Kelly Ann Seaman
November 14, 2021
Fred Rogers is a hero of mine. When I was a kid, we watched “Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood” constantly. We even told time on family road trips by “we only have 3 Mr. Rogers episodes until we get to grandma’s house!” Mr. Rogers was a PCUSA pastor, who was called to be a Children’s television creator. And he worked tirelessly for 33 years on air to show each child (and adult) how loved and special they are. Mr. Rogers made everyone he came into contact with feel their worth. If you’ve never seen a Mr. Rogers episode, please come by my office. I’ll make you hot cocoa or coffee and we can watch one together.
In 1997, Fred Rogers was awarded a lifetime achievement award at the Emmys. And instead of taking that time to recognize himself and his accomplishments, he asked the audience to join him in a reflective activity. I would like us to do the same this morning. He shared with the audience,“So many people have helped me to come to this night. Some of you are here. Some are far away. Some are in heaven. All of us have special ones who have loved us into being. Would you just take, along with me, 10 seconds to think of the people who have helped you become who you are. Those who have cared about you and wanted what was best for you in life. Ten seconds of silence. I’ll watch the time…
Whomever you’ve just been thinking about, how pleased they must be to know the difference they’ve made…”
There was not a dry eye in that room of celebrities. When given the time to reflect on the people who have loved you into being, I wonder who jumped to your mind? I wonder if you could feel their arms wrapped around you, if you could smell the memory of them. I wonder if you felt your breath slow, if by just imagining them, you could feel the weight of your worth.
When I look back at my life, I can so plainly see the people who have meant the world to me. Often, those people come to us when we need them most. Sometimes, the road we are on can feel like our story today from Acts: like a dangerous, desert road, like a valley of death. We may not realize it right away, but farther along, the divine arrangement is so clear. Farther along, we can see when we felt alone, and filled with questions of our worth, God brought people to run alongside us, to help us find baptismal fonts of grace along the desert roads of our life.
Luke is the author of our New Testament text today, and he is a really fascinating person to me. He is a physician, a friend of Paul’s, and he is believed by many to be the only Gentile writer in the New Testament. Luke brings an interesting perspective, right? Luke was part of the first group of early believers who would have realized first hand Christ’s redemption for all people, so it is only fitting that as he writes Acts and the gospel of Luke, he really puts a spotlight on the times that Jesus’ message and the early church’s actions are shaped by inclusion, by a reaching out to the margins of society to show love and offer redemption.
Luke’s telling of the story of Phillip the Evangelist and an Ethiopian Eunuch is now one of my favorites. You’ll have to excuse me. I’ve done a giant deep dive, and you have to know everything I know. Phillip is part of the early Christian church. The church at this time in Acts has exploded after Pentecost. The early church was trying to live as one, trying to share everything amongst themselves. But they were unfortunately also human beings, and so there are grumblings that widows are being discriminated against and not getting enough food. The disciples hear this and decide that they don’t have time to oversee this part of the ministry. So they appointed seven men as deacons, men who were full of Spirit and wisdom. These men are tasked with making sure everything is running smoothly; that people are being treated justly and fairly.
So, Phillip is one of these men, and his friend, Stephen is another, but just as they are settling into these new roles and their daily life together in Jerusalem, the persecution of the church begins. Stephen is falsely accused of speaking against the temple and the law of Moses, and he is stoned to death, with a man called Saul (soon to be called Paul), with the coats of the murderers at his feet. This and further persecution scatters the early believers, many of whom, including Phillip, flee to Samaria. Samaritans and Jews were mortal enemies at this time. So, the early believers knew they’d be safe in Samaria because they believed the Jews who were persecuting them wouldn’t follow them there.
Phillip heads right to a place that, before he probably would have avoided. But Phillip has deeply understood the message of Jesus. He’s wise and full of the Spirit, remember? So, Phillip doesn’t miss a beat and starts preaching the Good News, performing miracles, and baptizing magicians. I know. Magicians. I love the book of Acts! Phillip is the first evangelist we read of in Acts to visit Gentiles, not just any Gentiles, but SAMARITANS. Phillip was appointed a deacon, but God is now using him to spread the message of Jesus to the margins, to all people.
When we get to our story. Phillip is visited by an angel and receives a new call: a call into the desert to a wilderness road… this path that Phillip has to travel? It leads him
right back through where he has just fled, where his friend was murdered. I can only imagine Phillip is scared, wondering what’s so important in the middle of the desert?
But then, he sees the Ethiopian Eunuch. A Eunuch is a castrated male, who was often put in a position of power. The eunuch in our story is in charge of a queen’s entire treasury. Eunuchs were elevated to these positions of power because they could be trusted to not interfere with the royal bloodline, they were also considered level headed and were advisors to most positions of power. Jesus speaks of Eunuchs in Matthew 19: some are born that way and some are made.
No matter how this Eunuch got to his position, we do know this: a eunuch would have been considered a sexual minority at this time. Eunuchs would not have been included in many communities, neither civil nor religious. And because of the purity laws that are listed in Deuteronomy and Leviticus, we know that even though he was visiting the temple in Jerusalem? He wouldn’t have been allowed in. Our Eunuch is also Ethiopian. Though everyone in this region would be considered a person of color in America today, the Eunuch being an Ethiopian means he was an other, a different race for the region in our story. Phillip’s religious upbringing wouldn’t have him anywhere near this man, let alone hanging out with him on a road trip. But Phillip has already deeply understood and been changed by Jesus’ message of redemption for all. Phillip listened to the Holy Spirit, calling him out to the margins of Samaria, calling him to people he would never have talked to before. Phillip has seen God work through him, seeing Jesus’ love change it all. And so Phillip is not just heading towards our Eunuch, he is RUNNING to talk to him.
The Eunuch is reading aloud, and he just so happens to be reading aloud from Isaiah. The fact that he can read lets us know that he’s very educated, the fact that he had a physical copy of Isaiah is a reminder of just how wealthy he is. Phillip asks him, “Do you understand what you’re reading?” The Eunuch’s, “How can I, unless someone guides me?” becomes an invitation for Phillip into a space he would never have occupied before. I wonder if this is a clue as to the Eunuch’s experience in Jerusalem? He is hungry for guidance, for help to understand. So, Phillip enters the fancy chariot and into a conversation that can only be understood as a divine arrangement.
We have no idea how long Phillip and the Eunuch travel together, or what all they discuss, but we do know it is GOOD NEWS. Farther along, the Eunuch sees water: a baptismal fount in the desert, “Look! There is some water! What is to prevent me from being baptized?” Some Bible versions like King James add “If thou believest with all thine heart, thou mayest. And he answered and said, “I believe that Jesus Christ is the
Son of God.” But older manuscripts do not have this addition. The earliest copies of Luke’s original words have no condition.
What is to prevent me from being baptized? This is a plea, a longing in the Eunuch’s heart…He is asking Phillip: Is this Good News really for me? What could stop me from being a part of this? Am I really welcome? Am I really included? Phillip and God’s answer is yes, without condition. And in the middle of the desert, this Eunuch, a sexual outcast and racial minority, is baptized.
Just as quickly as Phillip is there at the baptism, Luke tells us he is snatched up by the Spirit to go and proclaim the Good news somewhere else, and the Eunuch goes on his way rejoicing, forever changed by Phillip’s willingness to go to the desert, to run to the margins and share that Good News. I’m pretty sure if our Eunuch had Mr. Rogers’ 10 seconds, he would see Phillips’ loving face: someone who cared about him, who loved him into being. Phillip may see the Eunuch’s as a face that taught him more about the expansive love of God.
Mr. Rogers said, “Everyone longs to be loved. And the greatest thing we can do is to let people know that they are loved and they are capable of loving… Love isn’t a state of perfect caring. It is an active noun like struggle. To love someone is to strive to accept that person exactly the way he or she is, right here and now.”
And there is no one, no one who did this kind of love better than Jesus. Jesus ran to the margins: he touched and healed a leper, he sat down to drink water with a Samaritan woman at a well, he helped a cheating tax collector down from a tree, he took a motley crew of 12 and called them disciples, he gave peace to a thief on the cross. He called us to Love God and to love our neighbors as ourselves: to run on desert roads, to wait for baptismal fonts.
I think our scripture from today has a lot to teach us. From the Eunuch, I hope we learn that we are beloved children of God. May we be a people who know we are loved. From Phillip, may we be open to being used by God. May we be willing to run to the desert roads of this world; to road trip with people we never imagined. Maybe we’re scared of the unknown. Maybe we have no idea why God has us running alongside people who we don’t understand. Maybe we’re terrible runners. But I pray we are willing to give the kind of love that
Looks like a baptismal font on the desert roads of each person we encounter.
We are beloved. May we go from this place and call all people the same.