’s check the calendar and get it on the books! Let’s have a conversation about what it means, set it up with the worship board and all systems are go! Call the grandparents and send out the invitations.
But, that’s not the way it was. There probably really were a lot of stop signs to prevent this man from taking a holy dip in the waters of baptism. Stops signs that people had put up along the way.
After Jesus left, things with his followers started to change. There were factions. Rules started to get laid down. The church started to function like an institution and there were disagreements. Some of the disagreements had to do with who was in and how they got there. Some believed that in order to become a bona fide, card-carrying member of the Jesus Club, you had to first become a Jew. That means there would be rules to follow and one of those rules had to do with the physical condition of this man’s body. You see, in order for him to be able to serve in the Ethiopian Queen’s court, he had had a little procedure to remove a certain part of his anatomy. (Now, since we’re keeping this a family oriented service, if you need more detail on this just Google Deuteronomy 23:1). Not only had he undergone some physical alterations that would prevent him from becoming Jewish before becoming Christian, he had sworn his allegiance to the Queen of Ethiopia in a pretty permanent manner. His role in life was single focused – to serve the queen. Such commitment would need to be moved to at least second place if he were to become a follower of Jesus, whether he became a Jew or not.
So, you see, there were just a couple of minor little stop signs that could prevent him from being baptized: His body had been intentionally altered and he had a previous commitment.
This is about the time in the story that the real hero shows up. All along, we just thought that it was Philip and the Ethiopian in the chariot. Think again. There’s a third character in that chariot as it bounced on down the road. It’s the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit had sent Philip to the chariot in the first place and continued to make its way around in and through the conversation and stirring within the souls of these people, eventually bubbling out through the question, “What is to prevent me?” There’s the water. What is to prevent me?
Will Philip be a red light or a green light? Will he insist that this guy must first be Jewish which really means there’s no way? Or, will he be the green light that gives the all clear for the Ethiopian to slide into the refreshing water of baptism and become follower of Jesus?
Time and time again, the movement of the Holy Spirit has been about removing the barriers that humanity puts in the way around such things as the baptism font, the communion table, access to the pews, access to ordination, access to a religion that is, at its core, about hospitality and justice for all, literally, for all. Not because it’s the politically correct thing to do but because it’s what is as the very core of the nature of God – to welcome others and care for them without strings attached – to ensure that everyone has what is needed for life on earth. So, when the church makes a stand for these things, we are being none other than Philips in the carriages of those who have been excluded or who have been denied access to the three things that the prophet Micah laid out: Justice, kindness and the opportunity to walk humbly with God.
When our faith compels us to switch red lights into green lights it’s not because we belong to a particular political party or union or social action group. Chances are, it’s because the Holy spirit is in the room doing what the Holy Spirit does to blow in and through and around us, empowering us to ride along with others on their journey, encouraging us to open doors and hearts, enlightening us to expand our own hearts.
To remove the stop signs of that which keeps ourselves and others from entering into the fullness of life and grace is to remove that which keeps us from being still enough to know the expanse of God that longs for us to know those whom we have shut out through our fears and judgments.
To remove the stop signs of that which keeps ourselves and others from plunging into the depths of service and mission and grace is to allow ourselves to be fully present with those the world has cast aside and let them baptize us in their world of pain and grace.
To remove the stop signs of that which keeps ourselves and others from riding in the chariot of the exotic and mysterious foreigners is to let doors of the unknown be open to us and trust that the spirit’s guiding will be sufficient as we realize that the stranger in front of us is not an “it” or a foreign “other” but a beloved thou.
If religion is about transformation, it cannot be full of things that would prevent people from entering it. It also cannot be filled with things that would prevent life in its fullness to those outside of it as well.
We have climbed into this chariot, some of us having broken all kinds of rules on our way to getting here. We are the Philips of the church through whom the Holy Spirit moves to welcome others and then send us on our way. We are also the Ethiopians of the world to whom the Holy Spirit comes, switching the world’s red lights to green, opening the way to the grace of God. It is not just that baptism font that sits before us, it is the table of Christ awaiting us. What is to prevent us from taking our place at the table? What is to prevent us from welcoming others to come along?
As we move from this time of proclamation to a time of prayer, let us hear the beautiful words of Mary Oliver, after which we’ll have a time of silence in prayer. If you have a prayer request you would like to share with our Prayer Chain, please use the pink cards located in the back of the red Pilgrim Hymnal. During our time of silent meditation, I’ll be coming through the congregation to collect your requests.
“Coming to God: First Days”
Lord, what shall I do that I
can’t quiet myself?
Here is the bread, and
here is the cup, and
I can’t quiet myself.
To enter the language of transformation!
To learn the importance of stillness,
with one’s hands folded!
When will my eyes of rejoicing turn peaceful?
When will my joyful feet grow still?
When will my heart stop its prancing
as over the summer grass?
Lord, I would run for you, loving the miles for your sake.
I would climb the highest tree
to be that much closer.
Lord, I will learn also to kneel down
into the world of the invisible
the inscrutable and the everlasting.
Then I will move no more than the leaves of a tree
on a day of no wind,
bathed in light,
like the wanderer who has come home at last
and kneels in peace, done with all unnecessary things;
every motion, even words.