A sermon preached at the First Church UCC, Middletown, CT on September 5, 2021
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.) 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 and was returning home; seated in his chariot, he was reading the prophet Isaiah. Then the Spirit said to Philip, “Go over to this chariot and join it.” So Philip ran up to it and heard him reading the prophet Isaiah. He asked, “Do you understand what you are reading?” He replied, “How can I, unless someone guides me?” And he invited Philip to get in and sit beside him. 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. In his humiliation justice was denied him. Who can describe his generation? For his life is taken away from the earth.”
The eunuch asked Philip, “About whom, may I ask you, does the prophet say this, about himself or about someone else?” Then Philip began to speak, and starting with this scripture, he proclaimed to him the good news about Jesus. As they were going along the road, they came to some water; and the eunuch said, “Look, here is water! What is to prevent me from being baptized?” He commanded the chariot to stop, and both of them, Philip and the eunuch, went down into the water, and Philip baptized him.
May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O God our Rock and our Redeemer. Amen.
From Friday’s NYT: Our long-gestating Italy trip, originally scheduled for last spring, has returned to its yearlong holding pattern. We’ll be packing our vaccination cards in November when we travel to a Miami wedding that’s enforcing strict inoculation requirements. I think I speak for everyone when I say that I am so tired of not knowing if I’m doing the right thing.
. . . I think we’re all becoming accustomed to the truth that escaping from a pandemic was never going to be so simple. The restoration is going to happen in fits and starts, with a permeating sense of unease. When will I stop waiting for the other shoe to drop? Ideally someday in the far-off future when our lives have fully returned to normal, without anyone realizing it.
Until then, I’ll always be grateful for the summer of 2021 and its wondrous preview of what lies ahead.
I’ve been telling my friends I feel as though we’re trapped in endless reruns of the movie Groundhog Day. It’s the same thing over and over – one day it’s safe to go outside without a mask, to have lunch with my friends, and I’m making plans for tomorrow – and then the next day, it turns out to be completely different. And the cycle starts again.
Sure, I think, I know, at least intellectually, that tomorrow is not guaranteed, but I’d always kinda assumed that there were some foundational things I could count on. I don’t know about you, but it’s been unsettling to discover that I’m wrong, that the constancy I’d taken for granted was more of an illusion than I’d thought.
We want coffee hours, and potluck meals, and times to sit around and talk with one another. We thought we’d be able to do that this fall, but because of the Delta variant, the answer is “not so much”. We thought we’d be able to sing, and the answer is “not really”, though, starting next week we will put hymns in the bulletin.
We’ve been careful; we’ve worked hard to create a safe environment, and we thought we would be rewarded by an increasingly safe world. And it hasn’t quite happened in the straight line improvement we thought we deserved, expected to have happen.
And it’s not just COVID. It’s the horrors of what’s happening in Texas where the law of their state now turns neighbor against neighbor, where you can be brought up on charges for even thinking about abortion – or the other change in Texas law, which allows anyone anywhere to carry a weapon, no license needed. This is a state which simply no longer cares about the health and safety of their own citizens. And that’s disorienting. We expected government to do it’s best to keep us healthy and safe.
It’s for days like this that we have faith. It’s for those times when the centers, the strongest parts of our lives, don’t work, fall apart. William Butler Yeats, in his poem The Second Coming, wrote:
Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world…..
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drawned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out
When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
Troubles my sight: somewhere in sands of the desert
A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
Reel shadows of the indignant desert birds.
The darkness drops again; but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?
We do not live in the first time when things seem to be falling apart. Yeats wrote the poem in 1919…. right after the horrors of WW 1, right at the beginning of the Irish Independence wars with Britain, and while his wife was recovering from flu caught in the 1918-19 pandemic. In other words, a time much like ours. He looked to a future he did not yet know, some rough beast, that would bring hope.
The poem’s final words point us to the one thing which we can hold onto as our world wavers between better, bad and not-so-good, and that is our faith in a God who creates, a God who does not abandon. God always gives us a way out of no way, even though that way may be hard to see and challenging to follow, because it can lead to something so different that it challenges all our pre-conceptions.
In today’s Scripture, the Ethiopian official doesn’t at first know what he’s reading, and doesn’t understand it. Philip jumps into his vehicle and rides along, explaining as they ride, and the official responds by asking for baptism.
We read the story and think, well that’s kinda abrupt…. but there’s more to it than the speed of his decision. The Ethiopian is on his way home from a pilgrimage to Jerusalem, even though, because he is a eunuch, he is not thought to be a moral human being – he is, despite his temporal power, part of a dismissed minority. Some folks even taught that eunuchs were unacceptable to God. But here he reads about a way to fully belong to God, reads the words of Isaiah welcoming everyone, and responds to the promise of acceptance with his request for baptism.
Baptism promised to him, and promises to us today that no matter who we are or where we are on life’s journey, we are loved by God, and welcome here.
Don’t ever make the mistake of discounting how important it is to know that there is a place and community where every person is welcome….
I did a baptism a couple of years ago – the child was part of a blended family – his children, her children, and now their child. The family lived in New Hampshire, but visited our town monthly so that the dad could spend time with his oldest son who lived with the ex-wife. They were not rich, not well-educated – just a stay-at-home mom and a truck-driver dad, struggling financially, and they brought their tiny daughter to us for baptism because, the dad said, “we want her to know that, if she turns out to be a lesbian, there is a place that will always welcome her.”
And so I baptized this little girl, just as Philip baptized the Ethiopian official… because God teaches us to welcome everyone.
Now, what does this welcoming baptism have to say to a people who are tired, frustrated, and just a little angry with our world? Well, the same baptism that offers welcome to the Ethiopian eunuch offers a welcoming shelter to us as well. Our baptism reminds us of the everlasting promise of God that, no matter how discouraging our world is right now, nothing can destroy God’s love, or God’s dream of a world marked by justice, peace and mercy.
Even in the midst of all that has gone wrong in our world today, that work still continues. We live within the comfort and strength of our baptisms and so . . .
We feed the hungry.
We comfort the mourning.
We call out for justice.
We offer welcome and community to all who would come.
© 2021, Virginia H. Child