I have a couple of character sketches, I guess you could call them, or maybe situations is a better way to describe them, that I want to share with you. I want to do that as a way into our text for today, which is about evangelism.
The first character sketch or situation I want to share with you is about a woman I used to know. That was years ago and in a place far, far away, actually, it was about 12 years ago, when I was raising my three daughters in McLean, Virginia. There was a woman in that McLean community, I’ll call Alice. Alice had a daughter the same age as my middle daughter. Her daughter and my daughter played together, had sleep overs, went to each others’ birthday parties, that kind of thing. Alice, her husband, and her two children lived in a lovely home, and she was a very busy, extremely volunteer-oriented, stay-at-home mom.
Her life changed, though, when our daughters moved from Jr. High to High School. Maybe the family needed some extra income; or maybe Alice was anticipating becoming an empty-nester, so time to embark on a career. Whatever. Sometime during our daughters’ high school years, Alice became an encyclopedia salesperson. She didn’t become a door-to-door encyclopedia salesperson, like we think of, right? Alice would see folks in grocery stores, or at PTO meetings, and she would yank a brochure from her purse and launch into her encyclopedia sales pitch.
Now, had she been selling Tupperware, or Mary Kaye cosmetics, that wouldn’t have been so bad, right? Buying a few pieces of Tupperware, or a tube of lipstick isn’t going to set you back that much, and maybe you’ll eventually use them, right? Who doesn’t need Tupperware?
But a set of encyclopedias is not cheap. It’s way over most peoples’ monetary comfort level. Not only that. Alice was selling encyclopedias right around the time that computers were coming into their own. I don’t think that Wikipedia existed yet, but still, most families in our neighborhood had computers, and kids and adults alike were getting about all the information they needed for every little thing, on-line. Encyclopedias were on their way to becoming obsolete.
Alice’s money-making project certainly caused a buzz in the community—we were miffed, irritated, annoyed. We felt preyed upon, by someone who we used to regard as a generally nice person. A mutual friend complained to me, “I just bought a whole set of encyclopedias from Alice—I just couldn’t say no, but I’ll never use them. I don’t even have a shelf to put them on!”
I give you this character sketch or tell you this situation, because don’t you think that evangelism--Evangelism, it means the act of bring a message of good tidings about God’s love—don’t you think that evangelism, the act of bringing a message of good tidings about God’s love to people who are not religious, or particularly spiritual or churchy, is a lot like selling encyclopedias? We do that and like Alice, we miff, irritate and annoy people who aren’t in the market. And we do it enough, and people may tolerate us, but at arm’s length.
But I have another character sketch or situation for you—this one is true, too.
I live in Charlotttesville, as probably most of you know, in the city, in one of a row of houses. Across the street and two houses to the right if you are standing at my front door looking out, is a house, in need of paint, and a new roof. It has a cluttered front porch. I have never met the man who lives there, by himself, I am told. I’ve only seen him from a distance, when I am out working in my yard, or walking the dog. He works during the day. I know that because he drives a service truck that he parks in his driveway, and it is gone weekdays. He is probably in his 50’s; overweight. My neighbors say, and it has been my experience, that he keeps to himself. I have no idea what his name is, so for the purpose of this sermon, let’s just refer to him as Hermit Man.
Not only does Hermit Man not care for the exterior of his house, I don’t believe Hermit Man owns a lawn mower. Or if he does, he certainly never uses it. Our city is very good about sending out notices when the yard-grass gets too tall—I’m sure he must have received dozens of those, enough to wall paper a room. When his yard DOES get mowed, it’s thanks to his next door neighbor, a man who lives with his wife across the street and ONE house to the right, if you are standing at my front door looking out.
This past spring, just as the weather was beginning to turn from winter, to warmer weather, I witnessed some very curious activity at Hermit Man’s house! A truck from a landscape company pulled into his driveway. Two men in white uniforms jumped out and began raking and generally cleaning up Hermit Man’s front yard! Glory be! I can just see the edge of Hermit Man’s property from my study window, so perched at my desk, and leaning forward ever so slightly, I kept tabs on the goings on! Yes, your pastor is a voyeur.
After clearing the yard of fall and winter debris, the two men in white rolled out some black cloth—you know the kind of cloth used in gardening? And then, they got back in their truck. They pulled it out of the driveway so that it was perpendicular to Hermit Man’s front yard, and blocking our street, but just for a few minutes. Then the back hatch of the truck opened, and out poured a full load of mulch on Hermit Man’s front yard. After which, the men in white pulled the truck back into the driveway, smoothed the mulch out so that it covered Hermit Man’s front yard to the property line on all sides, and drove off.
“What kind of person does that?” That’s what I asked a third neighbor who lives caddy-corner to me. He’s from Germany, or some other Nordic country—He’s got an accent, and some interesting ideas about life—but that’s another story. “Well, in my country, you need lots of mulch to grow white asparagus. Maybe he’s going to grow white asparagus.” Seriously!?
No asparagus has yet appeared. As I tell you this, we are approaching another spring season. Weeds have poked their way up through the black cloth and mulch, a testimony to the vigor of dandelions and wild onions. Mulch is everywhere—not just in Hermit Man’s front yard. It litters the city sidewalk and street curb that run along the front of Hermit Man’s house. It has migrated to his neighbors’ front yards.
“What kind of person does that?” It’s a rhetorical question. I know what kind of person does that. Someone who is bitter, takes no pride of ownership, someone who doesn’t give a darn about his neighbors. Someone who is generally sour on life. Self-pitying. Angry.
You see, instead of being sympathetic, I am totally judgmental, and insensitive. I harbor a lot of bad feelings toward Hermit Man—feelings that the church considers sin. Bad, bad pastor.
But here’s something to consider. What makes Hermit Man the way he is? Mental illness, the death of a loved one. Physical limitations maybe? Loneliness. Dunno because I have never made it a goal to get to know him.
As a Christian and as a pastor, especially, I am supposed to Evangelize--especially I am supposed to evangelize people like Hermit Man. People who obviously need God in their lives. I don’t have to feel shy about doing that. I’m not selling something expensive like encyclopedias. What I have to offer, a message that God loves, is free, free, free. And, a message that God loves certainly never becomes obsolete, like encyclopedias either. That message is 2,000 years old and counting. Shame on me.
Now bear with me. I want to do a one-eighty.
Our story today concerns Philip. Philip is the first evangelist mentioned in scripture. Just to clear up some confusion that is common to Bible readers, this Philip is not the same Philip that was one of Jesus’ disciples. Philip the evangelist first makes his appearance a few chapters earlier in Acts. The disciples who had established and were running the church in Jerusalem elected seven elders to care for the disadvantaged in the church community. Philip the evangelist was one of those seven.
In today’s reading, Philip is in Samaria. If you look on the map inserted in your bulletin, you can see how Samaria cuts Jewish territory in two, literally. Judeans in Jesus’ day usually chose to go around Samaria to get from the Southern part of their country, to the Jewish region of Galilee in the North. That meant crossing the Jordan river, walking along the river bank and then re-crossing the Jordan River to enter Galilee, adding several days to their journey. And of course, they had to navigate the river, twice. They did that because the Jews and Samaritans didn’t get along. The Samaritans had sided with the Jews’ enemies several times in the past. In 108 B.C. the Jews destroyed the Samaritan temple at Garazim, and ravaged the whole territory. Around the time of Jesus' birth, a band of Samaritans sneaked into Jerusalem, and desecrated the Temple. They did that by scattering the bones of dead people in the sanctuary.
Bringing this scripture reading into the modern day, then, what Philip does would be like a Christian, walking unarmed, into a predominantly Muslim region in the Middle East to teach and preach about Jesus Christ.
And I am reluctant to cross the street and reach out a hand of friendship to a lonely hermit man who needs a friend, and ultimately needs to hear about God’s love. Kind of puts things in perspective doesn’t it?
Definitely, Philip was way braver than I am.
What compelled Philip to do what he did? Philip did what he did, because he cared more about the Samaritans, than he cared about his own safety. What of that? And Philip did what he did because he trusted in God.
So, I suppose I don’t, enough.
And I suspect, that I am not alone in this.
The challenge is before me, it is before us.
I’ll let you know how it plays out with Hermit Man.
To be continued. Amen