Every Wednesday a group of people gather in person and on Zoom for the “rector’s Bible study,” which is really a misnomer. It is the “people’s Bible study,” and my role is to facilitate rather than to instruct. The wisdom is in the folks around the table, in how we listen to the scripture and to each other, and the “teacher” is the text. Yesterday we read the story of the Ethiopian eunuch (Acts 8), and among other things, I was struck by this character as a steward of gifts. Like each of us, he is both benefactor and beneficiary, healed by his connection to others.
Some background: Because he has been to Jerusalem and is reading Isaiah, the eunuch is probably what was called a “God-fearer,” invited to stand in the narthex, but behind a screen, welcome to listen to the services, but excluded from the ritual life of the Temple, and so, the social life of its people. He is a curious outsider that “proper folks” are trained not to see or hear or engage with in any way, as they push past him to get to where they are going. He is the other that societies tolerate when their members are feeling safe, perhaps, or the stranger that we turn on when the world feels chaotic and when we are looking for someone to blame.
So he is a test, if you will, of anyone who says that he follows Jesus, the one who is the embodiment of love that heals every human separation. What I mean is, if we say that we believe in the one who has broken down walls that exclude… if we say that we are followers of the one who has confronted systems which privilege a few and diminish so many others, then this story asks “How will you be a part of that movement?” Now that we have a taste of being healed ourselves, the text wonders, how will we be healers? Let’s look at the disciple Philip:
The eunuch is riding in a chariot, going over the scripture out loud, when Philip happened to overhear him and asked if he understood what the words were all about. The eunuch said he could use some help on one passage in particular:
“Like a sheep he was led to the slaughter, and like a lamb silent before his 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.” (Isaiah 53) Who is the prophet writing about, the eunuch asks? Is he describing his own situation or someone else’s calamity?
The eunuch doesn’t have to say who he is. There is no mistaking the trappings of a royal servant—able to read, sumptuously dressed, but still bound inside his golden cage. His high voice, softened features, and access to the queen communicate without words that he is a person on a threshold, neither fully in nor totally cast out, kept in his place if you will, relegated to the suspicious margins of that culture. No wonder he is drawn to the prophet’s words about a lamb without a voice who is cut off from his generations, humiliated by sacrifice, and denied justice. No wonder he wants to know who the prophet is writing about. I imagine he also wonders if the prophet could care for a person like him who has been warped by the system. Is there room in the family for his kind of wound?
Philip gets it, and the miracle is that he sees the eunuch, and stops to hear him, and sits beside him the way peers do, or friends do, and shares the story of his life and his conversion. “Isaiah is writing about a Suffering Servant,” Philip might have told the man, “a glimpse of the holy one who is broken and vulnerable like we are, and who shows us that God is present with us even in our poverty and our agony, and that the wounded one that we are likely to reject is the very child of God. And I have met this child of God, he says, the son of Mary and Joseph, and he has seen God in me—in all of us—and when I follow in this way, embracing the God in you and the God in me, the God who makes dust of every wall of separation we build, then salvation comes. Living this way repairs the world, and it heals me in the bargain.” So no wonder Philip’s companion wants to be baptized, to put down an old way of being and put on a whole new mind.
And then even more social and religious lines are crossed. In those days converts would be baptized naked, so the royal figure must have taken off all of his finery and the symbols of his office, exposing his physical mutilation in the process, not to mention his black skin and Philip’s brown skin, and apparently both he and Philip are fine with that. They go down into the water together, stripped and vulnerable and wet with living water, both being born again. And that intimate, embodied conversation is the gift of this story, and an image for each of us to carry.
This is the call of any who would follow Jesus, it says—unlikely partners brought together, willing to open up to each other, both healing, able to see God in themselves and in each other, across seemingly unbridgeable divides of race and class and sexuality and country of origin (maybe even political party!), through the work of mutual respect fostered by taking the time to listen deeply. That’s what goes on in this story: they listen deeply to each other. They share their stories with each other. There’s no shortcut to knowing each other. That’s how we’re healed. That’s how systems are changed. That’s how the world is repaired.
And this is the mission that your annual pledge to Redeemer enables. Like the eunuch, we are stewards of gifts, managers of abundance that is not ours, finally, but God’s. So as you are able, please increase your pledge this year, of time and talent and treasure. Now that we have a taste of being healed, how will we be healers ourselves?
Last night as part of our Wednesday evening VOICES speaker series, about 75 of us gathered in the church to hear Amazon executive David Ambroz tell some of his life’s story, which includes being removed from the custody of his mentally ill mother and entering the foster care system with his siblings 30 years ago, after years of neglect and abuse as a homeless and malnourished child. See https://www.davidambroz.com/memoir
If you happened to be there last night, I wonder: Is your heart still hurting, from what you heard? (I know mine is …) What images are lingering with you? What are you still chewing on? And what’s stirring in you, that you are being invited to act on, in a specific, tangible way?
Here’s one of the things I’m still digesting: that — alongside David Ambroz’ internal resilience — a litany of kindnesses, offered by way of “rare angels”, agents of grace, helped him become the human being he is today.
David’s litany of kindnesses includes the man with dreadlocks who allowed him and his family to come in from the deathly cold, one winter evening … the people who prepared and served meals in the churches and shelters where they found refuge … the woman named Holly who gave him a loving home ….
These “rare angels” were lifeboats in a sea of inhumanity, balm on the wound of perpetual invisibility, splashes of light on a canvas of grey.
Listening to David has made me think back on my own life. I am grateful not to have suffered what he had to endure and rise from. At the same time, I am mindful of my own litany of kindnesses offered by angels and agents of grace:
… the residents of Cody, Wyoming, who pulled over on the side of the road, to help me and my girlfriend Silke, when our car had engine trouble on our cross-country drive, in our twenties …
… the anonymous people in Chelsea in New York, who would just lift up the end of Ben’s blue and orange stroller, to help me carry him and it, down the stairs to the subway, without my even asking …
… the driver the other day, who stopped in a long line of traffic, to allow me to turn onto Lake Avenue from Kenmore …
… just to name a few …
What about you? Might you take a moment or two this morning, or whenever you are reading this, to remember and offer thanks for those angels and agents of grace who offered you kindness? Who helped you get to where you are, today? Who helped you become the person you are, today? How might you, yourself, be an angel and agent of grace for someone else?
As David Ambroz reminded us last night, offering kindness may be as simple and difficult as acknowledging the humanity — by gazing into the eyes — of someone you would rather not see.
Today, parishioners Ruthie Cromwell and Nancy Bowen began the fall session of Sacred Space for Grace here at Redeemer. As you may know it is a support group of healing for those who have suffered loss and who are seeking to share their experience of grief among friends. Since there are six sessions, I attend the first and the last session for the wrap up. One of the gifts for the gathered community is the sharing of a book of short meditations called Healing Through Loss. We shared today’s meditation as a part of my welcome to the group this morning and the prayer which followed.
The theme of the meditation was feeling alone when someone has been separated from the one whom they love and when they might ask: Where is G-D? Where is G-D when we are suffering, or lonely, or afraid? The meditation concluded by pointing the different forms that G-D often manifests and shows up in our lives. It led me to my own story this morning.
On this particularly grey and rainy morning, I mused aloud about how often I took for granted the generous nature of my late husband as he would drive me to and from work on stormy days, snowy days, and icy days. Once he was retired, it was a delight for me to chatter his ear off during arduous drives on dangerous roads with dangerous fellow drivers. Climbing into the car this morning and driving off in a downpour with my Reiki Meditation music playing, I drove slowly and cautiously towards the city, feeling a bit nostalgic for the old times when….
Suddenly, and I mean suddenly, my radio station switched from reiki music to jazz! Now, I never hear jazz without associating it, in some way, with Charles Brown. He introduced me to this art form in my early 20’s and it was a staple, along with other forms of music, in our home for 30+ years. I smiled when the new music started because, I knew I was not alone. And I never will be! Was he sharing the old memories with me too? Who knows?
This is a part of the story I told the group this morning and am sharing with you. It is my strong belief that we are NEVER alone. No ONE who has ever loved you or whom you have loved— and is no longer in this physical plane of existence— is ever really GONE. Their love remains and they remain with us. We are indeed spiritual beings experiencing life in a physical way. This is an assurance like the sun always appearing to rise in the east and set in the west. I am confident in my knowing and it gives me great joy—even on a grey, rainy day like today.
Truly, G-D manifests in many forms and in many ways. It is wonderful to know that we are NEVER alone. Appearances oftentimes belie the truth. Think about it.
Playing jazz now and enjoying it.
For the first 11 years of his life, David Ambroz grew up homeless in and around New York City. As his mother struggled with paranoid schizophrenia, Ambroz, his mom, and his two siblings found shelter wherever it was warm and dry—the train station, 24-hour diners—bathing in public restrooms and stealing food to quell their hunger. Instability was a given, violence was not unusual, and foster care proved to be just as unsafe for him. In the face of his deprivation and abuse, David discovers inner and outer resources of grit and resilience. He finds hope and opportunity in school, the library, and an occasional kind-hearted adult. Through hard work and unwavering resolve, he earns a scholarship to Vassar College. In time, Ambroz graduates from UCLA Law School with a vision of changing the laws that affect children in poverty.
Today, Ambroz is a national poverty and child welfare expert and advocate, recognized by the Obama administration as an American Champion of Change. He currently serves as the Head of Community Engagement (West) for Amazon, coordinating with non-profits and community leaders for social good. Previously he led Corporate Social Responsibility for Walt Disney Television, and served as the President of the Los Angeles City Planning Commission, and as a California Child Welfare Councilmember. He is a foster dad and lives in Los Angeles, CA.
Last month he published A Place Called Home: A Memoir, and he will join us at Redeemer as a VOICES speaker on Wednesday, October 19 at 7:00 p.m.
Here’s what reviewers are saying: “A Place Called Home will take your breath away. It’s a must read for anyone who’s looked at a raggedy street family and asked, ‘Who are those people?’ It’s also for everyone who cares about “Those People.” You will fall in love with David Ambroz, his beautifully-told, gut-wrenching story, and his great big heart.” (Jeannette Walls, New York Times bestselling author of The Glass Castle)
“A Place Called Home asks us to reflect on the family we come from and the family we find, the extraordinary courage of a child and the responsibility we all have to make the world safer for those who enter our world unprotected. In a society far too often consumed by division and dissonance, Ambroz writes to us at just the right time, lighting the way for a better world by asking us to give every child a chance.” (Steve Pemberton, author of A Chance in the World)
“A Place Called Home presents an unflinching, frank examination of the realities of being a child without a home and being surrounded by a fundamentally flawed system where neither child nor parent have enough help, or the right help, to break the cycle of poverty. Ambroz’s story is a frightening example of how easily inadequate procedures and policies traumatize lives each and every day. The heart of this first memoir is both a raw account of Ambroz’s journey to adulthood and a powerful, uncompromising call to action for significant change.” (Booklist)
For readers (and writers) interested in memoir, for teenagers, parents and grandparents, for teachers and social workers, for child advocates and anyone committed to the well-being of young people, an evening with David Ambroz will be time well spent.
Please join us and invite your neighbors to VOICES on October 19, 7:00 p.m., in the church.