November 4, 2018 | “Continuing the Conversations: Righteous Collaborators (Respect)” • Geneses 1.26-27 & Acts 8:26-40

Michelangelo Buonarroti [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Creation_of_Adam_(Michelangelo)_Detail.jpg)

Scripture Reading • Genesis 1.26-27 (NIV)

Then God said, “Let us make mankind in our image, in our likeness, so that they may rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky, over the livestock and all the wild animals, and over all the creatures that move along the ground.”

So God created mankind in his own image,
    in the image of God he created them;
    male and female he created them.

 

Often in our worship, someone will offer prayers for the polarization our country faces. Have you noticed how, when that prayer request is spoken, the majority of  the congregation nods their heads in agreement?  

Polarization seems to be all around us. 

There seem to be more and more topics people have a hard time talking about.

One of the authors I have been reading joked  it “used to be that the safest things to talk about were our health and the weather, but now, with [arguments over the Affordable Care Act] and debates over climate change … now  those topics aren’t even safe to talk about” (Celeste Headlee, TED Talk.) 

Maybe there are things we want to talk about … honest questions we have … but we are afraid to bring them up because we worry someone might jump all over us. If we can’t talk about the most important things in our lives with the people we are the most closely connected to and love the most, who can we talk about them with?

I have been reading and watching everything I can find that has to do with bringing people together … asking lots of questions … many of you all even read a book with me this summer (and I attended a conference with that book’s author a few weeks ago) to learn more about how the church is in a unique position to bridge the divides we see around us. 

In all this reading and reflection I have noticed a few things that seem significant:

    • There are a lot of people and organizations working to bring people together … we are not alone in our longing to overcome polarization.
    • Life is all about conversations. Our faith is a conversation. Our government is a conversation. To be the people … to be the church we are called to be … to be the nation we want to be, we need to talk to each other. We need to be in conversation. When we stop talking to each other, we get stuck.
    • We need each other. Everyone has something to bring to the conversation. 
    • And finally, our faith offers us great resources to bring people together and move these essential conversations forward.

Since getting people talking to each other across the polarizations is so important, in our next four sermons, I want to share resources from our faith that can encourage and equip us to have conversations with people we disagree with.

I noticed as I was learning about the methods people have developed to bring people together into the same place to have conversations about divisive issues, people don’t talk it out and walk away with changed minds. People seem to continue holding their same convictions … the big thing that happens is that people on either side of these issues come to see whoever it was they thought was an enemy, or is an obstacle, as a fellow human who has something worthwhile to contribute to the conversation. 

Through these conversations people discover the humanity and value of the person they disagree with.

This has deep connections to our faith. 

As God’s people, as people who take Jesus and his message seriously, we recognize the value and worth of the people around us.

Sarah read a passage from the beginning of Genesis, I think can be our starting point. 

So God created mankind in his own image,
    in the image of God he created them;
    male and female he created them.

That is a powerful claim.

You bear the image of God.

The person sitting beside you bears the image of God.

The people we find ourselves disagreeing with – they bear the image of God. 

This week, in a devotion I have been reading, I came across a couple of Bible scholars who believe that this idea of recognizing and affirming the image of God in the people around us has to do with that super-churchy sounding word, “righteousness.” They write,

“The biblical Hebrew word for ‘Righteousness,” [has to do with] an ethical standard that refers to right relationships between people as the ‘image of God.” [It has to do with treating people] with the God-given dignity they deserve” (The Bible Project).

It is so important to remember that the people around us, the people we have a hard time talking to … the people we might have such fundamental disagreements with … are bearers of God’s image … they have worth … they are people and not just annoyances or obstacles to getting what we want … and more than that, they have something valuable to offer the world.

So often in the Bible, God goes to great lengths to include people we might not think are worthwhile or would have anything useful to contribute.

In Acts there is a strange story about a deacon named Philip and an Ethiopian Eunuch … it is hard to imagine these guys having anything in common,  or ever crossing paths … but God goes to great lengths to bring them together.

Here is how the story (Acts 8.26-40) goes:

An angel of the Lord told Philip to “get up and go toward the south to the road that goes down from Jerusalem to Gaza.” This was a road through the desert. Philip was obedient. He got up and went. There is an interesting note about this verse. The Greek word for “south” in some other places is translated as “noon” or “midday.” One of my teachers (Beverly Roberts Gaventa), wrote; “Many interpreters prefer ‘toward the south,’ since midday heat makes travel difficult, even dangerous, in the Middle East. Yet Luke refers to travel at noon elsewhere in Acts, and the sheer unlikeliness of such travel serves the story. Only God could construct such a scenario.

On this road Philip came across an Ethiopian eunuch. This man is powerful, rich, and important. He was in charge of the Ethiopian queen’s treasury. He had a chariot. He even had his own copy of Isaiah (not many people in those days could afford their own copies of Scripture.) This guy had made a long and dangerous journey to Jerusalem to worship. We see that he has some dedication to God, but it is also kind of heartbreaking because of his ethnicity and his being a eunuch, he wouldn’t be able to participate fully in Israel’s religious life. He would always be an outsider.

The Spirit told Philip to “go over to the chariot and join it.” 

Again Philip was obedient, enthusiastically obedient, he ran up to the chariot and heard the man reading a passage from Isaiah. (Back then there wasn’t really such a thing as reading silently; usually when people read something, they would read it out loud.) Then Philip asked a question, “Do you understand what you are reading?” 

The man responded with another question, “How can I unless someone guides me?” 

The man invited Philip to sit beside him. They read the scripture passage again and the man asked another question. 

Philip used that scripture passage to teach the man about Christ. 

Philip didn’t start out talking. Philip listened and asked questions. The conversation doesn’t seem forced or contrived. It seems genuine – listening to each other and asking questions.

As they traveled further, the man asked Philip another question; “Look, here is water! What is to prevent me from being baptized?” 

That is a hard question. 

It points to a conversation just below the surface, that would have been troubling to the early church. There was actually a lot that could have prevented the Ethiopian Eunuch from experiencing baptism. 

Philip could have said, “Are you kidding me? There is so much to prevent you from being baptized! First of all, you are a gentile … second of all you are a eunuch … I don’t know if I can do this. But Philip doesn’t say that. Miraculously, they find water in the desert they can use for a baptism.

Eric Baretto, writes in his reflections on this story,

“…The miraculous appearance of water in the middle of nowhere answers the Eunuch’s question definitively. Nothing will prevent him from being baptized. Not his ambiguous status as a eunuch. Not his ethnicity. Not his riches and learning. Not being in the middle of nowhere with a stranger named Philip. God’s saving power will not be restrained!”

Philip baptized the man and as they came up out of the water, the Spirit of the Lord snatched Philip away. 

The man didn’t see Philip anymore, but continued on his way rejoicing.

Usually this story is called something like the “Conversion of the Ethiopian Eunuch.” But I’m curious if a more accurate title could be, “The Conversion of the Church.” Because in this story, and in so much of Acts, people we would never guess would have anything to do with Jesus, wind up encountering Jesus and being drawn into discipleship. In the Ethiopian Eunuch’s story the church discovered that God is bigger and more welcoming than they ever could have imagined. Enemies and outcasts become collaborators. The image of God is highlighted and recovered in people who we might not ever have imagined seeing it in.

As we enter into these conversations that our churches and our country need, our faith reminds us that everyone is created in the image of God … is worthwhile … and has something to contribute to the conversation. 

If we are serious about our prayers that God would overcome the polarization so many of us experience, we need to be ready to find conversation partners in the most unlikely people and places.

SPCCBulletin11.04.2018

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