April 29, 2018: Three Questions by Rev. Beth Hayward (Luke 8: 26-40)

Marilynne Robinson has a new book out. You know her: Pulitzer Prize winning author of Gilead, daughter of a preacher, confident of Barrack Obama? Her new book is called What are we Doing Here? It’s a compilation of her essays touching on big themes like hope and meaning, faith and life. In a recent interview she reminisced about the days when she used to teach the Christian Bible on campus. “When I was teaching Scripture,” she says, ”many of the students were very appreciative of the class, but were embarrassed to be seen walking across campus carrying the Bible, nervous to be seen as cruel-minded fanatics. That’s a terrible position for faith to be in,” she says.

I admit that I live in a bit of a church bubble, wearing crosses and talking endlessly about Jesus is widely accepted in my circles but I appreciate that the story outside these walls of what it means to be one who follows the way of Jesus of Nazareth, is at worst a story of cruel-minded fanatics and at best a story of unquestioning fools. In this, arguably, Canada’s most secular city the fact that you come to church makes you an anomaly, perhaps a curiosity to your friends and colleagues.

It’s not cool to be a Christian; I get that. There are all sorts of perceptions about the word Christian. Through most of the Twentieth Century, Christianity was the default religion of the West.  there was no need to explain it, justify it, not even any reason for those who claimed it to really think about what it meant. But it’s different now.

I’m asked far more these days than I was twenty years ago, what does it mean to be a Christian? People want to know what they should do, what they should study, how to behave? From those more experienced in eastern traditions I’m asked what are the practices that make a Christian, a Christian? From those arriving here from a more fundamentalist approach the question is more along the lines of, is this really Christian?  I’m asked too, how do I speak of my faith with my atheist colleagues, with my fundamentalist neighbours?

The Book of Acts is an interesting place to bring these sorts of questions. Acts is very likely written by the same author as Luke. It’s like volume two, the continuing story of the disciples after the awe and wonder of Easter subsides. It recounts tales of the first Christian disciples, the ones who went out to share the Good News before there was even a definition of Christian, long before there was anything resembling a church. When you look at some of these stories you can almost imagine the wheels spinning in the heads of these characters, trying to make the most faithful choices minute by minute. There are no church rules to live by here; it’s more a commitment to follow the nudging of the Spirit. When I’m asked what it looks like to be a Christian today this may be the best definition I can muster, follow the nudge of Spirit.

Take the story before us, Philip and the Ethiopian eunuch which, let’s be honest, is rather like saying “The disciple and that foreigner with the accent.” Philip, one of the original disciples of Jesus, hears an angel telling him to take a wilderness road from Jerusalem to Gaza. So he goes and on the road he encounters this foreigner riding along in his chariot reading scripture aloud, because that is apparently how you read in those days.

There are many directions we could go with this one but today I want to start with the questions. The eunuch asks three question, all of which point to what it might mean to follow in the way of Jesus.

The first one comes as Philip hears the foreigner reading from the prophet Isaiah and asks him: “Do you understand what you’re reading?” The eunuch’s response: “How can I understand unless someone guides me?” At first blush this looks like a question begging for an answer. Is he desperate for someone to show up and tell him how to think, what to do, how to live? But this is not the plea of an ignorant man. This eunuch is educated enough to know how to read, wealthy enough to own a scroll, he’s riding a chariot for goodness sake. “How can I understand unless someone guides me?” He doesn’t need an answer he just needs someone to join him in his chariot for some deep conversation.

Do you know that experience? You don’t need someone to fix it or answer all your questions. You just need a companion to go over the questions with? You don’t need someone to make your struggles go away, just someone willing to take the time to clamor up on your chariot of down into your pit of despair and be present with you. It’s powerful. Let’s call it the Christian practice of admitting I have something to learn. The spiritual practice of letting go of my need to have the answers, letting go of the ego that claims to be self sufficient. When you think of the great inventors and scientists, the great writers and leaders, the best of the best are driven by a curiosity, a desire to learn more and more and are generally humble enough to know that they too need a bit of help.

It’s not that the eunuch doesn’t understand the words. He’s likely having difficulty reconciling the passage he’s reading from Isaiah with one he’s read previously from Deuteronomy. Back in Deuteronomy it says that anyone who is sexually mutilated is forbidden from participation in worship. In Isaiah it says that anyone who keeps the Sabbath is welcome in the house of God.[1] That’s the thing about a Christian interpretation that thinks it has answers. You can pick up the bible and find passages to support many points of view, even contradictory perspectives. You can not rely on this book as some literal road map, it is an interpretation, a conversation starter.

I don’t doubt for a moment that he understands the words on both pages, what he needs help with is finding the connection to his life. With Philip he encounters someone who has actually experienced, touched, tasted and felt the presence of God. Knowing the facts is one thing, making sense of them in our context is another.

This is where a fundamentalist read of scripture comes up short for many of us. The words on the page are not enough, rules without a mind to context aren’t compelling.

This first question quickly leads to the second where he asks “About whom does the prophet say this?” In other words: Is this about Isaiah or is it about me as well? Is God speaking to my experience of being an outcast? Philip is no teacher, not a rabbi trained for years in the oral tradition. He’s just a guy whose life was changed through his flesh and blood experience of Jesus. All he has to offer is his testimony, his story. So Philip says let me tell you what this passage from Isaiah reminds me of. The eunuch’s life was changed not from an answer but from a testimony and there’s a big difference. The scriptures only really come to life when we begin to see that the truths and wisdom, the heartbreak and triumph contained within are not a history lesson but a story that is woven into our stories.

The final question comes along like a scene in a poorly crafted film script. Philip has just testified to his experience of Jesus and the chariot pulls up beside some water.  Cue the unexpected random placement of water. But no matter, as they pass the water the eunuch says hey Philip, what’s to prevent me from being baptized?  I hope that this story ended up in the bible because of this answer. There is a whole lot Philip could have said. He could have said, well you might be prevented from being baptized because you’re a foreigner, you work for the wrong royalty, your skin is the wrong colour, you haven’t attended a membership class, you don’t come to church often enough, your accent is too thick, your gender identity is different from the rest of us… He could have said all the things that churches say about why someone isn’t worthy.

But Philip heard the whisper of Spirit, that persistent whisper that calls us back to the oneness, to the possibilities, to the place where prejudices and preconceived ideas fall away to possibilities and promises. Though it looks in the text like Philip never misses a beat, I wonder if there was in fact a long pregnant pause before he says to this stranger “nothing is preventing you from being included in the kingdom of God, in the household of Christ.” Not your sexual orientation or gender identity, not your ability or race, not your awkward social demeanor, not the way you never seem to get a joke, nothing. There is nothing preventing you from being baptized, from being included in the communion of those who seek to follow in the way of Jesus. You are welcome here. Imagine that. Imagine nothing preventing you from being included.

I’m asked a lot these days some variation of the question “what does it look like to be a Christian? Not a cruel minded fanatic but an open hearted open minded sort of Christian. What if we start by paying attention, not to our well-established answers but to the questions in our midst? What if we continually challenge ourselves to see more in every encounter than we’ve seen before? More than what we already know?

Our brains processes 400 billion bits of information per second. Of those we are only aware of about 2000. That’s as much as our minds can take in, at this stage of our evolution. We’ve evolved so as to ignore all of the information coming at us that is not important, not relevant to the current moment. What if we challenged this and practiced noticing a bit more?

There was an experiment done not that many years ago where participants are asked to watch a video of people in white t-shirts and others in black passing basketballs one to another. Viewers are asked to count the number of times the ball is passed between the white shirts. At one point in the video researchers have a man in a gorilla costume slowly walk through the scene, turn to the camera, look into it for a good second and carry on across the other side of the room. When it’s over the researchers ask how many times was the ball passed and the viewers usually get very close to the correct answer. Then they’re asked if they saw the gorilla and only half answer yes.[2] They miss the gorilla because they were told to pay attention to the ball.

We’ve evolved this way to keep ourselves alive but sometimes our selective skills of observation are more of a hindrance these days. This story is a testimony to what happens when we notice more, when we dare to open to reality being more than we dreamed it could be. Let’s face it the most difficult spiritual work in the world is to love neighbour as self, to experience another human being or any part of creation for that matter, as something we can use, change, fix, help, save, convince, or control.[3]

Maybe the very first spiritual practice is to pay attention, to put your answers aside long enough to pay attention. Maybe we could try that just a little more often.

[1] https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=3633, also see: Feasting on the Word, Year A Volume 2. eds. Bartlett and Brown Taylor, Westminster John Press, Lousiville 2008.Commentary on the Fifth Sunday of Easter, Pastoral, by Thomas Long, p456.

[2] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vJG698U2Mvo  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UtKt8YF7dgQ

[3] see Barbara Brown Taylor An Altar in the World.