Monday, May 15, 2006

on ministry

(NOTE: if you're looking for the May 14 sermon, it is in the next post down.)

What makes the Christian life so hard to live is the fact that society does not expect us to live it. We live in a world that discourages virtues like chastity, humility, meekness, and self-giving. If a layperson goes a week between coming to church, they hear so many more messages against such virtues than they hear for it. The culture encourages them to be crass, brash pleasure-seekers. It is what we expect from people.

Yet it is not what is expected of me. Since I have a "Rev." before my name, people watch their language around me. They apologize for living together before they are married rather than flaunting it. They admit they don’t read the Bible or pray enough (or worse, they pretend they read the Bible or pray more than they do). They are selective when telling me about what they did the previous weekend.

People simply expect that I am a paragon of virtue, though I’m no such thing. People are convinced that I’m better than I actually am; they are sure that I never swear, that I pray punctually and perfectly (and get results), and am completely conversant in the Bible. They are sure I’ve never slipped and fallen, or at least that I don’t slip and fall anymore, and that my free time is completely spent on behalf of the poor and needy.

And because people expect it of me, it’s easier to actually do. Since the world expects pastors to be holy, since I receive positive reinforcement for things like prayer, it’s actually easier to carve out time for it. It might seem like a burden to have people expect such things of you, but it has helped me immensely.

In fact, it makes me want to tell you a little secret, especially you laypeople reading this: God expects the same of you that He does of me. That might sound like I’m chastising you, but I’m really not. In fact, I want you to see a truth that can set you free:

You do not have to have any special knowledge to live a full, rich, rewarding, meaningful, life-changing life with God.
You do not have to have a seminary degree.
You do not have to be ordained.
You do not have to have a call to professional ministry.
You do not have to be sure of everything (in fact, it’s easier if you’re not).

All those things you expect of me because I am a pastor, I expect of you–not because you are pastors, but because you are Christians. The world may expect it of me, and not of you, but the good news is that this adventure called the Christian life is open to all–not just the ordained.

Sermon from Sunday, May 14

Hi all--here is yesterday's sermon, based on Acts 8:26-40, the story of Philip and the Ethiopian eunuch.

The story of Philip and the Ethiopian eunuch is one of the most well-known stories in the book of Acts. Philip is commanded by an angel of the Lord to walk down the road that goes from Jerusalem to Gaza, a wilderness road. And like Abraham and Jesus before him, Philip goes out into the wilderness not fully knowing what to expect. And what he receives is a life-changing encounter, an encounter that shaped his whole apostleship.

He meets a eunuch out on the road there in the wilderness. A eunuch was a man who was castrated and therefore considered "safe" to do jobs that brought him into regular contact with women. When Philip first sees the eunuch, he is reading from a scroll in the prophet Isaiah. And so Philip asks him, "Do you understand what you are reading?" And the eunuch quite honestly responds that he does not. "How can I," he asks, "unless someone guides me?" We’ve all felt like this sometimes when we look at the Bible. How could I understand unless someone else can give me some prompting, some guidance? He is reading this passage: "like a sheep he was led to the slaughter; and like a lamb silent before his 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." And he asks Philip an interesting question. He says, "Of whom here is the prophet writing? Is he writing about himself or about someone else?" And Philip goes on to tell him the good news about Jesus, that Isaiah is not just talking about himself, or someone else seven hundred years before Jesus, but he is talking about this Jesus who died and rose again.

And Philip tells him the whole story, about Jesus and about the church, this baptized fellowship of believers who choose to be baptized and so mark their allegiance to this Risen One.
And the story is so beautiful to the eunuch that as they are riding along the road, they see a little stream and the eunuch wants to be baptized right then and there. "Here is water," says the eunuch. "What is to prevent me from being baptized?" And so he is baptized, and as they come up out of the water, the Spirit of the Lord snatches Philip away; and the eunuch doesn’t even seem to mind. The text says that he has gone on his way rejoicing.

It is, as I’ve said, a famous story. It has inspired many sermons in its day. Most of the sermons that I’ve heard about this story have been encouragements to be like Philip. Like Philip, we should be available to go where the Spirit wants us to go. Like Philip, we should always be ready to talk to someone else about Jesus and help them become Christians. Like Philip, we should always be ready to celebrate when someone else becomes a Christian.

Now these are all good sermons, and it’s all true. I think I’ve even preached such a sermon. So I want to start right up front by saying that I think that this is definitely part of this passage: we are to be like Philip and always ready to share the good news of Jesus with another person.

But I must be honest with you: I’m also intrigued by the other person in this passage. I think that it might just be that we have as much to learn from the eunuch in this passage as we do from Philip. Keep in mind that both Philip and the eunuch heard the voice of God in this passage: Philip heard it directly from an angel; and the eunuch heard it coming through what Philip said. I have to say that in my life, when I hear the voice of God, 99.44% of the time, it’s like the eunuch heard the voice of God–through another person. I’ve never seen an angel face-to-face, and I could count on my hands the number of times when I’ve felt God was telling me something directly. Most often, I sense the voice of God coming through another person, like the eunuch. This being is the case, I might just have more to learn from the eunuch’s response to God’s voice than I do from Philip’s.

I know it might make especially the men wince, but I want to think about ourselves in the shoes of this eunuch. He heard the voice of God and responded in just the right way. What lessons can we learn from this courageous man?

Well, first, we should get to know the eunuch a little bit. While it’s true that he was a eunuch, a castrated male, that was not all of who he was. We read that he was a court official of the Candace, the queen of the Ethiopians. But he was not merely a servant of the queen; we read that he was in charge of the royal treasury. He was, basically, the royal treasurer, a position of prestige and power in his African land. (Incidentally, commentators tell us that the land referred to as Ethiopia in this text is in modern-day Sudan.) Lest there be any confusion about this being some poor, kicked-around eunuch, he is riding along in a chariot; not too many people could just ride around in a chariot in those days. Let’s just say we never see Jesus or the disciples in a chariot; it was reserved for royalty and people of high position. So here is this extremely powerful man riding along in his chariot, and he is reading the scroll of the prophet Isaiah. And I think this powerful man has three important lessons for us. I draw these three lessons from the three questions we see him asking.

We see the first lesson when Philip asks him if he understands what he is reading. And he says, "How can I, if there is no one to guide me?" I can’t stress enough how refreshing this guy’s answer is. We live in a time when we don’t show weakness. Can you imagine a powerful politician today being asked, "Do you understand something?" and that politician willingly saying, "No, I don’t understand it. How could I understand it if no one will help me to understand it?" On the other hand, it’s very easy to imagine a politician pretending he knew what he was talking about and blustering on and on about it, all the while, maybe getting it totally wrong.

Of course, it’s not just politicians who do this. We are trained from very early on to put up a good front and act knowledgeable. This past semester at school, when I was very busy, there were a couple of weeks where I didn’t get the required reading done before class. Now do you think I raised my hand at the beginning and said, "I’m sorry. I just didn’t have time to read this. It was a busy week. I know it might cost my grade a little bit, but I just don’t want to keep up this charade?"

Of course not! I pretended like I had done the reading, tried to speak knowledgeably about what was going on in the class, tried to carry it off–like I was fooling anybody at all! And yet, that’s what we are trained to do. Don’t show weakness. Cover up any failings. Don’t let any blood in the water or the sharks will attack.

But we pay a steep price when we pretend like we know it all. When we pretend we know it all, we never learn anything. Why? Because we’re too busy defending ourselves and putting up a front to ever learn anything.

This eunuch here, though, he doesn’t play those games. Instead, he freely admits that he doesn’t understand, that he still has learning to do, that he still has some growing up to do. Because he can admit this, he can grow, he can change, he can develop in a way many people today cannot develop. So the first thing I would encourage us to learn from the eunuch is not to pretend we know it all, and to have a receptive spirit. This eunuch had a receptive spirit to learning more, and he wasn’t threatened by receiving help. We too could benefit from having a receptive spirit which is always open to new proddings from God and the church. Perhaps if we are not closed off, if our spirits are as receptive as the eunuch’s spirit, we could learn more of God and grow in the faith.

If you know someone with a receptive spirit, you know how good it is to be with that person because they listen in a way few people listen, they consider things in a way few people consider them. Like the eunuch, we are called to stop playing like we know it all and live with a receptive spirit.

The second question the eunuch asks also illustrates something of his character. He says to Philip, "About whom, may I ask you, does the prophet say this, about himself, or about someone else?" This question reveals a lot about the eunuch. For one thing, it shows that he’s not just skimming through the scroll here. He’s reading very closely. He’s passionate about finding out what this text might mean for his life, today. And so because of this, he has an inquisitive mind. He truly wants to know what this text means. He’s not looking for a quick fix, not necessarily looking for comfort, not looking for the easy way out in life, but he is truly seeking how this text might alter his existence.

So, as he reads, he leaves no stone unturned. He doesn’t just assume it’s about Isaiah or someone in that time; he thinks, maybe it’s about something else, somebody else at another time. He refuses to be coddled with easy answers–instead, he wants to learn and grow. John Chrysostom, who was a Christian pastor in the fourth century AD, said the same thing I’m saying this morning: the fact he even knew to ask this question, Chrysostom said, "betokens a very thoughtful mind."

It is a good thing to have a receptive spirit; it is also a good thing to have an inquisitive mind. It’s good to be able to truly consider and honor what other people say. It’s also good to put your brain to work and try to sort out fact from fiction, truth from falsehood. It’s good to want to learn new things, to always be on the hunt to grow in your knowledge of God and your spiritual life. This eunuch is dissatisfied with just knowing enough to get by; he wants to know deeply and so he has an inquisitive mind which he trains on the Lord.

He has a receptive spirit; he has an inquisitive mind. Because of this, he’s able to hear the good news Philip tells him about Jesus. And as Philip is finishing the story, he tells him that when one becomes a Christian, that person is baptized in water. And what the eunuch says next is one of the greatest lines in Scripture, I think: "Look! Here is water; what is to prevent me from being baptized?" In other words, it’s as if this eunuch felt this news was so good, this Christianity thing was so excited, that the minute he saw a muddy pond, he wanted to jump in and get baptized. First chance he could; no holding back. Once he saw something that filled his receptive spirit and satisfied his inquisitive mind, he wanted to jump in with both feet. The eunuch truly had an enthusiastic heart. Once he had been convinced, it was time to make a wholehearted change of life, a U-turn on life’s highway. It was time to follow Jesus no matter what, starting that very second.

Maybe you are privileged to know someone with an enthusiastic spirit, someone that has a certain zest for the spiritual life. A person like this does not look at the Christian way of life and see a drudgery, a lists of do’s and don’ts that must be followed. Instead, they look at the same principles for living, and they see an opportunity, a whole new way of living set before them that brings life and not death, an adventure in a new way of living. This kind of person truly echoes the Ethiopian eunuch who didn’t want to wait until he got to the beautiful, flowing, clean Nile to be baptized but wanted to stop right then and there, and not wait a single second, before giving his beautiful, enthusiastic heart to Christ in baptism.

Now, in this sermon, I’ve tried to build a case that we should try to imitate the Ethiopian eunuch. If we want to be as good at listening to God as he was, we should try to cultivate those same virtues in our lives–the virtues of a receptive spirit, an inquisitive mind, and an enthusiastic heart. Maybe then, we will be able to respond to God like he did. Maybe then we will be able to jump into the Christian life with both feet, with reckless abandon, knowing that God will care for us even when we have given ourselves up.

All this talk of receptive spirits, of inquisitive minds, and enthusiastic hearts brings to mind something Jesus said to the disciples once. People were bringing their children up to Jesus and asking him to bless them, and the disciples were beginning to shoo them away; they were convinced that Jesus had more important, you know, grown-up things to do and that he simply could not be bothered with children right now. Jesus looked at them and said, "Let the little children come to me, and don’t stop them; for it is to those like these children that the Kingdom of Heaven belongs. Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it."

Scholars have debated what these words have meant for many centuries now. Some think that it means that only those who are totally dependent on God as children are totally dependent on their parents are true Christians. Some think that it means that heaven is for the truly lowly in spirit, or the ones that the rest of the world looks right past. I suppose that any and all of these may be true.

But I think what it means to be a child is summed up in this Ethiopian eunuch. When I look at him, I think what made his receptive spirit and inquisitive mind and enthusiastic heart so great is that it made him such a childlike person. These three traits are found far more often in adults than in children. Children have such receptive spirits; they trust so easily. And yet at the same time, they have inquisitive minds, always wanting to go deeper, their minds not yet dull and stale with age. And they have such enthusiastic hearts–what they want to do, they want to do RIGHT NOW, no questions asked and no time for delay.

I think the genius in this eunuch is that this powerful man had not forgotten what it was to respond with the joy of a child. He did not react to this news with the calm indifference of a royal treasurer, but with the vital urgency of a seven-year-old who simply could not stop asking questions until he finds the truth; he reacted with the raging enthusiasm of a child who simply could not be still until he too could be dipped beneath the water and counted with the faithful.

Every time the people of God gather together, good news is offered. Every gathering is a witness to the truth that Christ has died and risen and is coming again. Each time we get together, part of the subtext is that the reason we gather is because we have all found new life in him. But too often we act like the appropriate reaction to this good news is cool indifference, holding it in, maybe making a few changes quietly and behind the scenes–the exact opposite of the eunuch, the exact opposite of childlike enthusiasm. And you know what? I believe the consequences of our actions are that we don’t know Christ as deeply as we might. We don’t experience him as deeply as we would if we were more like the eunuch, more like children–if our spirits were more receptive, our minds more inquisitive, our hearts more enthusiastic. Let me encourage you today to know Christ as little children.