Fifth Sunday of Easter
Scripture: Acts 8:26-39
Preacher: Rev. Kristin Stoneking
Message: Guide My Steps and My Understanding
One of our Epworth members sent me an article recently from the New York Times about a state being that has come over many persons. See if this sounds like anything you’ve been experiencing lately: difficulty concentrating; a sense of lacking motivation; even with vaccines and openings happening, a feeling of not being able to muster much enthusiasm for the future. It’s not depression, it doesn’t come with a sense of utter hopelessness. It’s not burnout, there is still some energy to keep doing what must be done. But it’s a feeling of “meh.” It’s a psychic shrug of the shoulders. The name for this state of being is “languishing.” The article described languishing as the neglected middle child of mental health.
When I first read the article, I thought, hmmm…well, I can see how that describes some of the folks I’ve been talking with, but not me. I thought, I’ve gotten a lot done in the last year and I have ideas about where we can go next as a congregation and particularly as we open up. But the article stayed with me. And I realized that there is a dimension to what I’ve been experiencing that is aptly named “languishing.” My usual drive and pep has been a little…tempered. Does this resonate with anything you’ve been experiencing? Once I had a name for what was going on, I began to notice it in myself and others. It began to come up in conversations, even in our Wednesday night communion this week.
My second language is German. There are many times when I have wished my second language was something more useful in my daily life and work, like Spanish, which would be regularly helpful, or even French, Portuguese or Swahili, which are the other official languages of the worldwide United Methodist Church. But what I do love about German is that there are so many words that just don’t exist in English for feelings and states of being common to the human experience. Words like Weltshmerz, which translates literally to “world pain” and signifies the sense of feeling the world’s suffering, or Schadenfreude, which refers to that private guilty feeling of taking joy in someone else’s misfortune. These words do not have corollaries in English and can only be translated through description, but they name real feelings, and real experiences that we are familiar with.
These distinct words help us understand how we feel. The naming of an experience, in a word such as languishing or Weltshmerz or Schadenfreude is how we come to recognize and makes sense of what is happening to us. And it is the key to being able to hear God’s voice that is calling us out of those states where we may be stuck and into the full presence and power and peace of God.
Our scripture for today from Acts tells the story of two Biblical characters, one known as the Ethiopian eunuch and the other, Philip the evangelist. As the story opens, Philip the evangelist, who is not to be confused with Philip the apostle, the disciple of Jesus, is being called by a divine messenger to go from Jerusalem to Gaza by way of a “wilderness road.”
The scripture tells us that it is there, on the wilderness road, that Philip meets the Ethiopian eunuch. Now the Ethiopian eunuch isn’t given a name but is described by position. In the biblical tradition, eunuchs were persons who either through biological altering or perhaps sexual orientation or gender identity did not marry or reproduce. In biblical Israel, reproduction was seen as the vehicle that perpetuated the cult of Yahweh, and so not to be able to contribute to the lineage and people of Israel in this way was a mark of marginalization.
However, in the time of Jesus’s life and shortly thereafter, eunuchs signified something different. Jesus himself did not marry or reproduce, and so the eunuch had become a powerful symbol of the values of the kingdom of heaven inaugurated by the unmarried and childless Jesus. This was the understanding of what a eunuch symbolized at the time of this writing.
And yet though there is this connection of eunuchs to the person of Jesus, our eunuch, here in this story when Philip finds him on the wilderness road, is not a Christian. When we encounter him, he is reading from the Book of Isaiah.
And why Isaiah? How did he discover this text, in which we find the prophecies about Jesus’ life and purpose? We can assume in reading Isaiah, he came across the words, “The spirit has anointed me to preach good news to poor, to proclaim release to the captives, recovery of sight to the blind and to set at liberty all those who are oppressed” the words that Jesus, too, read and announced in the temple, “Today these words have been fulfilled in your hearing.” And so we have to wonder, maybe the eunuch is spending time with this text because there is something in it that speaks to him. Maybe he is attracted to the words about marginalization and justice. About descendants even without reproduction. Of freedom and community and liberation. Maybe he heard hints in this text that he thought might be an answer to his longing.
When Philip finds him, he has just read the words about the lamb who is sacrificed, he’s seen the words about the symbolism of atonement, and about the descendants of the one who gave all he had. But the eunuch is lost.
When Philip asks him, “Do you understand what you are reading?” the eunuch responds, “How can I when no one has explained it to me?” Now the fact that the Ethiopian eunuch was reading at all is in itself significant. Only 1% of the population at that time was literate, so we are to understand this is a rare and educated person. He serves in the royal court, where analysis, interpretation, and insight are most likely necessary skills. And so when he says he doesn’t understand it isn’t for lack of skill or education. It isn’t a literal “not understanding.” What the Ethiopian eunuch is saying is that he knows there is a spiritual power and wisdom in these words, but he just can’t access it, and he needs help.
And with that utterance of naming, the gates of the kingdom of heaven are opened. He names his need to understand, and this naming is the key. His need is responded to. Philip sits down with him, explains the passage, and shares the good news of Jesus. In the naming of need, the wilderness road has turned into the path of Christ, the way of Jesus.
One of the blessings of the pandemic for me has been an Instagram site that I came across called Black Liturgies. It is a site that expresses in words of liturgy and prayer the feelings and needs that arise from living in a racist world. It is from the perspective of its creator, African American Cole Arthur Riley, who is always deeply grounded in the well of life that is God in Jesus.
Recently, as many felt relief at the guilty verdict for Derek Chauvin, Riley wrote of still feeling a generalized anxiety. She dedicated her post on this to “those for whom anxiety is a menace.” Part of her method is to provide words for breath prayer, to name a need or a feeling on the inhale, and find an answer on the exhale. She wrote, “Inhale: I cannot place this fear.” Then “exhale: Let this breath help my soul to rest.” I cannot place this fear. Let this breath help my soul to rest. In naming the fear, the state that Cole Arthur Riley herself was experiencing, she led herself and others into understanding and more fully into the peace of God.
Whether we are feeling a fear we cannot place, or whether we are languishing, what we need to remember is that these places need not be a permanent state of being. The purpose of the New York Times article on languishing wasn’t to reify this state, to cement where many are finding themselves, but to name that the phenomenon is real. And that there is nothing inherently wrong with anyone who’s experiencing languishing.
Languishing is a point on the continuum of mental health that has at its outer points depression and flourishing. Flourishing is a state of generativity, an experience of flow where the challenges of life are neither overwhelming or too few. Sometimes it is only in naming of where we are that we can come to know where we aren’t. And once we see where we are and where we aren’t, we can see if this is actually where we would like to be. And in naming languishing or anxiety or fear as state of what is, we can see that these places are not, in fact, the same as flourishing.
Once Philip had shared the good news of Jesus with the Ethiopian eunuch, the eunuch responded to the call and invitation. He understood that this new life was meant for him too, and that he needed to move out of the wilderness and into a new place of flourishing. As he and Philip travelled the road, they came to some water, and seeing water, the Ethiopian eunuch says, “Look, here is water, what is to stand in the way of me being baptized?” And there Philip baptized him into a worldwide and eternal family of purpose and peace. Of not being lost but being found. Of flourishing. Once we know where we are, and see what flourishing would look like, we cannot keep ourselves from going toward it.
The naming of an experience, then, in a word such as “languishing” is how we come to recognize what is happening to us. It is how we become conscious and intentional, how we wake up and respond to the flourishing that God is calling us into. And let us not forget that there are two main characters in this story—the Ethiopian eunuch who is found, and Philip, who seeks him out. May we be both those who are found as well as those who seek the lost. Like the Ethiopian, may we find words to name our need. Like Philip, may we go by way of the wilderness road to those who are stuck in languishing or anxiety or without understanding. And may we know that God is always calling us into and waiting for us in the place of flourishing. Amen
Order of Service (Bulletin) - Sunday, May 2, 2021
Fifth Sunday after Easter
GATHERING OUR STRENGTH
Prelude: "I Want Jesus to Walk with Me" - Rev. Jerry Asheim & Melani Gantes
Welcome and Dare to Dance Liturgy - Rev. Kristin Stoneking, Rev. Jerry Asheim & Cathryn Bruno
Opening Hymn: "All Creatures of Our God and King" UM Hymnal #62 - Rev. Jerry Asheim & Margot Hanson
Invocation - Tamara Bock
LEARNING THE STEPS
Scripture Reading: Acts 8:26-39 - Ethan Toven-Lindsey
Children's Message: "Dreamers" - Susan Jardin
Anthem: "Order My Steps" - Epworth Choir
Message: "Guide My Steps and My Understanding" - Rev. Kristin Stoneking
THE BODY MOVES IN RESPONSE
Hymn of Response: "Guide My Feet" The Faith We Sing #2208 - Rev. Jerry Asheim & Michael Martin
Call for Prayer - Tamara Bock
Special Music: “Holy Now" - Judy Kriege, Dianne Rush Woods
The Prayer Jesus Taught (Lord's Prayer) - Ethan Toven-Lindsey
Sharing Our Resources and our Energy - Rev. Kristin Stoneking
Offertory: "He's Got the Whole World In His Hands" by Marian Anderson
STEPPING OUT INTO THE WORLD
Prayer of Dedication - Rev. Kristin Stoneking
Closing Hymn: “Lead Me, Guide Me" The Faith We Sing #2214 - Rev. Jerry Asheim & Carletta Aston
Benediction - Rev. Kristin Stoneking
Postlude: "Lord Lead Thou Me On" comp. Langlais - Rev. Jerry Asheim
Special Thanks To...
Preacher: Rev. Kristin Stoneking
Contributors: Rev. Jerry Asheim, Rev. Carletta Aston, Tamara Bock, Cathryn Bruno,
Melani Gantes, Margot Hanson, Susan Jardin, Judy Kriege, Michael Martin, Ethan Toven-Lindsey, Dianne Rush Woods
Video producer: Tai Jokela
Podcast producer: Ethan Toven-Lindsey
Livestream producer: Merrie Bunt
Liturgy and Design © 2021 worshipdesignstudio.com, adapted by permission.
Prayer of Dedication © 2021 enfleshed
Hymns reprinted/streamed with permission under ONE LICENSE # A-733809, CCLI Copyright license # 20022935, & CCLI Streaming license # 20476749. All rights reserved.
"Holy Now" by Peter Mayer, copyright (1999). www.petermayer.net