May 3, 2015
In a recent issue of the Investigative Reporters and Editors newsletter, Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter Bill Dedman, a senior writer at Newsday, offered this advice to his peers:
“There are no stories in newsrooms. There are no stories in morning meetings and conference calls where editors throw around topics. As a reporter, resist being sent out to pursue story ideas that are really just topics. And if you’re ever an editor, send reporters out into the world, trusting them to find stories.
Even if your assignment is a high school graduation ceremony, or a routine trial, find the most interesting person to sit with…. Change your perspective. Never sit in the press box.”
“Find the most interesting person to sit with.” And so, in our reading from Acts today, the Holy Spirit does exactly that. The Spirit sends Philip, a Gentile deacon of a growing upstart religious movement, along a wilderness road. Though Phillip had been doing fairly well preaching in Samaria, suddenly this cub reporter is sent out into the world to find a story. And the Spirit of the Lord sends along the most interesting person Philip could possibly find to sit with: an Ethiopian eunuch.
The Ethiopian eunuch and Philip are as different as any two people could be. They are from different races and ethnic groups. The eunuch may or may not have belonged to a sexual minority group—the word eunuch refers to a court official who may or may not have been actually castrated. If he was, it makes the story more interesting because in Deut. there is a law against eunuchs entering the assembly of the Lord. Whatever his sexual status, he was indeed a high government official—the secretary of the treasury for the Queen of Sheba. Certainly the fact that he can read shows his status and the fact that he has a scroll indicates he is wealthy. The Holy Spirit nudges Philip, saying, “Go over to the chariot and join this most interesting man.”
And Philip does. The eunuch is reading from the prophet Isaiah, and Philip asks, “Do you understand what you are reading?” “How can I,” responds the eunuch,”unless someone explains it to me?” Evidently recognizing Phillip as a local who might have some insight to share, the Ethiopian man invites Phillip into the chariot beside him, and the two of them read and discuss the Scripture. Talk about Bible study with some wonderfully diverse perspectives! I’d love to have been in on that one!
After some discussion on the journey, the Ethiopian eunuch sees some water and exclaims, “What is to prevent me from being baptized?” What is to prevent anyone from being baptized? Can wealth or race or sexual status or intellectual understanding or physical ability or anything else keep us away from belonging to God’s family? NO! The Good News is for all and all are invited to share in the fullness of life with God and with each other!
I’ve been thinking about the universal family of God a lot this week, as the news has carried a double lens of pain lately. There is Nepal—where the number of earthquake victims steadily climbs—and there is Baltimore— where frustration has overflowed into the city streets. Their pain is our pain; their grief is our grief, for we are all one family. Whatever differences we perceive between us and the hurting faces we see in the media, the central truth of our existence is that we are all God’s people. What hurts one part of the body hurts us all. And when one part of the body rejoices—say, in the discovery of a child who survived under the rubble of Kathmandu, or in a coordinated effort by different gang members to preserve peace in Baltimore, then we all rejoice with them.
This is what it means to belong to God’s family. Or as Jesus puts it in today’s Gospel, that’s what it means to be distinct branches of one vine. We thrive by being connected to Christ’s compassion and forgiveness and resurrection. We are not unique plants, but all components of the one Vine that is Jesus.
As the branches of a plant resemble one another because they are fed on the same nutrients and grow under the same sun and rain, we people of God who abide in our Vine take on characteristics of Jesus because we are nurtured by his presence in us and among us. That is what makes it possible for us to love our sisters and brothers—even the ones we imagine to be wildly different from ourselves—because we all draw our sustenance from the same God. And since God lives in us and we live in God, we are able to reach out beyond our comfort zones to pay attention to our neighbors in need. We do not sit in the press box, we go out on the road to find and listen to stories.
Like Phillip and the eunuch, we talk together about our ideas and we ask one another questions about what we have learned. Like Phillip and the eunuch, we are able to reach across the artificial boundaries of race and class and language and nationality to recognize one another as members of the same family tree. It is not always easy to sit with people who are unlike us. It requires that we listen deeply and try to understand, rather than trying to formulate what we will say next.
It means interpreting behavior we don’t understand in the best possible light, offering the most room for grace. It means recognizing that the money with which we have been entrusted might be better spent on our neighbors than on ourselves. And all of that is challenging. That is why we partake of one bread and drink from one cup as a sacramental action when we are together—because Jesus knows we need some help. We need God’s own power to help us see other branches on this vine as God’s beloved children.
And so the Holy Spirit works with us and among us, prodding us to go out of our way to find the stories of all the interesting people who are not like us, who are just like us. And the Holy Spirit provides water for baptism for us all. And after we’ve shared our questions and our stories together for a time, the Holy Spirit sends us on our way again, changed.
The eunuch and Phillip may never have met again, but I bet they never forgot what they learned by coming face to face with a stranger who turned out to be another child of God on that wilderness road. May the Holy Spirit send us on an adventure this week, instructing us to sit next to the most interesting person around, and may we engage with them as members of the same vine, rooted in the same love.
~Pastor Susan Schneider