“Philip asked, ‘Do you understand what you are reading? The eunuch replied, ‘How can I, unless someone guides me? And he invited Philip to get in and sit beside him.” Acts 8:30-31
Sometimes when I’m eating in a restaurant, I notice a couple sitting on the same side of a table or a booth. It’s usually an older couple. I always imagine them to be long-married because their posture often conveys the comfort and familiarity of people who have known each other for many years. They’re no longer caught up in the giddy infatuation of love’s early days when all you want to do is gaze into the other person’s eyes. Now they’ve settled in beside one another, waiting for whatever life will bring and preparing to meet it together.
There’s something about sitting beside another person. I love to snuggle up next to my nieces when we read a book together, pausing occasionally to discuss why a character made that decision and what we think might happen next. At the times in my life when I’ve been most heartbroken, I didn’t really need anyone to offer words of wisdom. The best thing friends could do was sit beside me, put an arm around my shoulder, and remind me of their presence.
Sitting beside another person makes a statement: We are in this together. We have solidarity. Whatever comes at us, we can face it.
Of course all of the situations I just described involve the intimacy of those who already know and love each other, those who share a history. That’s what makes a particular moment in our First Reading today so shocking. The Ethiopian eunuch invites Philip to climb into his chariot and sit beside him. And Philip does it.
These two people have only just met each other, shoved together by the Holy Spirit.[i] It’s about the only way they could have met, given the different worlds from which they come. Philip is a guy working on behalf of the church. A couple of chapters before this moment, he had been chosen as an apostle and leader of the early church. He had been sent to Samaria to do some preaching so that more people would know about Jesus. Samaria was already pretty far out of his comfort zone, so when an angel sends word that he’s supposed to head out on a wilderness road to Gaza, Philip probably thought twice about what he’d signed on for. Wilderness roads weren’t a desirable place to hang out. Wilderness roads could get you killed.
But Philip goes. He goes down that wilderness road in spite of having no idea where it was leading. Along the way he encounters this court official who works for the Ethiopian queen. The official is also a eunuch, a man who had been castrated. Eunuchs were often given great responsibility in royal circles. For obvious reasons they reduced the risk of sexual impropriety at the highest levels of leadership. In this case the eunuch has been put in charge of all the money, so in spite of his other limitations, he is a person of power and status.
This man has gone all the way to Jerusalem to worship – a long journey that might even be described as a pilgrimage. And the heartbreaking thing is that he probably wasn’t allowed into the Temple when he got there. Eunuchs were forbidden from entering the house of the Lord.[ii] But in spite of what may have been an unfulfilled pilgrimage to Jerusalem, what do we find the eunuch doing? He is sitting in his chariot reading a scroll that includes this passage from the 53rdchapter of Isaiah:
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.
That’s what he’s doing when Philip comes along. Reading from the prophet Isaiah and wondering what it means. So he invites Philip to sit beside him and help him out.
I love that simple moment of encounter. I imagine these two men from impossibly different worlds sitting beside each other, heads bent over a scroll, running their fingers along the words and trying to make sense of them together.
It captures something that I described earlier this week when I had the chance to speak at the interfaith Abraham Lunch hosted by Chatham United Methodist Church. Each speaker was asked to name what we appreciated about the other two Abrahamic faith traditions. One of the aspects of Judaism that I discussed is called havruta. It’s from a word that means “fellowship” or “companionship,” and it’s the Jewish practice of having a partner with whom to study sacred text. In havruta partners dig into a text together, debate its meanings, push each other to think more deeply about it, ask each other questions, challenge what seems off-base. The idea is that two people can sharpen each other’s engagement with the text.
The practice of havruta rests upon something I have long believed – that we learn best in community, that others can push us to understand what is beyond our own limited perspective or experience.
In the case of Philip and the eunuch, we don’t have a full report of the conversation. But we know two things. It begins with the eunuch asking who the prophet Isaiah is describing. Who is this person who has been humiliated? Who has been denied justice? Who has suffered silently as he is led to his death?
And then Philip tells the eunuch about Jesus. We don’t know what he says exactly, but we know that it results in the eunuch’s baptism there by the side of the road. And now these two strangers have become siblings in the faith, forever part of the same family.
These two men are so different, but what brings them together is a shared interest in scripture…which becomes a shared identity in Jesus. Here we truly see an embodiment of that verse from Galatians: “In Christ there is no longer Jew or Greek, slave or free, male or female, for we are all one in Christ Jesus our Lord.”[iii]
Think of a person in your life who is different from you in some way, a person from whom and with whom you might learn something new. How might that happen? In what way might you be able to sit beside that person – if not literally, then symbolically? Could you sit beside that person at a table while you have coffee and talk? Could you sit beside that person at a place important to him or her? Could you sit beside that person digitally or virtually, through FaceTime or Skype or an old-fashioned phone call?
He recalled how much more diverse the police force had become during those three decades. His colleagues had increasingly represented many different races, cultures, religions, and gender identities. He reflected on how much he had learned from his colleagues because of those differences. They had challenged him to understand the world in new ways.
This retired officer came to an important conclusion. He said: “It’s about relationships over categories.” Relationships over categories.
He’s right. It’s in relationships that we learn to see people as more than labels. It’s in relationships that we grow by learning from people who have lived lives completely different from our own. And when our relationships with each other grow out of our relationship with God, then we are able to sit beside each other in solidarity and in love, facing the future together. Amen.
S.D.G. – The Rev. Dr. Christa M. Compton, Gloria Dei Lutheran Church, Chatham, NJ
“I lay down my life for the sheep.” John 10:15b
When I was learning to play the piano as a kid, I’ll admit that I didn’t always love to practice. I knew the practicing was necessary in order to get better, but I wasn’t motivated to do it 100 percent of the time. At one point my dad created a record-keeping system that we put on the wall. For each half-hour that I practiced, I could color in a square on a chart. Then, when I had consistently filled in enough squares for a certain period of time, there would be some kind of small reward. Nothing huge – but I’m embarrassed to admit how much I was motivated by that chart. Those external rewards were often enough to get me to do what I otherwise would have avoided.
But there were other times when I would practice without any thought of a reward. Maybe I’d fallen in love with a song from a movie – the theme from “Ice Castles” comes to mind – and I’d really want to learn how to play that song. Maybe I was learning my half of a duet for an upcoming recital, and I didn’t want to let down my partner, so I worked hard on it. Sometimes I got so excited by a piece that I was learning that I didn’t even notice how much time I was sitting at the piano. The progress was its own reward.
Doing it for the reward versus doing it out of love. Both had their place, but one was more satisfying.
Today Jesus reminds us of the difference between a hired hand and a shepherd. The hired hand does what he is obligated to do, but his motivation is purely transactional. Protect the sheep. Get a paycheck. So at the first sign of real danger – a wolf, for example – the hired hand is out of there. The paycheck is not worth his life.
The shepherd, on the other hand, is motivated by something much deeper. The sheep belong to the shepherd. The shepherd loves the sheep, loves them so much that he will face down any danger. The shepherd puts his body between the wolf and the flock and dares the wolf to do its worst. The shepherd’s love makes him do crazy, difficult things, even if it costs him his life.
It’s the Easter season, and in recent weeks we’ve heard stories about the risen Jesus showing up among his followers, standing there in a wounded but very-much-alive body and offering them his peace. In these moments he’s doing a kind of shepherding. He’s gathering them and preparing them for what they will soon be called to do – tell the story, share the news, form the beginnings of the church. Theirs will be dangerous, difficult work. He’s getting them ready to be shepherds too, shepherds who will love people and build community.
But today we go back in time a bit. Before Jesus is arrested. Before he is crucified. Before all of the events we recalled during Holy Week not so long ago. Today we hear Jesus talk about being the good shepherd who lays down his life for the sheep, but the disciples don’t yet know that he means it literally.
But what prompts this shepherd speech in the middle of John’s gospel? Just before this moment, Jesus has restored the sight of a man who had been blind since birth. This healing sets off a bit of a local ruckus. The religious leaders interrogate the man’s parents, who are scared to be caught up in the drama. They interview the man himself to find out how he was healed. The man tells the truth, which only seems to agitate the leaders more. They drive the man out of town. It’s crazy. On what should have been the most joyous day of this man’s life – a day he can see for the first time – he’s driven out of his community.
Jesus goes to the man out there on the edges of town. Jesus stands with him. Jesus stands up to the authorities who have driven him out.
Jesus’ shepherd speech is not meant merely as the inspiration for stained glass windows and beautiful music. Jesus is showing us how there are other ways that shepherds put themselves on the line for the sheep. It’s not just about dying for the sheep. Sometimes it’s about living in such a way that we risk something – our safety, our comfort, our reputation – in order to stand with those who have been driven out of their safe places.
Our Second Reading from 1 John says: “We know love by this, that he laid down his life for us—and we ought to lay down our lives for one another. How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses help? Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action.”
That’s what Jesus is trying to teach us to do – to love in truth and action. To lay down our lives for one another not just in what we say, but in what we do.
What does that look like? Sometimes it looks like laboring mightily on a Tag Sale all week long in order to support people who do not have homes and need a way to get back on their feet. Sometimes it looks like what parents do – staying up all night with a sick kid or sacrificing your own wish list so that your kid can do that special summer program or shivering through those extra innings of the game on a chilly night.
Many of you this week have seen the footage from Philadelphia in which two black men were arrested after sitting for a few minutes in a Starbucks while they waited for others to arrive for a meeting. These men did nothing wrong. If sitting in a Starbucks waiting to meet someone is a crime, then I would be serving a life sentence right now. But I am not seen as a threat. And in this country black men too often are. The men were later released without charges, but they spent several hours in custody. Imagine the exhaustion, the fear, the trauma of that experience.
The video is disturbing, but one thing I notice is that there are people who try to intervene on behalf of the men. They challenge what is happening. They attest to the fact that the men were doing nothing wrong. One woman records everything with her phone so that we are able to witness it for ourselves. Those people are doing shepherd’s work, putting something on the line on behalf of another’s safety. They are loving not just in word and speech, but in truth and action. It made me ask myself if I would do the same in that situation.
As we read and sing today about the good shepherd, it might be tempting to think of that image as quaint. It’s something we dust off for funerals and on this one Sunday a year, but what does shepherding really have to do with our modern life?
Jesus knows that we would prefer to be the hired hands. Just do what we are obligated to do and run at the first sign of danger. But Jesus reminds us that there’s plenty of shepherding to do, plenty of powers that threaten the most vulnerable among us, plenty of people who have been chased their whole lives by all kinds of wolves. As Christians we don’t run from those fights. We run toward them. We have been loved by the Good Shepherd who laid down his life for us. And so we are called to live a sacrificial kind of love…a love that costs something…a love that can change the world.
May we, like the Good Shepherd, love not just in words and speech, but in truth and action. Amen.
S.D.G. – The Rev. Dr. Christa M. Compton, Gloria Dei Lutheran Church, Chatham, NJ