Crossed Arms or Open Hearts
Each time I write a sermon I review the text a week or two before it’s time to preach. Doing so allows me the necessary time to research and reflect on the text. Just as importantly, it gives me time to see where and how the story is playing out in our world today. The scripture essentially ends up being a lens through which I view the world. For example, if I am preaching on a story about forgiveness, I will pay extra attention to the stories of forgiveness that I encounter in the course of that week or two.
On Monday I read through the three scripture passages assigned for today and decided to have some fun and keep it interesting. I decided to preach about the Ethiopian eunuch; which meant that was the metaphorical lens that I viewed the world through this week. All week long I was looking for situations that would recall the story of Philip and the eunuch.
Imagine my surprise when I found my sermon illustration in an interaction with a woman who was volunteering along with me at New Palestine Elementary School this week. We didn’t talk about eunuchs, per se; and neither of us ended up being baptized after our encounter, but nevertheless it was an experience that connects to the story.
Here’s what happened.
I showed up at NPE this week for my last day of tutoring through the school’s reading program. Typically I arrive earlier than the other volunteers and am there alone for a couple minutes. This time, however, I wasn’t alone in the classroom. There was another volunteer there—someone that I have previously talked to. She knew that I serve as a pastor and on this day she wanted to ask me a particular question.
She said, “You mentioned your church is part of the Evangelical Lutherans. What does your church have to say about God’s plan of salvation?”
As you read these words I’m curious what you would guess was the tone behind them.
Do you imagine this question was asked with an inflection of one who is happy and genuinely interested?
Do you imagine this question was asked with an inflection of one who is panicked, and desperately searching for something that could help them?
Do you imagine this question was asked with an inflection of one who is testing, skeptical, and already has her mind made up?
That is precisely the one she used. To top it off, after she asked the question she folded her arms, sat down, and tilted her head slightly to the side with a look that said, “Go ahead and just try to impress me, but I already know your answer is going to prove you are not a real Christian.”
Her question did not seem to be born out of genuine curiosity; instead, it felt like a lure into a trap. Anyone who would use the phrase “God’s plan of salvation” already has a narrow understanding of what that is; namely, that human beings are inherently worthless and sinful creatures whom God has every right to destroy and cast into eternal damnation and torture at the hands of Satan; however, Jesus Christ appeased this angry bloodthirsty God by dying on the cross as a perfect sacrifice. So, the select few through earth’s history who say the sinner’s prayer and invite Jesus into our hearts will be counted among the select “good” people who will enjoy eternity praising God in a golden city in the clouds. The rest will be thrown into the pit where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth.
I’ll pause the story there in order to show you how this connects with today’s scripture from Acts. In this story, Philip is commanded by an angel of the Lord to head down 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?
What tone of voice did you imagine when you read this?
Was Philip genuinely curious or was he being sarcastic?
Before you dismiss this hypothetical question, consider that Deuteronomy 23:1 explicitly bans eunuchs from the Temple. So, if the eunuch had indeed gone to Jerusalem in order to worship in the temple, he was likely turned away, which he should have anticipated if he understood what he was reading when he read scripture. Hence Philip’s question.
Philip could have been acting like a smart-alec or he could have been genuinely curious. Either way, it is the eunuch’s response that introduces the good news of this story. He says, “How can I, unless someone guides me?” He invites Philip to sit beside him in his chariot and asks him questions about the scripture that he cannot make sense of. Philip tells him about Jesus, which leads the eunuch to jump into the first puddle of water and demand to be baptized.
It’s a beautiful story of two very different people being open to one another. Philip takes the time to develop a relationship with an outsider, and the eunuch risks being mocked and ridiculed by asking a question. The eunuch’s eyes were opened to the truth of Christ and Philip’s eyes were opened to the truth that eunuchs were actually not outside of God’s saving plan.
So, back to my original story.
I answered the lady’s question about God’s plan for salvation. I kept it succinct; I tiptoed around some of the issues I didn’t really feel like addressing; and focused on God’s love. She replied with a nod and eyebrow raise. I’m not sure she intended to communicate that I had passed the test or that I was as condemned as she assumed. After I was done with my speech, and after she nodded, I sat down. We were done. Chances are I will never see this person again.
The story of the Philip and the Eunuch is a beautiful story of two different people taking risks and pursuing relationship.
The story of the two volunteers at New Palestine Elementary School is a much different story. It’s a tragic story because I never bothered to ask her what she thought; not necessarily about my answer, but rather, I should have asked her how she would answer her own question. But instead I assumed I already knew. I assumed I had accurately read her body language. I assumed nothing I would say would change her mind or create a meaningful bond between us. So I made no effort to nurture any possible relationship.
My message today is a warning and an invitation. Heed my failure and be instructed by it. Sisters and brothers, our assumptions of others are barriers to transformative relationships. Let us replace sarcasm and condescension with genuine inquiry. Let us be bold enough to accompany people even if our initial assumption is that they’re out to get us. And let us accept the invitation to be vulnerable and authentic around all people for in so doing we might open the eyes of others and also have our eyes opened to unexpected truth and beauty.