Anytime, Anywhere

Acts 8:26-40

In Detroit Michigan on a mostly unassuming day in 1937 the most amazing thing happened.  A man by the name of Joseph Figlock was dutifully doing his job as a street sweeper and he was cleaning the alleyway between two buildings.  Meanwhile, four stories up a young mother experienced every parent’s worst nightmare when she accidently dropped her baby out the window.  The child plummeted for almost 40 feet, but the fall was broken when the baby happened to hit the head of Joseph Figlock.   While both Figlock and the baby did sustain injuries, amazingly the baby survived the fall because Figlock happened to be in the right place at the right time.   The story does not end there.  Right at a year later, the baby was now a toddler.  In an unsupervised moment, the little tyke wandered over to the same open window and accidently tumbled right out of it.  Once again, the child survived because someone just happened to be in that alleyway at the right place at the right time to be hit by a falling child.  This person who happened to be there to save the day the second time was named Joseph Figlock!  Math is not my strong suit but the odds of the same man saving the same falling child twice, have to be astronomical.  It is truly the most amazing of coincidences.  There are a couple of ways to explain coincidences.  The first is mathematically.   For example, the odds of winning the Powerball lottery are about 1 in 292 million.   However, someone will win it, the odds just are not good that it is you.   In the same way if a coincidence can happen then on a long enough time scale it will, it just the odds of it happening to a single person are low.  The other way to explain coincidences is that they are not actually coincidences.

A coincidence implies random chance.  In 1777 English Author Horace Walpole wrote, “Chance is the instrument of Providence.”  In the 20th century this thought got upgraded to modern English as “coincidence is God’s way of remaining anonymous.”  While random chance and extraordinary events lining up can still happen, it seems like when God is involved there are a lot of coincidences.  One of the things that I am fairly confident about is that you can walk into any church in the world and find amazing story after story where the miraculous happened, where everything lined up just perfectly, where the odds seemed to be astronomical.  When a one in a million chance keeps happening over and over, I am not sure it is chance anymore.   We worship a God that is deeply involved in the world that God created.   Our God is not some distant clockmaker who set the universe in motion and lets it run like a well-oiled machine.   Rather our God, is involved in creation.  God is at work redeeming and restoring all of creation.    This means that our God is a God of coincidences, a God of miracles.   There are so many testimonies of when God has provided the right person or the right situation at the right time.   This morning’s scripture is a reminder of the opposite side of that coin, because sometimes we are the right person and the right place for someone else.   If we are faithful in following God then there are times that God can and will use to be someone else’s amazing coincidence.  This scripture reminds us that we should be ready then anytime and anywhere.

When we hear this morning’s scripture being read, we might naturally assume that Phillip is one of the apostles, one of Jesus’ original twelve disciples.  This is an understandable assumption to make, especially because in the gospels a Phillip is listed as one of the disciples.  However, that Phillip is not the same Phillip that is featured in this morning’s scripture.  The Phillip we are focused on is first introduced in Acts 6.  At this time the apostles tell the growing church to choose seven people to oversee the distribution of food to the widows.  Among these seven servants or “deacons” is Phillip.   In Acts the narrative then spends some time focusing on these deacons, first Stephen and then Phillip.  After persecution scattered the church, Philip found himself in Samaria, north of Jerusalem, where he successfully preached and healed.  After an encounter with a sorcerer earlier in chapter eight we get to this morning’s scripture.  This morning’s scripture is centered on Philip, but if we consider it from the Ethiopian Official’s perspective it is an amazing coincidence.   He was returning to his home country after a visit to Jerusalem.  He was returning with Jewish scripture, and was puzzled by what he was reading.  Then this random dude just starts running beside his chariot, and he just happens to have all of the answers to the questions he had been asking.   For the Ethiopian it had to all feel too amazing to be a coincidence which is why it ends with him going on his way rejoicing.   Of course, this morning’s scripture makes it clear that it was not just a coincidence.  God placed Philip right where he needed to be to make an eternal difference.  If we want to be used by God in a similar way, I think there are three things we can learn from Philip in this morning’s scripture.

First, we have to be available.  This morning’s scripture states an angel instructed Philip to take the road south.  It comes across as almost a casual instruction, but it was anything but.   Philip was previously in Samaria, which is north of Jerusalem, and he is directed to take a road that goes south out of Jerusalem.  It was not exactly like he was taking a quick little detour.  This was potentially multiple days of travel.   When Philip woke up that morning, he probably wasn’t packed, and had no idea that his plans were going to change.   In the same way, we need to be flexible enough that when God changes our plans we are available.  We should be mindful that we are not so caught up in our timetables, schedules, and to-do lists that we miss the opportunities to be the hands and feet of Jesus right in front of us.

When we realize that Philip was not just going around the block in this scripture, but taking a journey it makes it even more remarkable.  Since Philip was on the road for hours to days the Ethiopian official was likely not the only person he encountered.   It was through following the leading of the Holy Spirit that Philip knew who to help, but he only did it by listening and noticing.   To be available to be used by God we have to seek the Spirit’s guidance and we have to notice the people around us.  Most of us interact with dozens of people in a typical day, and we tend to most treat the people around us like NPCs, like extras in the background of our life.  We forget that person working the register is an actual person, who has struggles and whom God loves.   If we only view other people as being part of the background noise of our lives, then we miss the opportunities to do what God wants us to do.

I was reminded how true this was about a year ago.  I went to Subway for lunch one day, and the guy making the sandwiches looked it a little rough.  He looked like he had not slept much and he was visibly despondent.  While waiting for the sandwich to toast, I asked “Tough day at the office?”   He responded with a sigh that I had no idea.   I told him “Well whatever it is, I am sorry that you are going through it.”   As coincidence would have it, Subway was not busy and no one was behind me.  For the next several minutes, while my half made sandwich sat between us, he unloaded his problems on me.  I listened and I tried to empathize.  He brought faith into the conversation mentioning that he felt he had strayed too far from God.  I tried to assure him that no matter how we stray it only takes one step back to God.   As I left, I told him I would lift him up in prayer.   And I did.   A week or so later, I was back in Subway and he was working again.  Once more, as coincidence would have it, the line was short, and the conversation picked back up.   He talked about his church upbringing.  A pastor who had meant a lot in his formative years was still in the area, and I encouraged him to reach out.

A couple of weeks later I met him again, same place- different sandwich order.  He looked much more hopeful, said something felt like they were beginning to turn around, and he had actually reached to reconnect with that pastor.   Soon after, he moved on to something else, because I did not see him at Subway any more.  But I do occasionally remember to lift him up in prayer, and I sincerely do hope that things have continued to get better.  I cannot speak for you, but I know that in general I can do better job at noticing the people around me, but I think in this instance at least I got it right and I was a sympathetic person to listen, when someone else really needed that.  If we want to be used by God to make a difference in the lives of others, then we have to be available anytime and anywhere.

In this morning’s scripture, Philip was ready to serve God and impact the life of another person anytime and anywhere.  The second thing we can learn from Philip is that we should be willing to be there for anyone.   This morning’s scripture describes the Ethiopian as in important official.   This does somewhat obscure the fact that he likely did not have much choice in this or any aspect of his condition.  In the ancient world, eunuchs were often enslaved and they often did not have much choice in being eunuchs.  As one who served a foreign queen, that is likely the case for this man.

Even so, He had risen to a position of responsibility and importance, but that did not change how this Ethiopian man was marginalized.   In the ancient world a slave in a role of importance was still a slave, and in the ancient world eunuchs were viewed as “less than”.   This scripture makes it unclear if the Ethiopian is of Jewish descent, which is why he was going to the temple to worship God or if he was a gentile who was drawn to the God of Israel.  Whichever it was he made the long journey from south of Egypt to Jerusalem to worship God, but he was only able to do so from afar.  Because he was a eunuch a rule found in Deuteronomy 23 excluded him from the temple, so the outer court is as close as he would have been allowed.   In this scripture we are faced with a person who was excluded from the way others worshipped God because of a condition that he almost certainly did have a choice in or control over.  Despite being intentionally excluded, this man still wanted to know God which is why Philip was placed in his path.   Philip was faithful to be available anytime, anywhere and to anyone.  Because of that this man who had been “the other” his whole life, who had been marginalized and excluded was baptized and is now included in the family of God forever and ever.

Today there are a lot of people who for all kinds of reasons feel excluded from being able to worship God.  There are numerous heart breaking stories of people who feel drawn to God, who want to Jesus, only to be made to feel like an outsider once they get into the walls of the church.  There are people who because of something about who they are have been made to feel like they do not belong and will never belong in a church.   This should never have happened, and I believe God still wants to save these people, God still wants to be their God, and so it is going to take people like us to make it right.  It is going to take people like us to be open to the leading of the Holy Spirit so we are in the right place at the right time to share God’s love, to explain the good news, and to include those who feel excluded.  As author and former pastor John Pavlovitz writes in his book A Bigger Table:  “The heart of the bigger table is the realization that we don’t have to share someone’s experience to respect their road. . . There is no earning of fellowship or deserving closeness; there is only the invitation itself and the joy that comes when you are fully seen and fully heard.”

For the Ethiopian official it must felt like an amazing coincidence that someone just happened upon him to answer the deepest questions of his heart and soul, to introduce him to Jesus and to change his life eternally.     Yet, we know that it was not a mere coincidence.  It was God at work and it was due to the faithfulness of Philip to be ready to share God’s love and the good news of Jesus Christ anytime, anywhere and with anyone.   May we follow Philip’s example, may we make ourselves available and may we seek to build bigger tables so that everyone has a seat.  I believe if we take seriously this work and commit ourselves to be used by God anytime, anywhere to reach anyone then the growth, the renewal, and the new disciples being made will not be just a coincidence.



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