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Greeting God in One Another

Keatan King

July 8, 2012
Isaiah 56:3-8; Acts 8:26-40

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My college’s Chapel services were my first experiences of truly ecumenical worship. Presbyterians, Baptists, Methodists, Episcopalians, and Catholics would gather Sunday evenings for worship in the round and weekly communion. One Sunday, I sat next to an Episcopalian friend immediately to my right and to his right was a Methodist friend. We typically took communion by intinction, and as the bread came to the Episcopalian, he pinched off a piece and, rather than holding it for the cup, took it immediately. You might guess where this is going. As the Methodist passed the cup, he looked over in horror as our dear Episcopal friend began to bring the cup to his lips to drink. Feeling the need to correct him, the Methodist tried to snatch the cup out of his hand, threatening to spill juice everywhere. And I, ever the Presbyterian concerned with decorum and order, feared that the tug-of-war between these two was pushing us toward the brink of liturgical chaos. So I reached out my hands to steady the quivering cup and mostly contributed to the confusion.

One of us was partaking in the meal in the only way he knew. One of us was concerned with right practice. One of us worried that we nearly lost order. In this absurd scene of three Christians wrestling with our differences, some of us forgot whom we worship. We worship the Sovereign One who brought order from chaos, who loves whatever the shape and form of our faith practice, and who looks with favor upon burnt offerings-offerings which are scorched, crumbling, broken, spilled, and shaking.

We perceive differences to be disruptive to our faith. We fear that should our theology and worship pass through the wrong hands, someone else might mess it up. Should someone hand me, let’s say, a set of prayers and spirituals from a Black Baptist congregation, how would I lead them? Or when given the exact same liturgy, would Irish Catholics and Korean Pentecostals lead the exact same worship service? Our particular experiences of the world shape what we believe. My politics, my body, my values, my race, and my education contribute to my theology and understanding of God. Differences between our skin color might cause us to hold different definitions of justice. Differences between our bodies contribute to different notions of healing. So we fear that differences will disrupt what we believe; someone else’s experience of the world could poke a hole in what I believe. Someone else’s experience may threaten what comforts me.

The Ethiopian eunuch knew the pain of being turned away as a person whose differences aren’t welcome. On a road leaving Jerusalem, the eunuch had certainly had a fresh reminder rejection. Eunuchs were denied full access to the worshipping community at the Temple. Being a foreigner, his pilgrimage to Jerusalem was arduous, and the sting of being denied full belonging among Israelites made for a long journey home. And yet, he is not so soured by this rejection that he concludes his pursuit to know the Holy One of Israel. Looking to the prophet Isaiah, he desired the embrace of a God that would accept a foreign eunuch. He longed for a relationship with the One who created him and called him good. He held out hope for a God who also knew the pain of being rejected at the Temple.

It was this God who orchestrated a meeting between Philip and the eunuch on the road. The Spirit guides these two men to one another and Philip accepts the eunuch’s invitation to join him in his chariot. What seems like a simple detail of the story is a huge gesture of solidarity with a marginalized person. Philip climbs into the eunuch’s chariot and agreed to journey with the Other. Philip does a tremendously difficult thing: he sits in the tension of their differences.

Rabbi Irwin Kula tells a story about the dangers of sitting in the tension of difference. Passing an old gothic church every day for years, Irwin felt compelled by a still, small voice one day to enter the sanctuary. As he sat in the old wooden pews, he couldn’t help but grow anxious staring up at a body on a cross. His stomach turned and his palms became clammy as he considered the violence done to Jews over centuries by Christians. Though quite ready to leave, nevertheless, he felt he must stay anyway; he wasn’t satisfied. He knew there had to be something in his this iconic scene of the Christian tradition which led him to God. Gradually, Irwin found himself wondering what it would be like to live with a heart wide open, like this man on the cross. He wondered how he’d be different if his heart was that vulnerable to all the pain and woundedness of the world. Suddenly, he remembered a Hebrew prayer he’d recited daily for his entire life, meaning, “God is close to the broken-hearted.” Irwin sat with the tension of difference until he could see the image of God in, what was for him, an unlikely place. Rabbi Kula reflected on that experience saying, “I didn’t convert that day, but my God got an awful lot bigger. And so did I.”[1]

The danger of sitting with the tension of our differences is this: we will grow beyond our fears and expand our understanding of the Creator. When we take a step away from those who are different, we’ve grown no closer in knowing God. Rather, it is when we meet the unknown in another person that we draw closer to the altogether Unknowable God. Differences exist between us, but they are of one Source, the God of Heaven and Earth, in whose image each of us is made. We see the image of God dwelling in, what to us, appear to be unlikely persons.

And what good news this is: that God was content to be found in an unlikely a person from a blue collar family, who grew up in the sticks-a guy whose friends weren’t powerful, who spent all his time with needy people, who was rejected by civil and religious authorities, and who died in obscurity between criminals. If God could be seen in Jesus of Nazareth, God’s image can even be entrusted to us. So we must ultimately reorient ourselves to one another. When we believe we’ve each been fashioned in the image of God, it changes our posture toward each other.

Namaste is an Indian greeting which literally translates to “I bow to you.” But figuratively speaking, Namaste is the recognition of the divine image in another human being.[2] It is to say to a neighbor, “The God in me greets the God in you.” Philip greeted God in someone who, like Christ, ‘was denied justice in his humiliation.’ Philip saw the face of Christ in a man who was a stranger, rejected from the Temple, and journeying in the wilderness. The eunuch greeted God in someone who embraced him and welcomed him to the family of God. The eunuch met God in a person who embodied the promise of Isaiah 56-“to gather the outcasts of Israel.”

God calls us to be a community willing to endure the bumpy ride of learning one another’s lives and navigating our diversity. We must be willing to sit in the tension of one another’s lives so we may also experience in the glory of God made known fully in Christ and in glimpses throughout humanity.

In the end, whatever each of us intended that evening as we wrestled in the Chapel, two of us lifted up the cup of salvation while our brother drank from it. For this we were created: to be a community joined through one baptism, one Lord, one faith. In our one baptism, God joins us to communities who vow to ride in our chariots on the journey of faith so we may, in turn, vow to sit beside the faithful on their journeys. Thanks be to God, Amen.

[1] Rabbi Irwin Kula. Yearnings: Embracing the Sacred Messiness of Life (New York: Hyperion, 2006), 19.