Saturday, May 2, 2015

Welcome to the Heart of God

Trinity Lutheran Church of Moorhead, MN
May 3, 2015; Easter 5
Installation of Pastor Tessa Hansen
Acts 8:26-40

In the name of Jesus.  Amen.

 “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”  (Acts 1:8)

These are the last recorded words of Jesus before he ascended into heaven, as the author of Acts has it, in chapter 1, verse 8.

You will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.

There is here a trajectory, an “itinerary” that the Risen Jesus sets before his followers.   They will tell his story first of all in the city where Jesus was crucified, Jerusalem, at the heart of it all.  And then they will move out into the world….starting in the regions right around Jerusalem (“Judea and Samaria”)…and eventually they will travel every which-way, “to the ends of the earth.”

This noble vision, this stirring commission with its soaring view of the world and its expansive perspective on a vast future….this lofty vision played out (as it were) in a markedly step-by-step, down-to-earth, often messy fashion.

So, the Holy Spirit fell down from heaven at Pentecost….the community of Christ grew by 3000 baptized souls just like that….a fresh way of living out faith flowed forth…obstacles emerged and were overcome….all in the context of a brewing threat from the same mad mob that sought Jesus’ death…..until one of the Christ-followers, Stephen, was brutally stoned, triggering the first outbreak of persecution that compelled Jesus’ followers to leave Jerusalem and head out into the surrounding regions.

From Acts 1:8 to Acts 8:1, the spreading of the Christian movement happened--motivated by fear and necessity, the followers of Jesus fanned out in every direction, having all sorts of adventures as they put distance between themselves and the epicenter of it all in Jerusalem.

So one fine day, a follower named Philip met up with a traveler on a desert road…and came face to face with what this new life in Christ-crucified-and-risen would look like.

What Philip encountered that day, what all the followers of Jesus ran into as they moved out, beyond Jerusalem, into Judea and Samaria and finally “to the ends of the earth”—what they met up with was all the messiness of life.

This messiness met Philip in the form of a stranger who had at least three strikes against him:  he was a foreigner, from Ethiopia….he was dark-skinned, a man of another race….and he was a man who wasn’t fully a man, his masculine identity having been marred, likely at an early age.

This unnamed Ethiopian eunuch was someone Philip might otherwise have shunned or simply ignored, pretending not even to notice him….were it not for the insistent demand of the Holy Spirit who told Philip:  “Go over to this chariot and join it.”

Pastor Tessa, this story speaks volumes about what it might mean for you to bear the title:  Pastor of Hospitality….

…Because this story says, first of all, that hospitality in the community of Christ is about so much more than smiling a lot, being nice, always looking for novel ways to welcome folks, and displaying the best of manners and decorum.

Hospitality in the name of Christ is first and foremost about meeting people in the extreme messiness of their lives…..finding ourselves drawn toward perhaps the very last persons we might want to meet.
It’s hard to ignore the fact that three of the markers that created distance between Philip and the Ethiopian still contribute to the messiness of our lives in this time and place: race, ethnicity, and sexual identity.

Hmmmm—is this ancient story really all that ancient?

I wonder, Pastor Tessa, whether this text might be asking you and all the followers of Christ here at Trinity:  how widely are we willing and able to open up the doors of this faith community?   As you engage that kind of messy, complex question you will come close to the heart of what we mean when we speak of Christian hospitality.

If saying this ups the ante a little too high, please remember two other things.

God wants us smack dab in the messiness of peoples’ lives.   The ministry of hospitality involves inviting us to do what God already ardently wants us to do!  God is on your side here, Pastor Tessa, because God is the minister of hospitality par excellence!

Notice, please, how utterly God-guided Philip was here, directed by God to the right road, drawn by God to the Ethiopian’s chariot, prompted by God to ask the right questions and empowered by God to speak the right words at the right time.

The Book of Acts takes pains to show God being utterly in charge as the nascent Christian community stretches its boundaries, crosses ancient barriers, and embraces the heretofore untouchable!   God is no less here, present, effectively guiding you and those you serve, Pastor Tessa.

And second, the one who is welcomed, often shows us the way, if we but have ears to hear and eyes to notice.

There is something about this story in Acts 8 that seems a little too easy, as if the dice were loaded before the game began:   Philip goes to this particular road, finds this particular God-fearing man, reading this particular passage from Isaiah 53, wondering just who it was who was “led like a lamb to the slaughter.”  

Talk about a slow ball pitched right over the plate!!

No wonder Philip can step right up and “proclaim to him the good news about Jesus!”

And then, as if all those coincidences hadn’t piled up a little too neatly, some water appears—water, in the desert, mind you!--just as the Ethiopian wonders about being baptized!

Tessa, things may not always come together that neatly in your ministry of hospitality here and out in the community, on behalf of Trinity...

But please never underestimate the ways those to whom you seek to minister will minister to you.   The ones we would welcome often show us the way—simply by the questions they ask and the ways they ask them.

"About whom,” the Ethiopian asked Philip, “does the prophet say this, about himself or about someone else?"

Why did the eunuch inquire about the identity of the suffering one in Isaiah, the one who had been cut off, whose life had been taken away from the earth?

It was because this was the Ethiopian’s own heart-felt life story.   He had been cut off.  His life—his future guaranteed by descendants—had been taken away.   The Ethiopian was fervently fixated on this passage from Isaiah, I dare say, because he was trying to find himself in God’s story!

So also, in all the ways we welcome one another into fullness of life in Jesus Christ, we encounter persons who are already trying to discover their place in God’s story.

Their questions, their longings, set us up to do what Philip did:   to “proclaim…the good news about Jesus” who for our sake was cut off, so that we might never be cut off from the forgiveness, the freedom, the future God has in store for all of God’s children.

So welcome to Trinity, Pastor Tessa!   Welcome to being Trinity’s Pastor of Hospitality!  Welcome to the adventure of  meeting others in the messiness of their lives and welcoming them—not just into this community of care—but into the depths of Jesus’ own story—into Jesus’ life, death and resurrection for us and our salvation.

Which is to say:  Welcome to the delight of welcoming folks into the very heart of God.

In the name of Jesus.   Amen.

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