Lately it seems as though bad news is pouring in from all over the world. After an earthquake in Nepal last Saturday, the death toll has climbed to nearly 7,000; the injured list is more than 14,000, thousands are still missing, 130,000 homes and buildings have been destroyed and another 10,000 buildings have been demolished. Strong tremors continue in the region hindering efforts to provide aid; people are scared and overwhelmed; there is no food or medical supplies; even body bags for the dead are hard to come by.
Human trafficking and a ferry ship sinking off the coast of the Mediterranean has killed another 800 people, drawing attention to the millions of refugees worldwide who are at the mercy of networks of smugglers who profit from human misery.
On Monday, the funeral of Freddie Gray, another young black man who died while in police custody, has sparked riots in Baltimore which counter the peaceful protests, yet also are the natural result of the long-simmering frustration over abuses inflicted by police on the black community.
The aftermath of the deadly Ebola virus is still impacting lives as teachers and pastors struggle to feed and care for the orphans left behind by the victims and considered unclean by their communities. ISIS continues to behead innocent people; rockets and missiles are still going back and forth between Israel and Palestine, and sometimes this stuff just gets to be so darn overwhelming that the only thing left to do is to turn to scripture and try and locate God in all of the mess…yet as I read through the text for today I couldn’t help but feel a bit dismayed as I tried to figure out how on earth does a story about a traveling Ethiopian Eunuch help me find God in all this crazy chaos?
Some days it seems that the bible is full of stories that don’t really connect with anything in particular. And today’s story is a great case in point. We don’t know the guy’s name, only that he was “a court official of Candace, queen of the Ethiopians,” and that he was in charge of her entire treasury. As he is traveling along in his carriage, he is reading about the Suffering Servant in Isaiah and trying unsuccessfully to ponder out its meaning.
Right away, this story appears to be full of holes… I mean how on earth did this unnamed eunuch manage to secure a copy of the book of Isaiah? It was a sacred text – not something that he might have picked up in a gift shop on his way out of town. Printed materials were rare, because they were printed by hand. The synagogues would have kept their copies under lock and key. Yet this guy just waltzes in and gets his own personal copy. And why would an Ethiopian Eunuch be worshiping in Jerusalem in the first place if he didn’t even understand the sacred texts? And how is it that Philip is sent by the Spirit to arrive at the exact right moment to overhear the eunuch reading Isaiah’s words and puzzling over their meaning? The whole story is a huge collision of holy coincidences occurring at precisely the right moment in order for it to even occur. A lot of things had to happen just so in order for this story to turn out the way it did. A lot of divine fuss was made to get to one eunuch. And then we don’t even know what happens to this eunuch except than he went on his way rejoicing. So that leads me to believe that maybe this story isn’t even really the point, maybe the point of this story is to point to a much greater truth.
Right in the middle of the text my suspicions are confirmed where it says: “Then Philip began to speak, and starting with this scripture, he proclaimed to him the good news about Jesus.” Let’s linger here for a moment. This is a story about someone telling another story, based on a third story, contained within this story. Weird huh? Yet the point is, Philip told him the good news of Jesus… And despite all of the holy coincidences, that’s where this story gains traction. This story points to a much bigger story, and it is that story that helps us as we try to be faithful during times of such chaos and uncertainty.
As I muddled my way through all of the bad news this week, it occurred to me that there are two different types of bad news going on. There are natural disasters, and then there are the unnatural tragedies that are triggered by humans behaving badly. Natural disasters come out of nowhere; they appear to be random, and while science can explain the “how,” it really can’t explain the “why.” When a natural disaster occurs, there’s no one to point the finger at, and maybe that’s why these types of disasters almost always seem to coax healthy responses from us. When the disaster is natural our empathy and compassion rush to the surface. We know that what happened wasn’t anyone’s fault, and we are all reminded of how vulnerable we really are as humans. Whenever there is a natural disaster, there is always an outpouring of the very best behavior that humans are capable of.
But then there are the unnatural tragedies that are a result of human error and sin. These are the tragedies that people have caused either deliberately or through negligence. These are the tragedies that could have been avoided. And despite the mass destruction caused by the earthquake, most of the chaos being reported falls under the heading of unnatural tragedies brought on by self-interest, greed, lack of compassion and empathy, mistrust, thin skin and an unwillingness to forgive.
In Philip’s encounter with the eunuch, bad behavior was the last thought on his mind. Contextually, he wouldn’t have wanted anything to do with the eunuch because he was a foreigner; his skin was a different color; and worst of all, he had been mutilated. But Philip was caught up in the spirit and all he cared about was listening to the spirit and letting it guide him. This encounter had occurred after the Pentecost and when the spirit told him to head for the road leading back to Ethiopia, he didn’t ask why; he didn’t even care why, he just got up and went. When the spirit told him to go talk to the eunuch, he didn’t cringe and say, “I can’t talk to him…I mean, look at him; he’s not to be trusted.” That never even occurred to Philip. Philip was being guided by pure love, and when one truly let’s go and gives it all up to the Spirit, we really don’t care if we are being asked to embrace an enemy or clean out the loo. We’re just thrilled to be included in such gracious and generous love.
And that love spreads – very quickly it spreads. The eunuch went on his way rolling in ecstasy. He went home, back to Ethiopia, a changed person. People back home would notice that and want to know why. And like Philip he would have opened his mouth and told the story of Jesus.
We have been given all of that and more right here in the church. We have been given the story of Jesus, the gospel, the good news, and we are guided by the Spirit when we allow ourselves to be. Haven’t you ever experienced that little voice urging you to do something? Maybe give someone a call or go see someone and it was the exact right thing to do at the exact right moment? That is the voice of the spirit. It is there all the time, guiding, nudging, urging us to do the right thing at the right time – using us to do God’s work. Usually we aren’t very good at listening, and even when we do listen sometimes we’ll just ignore it, but when we tune in and go where we’re led, powerful things happen – God things happen.
Philip did what the Spirit led him to do and he opened his mouth to spread the good news of Jesus Christ. And as a result, that gospel, that good news, made it all the way here into this room. From that road leading back to Ethiopia, to Ethiopia, and all the way here – to this time and this place.
And what is this good news of Jesus Christ, if not a message of how the kingdom of heaven is present, and it is manifested through tolerance and forgiveness of each other. Jesus told us to love our enemies, he told us to forgive seventy times seven; he told us to turn the other cheek; he told us not to cling to earthly possessions; he advocated for a fair and just standard of behavior that ensured everyone was included and taken care of.
And we know that. We know this gospel; it speaks to our hearts and we know that it is right and that it is true or we wouldn’t be here. But it doesn’t do us much good – it doesn’t manifest the kingdom of heaven, unless we practice it and spread it.
When humans are behaving badly – anywhere – even in our own communities – we are called upon and led by the Spirit to open our mouths and remind each other that the kingdom of heaven is built and centered on love, compassion, kindness, grace and forgiveness.
Philip told the story of Jesus to the Eunuch, and that relates to everything that goes on in the world because the story of Jesus is our truest and our finest story. It is the story of how we have been grafted into the story of God through Christ. We belong — we live and move and have our being — because we’re all characters who have been written into the plot of God’s Great Story through the good news of Jesus.
The Scriptures, the Psalms, the great hymns of our faith, the story of our faith through the ages passed from mouth to mouth, generation to generation, theologian to theologian, the marvelous spiritual writings and stories of faithful saints carefully passed along to us over the centuries, are all ways in which our story and the formless longings and hopes of our people are gathered up into the great Story of a Triune God who made us, redeems us, and calls us by the Holy Spirit to be the church.
God is not absent in our human tragedies. God is in the tears of the survivors who reach out in pain to comfort one another. God is in the hearts linking us to those suffering around the world. And God is in the hands reaching out in love to help, heal and rebuild. Amen