“How Can I Understand Unless Someone Guides Me?” Acts 8:26-39

26 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.) 

27 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 28 and was returning home; seated in his chariot, he was reading the prophet Isaiah. 

29 Then the Spirit said to Philip, “Go over to this chariot and join it.” 

30 So Philip ran up to it and heard him reading the prophet Isaiah. 

He asked, “Do you understand what you are reading?” 3

1 He replied, “How can I, unless someone guides me?” 

And he invited Philip to get in and sit beside him. 

32 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.

33 In his humiliation justice was denied him. 

Who can describe his generation?
For his life is taken away from the earth.”

34 The Ethiopian asked Philip, “About whom, may I ask you, does the prophet say this, about himself or about someone else?” 

35 Then Philip began to speak, and starting with this scripture, he proclaimed to him the good news about Jesus. 

36 As they were going along the road, they came to some water; and the Ethiopian said, “Look, here is water! What is to prevent me from being baptized?” 

38 He commanded the chariot to stop, and both of them, Philip and the Ethiopian, went down into the water, and Philip baptized him. 

39 When they came up out of the water, the Spirit of the Lord snatched Philip away; the Ethiopian saw him no more, and went on his way rejoicing.  

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Some one asked me, “Do you have a personal credo that guides you?”  Yes, I do. Tattooed across the inside of my head is the mantra, “Bloom where you are planted.”  In other words, don’t look for greener grass.  Don’t wait for a better opportunity.  Just do the best you can with what you have and where you are.  

So here I am in a pulpit in a small town that is just twenty miles from a larger town where two children were deliberately shot in the back alley behind Larry and Wilma’s house.  Bloom where you are planted.  How am I supposed to bloom, and more importantly, how do I help you to bloom through this tragedy?

I’m assuming none of us knew those boys who were riding their bikes through the alley, just like hundreds of kids before them for as long as that alley has been there; Kevin and Michael Johannsen rode their bikes through that alley when they were kids.  There is nothing remarkable about that particular alley, except that it runs behind Wilma and Larry’s house. 

There was nothing remarkable until bullets went flying and children were frightened and hurt and killed. It became a crime scene. Police cars and firetrucks and ambulances and frightened and angry people appeared out of nowhere and Larry couldn’t even put the van in the garage. And a mother couldn’t tuck her child into bed that night.  

This is personal.

This is a test.

Who is my neighbor?  

Jesus asked that one day, a long time ago. The question still haunts us.  My neighbor lives next door.  My neighbor lives down the street.  My neighbor lives around the corner.  My neighbor lives across the road.  My neighbor lives across the field.  My neighbor lives across town.  

Where do we stop?  

What does Jesus mean by neighbor?  According to the parable of the Good Samaritan, a neighbor is defined by need. The one who needs me is my neighbor.  That is a very different definition from our conventional use of the word. For us, neighbor is connected to location.

Jesus erases those boundaries and leaves us wide open to exposure to all kinds of “neighbors.”

Who is my neighbor? The sins of our culture, of our society, have built boundaries and alienated us from our neighbors.  The boundaries have been created from skin color, from economic status, from language, from faith practices. Skin color in itself is not a boundary.  Economic status is not a boundary.  How we speak our native tongue is not a boundary. Our choice of religious practice is not a boundary.  But like a tree or a stone, someone else has taken those elements and made them into walls that seem impenetrable. 

This is a test.  God does not test us.  Sin tests us.  Never think that God is holding you up against some standard that you can never meet.  It is sin that tests us; God has the answer sheet.

This is a test.  Sin, evil, tempts us to give in, to see only suffering and injustice, to see only guns and bullets, to see only anger and danger. Sin is not the answer. Sin is not the standard. Sin is the mischief maker, the culprit, the tempter, the villain, the abuser. 

We do not face sin alone.  God stands right beside us, unbeaten, unwavering, unalterable.

This is a test.  The most important question in the world is “Who is my neighbor?”

Was the boy killed behind Larry and Wilma’s house their neighbor?

Was he your neighbor?  Was he my neighbor?

In today’s scripture, Phillip and the Ethiopian are definitely not neighbors.  They are strangers separated by physical differences, by calling, by geography, by status.  And yet, they are, for a short time neighbors, sharing the word of God.

An important Ethiopian official happened to be going along that road in his chariot. He was the chief treasurer for Candace, the Queen of Ethiopia. The official had gone to Jerusalem to worship 28and was now on his way home. He was sitting in his chariot, reading the book of the prophet Isaiah.

[Phillip} asked, “Do you understand what you are reading?” 3

1 He replied, “How can I, unless someone guides me?”

“How can I, unless someone guides me?”

 God sent Phillip to guide the Ethiopian, to help him to understand the prophecy of Isaiah, to learn about the fulfilment of the prophecy, to be moved by the Spirit to accept Jesus as the Messiah.  

“What is to prevent me from being baptized?” asks the Ethiopian. 

The story doesn’t end with baptism.  The death and resurrection of Jesus does more than free us from sin. We are freed from sin to love our neighbor. 

How did that baptism change the Ethiopian’s life?  We’ll never know.

We do know that baptism can change our lives, that we have been changed and charged to be witnesses and workers in this place and time. 

As we watch horrific events take place far away and close to home, how can we witness to the salvific grace of God?  

Wilma walked down to the group of grieving friends and family yesterday to offer her condolences. Wilma saw what we do not see on the evening news: the faces of those who are mourning, the faces of those who are hurt and angry and frustrated because another child, a child from their family, from their neighborhood, has died.  It doesn’t matter now how or why he died.  He’s dead. He leaves behind parents, cousins, classmates, teachers.

How do we witness in such a world?

Who will cross our path like the Ethiopian crossed Phillip’s path?

We, in this congregation, are far removed from the news we see on television. The big news this week has been the conviction of a person who killed another person.  Is that man my neighbor? 

When Jesus told us that we should love our neighbor, did he have a certain radius in mind, like everyone within ten miles, a hundred miles?

My gut feeling is that Jesus was not talking about boundaries.  Knowing how all-encompassing Jesus’s love is for all of humanity, I’m thinking we are asked to love all of humanity.

How can we love people we’ll never meet? 

What if we start with our thoughts?  

We live in a time of sharp divisions.  It used to be that the most serious rivalries we experienced were the Bears versus the Packers or the ‘Clones versus the Hawks. Now mention “guns” or “vaccine” and suddenly you’re labeled and shoved in one box or another, without an opportunity to be neutral or undecided. And the people in the other box become anything but your neighbor.

What if we change our thinking about our neighbor who collects guns or gets a vaccine? What if we think about our neighbor as a person who lives and loves and struggles and laughs and prays just like we do?  

What if I think of the people I lump together as growing and blooming where they are planted?

What if I think of them as individuals, each created in the image of God?

What if I lay aside my well-earned biases and see a reflection of myself in each individual?  

What do people who see me for the first time, up close or from a distance, really see?  An old lady, with messy hair, who has had too many desserts and would come in last in a foot race. That’s not the way you see me, because you know me, but to anyone else, “nothing to see here; move along.”

What if we were able to look into the face of the one who is the Ethiopian or Norwegian, the one who is a foreigner or the neighbor who never waves as he drives by, the one who is richer or poorer, the one who is ugly or drop-dead gorgeous and see that person, not through our own eyes, hardened and narrowed by the world, but through the eyes of Jesus?  

What does Jesus see when he runs through an alley with boys riding their bikes? Who does Jesus see when he looks into the eyes and heart of a man with a gun who must pull a trigger? Who does Jesus see when he watches an official sign a piece of paper that removes or delivers the rights of others?

Who does Jesus see when he looks into the face of a man or woman sentenced to prison?  Who does Jesus see when he listens to angry profanities shouted from mouth of a man or woman?  Who does Jesus see when he looks into the heart of a man who abuses his wife, when he looks into the sou of a woman who neglects her children?  Who does Jesus see when he walks with the policeman or the person who walks constantly in fear? 

Jesus sees the image of God.  Jesus sees the goodness in that person. 

What if I, the greatest of sinners, remember that I am created in the same image as the person who frustrates me, as the person who angers me, as the person who threatens me?  What if I remember that my thoughts are as prone to sin as my words and actions?  What if I clean up my thoughts….then what?

Thoughts lead to words, do they not? What if my conversation reflects the intention of the Eighth Commandment? 

Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor.16 What does this mean? — Answer.
We should fear and love God that we may not deceitfully belie, betray, slander, or defame our neighbor, but defend him, [think and] speak well of him, and put the best construction on everything.

What if we give our neighbor—the one we have’t ever met, the one we’ll never approach, the neighbor whose life is so different from ours that we can’t understand it—that neighbor—what if we only defend him, think and speak well of him, and give him the benefit of the doubt.  

We don’t have to judge, although our sinful nature always butts in and compares “those people” to our own standards. We don’t have to condemn—someone else will take care of that.  We only—only—  have to see them as a sibling in Christ.  

Don’t tell me you’re only human, that, of course, you can’t help thinking of “those people” —the billionaires, the politicians, the people who live west of Brady,  the people who live in “government housing,”  the tree huggers, the refugees, as losers and cheaters, as lazy and stupid.  You are human which means you  are made in the image of God.  You can control your thoughts and your words and your actions.

Each of us is a marvelous creation of God.  And here’s something to remember: God didn’t abandon us after he created us.  We’re not like some Barbie doll that’s lying at the back of the closet with tangled hair and one leg. We are still very much cared for, always very much loved, and understood by God better than we understand ourselves.  

God cares about us and loves us and respects us.  Love is something that is meant to be returned. How do we return our love to God? By loving God’s creation, God’s people.  How do we show that love? Thought. Word.  Deed.  

How? When?  Phillip didn’t wake up that morning planning to ride in a chariot with a man who was not from his neighborhood, not from his community.  But when that stranger needed help, Phillip said, “OK!”  

Phillip did not say, “He’s rich and stuck up, his skin is black, he’s a foreigner.” Phillip didn’t say, “Not my problem.” Phillip said “OK!” Phillip said, “Let me help you.” And a mile down the road, Phillip and the Ethiopian hopped out of the chariot and another child of God was baptized.

Sin tests us. God gives us the answer. Love your neighbors, even if you don’t know them. Amen.

Never Absent; Always Present Luke 24:1-12

24 Very early on Sunday morning the women went to the tomb, carrying the spices that they had prepared. 

2 When they found the stone rolled away from the entrance, 3 they went in. 

But they did not find the body of the Lord Jesus, 4 and they did not know what to think.

Suddenly two men in shining white clothes stood beside them. 

5 The women were afraid and bowed to the ground. 

But the men said, “Why are you looking in the place of the dead for someone who is alive?

 6 Jesus isn’t here! 

He has been raised from death. 

Remember that while he was still in Galilee, he told you, 7 ’The Son of Man will be handed over to sinners who will nail him to a cross. But three days later he will rise to life.’ “ 

8 Then they remembered what Jesus had said.

9-10 Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and some other women were the ones who had gone to the tomb. 

When they returned, they told the eleven apostles and the others what had happened. 

11 The apostles thought it was all nonsense, and they would not believe.

12 But Peter ran to the tomb. 

And when he stooped down and looked in, he saw only the burial clothes. 

Then he returned, wondering what had happened.

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Nothing has changed since last Easter.

Oh, sure, we didn’t meet in person last Easter.

We have a different president.  The ice caps are melting faster.  Babies have been born. People have died.

ZOOM is now a household word.

We wear masks.

But nothing important has changed since last Easter Sunday. The tomb is still empty. Jesus is still the conquerer of death. 

The women, Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and some other women, expected to perform one last act of love for their dead friend. 

They had had no opportunity to prepare Jesus’s body for his final resting place. They knew what to do; they would use perfumes and spices to anoint the body, wrap it in cloth and put a special cloth over the face.  At a normal death, the body would remain at the person’s home for a visitation, much like our visitations at funeral homes.  Jesus’s death was not normal; he was taken down from the cross and buried immediately. 

Matthew’s Gospel tells it this way: 

57 When it was evening, there came a rich man from Arimathea, named Joseph, who was also a disciple of Jesus. 58 He went to Pilate and asked for the body of Jesus; then Pilate ordered it to be given to him. 59 So Joseph took the body and wrapped it in a clean linen cloth 60 and laid it in his own new tomb, which he had hewn in the rock. He then rolled a great stone to the door of the tomb and went away. 61 Mary Magdalene and the other Mary were there, sitting opposite the tomb.

The Gospel according to John tells us that Jesus had already been anointed: 

39 Nicodemus, who had at first come to Jesus by night, also came, bringing a mixture of myrrh and aloes, weighing about a hundred pounds. 40 They took the body of Jesus and wrapped it with the spices in linen cloths, according to the burial custom of the Jews.

Regardless of which report is 100% accurate, the women needed to do this one last caring thing for their friend. Perhaps they knew that usually women prepared the body, that men did not. Joseph and Nicodemus probably didn’t do it exactly right, so they needed to go in to make sure Jesus was properly buried. As it turned out, the perfumes and spices and clothes weren’t needed.  Jesus wasn’t dead.  There was no body.  

What was their first thought? That the body had been stolen?  That was the fear of chief priests and the Pharisees; they convinced Pilate to  have the stone at the entrance sealed and to have soldiers posted to guard the tomb. 

Imagine! All the efforts of men to make sure that Jesus would no longer be a threat to the establishments of the Roman Empire and the Jewish community were for naught.  The authorities, both secular and religious, did everything they could to silence Jesus. Jesus could not and cannot be silenced.  

What does this mean for us?  

It means that we are freed from sin, freed from death, freed from our mortality. Those are abstract ideas, but we Christians cherish our freedom.  We did not earn this freedom, we did not fight for this freedom.  This freedom is a gift, given without any conditions attached.  

To be freed from our sin frees us to love as Jesus loved. That is what it means for our earthly life.  Jesus not only showed us what love looks like, as he helped and healed and cheered the people of Galilee.  Jesus did more than free us to be the force of love in the world.  

Jesus freed us from death. That is hard for us to imagine. We still die; we still prepare bodies for burial, so what does it mean to be freed from death? We do try to imagine what life after death will be.  We hear stories of people who have died and been resuscitated.  Usually, the people describe meeting God or angels or the people from their family who have been dead for a few years.  

That glimpse of heaven—we call that place we go to after death, heaven—is comforting because it sounds familiar.  Dying is frightening because all we have ever known is life. Even when life is painful, it is preferable to death. Why else do we seek cures for every disease? Why else are we lining up to get vaccines?  Why else do we give money to the American Cancer Society and similar organizations?  We fear death. And yet, Jesus gives us a reason to ignore that fear and look forward to something better. 

We observed the four-year anniversary of my father’s death this past week.  I wrote a little tribute to him that included this:   

I have no doubt that the saints wander among us, seeing only the beauty in our lives.  Thanks be to God for this marvelous creation and for the miracle of human life, which continues even after death, without the sorrow.

I can say this because I know that my father and all the people I’ve loved have or will move from this life to a new life.  I know this because I believe what Jesus did and what Jesus said are meant for me as much as they were meant for the men who put him in the tomb, as much as they were meant for the women at the tomb.

I find great comfort in thinking that the saints walk among us, that heaven is wherever they are.  I cannot prove this; it is only my idea, but let me tell you a story about my cousin, Jane, her mother, Anna, and her daughter-in-law, Nancy.

 Anna’s mother was my great grandmother. Anna’s daughter Jane, is a good friend, as well as my cousin. Jane told me about a visit from Anna—after Anna died. Anna did not visit Jane.  She visited Jane’s daughter-in-law, Nancy.  Nancy had only met Anna once, so it was surprising that she would dream about Anna. But it seems that it was not so much Nancy dreaming as it was Anna visiting Nancy in her dream.  Here is the other part to the story.

When Anna died, Jane came back from Ohio to Muscatine to close up Anna’s house. She chose a few things to take with her, including a plate with roses on it. When she returned home, she hung the plate on the wall of her home.  In Jane’s words: 

Nancy seemed so unlikely.    But what do I know? I believe this was the last plate of the set that didn’t have a chip in it.  I brought it because I always liked how those dishes went so well in the kitchen. After I hung the plate, Ron was the only person who saw it, and neither of us told anyone.  (He wouldn’t anyway.  It is not a guy thing!) The plate still hangs there and makes me smile every day.   

What did Anna tell Nancy in the dream?  She told Nancy to tell Jane she liked where she hung the plate.  Anna was dead.  Nancy had only met Anna once.  Nancy lived in New Hampshire.  Anna is buried in Muscatine.  Jane lives in Ohio.  But Anna saw that Jane took the plate from the house on Cedar Street and took it to the house in Ohio.

So, in my mind, the saints, freed from death by the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, are with us.

Likewise, Jesus is with us.  We proclaim that when we celebrate Holy Communion.  Jesus said “Remember me,” but Jesus is more than a memory for us. 

Barb Hedges-Goettl, a Presbyterian pastor and liturgical scholar, expands on this idea.

Since the Ascension, while believing in the Resurrection, we too are witnesses to an “absent” Jesus with regard to his body.  In the Church, we live out the words about the Word through the preaching of the Word. In the Church, we participate in the absent, ascended, resurrected Jesus through sharing in the body of Christ in the Lord’s Supper.  And, in the world, we live out our witness to the Word and to the resurrected Christ by speaking of God’s selfless love and by acting in selfless love as the body of Christ.

The first and last people to expereince something really, really new on this day were Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and some other women.  What those women saw was a change that would change the world.  

Since then, that empty tomb has remained empty and Jesus Christ has remained risen. 

Michal Beth Dinkler, Assistant Professor of New Testament at Yale Divinity School says exactly what I believe, exactly what I want you to hear and believe: 

The women’s experience, and their response to it, remind us that when we love God, neighbor, and ourselves with our words and our actions, we render Christ visible in a world where the divine all too often seems absent. We draw community together, instead of being pulled apart by fear, confusion, grief, and distress. When we do that—draw attention to a deeper reality that is often hard to remember or believe—God is still present and working in the world. Death does not, and will not, have the last word. That good news—that gospel—is what Christians proclaim when we say that Christ is risen. He is risen, indeed.

The resurrected Christ gives us so much that it is hard to realize it in the space of one sermon, in the space of one Holy Holiday, in the space of four Gospels.  

We are who we are, not because of where or when we were born, not because of what a few pieces of paper say about us or what a few people say about us.  We are who we are, because we believe in God the Father Almighty, in Jesus Christ, God’s only Son, who died for us, who conquered death for us, and in the Holy Spirit, the Giver of Life. We walk in the presence of the Triune God, and the Triune God walks in our presence.  What greater joy, what greater comfort, what greater strength can there be than to say to each other “He is risen!” “He is risen indeed!” Amen.