Have you ever heard a story so many times that you feel like you could recite it from memory? There was a time in my life when I read the book Good Night Moon so many nights in a row that I could probably have told the story without even turning the pages. But rereading books is not just a habit of young readers. Adults do the same thing – we love a book so much that we may read the book again and again. The familiarity of a story and knowing how the story will end can be quite comforting. The same could be said of Bible stories too. Though the Bible is a huge book with tons of stories, we tend to have our favorites that we read again and again. We read and reread them because they give us a sense of comfort and they steady us in a world of chaos.
The challenge with a familiar story is that we sometimes get so used to hearing the story over and over that we stop really listening to the details. That is especially true in our story from Acts today. Philip, the educated evangelist graciously approaches the foreign, outcast eunuch and asks if he needs help interpreting scripture. He then teaches the eunuch about Jesus, and graciously accepts him into the community of faith by baptizing in a nearby body of water. In essence, this is a story about how the Jewish followers of Christ graciously open up the community to those who have traditionally been seen as outcasts.
At least that is how the story goes in my memory. But as I reread the story this week, I began to realize that the comforting tale I had memorized is not quite as simple as I had remembered. I had always thought of Philip as one of the educated disciples who graciously takes in the eunuch. But Philip is actually an outsider in this story. The Philip in our story is not the Philip from Bethsaida, one of the twelve disciples of Jesus. This Philip is a Greek in Jerusalem, who is one of the seven appointed by the disciples to run the food pantry, the clinic, and the hospice program in Jerusalem so that the Twelve did not need to do that work.[i] He is not necessarily well-educated, and in fact, is probably pretty disheveled and unseemly, given the relief work he has been doing with the outcasts of society. The Ethiopian eunuch is an outsider too – in fact he is a double outsider of sorts because of his race and his sexuality.[ii] Because of his dark skin and the fact that he is a eunuch means he would not have been allowed into the temple. But this is no ordinary foreigner. Yes, he is a double outsider, but he is also a highly educated, wealthy, powerful man. He is in charge of the Queen mother’s treasury, he is prominent enough to ride in a chariot, and he is wealthy enough to own a scroll.[iii] And although he is not allowed into the temple, he is returning from a time of worship in Jerusalem – so in some ways he is both a double outsider and a faithful follower. When the eunuch invites Philip into his chariot, Philip is not the one being gracious – the eunuch is the one graciously allowing this disheveled man of faith into his pristine chariot.
Not only is there more complexity to the socio-economic status of these two men, there is also more to the interaction between the two men. In my mind, Philip was the gracious imparter of wisdom in this story. But in fact, the Ethiopian does not ask Philip to teach him – as if acknowledging that the two men are unequals. The Ethiopian asks Philip to guide him – in other words, to journey with him into the Scriptures, and even eventually into baptism, as the two men go down into the water together.[iv] These two strangers sit side-by-side and together read scripture and talk about what that scripture means. Philip is on as much of a spiritual journey as the Ethiopian. This is not a story about a well-educated follower of Christ taking in a marginalized outsider and converting him to Christ. This is a story about two outsiders, unlikely to ever be sitting together, pondering the word of God together, and finding new life in Christ.
That’s the funny thing about stories – if we do not really pay attention and listen, we tend to fill in the blanks ourselves, often missing the big details. As I have been watching the riots and racial unrest in Baltimore this week, I keep returning to that theme – that perhaps this is one of those instances where we have not done a very good job of listening. I suppose I should not be surprised that we are not very good at listening. We are a culture that talks over each other, that tries to force our version of truth upon one another. I have listened to countless reporters this week argue with Baltimore residents and protests about their experiences. I have read countless Facebook posts expressing anger and frustration about the civil unrest. This whole week has felt like people are competing to have their own version of the truth being seen as the “Truth,” with a capital “T.” In fact, just the mention of Baltimore probably has you thinking about your own feelings on the subject, mentally blocking any other narratives from your mind
When I lived in Delaware many years ago, I joined a group run through the YWCA that was meant to help foster healthy conversations about race. One of the main rules of the group was that when an individual shared their story, we were not supposed to be in true conversation. Each of us was to take turns telling our truths – without interruption or questions. And the others in the group were to listen. The method was so counterintuitive that the facilitator’s main job was to enforce the speaking and listening rules. Although I struggled with the method, I must admit that I learned more in that group than I ever could have imagined. When I listened – truly listened without assuming I knew how the story would end – I learned things about the experiences of black Americans that I had never known, and had certainly never experienced myself. Truth unfolded for me like a blooming flower.
Those groups, and my experience this week of trying to prayerfully listen to the oppressed in Baltimore, reminded me of the interaction between Philip and the eunuch. Back then, God’s chosen people and foreign, black, castrated men did not sit together and study scripture. God’s chosen people were not accustomed to guiding people instead of teaching them. God’s chosen people were not only not used to be called to accountability, they were also not likely to accept the criticism and change. And yet, that is what these two men do. And the only way any of this story happens is because both men listen – really listen to one another.
This winter I read a book called Toxic Charity. The premise of the book is that much of the charity work that churches and communities do is flawed because that work is posed as work we do for others as opposed to with others. The author criticizes communities that enter into impoverished areas, assuming they know what is best for the community. Instead, the author suggests that those who want to help do so under the direction of those in need. The main role of those who want to help is to assist the community in articulating their needs, and then empowering the community to make the systemic changes needed for long-term, sustainable change. That kind of shift in charity work involves a lot more listening, humility, and a willingness to follow instead of lead.
In the case of Baltimore, in the case of Plainview, and really in the case of all Christianity, today’s story reminds us that there may not be simple answers to the world’s ills. We cannot always fix what is wrong in our society – and in fact, perhaps we can never fix the wrongs without first being prayerful listeners. As soon as we assume we know someone else’s story, or we know all there is to know about an issue, we have already shut down the movement of the Spirit. And that is what this story is really all about. This is not a story about how Philip converted a eunuch. This is a story about how the Holy Spirit moved among strangers who had nothing in common and created commonality, love, and faith.[v] The amazing work of Philip and the eunuch journeying to the baptismal waters together is only possible because both agree to vulnerably, honestly, prayerfully listen to one another, to learn together, and to be converted together.[vi] Their story today invites us to go and do likewise. Amen.
[i] William Brosend, “Unless Someone Guides Me,” Christian Century, vol. 117, no. 15, May 10, 2000, 535.
[ii] Barbara Brown Taylor, “Homilietical Perspective,” Feasting on the Word, Yr. B, vol. 2 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2008), 457.
[iii] Paul W. Walaskay, “Exegetical Perspective, Feasting on the Word, Yr. B, vol. 2 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2008), 457.
[iv] Brosend, 535.
[v] Taylor, 459.
[vi] Nadia Bolz-Weber, “The Conversion of the Ethiopian Eunuch,” April 20, 2012 as found at http://thq.wearesparkhouse.org/yearb/easter5nt-2/ on April 29, 2015.