April 25, 2021
In a recent blog discussing the reasons people … particularly young people who grow up in the church … leave congregational life, author Christina Embree points out that at some point as these members discern their faith journey … deconstructing is the term she uses … that many come to the realization that they were not wanted in the congregation.
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Let’s let that sink in for a moment.
These young people were faithful attendees for years … some were even leaders in their congregations … yet, they recognized that other members’ actions didn’t align with what they had been taught about being in a community of faith … others said that when they asked questions regarding faith or Scripture, they were pushed aside … or worse, verbally abused or attacked.
Still others said that they walked away because they didn’t feel listened to by their congregation or its leaders. They felt that their voices and experiences were neither heard nor valued.
Embree distilled the comments down to a single lament: “We were not wanted.”
In her blog, Embree wrote, “When I talk about connecting generations in meaningful relationships for the purpose of discipleship, it’s not so that we can download information about our faith into an empty, waiting vessel and create clones of ourselves.
“True discipleship doesn’t make someone look like me; it leads someone to follow Jesus and He does the work of making all of us look like Him.”
This means listening to their stories … their questions … their pain … and give worth to their experiences and value to their presence in our lives.
One of my seminary instructors called it “meeting people where they are.”
Today, Philip leaves familiar surroundings and heads out on the wilderness road and met someone where he was.
Philip … one of the seven who were anointed in last week’s reading from Acts of the Apostles … has been directed by an angel to leave Jerusalem. On the way, Philip spots an Ethiopian court official sitting in a chariot on the road connecting Jerusalem with Gaza.
The Spirit moves Philip to rush to the man as he is reading from Isaiah.
The passage from Isaiah 53 that held the man’s attention says,
“He was oppressed, and he was afflicted,
yet he did not open his mouth;
like a lamb that is led to the slaughter,
and like a sheep that before its shearers is silent,
so he did not open his mouth.”
Philip asks the man … who we are told is a eunuch … if he understands the passage … the story of a servant who has been denied justice … and their voice stilled … a kindred spirit to the eunuch, who also faced circumstances that prevented him from fully experiencing life.
Being castrated meant the eunuch wouldn’t have any children … which makes his future a bit insecure … after all, who would take care of him when he can no longer serve the royal household. His family line ends with him.
During Luke’s time, eunuchs were an easily identified minority.
By some accounts, they were shorter and softer than their peers. They were often beardless. If male slaves were serving positions of power, they would be castrated to make them infertile and to ensure the purity of the royal line.
A eunuch’s impairment would also have excluded them from certain parts of worship life, so the Ethiopian official … even after the long trip to Jerusalem … would have been segregated from the others who were worshipping in Jerusalem.
Still, today’s reading makes it obvious that the eunuch was inquisitive and willing to expand his understanding of faith and of the faith community.
After all, he’s reading Isaiah as his chariot makes the bumpy journey back to northeastern Africa. He questions … he wants to extend himself spiritually … and perhaps reconcile what he reads with what he believes … and in doing so, models the joy we should experience as we explore our own spirituality … faith and call to discipleship.
While Philip guides him as they travel toward Gaza, the eunuch will later guide others after he arrives home … helping to spread the Word … the promise of grace … outward from Jerusalem and to the ends of the earth.
Philip’s reaction to the Spirit’s direction … chasing down a moving chariot … and to the Eunuch’s request for guidance calls us to consider a number of questions:
“Whom are we reluctant to welcome into our lives or into the life of the congregation because of unfamiliarity or because of their complicated backstories?”
When we … as communities of faith .. say “All are welcome,” do we really mean it? Or do we place caveats … restrictions … on who we are willing to share a pew or a meal with? Are we really saying, “All are welcome, as long as you don’t make me uncomfortable?”
Are we willing to meet people where they are … to chase down the chariots that carry them along … to engage them … hear their stories … and adapt to their needs rather than the other way around?
Are we honest enough … confident enough in our faith and our own understanding of scripture … to have these hard discussions with those would seek guidance and instruction … the discussions necessary for understanding and inclusion?
The Acts of the Apostles details the early life of the faith community following Jesus’ death and resurrection.
Between last week’s story and today’s passage, persecution led to members of this growing faith community being scattered across Judea and Samaria.
Out of this Philip … one of the seven anointed to serve the tables of widows … met a potential new disciple where he was … in a chariot on a Samarian roadside … and begins a relationship by inviting him into a discussion over scripture. It’s a conversation that ends at a small pool of water at the side of the road in the wilderness between Jerusalem and Gaza.
It ends with baptism … with an old life being washed away …with a message of inclusion and acceptance embraced and shared.
It’s a message that will be carried out of the wilderness … and it is a welcoming message that we are each called to carry and share each moment of the day as we make our own journey.