Why Noon on the Gaza Road?

I’m moving the blog that I began in the spring of 2007 from noononthegazaroad.blogspot.com to this new site. (Thanks to my niece, Kristin, for both hosting it and doing the initial set-up for me.) When I decided to make the move from the past blogline site, I had to conjure with whether to keep the old blog name or not. Over the years, there have been a few problems with the name. Some people have thought, based on Gaza being in the title, that what I’m writing about is Middle Eastern politics and have come to my site and been sorely disappointed. Others have, thinking that, skipped visiting the site but have asked me why I keep a political blog. And others still have thought that I’ve spelled the blog’s address incorrectly—that it was meant to be “No one on the Gaza road.” Today as I start the switch I realize I’ve never explained the blog name, so I thought I’d begin the entries at the new location by explaining my choice.

The name comes from a biblical story about Philip in Acts 8. The story is set in a time when the early church is being persecuted for its choices and actions. Afraid, the early Christians long to stay together in their small communities with those they’ve come to know and trust. They’ve been through a lot of internal struggles—figuring out what role Torah rules are going to have in their common life and then daring to overcome the prejudices of the day by welcoming Samaritans into membership. (Prejudices of the time against Samaritans were that, not only weren’t they as educated as Christians but they also acted in “inappropriate” ways that made them “unclean.”) These struggles have cost them a lot. They’re tired, they’re fearful, they need a breather, time to reconnect and rest. The wisdom of the leaders is not to risk the little bits of safety and unity they still have by moving further out into other villages and other nations.

And then God sends an angel to Philip. Philip isn’t one of the original 12 disciples who sat at Jesus’ feet but he has become a deacon in the early church and he’s one of the people who have been successfully working with the Samaritans who want to be Christian. The angel tells Philip to get up and head out on the wilderrness road to Gaza (from Jerusalem). And he tells him to go “mesembrian,” a Greek word that can mean “south” if it’s used for a location or “noon” if it’s used for time. Philip has no idea why God wants him to go out onto a deserted stretch of road in the middle of the day but he goes (I imagine very reluctantly, because by now he’s gotten to know and love the Samaritans he was sent to work with).

While he’s on the otherwise deserted road, an eunuch who is an Ethiopian official who had just come from worshipping in Jerusalem rides past on a chariot. God pushes Philip to go talk with the eunuch. This must have been the last conversation Philip thought he should have. His prejudices—against Ethiopians (with their strange appearances, gods, and customs), eunuchs (based on Deuteronomy 23:1), and rulers of other governments—must have told Philip to go in exactly the opposite direction. But God pushes and Philip (reluctantly) goes and meets the other person on the road. Eventually, despite a lot of reluctance on Philip’s part and some more pushing, both from God and the Ethiopian eunuch, Philip even ends up welcoming the Ethiopian into the church, expanding the church’s boundaries in several more unexpected ways. At noon on the Gaza road, Philip learns that love breaks down barriers, overturns narrow perceptions and prejudices, and embraces so much more than Philip and his religious upbringing can ever imagine.

Throughout my life, at any one time, there has always seemed to one biblical passage that speaks more clearly to me than any other, that pushes in a direction. When I was in college and seminary, it was Jeremiah 12:5. For more than the last dozen years, though, it’s been Acts 8:26-40, a scriptural choice that has had unexpected major impacts on who and what I’ve prioritized in my ministry and why. It’s a story that has served to remind me to slow down enough to try to listen for the divine voice telling me where I need to be and what I should be doing there, a story that suggests that I need to put more effort into stepping out into unexpected, uncomfortable places and experiences to discover the divine in such encounters, a story that tells me that when I think I know where God and God’s people should be found I’ve probably got it wrong since God’s love is much broader than anything I can imagine.

In 2013, as I start this new blog site and take a first step into what feels very much to me like a Pauline “juncture of the ages” (as Kathy retires from her work with Westchester County at the end of March and I overlap my last months as Associate Pastor at South Church and my first months as Stated Clerk of the Presbytery of Hudson River), I find myself wondering if this is to be the passage that will continue to call to me over the upcoming months and years and, if it is, what Gaza road I’m to be on at the upcoming noontimes of my days. The entries that will be filling this blog – as nonreligious or irreligious as some of them will end up sounding—are, in one way or another, all attempts to stay alert to, and to puzzle through, that question in some faithful way.

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