New Beginnings - Being There

Acts 8:26-40   Then 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.” (This is a wilderness road.) So he got up and went. Now there was an Ethiopian eunuch, a court official of the Candace, queen of the Ethiopians, in charge of her entire treasury. He had come to Jerusalem to worship and was returning home; seated in his chariot, he was reading the prophet Isaiah. Then the Spirit said to Philip, “Go over to this chariot and join it.” So Philip ran up to it and heard him reading the prophet Isaiah. He asked, “Do you understand what you are reading?” He replied, “How can I, unless someone guides me?” And he invited Philip to get in and sit beside him. Now the passage of the scripture that he was reading was this: “Like a sheep he was led to the slaughter, and like a lamb silent before its shearer, so he does not open his mouth. In his humiliation justice was denied him. Who can describe his generation? For his life is taken away from the earth.” 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. As they were going along the road, they came to some water; and the eunuch said, “Look, here is water! What is to prevent me from being baptized?” He commanded the chariot to stop, and both of them, Philip and the eunuch, went down into the water, and Philip baptized him. When they came up out of the water, the Spirit of the Lord snatched Philip away; the eunuch saw him no more, and went on his way rejoicing. But Philip found himself at Azotus, and as he was passing through the region, he proclaimed the good news to all the towns until he came to Caesarea.

Revelation 3:8           “I know your works. Look, I have set before you an open door, which no one is able to shut. I know that you have but little power, and yet you have kept my word and have not denied my name.


In last Sunday’s New York Times there was an article about serendipity.[1]  So, as I have been preparing for today this word has been on my mind.  It’s not a word that is easily defined.  Many people tend to think of serendipity as a happy accident or dumb luck.  But the actual root of this word is rather different.

I’ll bet you didn’t know – unless you read the same article I did – that the word serendipity comes from a Persian fairy tale about three princesses from the Isle of Serendip.  As the princesses traveled around they were always making discoveries of things they were not searching for.  The word serendipity came to be used to describe a skill, such as these princesses had, to find new and unexpected things.  Some people are good at it, and others not so good.

Some people are more serendipitous than others.

So, of course, someone asked the question: is it possible to identify certain characteristics shared by people who are especially serendipitous?  She carried out a research project and actually found something.  She discovered a type of person she called the super-encounterer.  These people find interesting surprises everywhere.  Why?  Because they are looking everywhere – deeply and widely and with an attitude of fascination about whatever they are encountering.  These people are discovering things because they are looking.

Serendipity does not just involve dumb luck.  It involves skill; practice. 

To this you might say, who cares?  You might wonder if any of this really matters.  To the rest of us, the super-encounterers might look as though they are wasting a lot of time.  But then again, maybe not.  Another study found that as many as 50% of patents resulted from what could be called a serendipitous process.  The engine behind so much growth and progress in the world is this thing we call serendipity. 

In the church we have our own terms for this sort of process.  We talk about the Holy Spirit, who gives us nudges or visions, opening our eyes to what is possible and how we might engage in God’s work in the world.  We use the word discernment to describe a kind of holy listening – listening and looking for the will of God in our lives.  And just like serendipity, discernment is more than just an accident.

Take the example of Philip in the story we heard from Acts.  The angel said to him, “Get up and go,” so he got up and went.  The spirit said to him, go over to that chariot, so Philip approached the chariot and thereby set a wonderful process in motion.  In this encounter, the Ethiopian received the gospel, was baptized, and went on his way, spreading the good news to Africa. 

All of this occurred because Philip was paying attention.  None of this was on his agenda.  None of it.  But when he woke up that morning there was a discovery to be made. 

It is important to know that these things are real, but they are not fantastical.  We don’t need to imagine a human-like creature with wings and halo standing in front of Philip delivering a message.  And we don’t need to assume that there was some transparent, ghostly creature beside Philip whispering in his ear.  The scriptures use inadequate words to convey something beyond description, and that happens everywhere, everyday, to ordinary people.  Yes, there are angels ready to give us messages, and the Holy Spirit is here now, ready to give us a glimpse of the divine intentions.

As we complete our three-week series on New Beginnings we come to the moment where we are.  These last two weeks we talked first about the importance of remembering, and that there is also a time and place for forgetting – letting things go.  Simply put, there are some things from the past we bring along with us and there are some things we choose to leave behind.  But ultimately, we find we need to live in the present moment, where we are.  Today we confront being there.

Without actually being there – in the place and moment where we are – no angels will be heard, no gifts of the Spirit will be received, no discoveries will be made.  Without being there, no new friendships will be forged, no growth will occur.  But in being there, the possibilities are limitless.

There is a little story I read about Martin Luther King, Jr. as a young man.  When he was first starting out, he candidated at a tall steeple church, a very prestigious pulpit.  It was to be a fine feather in his newly ordained cap.  But the congregation voted no.  They simply said this was not the pastor they wanted.  He must have been crushed, humiliated. 

So he ended up accepting a call at the Dexter Avenue church in Montgomery, Alabama.  The next year, Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on the Montgomery city bus and a whole movement was set in motion.  King was right there. 

If he had been offered that prestigious pulpit, he would have been somewhere else.  Who knows what would have happened with the bus boycott or the whole Civil Rights Movement.  But he was there, where he needed to be for the work God had prepared for him. 

And the most important thing you need to know:  it wasn’t just an accident.  It wasn’t bad luck followed by good luck. It wasn’t a fantastic coincident.  Nor was it the hand of God moving people around like pawns on a chessboard.  It was serendipity in the best sense of the word.

King was disappointed, surely, but he moved forward in faith, trusting that God had something for him.  He put down his roots in Montgomery, the Dexter Avenue Church and began the work of day-to-day ministry.  And when something happened on the bus, he was paying attention. 

As I said last Sunday, sometimes we need to let go of the past for the sake of living, really living, in the present.  That is precisely what Dr. King had to do – and he did.

We make it a lot harder for God to do good work with us if we are not paying attention.

The story of Philip and the Ethiopian is a story about paying attention – and then responding.  He followed the road to Gaza.  He approached the chariot and spoke to the Ethiopian.  He listened and responded with the good news.  And when the Ethiopian said, “Look – here’s some water.  What is to prevent me from being baptized?  What, indeed!  Born anew of water and the Spirit, this Ethiopian man carried the gospel into new territory.

Then Philip, it seems, was teleported to a different location.  “Beam me up, Scottie – my work here is done.”  Honestly, I don’t know what to make of that, but I don’t lose any sleep over it either.  The point is that these two men had a serendipitous encounter because they were ready to encounter something new.

In this New Year, I don’t know what God has in store for us.  We have plans, but sometimes the best plans have to be put aside for the sake of some wonderful new opportunity that God sets before us.  And we want to be ready for that.  We want to be giving priority to developing our spiritual antennae.  Listening in prayer, speaking to one another about how God might be working with us – individually and as a congregation.  It’s important for us to have these conversations, and yes, we must include God in all these conversations.  We must grow in our ability to speak of God – with one another as well as with those we might encounter on the road who are seeking God.  None of us is too old – or too young – to grow.

This church is about the same age I am.  You might call us middle-aged.  We are at that stage in life when we begin to wonder what God still has in store for us.  A few years ago I found this prayer that seemed to be written for me – called A Prayer for the Middle Years of Opportunity.[2]  Maybe it speaks for you, too.

Lord, help me now to unclutter my life,
To organize myself in the direction of simplicity.
Lord, teach me to listen to my heart;
Teach me to welcome change, instead of fearing it.
Lord, I give you these stirrings inside me,
I give you my discontent,
I give you my restlessness,
I give you my doubt,
I give you my despair,
I give you all the longings I hold inside.
Help me to listen to these signs of change, of growth;
To listen seriously and follow where they lead
Through the breathtaking empty space of an open door.  Amen.

God has set before you an open door, which no one can shut.  Imagine yourself walking through that open door.


[1] Pagan Kennedy, Cultivating the Art of Serendipity.  NYT 1.3.16