April 29th 2018 Sermon

ST COLUMBA’S, PONT STREET

SUN 29 April 2018

Revd Angus MacLeod MA BD

 

The eunuch asked Philip, “About whom, may I ask you, does the prophet say this,

about himself or about someone else?”
Then Philip began to speak, and starting with this scripture,

he proclaimed to him the good news about Jesus. Acts 8:34-35

 

Some years ago, I spoke about an amazing piece of film-making called “The Ridge.”

It was the story of BMX stunt-rider, Danny McCaskill –

and his cycling along the Isle of Skye’s, Cuillin Ridge.

Astonishing skill, breath-taking scenery.

The film’s iconic moment – when the cyclist sits on his bike

on top of the Inaccessible Pinnacle – a needle/pillar of rock –

the drone-mounted camera circling man and peak

in a sort of vertigo-inducing ecstasy.

[There was more feedback on that sermon than most.]

 

Today, another short film – made by BBC’s World Service –

that shares something of the scale and drama,

of the living and the landscape.

 

Village priest, Fr Haylesilassie Kahsay, wakes before dawn each morning

and sets off at 6am to commute to work.

He walks for two hours, then climbs a sheer cliff to reach his church.

The church, complete with colourful frescos and two cupolas,

sits above a 250-metre drop; accessible only by climbing the cliff

and traversing narrow ledges.

The church dates from the late C5th.

It features in the Lonely Planet Traveller guide of inspiring destinations.

 

The priest says: “It is very difficult, but I find it manageable,

“When I leave home I am very happy because I am walking towards St Abuna Yemata.”

On the mountain, he spends his time studying ancient texts

“If you read and understand the word of God, it tastes as sweet as honey.”

 

The connection of all this?

Fr Haylesilassie is a priest of the Orthodox Church in Ethiopia;

a living ripple today, of the water disturbed by the stone of the Ethiopian’s baptism by Philip

on that wilderness road,

which we read this morning. (Acts 8)

 

Philip the Evangelist, from the coastal city of Caesarea Maritima.

makes three appearances in Luke’s Book of Acts.

First, as one of seven people chosen to care for the poor in Jerusalem (Acts 6).

Following complaint about the distribution of resources,

the leaders ask the community to choose some people who were

“known to be full of the Spirit and wisdom.”

So, the original Twelve commission The Seven.

 

Then, when a “great persecution broke out against the church in Jerusalem,”

the believers “scattered throughout Judea and Samaria,”

Philip amongst them.

Later – an angel of the Lord said to Philip,

“Get up and go toward the south to the road that goes down from Jerusalem to Gaza.”

 

Hence the encounter with the Ethiopian court official;

Treasurer to the Queen, in Jerusalem to worship.

Wealthy enough to ride a chariot,

educated enough to read Greek,

devout enough to study the prophet Isaiah,

humble enough to know he cannot understand unless he asks for help.

A man in search of meaning.

He is also of different sexual status –

as a eunuch, the Law of Deuteronomy

would forbid full integration within the Temple.

 

Prompted by the Spirit, Philip accepts the invitation to  come aboard,,

accompanies the Ethiopian a stretch

and like strangers aboard a train, they talk at depth.

 

Theologian, Marcus Borg, describes faith as an “unending conversation.”

In words, apt for this story he says:

We step into and join in a discussion that has been going for centuries – 

a conversation that will continue long after we have left the conversation.

 

The Ethiopian ponders one passage in particular:

As a sheep led to the slaughter or a lamb before its shearers is dumb

so he opens not his mouth.

In his humiliation justice was denied him. (Isaiah 53:7)

 

Who is this about? He asks.

It is about Jesus, Philip replies.

Jesus – the blameless one, unjustly humiliated and slaughtered,

silent in the face of it all. But not defeated.

 

The eunuch understands humiliation, injustice and exclusion.

Now, he, who is trusted by his Queen,

can he trust that God’s love extends to himself, who is so consciously damaged?

He needs someone to translate the cold ink of the page

into the warmth of real acceptance.

 

So, questions, conversation, openness.

We don’t have the details, but the upshot?

 

When they came across roadside water the Ethiopian asked:

“What is to prevent me from being baptised?”

Philip could have given a list of objections based on the laws of his religion;

But he didn’t.

Instead, he recognized it as a moment of grace

and didn’t get in the way.

God’s love reaches out beyond the expected boundaries of ritual and faith.

 

How does the story end?

Frederick Buechner: Philip never saw the Ethiopian again and never had to.”

The fleeting encounter sets in train events

that could never be imagined at the time.

 

At the Reception held by the friends of St Columba’s this week

we heard from Nigerian born Ladi Darriya.

She recounted her remarkable journey from being a child of thirteen

and the death of her father (aged 40)

leaving her mother and siblings vulnerable and poor.

She told of tending the goats and being drawn to pasture them near the local school – listening to the lessons delivered in the shade of a tree.

She told of getting repeatedly into trouble

because while she listened to the teacher her goats ate the neighbours food!

 

She told how money was found for primary school education

and then thanks to a scholarship from the Commonwealth Countries League

she was able to continue her education to secondary level.

That road led on to university, banking

and work and life in Aberdeen,

before moving to London and work with the Corporation of London.

(Among other things organising film shoots – think, Mission Impossible!)

 

By any stretch Ladi’s is a remarkable story.

Movingly she concluded with the encouragement to her listeners

to “Cast your bread upon the waters…”

That expression from the Book of Ecclesiastes

which speaks of how we never know where the good deeds we undertake,

will reverberate, where they will bear fruit –

Do it anyway “Cast your bread upon the waters…for thou shalt find it after many days.”

 

We know nothing more of the Ethiopian official,

But we know that Ethiopia is the nation

with one of the most ancient Christian traditions in the world.

 

And Philip? He travelled on to his home town – telling his stories as he went.

Years later, he reappears in Acts 21,

his house is big enough for his family of six

to host Luke, Paul, and their traveling companions for an extended stay.

Luke also says that Philip had “four unmarried daughters who had the gift of prophecy.”

Philip encouraged the ministerial gifts of these women.

Beyond that, nothing more.

 

His legacy? Esteemed by his community; open to the Spirit.

Practical helper, hospitable, unafraid to speak of his faith;

nurturing his daughters’ gifts;

faithful, on the road and in the home; story teller.

 

Legacy? At sunset, Fr Haylesilassie locks the cliff-side church,

descends from the heights and heads home.

“The reason why I became a priest

is to teach the people what I have learned,

so they can walk in my footsteps.

God’s deeds are perfect.”