The Rev. Melanie McCarley
These weeks following the resurrection of Jesus bless us with stories of our Savior’s followers as they begin to make their way in the world, living out what they had seen and heard of Jesus. Today’s story is familiar to many of us. Philip baptizes the Ethiopian.
One interesting fact of note. The Philip we encounter in the Book of Acts, he’s not the same as the Philip of the Gospels. This Philip is a Greek, living in Jerusalem. He is one of the Seven appointed to run the food pantry, clinic and hospice program there, so the Twelve apostles could be free to evangelize (spreading the Gospel to the ends of the earth). Today we hear that an Angel of the Lord says to Philip, “Get up and go toward the south to the wilderness road that goes down from Jerusalem to Gaza.” And Philip, well he gets up and goes. And on this road is where he encounters the Ethiopian.
Now, if we consider that Philip was himself an outsider of sorts—a Greek, having lived in Jerusalem, now making his way towards who-knows-where, here he meets another outsider. And the man he encounters is himself definitive of the quintessential outsider. This man is an Ethiopian, a person of a different color, of complicated gender, an official to a foreign power and wealthy (he was, after all, in charge of the treasure of the Queen), and here he sits in his chariot on a wilderness road, reading—of all things—the Book of the prophet Isaiah. This Ethiopian, he is everything that Philip is not. All in all, it’s something of an outlandish sight. But here is where I become fascinated, because Philip engages this odd looking entity. He notices the book the Ethiopian is holding in his hands, he notices brows furrowed in confusion and inquires: “Do you understand what you are reading?”
It’s this moment of engagement that I find most fascinating. We live in a world far more populous than that of Philip in the Book of Acts. Yet we find engagement to be more daunting than ever. We content ourselves with superficialities, never really delving into the questions which tug at the heart, the real questions that pull at our soul. Not only do we content ourselves to remain with superficialities with strangers---quite frequently we never broach these questions with the people whom we love the most. We talk of the weather. “Sure hope it doesn’t rain on the folks running the James Joyce Ramble.” We speak of roads. “Sure are a lot of potholes this spring.” If we see someone who is markedly different than ourselves we tactfully look away. Rarely do we look one another in the eye.
This is one of the reasons I’m so taken with today’s story. Philip takes time to notice the odd looking person in the chariot, holding the book of Isaiah in his hands, looking at the text with what I imagine to be a fair amount of confusion on his face. Philip knows a seeker when he sees one; perhaps because, as a Greek, he’s been one himself; and rather than assuming that the task of engagement lies with the apostles, he takes the initiative. He doesn’t pause to consider that he doesn’t share the same ethnicity. He, most assuredly, is not as wealthy, he overrides any qualms he might have about the individual’s gender, and he marches up and begins to speak. And lo and behold, the Ethiopian speaks back. And they don’t talk about the weather! Or about the roads?
Susan Everett, herself the daughter of a newspaper editor, wrote of the advice Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter Bill Dedman, a senior writer at Newsday once gave her. He wrote: “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. Look for documents that are not handed out at the meetings. Aggressively ask readers for story ideas. Get your business card into the hands of every person on your beat. Find ways to broaden your media diet. Change your perspective. Never sit in the press box.”
Now, this is good advice for a budding reporter. Yet I believe it’s fine advice for people of faith as well. “find the most interesting person to sit with. Look for documents that are not handed out at the meetings. Change your perspective. Never sit in the press box.” If we, like Philip, are believers in the risen Lord, if we believe in what the scriptures say…well, how do we speak of this to others? How do we engage?
If you want to change a person’s life—including your own, it means you have to be willing to be led by the Holy Spirit, to venture out onto the wilderness roads, and search out the most interesting people out there—and find a way to hear their story—and, perhaps, share a bit of your own. To converse with them on a level bypassing the superficial.
Frankly, this is challenging to Episcopalians—we of the reticent, perpetually tactful denomination. I know full well that offering this kind of challenge is akin to asking many of you to enter the cage of a hungry tiger holding a bit of raw meat in your hands. For the faint of heart and, perhaps…even the wise among us, this is not the done thing. But hear me out—this is where you have the possibility of changing a life—maybe even your own.
How do we do this? Quite honestly, I don’t believe it’s by knocking on doors and inquiring as to an individual’s salvation. Start with a friend, ask them what they think—what they really think about salvation. And just listen. Find out why they think what they do. You don’t have to convert—just do your best to understand. Then, branch out. Next time you’re on a train or plane, or seated next to someone new at church, ask them a question, notice what they are reading, ask them what their favorite piece of music might be, the book they love the most, the most fascinating place they’ve been. Notice them, allow them to notice you, and engage. The more you practice, the more confident you’ll become. And perhaps, one day, you might meet someone like the Ethiopian, a person who looks a bit out of place, a mite confused, a bit befuddled—and then, having had ample practice behind you, you might be able to offer them the words given by the Holy Spirit, words which don’t simply illicit interest—but words which might, indeed, change that person’s life-not just for the present moment, but for eternity. In Jesus’ name. Amen.