Presence is Everything

by susan on May 23, 2017

Sunday, May 21 – – Words for the Journey

[The following message was shared as part of our Sunday worship gathering and in response to Acts 8:26-39.]

On Wednesday night, we began a new 3D group series and we started our post-dinner conversation with this question: If we are all learners, then what is life teaching you right now?

It was a question that helped us get to know one another a little better, and one that I’ve continued to ponder.

If you ever want to learn a lot about yourself, start a church. Start anything and you will learn a lot about yourself. It will reveal your best and your worst tendencies. While I was in seminary, I took the Meyers-Briggs Personality Test and learned that I am pretty neutral in most of the categories, but there is one where I am off the charts. I am an extreme “feeler”. While some people think their way toward a decision, I feel my way. So, if it doesn’t feel right, then something must be wrong. It must not be the right direction to go.

Being a feeler can be a great gift, especially for someone called into ministry. It can also be a challenge because the other thing I’m learning is that the Spirit is often about leading us toward discomfort.

God is often about leading us to places that we would rather not go.

We certainly find this true in Acts. If feelings were their main guide, then certainly Christ followers would have stayed centrally located. They would have also stayed together and even undercover. The message of Jesus, I suppose, would have stayed a secret.

That’s not what we see though. Instead, we see people being stirred toward people & places that provided less warm fuzzies and more cause for uneasiness.

We started moving through Acts a few weeks ago with the a story describing how people from different backgrounds came together & shared their resources. Talk about leaning into discomfort. Then we heard about Steven who had been called into being a caregiver, but who ended up standing before the authorities speaking a truth that made everyone uncomfortable – so uncomfortable in fact that they stoned him.

And, now here comes Phillip.

Like Steven, Phillip was also one of the seven servant leaders of the church in Jerusalem. He was prepared to serve his community – people who likely shared his same beliefs. The Spirit though, stirred him beyond those with whom he shared much in common.

He was asked by an angel of the Lord to head south and to take the road that leads away from Jerusalem & toward Gaza.

The path to get to Gaza was a desert road. Philip was not only told to leave his community & the center of religious life, but to travel down a barren, dusty road for a reason he’d not yet told.

It’s on that road that he encounters a man who’s traveling in his same direction. Upon first glance, that was all they seemingly held in common. This traveler was of African descent. His skin was dark and unlike Philip, he is not would not be traveling alone. As an officer of the Queen’s court, he is accompanied by an entourage.

There’s another thing that distinguished him from Philip. He is a eunuch.

Eunuchs were men who had been castrated, something uncommon in our context but more common in ancient times. Certain not-so-lucky men were chosen to be castrated to keep them from having families. They were then places in positions of service to those in power – the Queen in this instance. With their inability to have sex and their inability to have a family, total loyalty would rest with the Queen.

Because of their identities, eunuchs were excluded from spiritual community. He was excluded from participation in Temple rituals. This Ethoipian eunuch may have gone to Jerusalem hoping to worship, but he would have been rejected at the temple gates. This sexually-altered officer of the court can read scripture all he wants, but he does not belong.

He is a man on the margins. With that in minds, we ought to have a sense that something important is about to happen … because by now, God has quite the reputation for making Her way to the margins.

First, it was an angel and now it’s the Spirit that tells Philip to move in closer to this stranger:

“Go over to this chariot and join it.”

So Philip runs up to the chariot (can’t you just imagine him running alongside it?!) and when he does, he hears something familiar. He hears the man reading from the prophet Isaiah.

We should not be too surprised that this particular reading has captured this Ethiopian eunuch’s attention. Images of cutting & humiliation no doubt would have struck a personal chord with him.

Upon hearing this familiar text, Philip starts a conversation with the man. He begins with a question – not a statement, not an assumption, not a strategy. He starts with a question & his question makes me believe that he’s just there – present for whatever this chariot-side conversation will bring.

“Do you understand what you are reading?”

he asks. And the Ethiopian responds:

‘How can I [understand] unless someone guides me?’

He then invites Philip to get in and sit beside him. He invites Philip into his chariot, but even more into his personal struggle with scripture. The two begin to journey together.

Let’s stop & wonder for a minute:

How available are we to be pulled in new directions? How open are we to conversations with strangers, even those who we suspect have excluded us or those whom we have excluded?  How willing are we to join others where they are without an agenda of our own – not necessarily knowing where this journey will take us?

This is a picture of friendship. Friendship can be an unexpected grace in our lives, particularly when it happens between unlikely people. It can also be unpredictable & uncomfortable, especially for those who have experienced hurt in the past. Friendship can be risky.

As I reflected on this story this week, I was reminded of a man named Gary.

Gary was one of many people that Jonathan and his wife, Leah welcomed into their intentional community. There was nothing surprising about their first encounter. Gary was 17 and dressed in the usual street attire – baggy jeans and a long white t-shirt. They first encountered him on their neighborhood street corner and he gave them the typical glare that they’ve become accustomed to – they don’t share his same skin color and don’t seem like potential customers.

There’s little to connect them.

Their only connection is Ant, Gary’s younger brother. He is part of the summer camp run by Jonathan and Leah and on one occasion when they invite Ant over for ice cream to celebrate his birthday, Jonathan comes home to find Gary also there, sitting on his couch. He’s not glaring though; he’s apparently been told by his brother that these people are “okay”.

Soon after this, through a series of events, Ant begins living with Jonathan and Leah. Over time, they learn the tragic story of Ant & Gary’s family – about how when they were 5 & 6, their father killed their mother – about their time in foster care – about how Gary had protected Ant and how tough he’d become over time – about why his defenses were always up.

The relationship between Gary and Jonathan & Leah would continue to be this familiar dance of come close then push away then come close and push away. It would not be easy, but they choose to be there for Gary. They choose to be present in his life. When he is arrested on drug charges, they visit him in prison. They write letters and continue to have him over for dinner when he is released.

They are also there to journey alongside him when they learn he’s been shot. Gary survives the shooting, but he is paralyzed. He will not sit up, stand or walk again and he is full of more rage than ever before. He mistreats almost all of the hospital staff who encounter him.

After rehab, he has no home to return to, and after much debate, Jonathan and Leah decide he will come to live in their community. Leah attends a meeting with the hospital social workers and is treated as though she is just being plain naive:

“Do you have any idea what you are doing?” [they ask.]

“No,” Leah says … “Of course we don’t know what we are doing…. I don’t think we ever know what we are doing in situations like this.”

“As far as we can tell…this experiment in welcoming everyone no matter what…makes you an expert at nothing. But the not knowing is itself a gift. It is an invitation even. When you cannot know for sure, you learn to trust.” (Strangers at my door: A true story of finding Jesus in unexpected guests, p. 30-31)

The picture at the end of this unexpected encounter between Philip and the Ethiopian eunuch is a powerful one.

They are riding together down a dusty road and Philip is sharing the story of Jesus –
a man sent by God who crossed boundaries & barriers to be present with us,
a man who also knew rejection and humiliation,
a man through whom healing & new life
& a new identity are available to everyone.

Hearing this, he asked very simply, why can’t I be baptized? and with no need to consult a committee or even pray about it (!), they pull over and this Ethiopian eunuch is baptized in into the way of Jesus.

Honestly, I don’t think it was Philip’s words that were the most convincing. I believe it was his embodiment of those words. I believe it was his presence that spoke volumes. It was his presence that caused this man to believe he too, could learn & live & be included in the way of Jesus.

Because Philip dared to be present to the Spirit & to this stranger, something amazing happened.

Presence has a way of doing that, doesn’t it?

Presence breathes new life into us –
especially when we are not expecting it.

With whom might God be asking you to be more present?
Onto what unfamiliar ground might the Spirit be leading you?
What might happen if you stopped resisting?

Please note:

The art image above above is “Philip and the Ethiopian Eunuch” by Herbert Boeckl (1952 – 1960).

Gary’s story is paraphrased from Strangers at My Door: A True Story of Finding Jesus in Unexpected Guests by Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove.

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