I realize that I have again fallen behind in the sermon-posting. However, this time I swear I have a good excuse!
I got engaged last weekend to my boyfriend-though-we-both-agree-that’s-a-rather-silly-name-for-an-adult, Ben. Hooray! We are both very excited about getting married, which will happen in October, God willing and the wedding industrial complex consenting.
However, it does turn out that getting engaged takes up some of your time and energy? Who knew. So I hereby apologize for my tardiness in posting last Sunday’s sermon, but here you go. (It does not mention my romantic life, but it does mention a camel. Because camels are cool.)
Rev. Megan L. Castellan
April 28, 2018
Easter 5, Year B
I took a group of young adults to the Holy Land over the summer on pilgrimage. I’ve been there several times, but one of the things that hits me every time I go is how very wild the wilderness is. On this trip, we went out to the desert outside of Jerusalem, early one morning before the sun came up. We went only a few miles outside the city to the southwest, and soon were in the heart of the desert, with nothing around us except the barren hills.
We celebrated the eucharist as the sun came up over the hills—with nothing as far as the eye could see—only hills upon hills, and the glimpse of a road in the distance heading back to Jerusalem.
But as I was praying over the bread and wine, suddenly, I noticed a Bedouin family appear over the crest of the hill, riding a camel. I don’t have any clue where they came from; but they appeared from seeming nowhere in the middle of nowhere. They quietly waiting, the older man and the young child, until we finished praying, then they offered us rides on the camel and beaded bracelets. It was them and us, alone in the wilderness. No buildings, no roads, really, no nothing. Just a group of wayward Americans, and some friendly Bedouin. And a camel. Quite the odd gathering that morning.
I was sitting with that image as I read Acts 8, because it seems like a similarly disparate gathering is occurring in that desert. To set the scene, things are not going well for the disciples. Stephen has just been killed in Jerusalem, at the urging of Saul. So the pressure on the brand-new church is fiercer than it ever has been, and as usually, they do not have a plan. So Philip is traveling down to Gaza through the desert, partially to get out of dodge again.
And on the way, in the desert, he encounters a fellow traveler who is also lost—a government official from Ethiopia. And he’s lost in several important ways: The text says this guy is the treasurer for the Candace—the Ethiopian queen, so he’s clearly important. Some of the other context would indicate that he is interested in the Jewish faith and has been up to the Temple to worship, but the Temple rules were really against him. For starters, he’s not an Israelite—he’s Ethiopian, so that’s the first issue. Second issue is that unless he is willing to fully convert, and be circumcised, he would not be allowed to enter the Temple, and this was generally not a popular idea among adult male converts. Third, as a high-ranking court official of the queen, chances were good he was a eunuch—which also meant he couldn’t enter the Temple. Basically, despite his expressed desire to encounter the God of Israel, he has several major strikes against him.
So here he is, in the desert, in the middle of nowhere, reading Isaiah by himself, when he chances across Philip. Philip hops in the carriage with him, and reads the scriptures along side him. And it is this interaction that leads the official to ask to be baptized.
It’s interesting to note that Philip doesn’t appear to notice the barriers that restricted the official’s access to worship in the Temple. They don’t register to him. Also, it’s not clear that Philip has all the answers that the official seeks, or that Philip figures out how to solve the oncoming persecution of the church in Jerusalem.
But somehow, these two people struggling with their own immense questions manage to find each other in the wilderness and aid each other in a powerful way.
This event marks a turning point in the life of the baby church—it is the first time that a Gentile converts to Christianity, and it is the first time that the growing Jesus Movement heads outside Jerusalem to discover what other plans God might have in store for it. To be clear, the church did this the same way it undergoes all change: under protest. Philip didn’t decide the best strategy for growth was to head out towards the desert and preach to people there; he panicked and tried to flee, but God still pointed him towards the right decision.
Despite their common lostness, both Philip and the Ethiopian official manage to be icons of the divine for each other in this encounter. Philip guides the official to a new acceptance and faith home, and the official begins Philip on a new journey for the church. But that common sense of not having all the answers, I think, is part of what brings them together in the first place.
Part of the experience of being in the desert, in the wilderness, is how vast and isolating it can be. When you encounter another person out there, no matter who it is, you rely on them because there is literally no one else for miles and miles. We, as travelers in the journey of faith, each have times when we feel more in the wilderness than others. When we feel more adrift in an ocean of sand and lost. But the struggle for us in these moments is to recall that the people we encounter are also traveling like us. Everyone we encounter in this walk of faith is also lost, to some degree or another. No one, despite their claims to the contrary, has all the answers. Not me, not you, not Philip, and not the court official. We share a common experience of trying to put the pieces together.
And this common experience should gift us with humility towards others and towards ourselves. For even as neither Philip nor the official really knew much about what they were doing, that did not stop them from being a great comfort to each other. Even as we struggle along, if we are open to the Spirit, and open to each other, we can shed light upon the path for one another. The action of the Spirit does not depend on our understanding or comprehension, only our openness to it.
But this reliance on the Spirit and on each other, ultimately, brings us closer to God, and closer to each other.