A sermon preached at Southminster Presbyterian Church in Boise, Idaho
May 7, 2017
A dear friend called me the other night to tell me a remarkable story. I hesitate about telling all the details of someone else’s story that is very much still unfolding, but when I get to the end of it, I trust you’ll see why it connects to our story from Acts.
My friend lives in the middle of the country and is attending a conference on one of the coasts. She met a woman at breakfast that day, a perfunctory sort of meeting, one you quickly forget about after you’ve exchanged pleasantries and then gone on to the work of the day.
Then she met the woman, again, at dinner that night. The conversation at the table was the usual conversations that people in ministry often have, about the churches we serve, the challenges of discerning God’s call in our lives, etc.
And then, the conversation turned to the story of my friend’s experience with adoption, and what little she knows of her origins. As my adoption story has been slowly unfolding, I have experienced doors opening and new relationships emerging. My friend, on the other hand, has had doors literally slammed in her face. No relationship. And too little information to be google.
So at dinner, she was relating the few things she knows about her birth father—his nickname, the color of the car he drove 60 years ago, a general guess about where he was from—and the other woman at the table, the one she met at breakfast, started to get pale and look at her husband. My friend asks if she’s okay, and the woman says, “I think your birth father is my grandfather”.
After my friend told me her story, as we talked, she said the person who had invited them all to dinner together wasn’t sure, as he was doing the inviting, just WHY he would put this particular dinner party together. He said he felt he had to invite them all.
And I thought of the Holy Spirit, working through the life of the dinner party organizer to bring those women together.
The Holy Spirit works in and through our lives to bring our stories together.
Look at Phillip and the official from Ethiopia. They had no reason to ever meet. And the angel of the Lord speaks to Phillip and sends him to the Gaza Road so they would. It is a wilderness road, not the road you choose to travel down if you have better options.
Phillip doesn’t let the instructions slow him down.
He doesn’t say, “I’d rather head to Galilee. It’s prettier up there.”
He doesn’t say, “why? What am I supposed to do?”
He doesn’t say, as I often said as a child to my older sister, “you’re not the boss of me”.
He just gets up and goes, with those rather vague directions. Sometimes God doesn’t wait for us to understand our call before we are needed to follow our call. We just go and place ourselves on the wilderness road, ready to respond.
My friend and this woman, possibly her niece, had met at breakfast, but didn’t make the connection. They met again at dinner and, though neither of them were there to find family, it happened.
Some people might call it a coincidence. We see the work of the Holy Spirit. They were attending a conference—any of them could have said “thanks for the dinner invitation but I’m full up of chit chat and I need to netflix and chill in my hotel with room service”.
They all showed up.
I think of how often in my own life the payoff comes not because I’ve done something amazing but because I showed up.
If we’re going to listen to the Holy Spirit, it will require us to let go of some control. She may send us where we might not want to go. She may send us to talk with the people with whom we would not choose to talk on our own. She may call us to leave our hotel rooms and go be social with people at the end of a long day.
In order to connect our stories, the Holy Spirit needs our participation, beyond showing up, which is important.
We have to take the time to listen to other people’s stories. That dinner party could have been chit chat about the weather, or movies people had seen, or how horribly the Royals seem to be tanking this season. Instead, her dinner companions were open to receive an important story about my friend’s life.
I’ve experienced that with you, as you’ve asked me about my birth family discoveries. You’ve received my stories with genuine interest, and excitement, and an appropriate level of concern for me as I’ve walked down an unknown wilderness road of my own.
I’m so grateful for the time you’ve taken to hear my stories, the care with which you’ve received them, and carried them with me.
I think about Phillip, walking up to the chariot of the Ethiopian official, asking him about his story.
And I’ve thought this week about the ways we don’t make room for each other’s stories. I think of the estimated 24 million stories of people whose health insurance coverage is at risk in our country, should the health care bill pass. Are we listening to their stories?
Or the people afraid of being deported? Are we listening to their stories?
I’m also thinking of the people who have real fear and worry about immigrants—are we listening to their stories?
It takes time. It takes a willingness to see the world differently and trust the other person’s story is true for them. We’re all on wilderness roads, in our own ways.
Whose stories are we not listening to?
Another way we participate in the work of the Holy Spirit is to be vulnerable. My friend’s story of her birth family is not a uniformly happy one—it has not been an Oprah style reunion for her. She could just as easily decided she didn’t know these people well enough to tell them her story.
I’ve said before vulnerable is not my spiritual gift. I’ve also come to discover that good things walk into my life when I am vulnerable. Adoption is an inherently vulnerable story—adopted children owe our existence to the catastrophe of someone else’s life. It can be something people want to cover up, not talk about at dinner.
And for the woman to admit that her grandfather might be my friend’s birth father required vulnerability as well. Painful stories about her grandparents marriage could come to light.
There’s vulnerability in the Acts story too. Phillip asks the man in the chariot if he understands what he’s reading. I guarantee you that when a stranger walks up to me on a wilderness road and asks if I understand what I’m reading, my first instinct is to say, “of course I do. I’m the best interpreter of scripture who ever lived. Nobody reads scripture better than I do. How dare you question whether I understand what I’m reading”.
The Ethiopian official, is vulnerable in his reply. “How can I, unless someone guides me?”
The Ethiopian man was the treasurer of the Queen of Ethiopia. We don’t know much about him, like his name.
We know he is wealthy enough to be in a chariot.
He is educated enough to be reading Greek.
He is religious enough to be reading Isaiah.
He was also at risk in some other ways, in ways over which he had less control than many of us. He is a eunuch, which means his gender identity and sexuality would have made him vulnerable, as anyone who lives outside of the norms of society and church could tell you.
Being a eunuch would have kept him from worshiping in the Temple and kept him from being ordained to any of the offices of Judaism. Yet, he was returning from worshiping in Jerusalem, which means he was at odds with his tradition.
Unable to be a full participant in Judaism because of laws from Deuteronomy (23:1) that make clear no one who is sexually mutilated “shall be admitted to the assembly of the Lord”, nevertheless he persisted, and worshiped in Jerusalem and studied scripture.
I don’t want to equate the vulnerability of sharing one’s story, as my friend did, to the kind of vulnerability that people experience because of the ways society harms them for their difference.
I do want to point out that other kind of vulnerability—physical difference— as a reminder to us to accept people as we find them in their chariots on the wilderness roads. Can we be people of safety to people who live in a world of risk?
Phillip recognized the humanity of the person in front of him, not the way they were different from each other, and accepted the hospitality to join him in the chariot and talk about Jesus. When we can do that, we participate in the work of the Holy Spirit.
The Holy Spirit is always at work, seeking to heal the world. Whether in our personal stories—my friend’s story of possibly finding a connection to her birth family, or in bigger stories—- the good news of the gospel that Phillip shared with the Ethiopian official, allowing him to find his own place in God’s story—in the little and the big stories, the Spirit is at work healing the world.
I often talk with people who wonder if they can make a difference in the world, people who worry they aren’t making a difference. The problems of the world can seem so big, and our response to them can seem so small.
Healing the world, though, begins in those small moments. When a family that was ruptured and seemingly permanently separated is brought back together over a serendipitous conversation—the Spirit is at work healing the world. When our own wounds are healed, we can become agents of healing in new ways. Our stories ripple out, allowing other people to participate in healing the world too.
Brennan Manning writes, “If we conceal our wounds out of fear and shame, our inner darkness can neither be illuminated nor become a light for others.”
I think of your stories, that you have bravely shared here, with each other, and in the community, and how those stories, shared, have become lights for others.
For the Ethiopian official, I don’t know exactly how he would say his world was healed. But after he hears about Jesus, and hears what Phillip says about how Jesus brought welcome and inclusion to those who had been excluded, he said, ‘what is to stop me from being baptized’?
The Holy Spirit put Phillip in the Ethiopian man’s path on that wilderness road. And as their stories were shared, the Ethiopian man recognized a place for him in the family of God. And as he was baptized, as he was restored as a child of God, the world was healed, one person at a time.
So don’t worry about the enormity of the task we face. Trust the Holy Spirit has got this. I do invite us, though, to show up, to consider why we’re on the particular wilderness roads we’re on. As we share stories, may the world be healed, one person at a time.
(update–my friend’s potential new half siblings are willing to meet with her, talk to her, etc and see what else they can discover. Thank you for your prayers!)