I am very behind in posting sermons! I’ve got three that are going to go up today. This one is from three weeks ago. Enjoy!
Rehoboth Congregational Church
April 29, 2018
Conversations That Change Lives
Do y’all remember the Bacons? Sarah and Jason and their two daughters; they moved to Arizona about a year and a half ago; they attended RCC faithfully for about two years before they moved.
I first met Sarah on a Thursday, December afternoon. I was getting ready for a friend’s wedding in Connecticut that weekend and I was trying to wrap everything up for our Sunday service before I got swept up in the weekend’s festivities.
That morning I received a call from the volunteer coordinator at Sturdy Memorial Hospital; at the time, I was one of their volunteer chaplains. As a volunteer who had direct patient contact, I needed to comply with staff regulations for things like immunizations and safety courses; this included getting an annual flu shot.
Which I, of course, had neglected to do.
That Thursday was the deadline for getting a flu shot and the volunteer coordinator told me that I had to find my way over to Occupational Health Services at some point that day to get a flu shot.
Here’s the thing: I had places to go and people to see; I had stuff to finish at the office that day and a pre-wedding dinner to get to in Connecticut that night. Do you know what I did not have time for that day? A flu shot. But do you know who did not care about how busy I thought I was? The volunteer coordinator who told me I had to get a flu shot by 3:45 that afternoon.
So I scrambled to finish my work in the office and then drove up to the hospital, just barely making my 3:45 deadline. They called me back to the exam room and I was on my phone working on my sermon. The door opened and a really nice woman walked in, shook my hand and said, “Hi, I’m Sarah; I’m going to give you your flu shot today.” I made polite small talk, but, in my head, I was kind of already on the road to Connecticut. I am embarrassed to admit this now, but, at the time, I was kind of thinking, “Just give me the shot, I’ve got places to be.”
Sarah flipped through my paperwork as she was putting gloves on when she paused, looked up at me, with kind of a surprised look on her face. “You’re a chaplain?” she asked. “Where is your church?” Now, to my credit, I did answer her question; but beyond that, I did not really engage the conversation. I was focused on what I had to do next, where I had to be, the fact that 195 was probably already backing up.
A few minutes later, I thanked her for the shot and went on my “busy” way. Ten minutes after I left the hospital, my phone went off with a text from Allison. “I just got a Facebook message from a friend of mine from high school, Sarah Bacon. She said she met you today; she and her family are going to check out our church on Sunday.”
Now, at that point, I thought I had blown it. I knew that I had not engaged the conversation as well as I could have, that I did not give any details about me, my ministry or the church beyond simple answers to the questions she asked. I knew that I had not asked her any questions about her own faith journey. I knew that – even given the window of opportunity that she opened when she asked where I was a pastor – that I had not even invited her to church.
And yet, there but by the grace of God, the Bacons showed up in church that Sunday – and the Sunday after that, and the Sunday after that, and the Sunday after that.
Months later, we had a new members class and I asked everyone to share their story. Sarah stood up and talked about the fact that, while Jason had been raised in the church, she never attended church growing up, so this whole faith-thing was kind of new to her. But she said that, for some reason over the past year or so, she felt God pushing her to dig deeper and explore her faith. She said she did not necessarily know where to start, but one December, Thursday morning, she woke up and decided that was the day; she was going to talk to Jason that night about finding a church for their family.
And that afternoon, a chaplain walked into her exam room for a flu shot.
A chaplain, by the way, who almost blew it.
I hope I never forget this story; because it humbles me. It reminds me that I should never be so caught up in my own world and life and schedule that I do not take the time to talk to someone about my faith, about my church and about the way their life can be changed by God’s grace.
Because you never know when you are having a conversation with someone that might change their life.
This morning’s scripture reading comes from Acts of the Apostles. We talked about Acts a couple of weeks ago and how it is a continuation of the Gospel of Luke. It is a firsthand account of the formation of early Christianity. It is filled with stories of what early Christians did in those days and months and years, even, following the resurrection. Acts is the only book in the bible that contains this narrative of the early church; through these stories, we can peak into the lives of the people who laid the foundation for the faith that is so boldly and miraculously still changing our lives today.
We just heard the story of Philip and the Ethiopian eunuch. Philip was, for all intents and purposes, part of the second generation of leaders in the Church. As the message of Gospel expanded, the apostles realized they, as a group were not enough to do the work that needed to be done to continue to grow the Church, so they called seven men to serve with them. They laid hands on them and sent them out in ministry; Philip was one of the seven.
So, in this story, an angel appears to Philip and tells him to travel along the road from Jerusalem to Gaza. While he is there, he meets an Ethiopian eunuch assigned to the Ethiopian Queen. According to Acts, the eunuch had been in Jerusalem to worship and was on his way home, sitting in his chariot, reading from the prophet Isaiah. A spirit comes over Philip, telling him to go sit with the eunuch in his chariot. Philip asks the eunuch if he understands what he is reading from Isaiah and the eunuch replies, “How can I, unless someone guides me?” and then he invites Philip into his chariot, where Philip shares with him the Good News of Jesus and the fulfillment of this prophesy.
Unlike me, Philip was not concerned that he had places to go; he was fully present in the moment and shared with this eunuch a faith that changed his life.
The eunuch was an outcast; eunuchs were royal servants who had been castrated at young ages so as to be deemed safe to work around women in royal households. They were seen as scarred and defective and were not allowed to participate fully in the life and faith of Israel. The book of Isaiah that the eunuch is reading out of in this story is a book of scripture that gave eunuchs and other marginalized groups of people hope; hope that one day they would be freed from the bonds that held them captive.
And yet, in this moment, in this chariot, all barriers are broken down and Philip tells the eunuch that these prophesies have already been fulfilled; that he, too, has access to the grace of God through Jesus Christ; that he is free from the bonds that are holding him captive. Philip shares his faith with the eunuch; he tells him about Jesus and then, when they arrive at a body of water, Philip stops the chariot, they both get out and enter the water, and Philip baptizes the eunuch as a tangible sign of the grace he had just proclaimed. The story ends with Philip being taken away by the Holy Spirit and the eunuch resuming his journey with great joy. Philip, then, resumes his journey and continues to share the Good News of Jesus Christ.
I was reading a commentary on Philip this week and he was referred to as a Deacon, because of the way he and the other seven were called into ministry, but also as an Evangelist. After all, that is what he did in this story, right? He evangelized; he shared the Good News of Jesus Christ and then brought someone into the faith.
Here’s the thing about evangelism – it sounds like a scary word, but it really is not. It is not about being obnoxious or pushy or manipulative or getting someone to convert to your way of thinking; it is about meeting people where they are on their journey through life and telling them about your faith. It is about inviting them to ask questions and affirming to them over and over and over again that they are loved, they are cherished and they are not alone. It is about leading them to the sacraments that we believe make us whole and telling them that they, too, are worthy of receiving these gifts from God. It is about welcoming them into your narrative and telling them why your life has been changed by your faith, your church and the Body of Christ, your village, who acts as a tangible sign of God’s love in your life.
But more often than not, it starts with a conversation; a conversation that we have to be willing to have, to be fully present in the moment when it is happening.
We have to be fully present in the moment when these conversations present themselves. We have to approach them believing that God brought us together with this person in this moment and that this conversation has the capacity to change their life.
Evangelism is a good thing, it just has a bad reputation sometimes. This morning I am encouraging you to think about what it means to be an evangelist and to try to share your faith with others you meet along your own journey through life. I know we do not do this a lot in mainline protestant churches in New England, but don’t be scared; because by the nature of you being here this morning and making church a priority in your life, when you talk to someone about your church and faith you are talking about something that is important to you and that has impacted your life in some positive way.
Why wouldn’t you want to share that?
Friends, remember this: You never know when you are having a conversation with someone that might change their life.
So go; share the Good News, tell people about our crazy, but love-infused church in the village and be amazed as God’s grace is uncovered in the most unexpected ways and places.
Thanks be to God!