"Safe Roads ... or the Road to Safety"

May 21, 2000
Long Green Valley Church of the Brethren
Glen Arm, Maryland USA
based upon Acts 8:26-40

Health Promotion Sunday

On the front sanctuary wall of the Shrewsbury, Pennsylvania Church of the Brethren (the congregation in which our own Norman Bollinger grew up), there is a delightful painting. In the foreground is a shepherd with his sheep. They are headed toward a rather dark, narrow passage which a river has cut through a mountain. On the far side of that bleak valley, the sun is shining on a meadow, the higher pasture to which the shepherd is guiding the flock. If it were not for that inviting vision in the distance, the road heading there would not be one upon which I would like to travel. It doesnít look safe.

The theme for today, Health Promotion Sunday, is "Making our Churches Safe Places." We could turn in a variety of directions in exploring the meaning of such a motto. Indeed, with the debate on gun control raging, and the shootings in a Colorado high school and a Texas church in our recent memory, we could travel up that dark valley and explore the meaning of the word "sanctuary." The church should definitely think about its role in society as a safe haven. But thatís not exactly the road down which weíre moving today.

From a different perspective, with children in mind, we could journey the dark valley of all the dangers that lie in wait around them, and how we need to make sure that the church itself is a place in which they are safe from peril. Child protection is a topic being taken very seriously in much of the work in which Iíve been involved lately - from camp, to scouts, to school. All congregations need to train volunteers in this area as well, with common-sense rules that will contribute to making our churches safe places. However, thatís also not the path weíre traveling on this particular day.

No, our focus for now is upon the ways in which our church can be a safe place, a sanctuary for those who are suffering - emotionally, physically, or spiritually - place where they are included. I know thatís a rather broad category. After all, suffering is a fact of life, no matter what form it takes. Furthermore, our faith moves us in the direction of overcoming our troubles. We are, after all, smack dab in the middle of a season of celebration, rejoicing in how our Lord defeated sin and death, stepping out of the empty tomb in such a way that we canít help but wish to follow.

"Every morning is Easter morning from now on," weíve sung two out of the last three Sundays in worship. "Yesterday I was bored and lonely; but today look and see! I am one of the Easter people! Lifeís exciting to me!" (Avery and Marsh © 1967, Hope Pub. Co.) Thatís a melody we need to belt out loud and clear. By the same token, though, we need to remember that for many people who come for sanctuary, those words sound very foreign. Even people who know Jesus. How can our church become a safe place where struggles can be named, and persons in the middle of some dark valley be given the hospitality they need to continue their journey toward the higher pasture to which the good shepherd is leading?

Please notice that I have intentionally shifted the metaphor of this theme. When we think of a "safe place" our minds easily settle in upon a fixed location. A "sanctuary" thus becomes a place at which we have already arrived, a place to hunker down and dig in for the duration. Instead of a tent in the wilderness in which a table is prepared for us, providing sustenance for our journey, and cooling oil is poured upon our weary heads, the church as a "safe place" can become a "fortress." Once inside, we pull up the drawbridge and place soldiers on the walls to shoot any suspicious characters who lurk outside. After all, isnít that what "safety" means?

How easy it is to make such a move. However, is that the kind of "safe place" our Lord calls us to provide? Unfortunately, that is how many persons who find themselves on the outside see the church. Even, heaven forbid, how some on the inside do also - persons who, because of circumstances beyond their control (or perhaps within their control but beyond their willpower), find themselves singing a sad song when everyone else is breaking out with gladness.

The truth is, "safety" is a journey, not a location. As the old hymn states, "weíre marching thru Immanuelís ground to fairer worlds on high." ("Come, we that love the Lord," by Isaac Watts) Yes, along the way, we need to "let our songs abound and every tear be dry," but those words we sing are not an impossible command, but rather an outstretched invitation from the One who is our "Immanuel," God with us. The same is true of the words "trust and obey." Those are not "fortress" words, but tabernacle or "tent along the way" words.

To take it one step further, this is not necessarily a "safe road" upon which we travel. Sometimes we try to make it that, but ultimately we cannot. Nowhere are we promised such a thing. Instead, we are journeying upon a road that leads to safety. Weíre not there yet. Therein lies our calling - to stand with, to walk with those who suffer, to provide a table to feed the stomach and the soul, and oil to anoint along the way. Down the road, our positions may be switched, and we become in need of their hospitality toward us, which we recognize as the hand of God at work.

Speaking of Godís hand at work, let me turn to the story of the Ethiopian eunuch and the one who Godís hand directed to him along the road to safety. On the surface, this is a rather strange tale. It takes place in the middle of nowhere. Weíre left wondering about the rest of the story, both the part before and the part after. We only are shown a portion of the journey, the road.

Philip, the person led by God to just up and head out to God only knew where, was not one of the original followers of Jesus. We only meet him for the first time in the story as we have received it, two chapters earlier, called out to be one of the first deacons of the church (Acts 6:1-6). Apparently deacons did more that just serve communion and take care of widows. Philipís coworker Stephen was killed for preaching Jesus (Acts 6:8-7:60), and in this morningís scripture, Philip is himself doing more than what weíve traditionally thought of as "deak-ing." He almost reminds us of the prophet Elijah, blown by Godís wind hither and yon.

Letís look at the person to which he is directed. Though we arenít given his name, we do have some information to go by. In the first place, he is Ethiopian. In most maps in the back of our Bibles, this nation is off the page. Itís fringe territory, a land and people at the very margins. In ancient times, "Ethiopians were the yardstick by which antiquity measured colored peoples. The skin of the Ethiopian was black, in fact, blacker than that of any other people." (Robbins, p.3)

Something else we know of this fellow was that he was a Eunuch. Though he may not have literally been so, there is every reason to believe that he was, in fact, a castrated male. We can only guess at why. Perhaps as the queenís treasurer, he would be considered safe - both to be so near the queen and to be entrusted with the royal jewels. Snicker at that all you want, but the reality probably was that this man did not have what others did, and Iím not talking sex. In a society in which your worth as a person depended upon your descendants, he was a nothing. How could he "live on" without children to bear his name into the future?

We donít literally need to be Ethiopian eunuchs ourselves to understand what itís like to live at the margins, and to see ourselves as nobodies with no future. Somewhere along the road we need to be challenged, all of us, to see things in a whole new way. Itís no mistake that this odd story is included in the Bible. When you think of it, Palestine was literally aflame with what the followers of Jesus were about. How many stories havenít we heard? But this one was considered important enough to be told with inspired authority.

Some have suggested that this story makes clear that it wasnít just the "official" 12 disciples, working out of Jerusalem, who were the ones God was using to spread good news. What that means is that everyone can be a Philip, not just a designated few. Others have pointed out that the Ethiopian eunuch stands in for all the people who stand outside the walls of "fortress" church. God has a passion for the least and the lost, the left out and the lonely. Jesus was himself, scripture says, crucified outside the walls of Jerusalem. From there he also rose from the dead.

Back to the Ethiopian Eunuch, he was not ignorant of spiritual matters. He was, after all, reading his Bible (how many of us do that - on our travels?). As a non-Jew, he came to the Temple in Jerusalem to worship, even though the law forbade him as a gentile and a eunuch from getting too close (Deuteronomy 23:1). On his way home to Ethiopia he met Philip, whom God had sent at just the right time. God has a habit of doing that, you know. Now, Iíve never heard Godís voice tell me to "go over and jump into (someoneís) chariot," but it does seem odd on so many occasions how persons have told me I came at just the right moment. Coincidence? Of course, then there are all the times I wasnít there, perhaps not listening on the subconscious level. Just me? I think not. Philip stands in for us all.

The Ethiopian eunuch (I wish I had a name by which to call him) was, as I said, reading his Bible, the prophet Isaiahís words to be exact. I wonder if the passage was too close for comfort. "Like a sheep he was led to 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?" How might a eunuch read such words? As the queenís castrated steward, reading about Isaiahís "suffering servant" may have been like looking in a mirror. No wonder he was confused, even as the words held him.

And then along came Philip, who pointed the way to Jesus. In Christ, who knew what suffering was all about, who had, in fact traveled a similar road - in Christ, this black man was not damaged goods. Furthermore, he had a future. Along the way, his eyes were lifted toward his true destination. The road ahead, even through a dark valley, was leading to safety. What did Philip say that helped the eunuch to see? Scripture, wisely from my perspective, doesnít say. Sometimes itís not the words that matter, but the fact that we are there - on the road with someone and not hiding behind some wall that separates us.

"I believe..." Those heart-spoken words are meant for the road. They are meant for times when itís not easy to speak them. The church of Jesus Christ needs to be a safe place along the way where people, even in their darkest hours, can give voice to their faith alongside their fears. In order to do that, however, they need someone to stand beside them, to walk with them. Of course, God is very near in Spirit. But, as Ken Medema sings, "donít tell me I have a friend in Jesus, unless I have a friend in you." That song needs to be sung as loudly as "Christ the Lord is risen today."

Then, again, knowing that our redeemer lives makes it possible for us to step out and risk traveling the road to safety.

©2000Peter L. Haynes

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