Each Sunday we sing together and say together that we offer God praise and thanksgiving. As celebrant one of us prays it out loud, too, on behalf of everybody gathered. I want to sit awhile this morning with the ideas of praise and thanksgiving, and you’ve probably noticed over the last almost two years that I’ve been with you all that I don’t say “thanks-GIVING” — like the holiday — but I always say “THANKS-giving,” which sounds a little awkward to our ears, but it emphasizes what we’re offering, what we’re “giving,” rather than the action of “giving” itself. We are giving “thanks” — we are offering praise, we are stating our gratitude out loud, lifting up our voices in compliments and truth-telling words of honor.
Sometimes this feels like another thing to check off the list, another sticker to put in the Religious Righteousness Achievement Booklet that we all keep at home in our desk drawers — or at least the list that we might imagine is in some cosmic storehouse in the sky. Offer our praise — check. Give our thanks — check. Wear our Sunday best and make it into the pew on time — check, check.
This is good, and it is important, and I’m not just saying that because it’s my job to do so. I really do believe that showing up is most of the battle, and really, that “voting” with our feet and our bodies — putting ourselves in the pew, marching our feet to God’s house — matters, and makes changes happen in our lives and our hearts and our relationships and our souls.
But in a way, going to church is the easy part, isn’t it? It’s the part from 1pm on Sunday afternoon till 10am the next Sunday morning — the whole rest of the week — that’s more complicated to figure out.
How do you know when you’ve done enough? How many times per day should I be praying? How do I measure up against really good Christians? What do I do with those uncomfortable moments in my car at a stoplight when someone reaches out their hand for change? Do I need to volunteer at a homeless shelter or a poor school once a week? Is my duty discharged if I tithe 10%?
I want to be grateful, and I want to be in tune with God; I want to be a good Christian and I want to teach my children how to be good Christians too; how do I do all that?
Sometimes I can get overwhelmed by all the voices and questions and expectations and hopes and inspiration and dreams that I have for this great Christian life, and then I get anxious and burn myself out instead, or my anxiety goes underground and I do nothing at all, I don’t use the energy and potential I felt in order to let transformation happen.
So I want to look at the story we’re given in Acts today to see how God weaves himself into the lives of Philip the apostle and the Ethiopian eunuch.
So the passage opens with Philip being struck with a strong desire to go take a walk on a wilderness road. Maybe he heard a voice, or maybe it just looked like a very fine day. God often works with what’s already happening inside of us or in our daily lives; sometimes he does shout like a bolt of lightning, a la Paul’s conversion, which is, of course, recounted in this same book in the very next chapter, but I find that God is more subtle to start with, and uses what he can from our own lives to form our stories into his will. So, whether an angel appeared and tapped Philip on the shoulder, or whether he saw his walking stick by the door and the thought just popped into his head, Philip walked himself out on the wilderness road from Jerusalem to Gaza.
I suspect he didn’t have in mind that he was going to be leading someone to Jesus that day, giving a whole witness and testimony; I’ll bet he didn’t expect he was going to be baptizing someone before sundown. I mean, if you were going to give a witness, you’d go to a city, wouldn’t you? He wasn’t headed somewhere that seemed like it was going to be ripe with eager converts, that’s what I mean to show here. Sometimes we are led somewhere very normal, very unimpressive, but a surprise might be lurking there.
And when he was walking along, he felt another nudge — whether it was an audible voice or just a whim that bubbled up, who knows; he ran up to a passing chariot and struck up a conversation. “Hey, have you got a good book there?”
I love that this wasn’t Philip knocking on doors and handing out tracts; though that may be the calling of some people, this introvert finds that sort of evangelism enough to make me hide in bed. Philip, for his part, was just striking up a conversation, which could just as easily have been about what he had been up to that week — oh, nothing big, just my best friend rising from the dead — or it could have been about the trip he was planning this summer — perhaps a walking tour of Greece and Syria, I’m a missionary, you see… And from a friendly inquiry, the door is opened wide for God to step into the Ethiopian’s heart, through the vessel of his servant, Philip.
Philip lets a conversation develop when one crosses his path, and I think he does one other important thing, too.
Look at how he starts; he sees the eunuch is reading Isaiah — now that’s a heady prophet — and he asks, “what do you think of what you’re reading? Do you understand it?”
Look at how Philip continues; they read it together, squished there in the chariot next to one another, bent over this scroll, they’re companions on the journey, one might say.
And look at how Philip ends; the eunuch has asked questions, Philip has told him what he knows, only what he’s seen and heard and learned himself, Philip speaks out of his experience, his perspective, letting the power of God’s Living Word do the work.
Throughout the story, Philip stays with the conversation’s moments. He sticks next to the eunuch. When the Ethiopian asks a question about the Scripture, Philip takes a moment, nods his head, draws a deep breath — somewhat like your Co-Vicar does whenever he’s asked a question — and then invites the eunuch into a dialogue.
The Ethiopian had God’s written Word, the language which communicates facts and revelation, the language of prayer and of faith, but the Ethiopian, and each convert both then and today, needs, too, the Living Word of God’s presence to ignite their hearts with desire for the saving water of baptism and the nourishing food of Holy Communion.
Knowing what to say at the right time can be a big obstacle in connecting with other people, so I wonder what might happen if we take our expectations down a few notches. Instead of thinking we’ve got to go up and invite our co-worker or neighbor to church, maybe we just ask them how their day is going, and when we do, we mean it. We don’t look away, or rush through the moment, or only half-listen to the response while we make to-do lists in our heads.
How would it look to listen, really listen, to someone when we ask a caring question? To give them all the attention we’ve got, to look closely for a sparkle of God in their eyes, or a whiff of Jesus in the air, or a sense of God’s presence in our bones?
Our only work on this earth is to recognize and lift up — to praise and give thanks — for God’s presence and work in our lives; that’s the only thing we have to do. It might sometimes look like changing a dirty diaper, because of God’s presence in an infant, or even in an elderly parent. It might sometimes look like telling someone the truth about their behavior or their habits, because God’s presence sits in the midst of sin, too. It might sometimes look like silence, even silence by ourselves, because Jesus often went to a lonely place to pray.
Our praise and thanks-giving might look like standing and singing on Sunday mornings at 10am, but on Monday morning at 6am, praising God might be using the body he’s given us to go for a run before work. Or at 7pm on Tuesday it might look like easing your aching bones into a bath, to honor the good work your body has done for years and years.
My challenge to you this morning is to praise and give thanks to God with your body and your voice every single day this week; being awake to how Jesus weaves himself into your everyday, and having the courage and the compassion to share Jesus with the world.