Sunday, April 25, 2021

Birth of the Church: The Act of Listening

Then an angel of the Lord said to Philip, “Get up and go toward the south to the road that goes down from Jerusalem to Gaza.” (This is 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?” He replied, “How can I, unless someone guides me?” And he invited Philip to get in and sit beside him. Now the passage of the scripture that he was reading was this:

“Like a sheep he was led to the slaughter,
    and like a lamb silent before its shearer,
        so he does not open his mouth.
In his humiliation justice was denied him.
    Who can describe his generation?
        For his life is taken away from the earth.”

The eunuch asked Philip, “About whom, may I ask you, does the prophet say this, about himself or about someone else?” Then Philip began to speak, and starting with this scripture, he proclaimed to him the good news about Jesus. As they were going along the road, they came to some water; and the eunuch said, “Look, here is water! What is to prevent me from being baptized?” He commanded the chariot to stop, and both of them, Philip and the eunuch, went down into the water, and Philip baptized him. When they came up out of the water, the Spirit of the Lord snatched Philip away; the eunuch saw him no more, and went on his way rejoicing. --Acts 8:26-39 (NRSV)

How well do we listen? How well do we really listen?

When I was going through my chaplaincy training in Minneapolis, this was one of the primary focal points of our learning. Being taught to listen.

What I knew from my own experience in negotiating labor contracts in my past life, and what was reinforced for me during this clinical training, as well as, what I learned in 2019 in mediation training is that we don’t listen well.

We think we do. But, we don’t. We may talk incessantly and just never listen. We may listen once in awhile, especially if it's something we want to hear. We may often listen fully. But, I would suggest that we don’t listen well. Because, even when we think we are listening fully, most of us are thinking about the next thing we have to say. How we will respond to what we are hearing.

We don’t listen well.

Listening is at the heart of today’s story. It begins with Philip. One of those seven we heard about last week. Appointed, along with Stephen and others, to oversee the food distribution program of the early church. Do you notice, once again, where we are seeing the Spirit at work? In the kitchen?

After Stephen’s death, the persecution of Jesus believers belonging to “The Way” increased, led by Saul, who we would later come to know as the Apostle Paul. As a result of this, the Jerusalem church scattered. Philip travels down (really up) to Samaria to proclaim the good news of Jesus to the people with a positive result. Soon Peter and John join him there. Then, all of them return to Jerusalem. While Philip is in the city, an angel of the Lord speaks to him. Calling him to get up and go south to the city of Gaza.

Now, Gaza is along the southern coast of Israel. Traveling there is not easy. Even our text says it’s a “wilderness road.” It’s a journey through rocky territory that takes you to hills of sand that must be traversed before reaching this coastal city.

Notice though, that in our story, Philip listens. And, then, he acts. And begins his wilderness journey. 

It’s not long before he meets someone on the way. An eunuch. An official of the queen - the Secretary of the Treasury for the Ethiopian nation. One appointed who’s entire focus would be one of serving his nation. One who, in our world today, we might view as “other.”

He’s been to Jerusalem to worship there. On his return, he’s stopped along the road in his chariot, reading from the prophet Isaiah. We read in our text that the Holy Spirit directs Philip to go to him. Again, Philip listens. And acts. When he comes to the Ethiopian, he hears him reading. And inquires whether the official understands. Philip, again, listens to his response and his invitation to Philip to join him in his chariot. The passage he is reading is from Isaiah 53, the same passage we heard on Good Friday, often titled “The Suffering Servant.” The Ethiopian asks a question. Philip listens. Then he begins to answer. To share the good news about Jesus. And about this suffering servant. Once dead, now alive. 

But, notice that Philip isn’t the only one who is listening. As the Ethiopian hears Philip’s witness, he, too, is moved to act. In a way that perhaps is surprising to Philip. “Look, here is water!” he says to Philip. “What is keeping me from being baptized?” Immediately they stop and the Ethiopian is baptized by Philip.

Then, notice, as a colleague has mentioned, notice that once the Ethiopian - this unnamed man - is baptized, Philip gets out of his way. Or rather the Spirit whisks Philip out of his way. One can only wonder how the Holy Spirit continues to work transformation in the heart and life of this stranger. This "other."

Today is Creation Care Sunday. Yet, this Sunday is also set in the midst of an eventful week for us in this country. A verdict. Yet, even in its midst, more shootings of people of color. 

The cries of communities of color have been heard in our country for decades. Even centuries. The warnings of environmentalists and scientists about the damage we have done and continue to do to creation have been lifted up, as we just heard from Lana, for over a century. 

Are we listening? Or are we so concerned about our own needs that we have failed to hear or even refused to listen - and, then, to act? Notice that in our story listening is always connected to action. What are we doing to change how we live? What are we doing to correct the damage and trauma inflicted upon people or God’s creation we have “othered” in our world?

As is apparent from this story, we trust that God through the Holy Spirit is at work in our world to bring about restoration. And new life. But, like Philip, we are called to come alongside this work. To listen. And, then, to act. Because to do otherwise simply cheapens the gracious gift of life given to each one of us in Christ.

Are you listening?

Preached on Sunday, April 25, 2021, online to Grace & Glory Lutheran, Goshen, KY, and Third Lutheran, Louisville, KY.
Easter 4 - Creation Care Sunday
Readings: Acts 8:26-39, Luke 24:44-47

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