On the Road Again… Again

(sermon 4/29/18)

ehiopian

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.

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He woke up that morning like any other morning, with a list of things to do that he ran through his mind as he had his breakfast cereal and coffee. But then, God spoke to him. Maybe it was a big, bold vision, with the glory of God, and blinding light, and angels singing and cherubim flapping their wings and knocking all the magnets off the refrigerator. Or maybe it was just a gentle, quiet voice seemingly from out of nowhere that popped into his head that irresistibly convinced him that today, he’d set that list aside, just for a day, and what he really needed was a little road trip to clear his mind.

That was how he found himself on the road leading out to Gaza, looking up ahead and seeing a caravan, obvious even from the distance made up of dark-skinned foreigners, and just as obviously, a caravan of someone important. Any other day, it would have been just something to notice for a moment and then move on, maybe like seeing a vintage plane flying over, or a funny youTube video, or a big, wild Derby hat. But this time, that same voice that told him to forget about the honey-do list told him to catch up to them. See who it is. Maybe strike up a conversation.

He sat there in his chariot, proud of the important government position he held – a Cabinet position; Secretary of the Treasury for the Queen of Ethiopia; traveling with al the pomp and ceremony and security that entailed. He was a powerful man. But he was also all too aware that that power had come at a high price. Only a castrated male – a eunuch – was trusted to work so closely and intimately around the queen. As powerful as he was, it was power with an asterisk – in the Ethiopian culture, eunuchs were considered defective, scarred, unnatural – and in some inexplicable irony, they were considered sexually immoral deviates. So even while the eunuch know power, he also knew judgment, hostility, and rejection.

It wasn’t only his own Ethiopian culture that thought this way. In the Hebrew scriptures, both Leviticus and Deuteronomy call out eunuchs as unnatural, deformed, second-guessing God’s design; as such, they were specifically identified in the scriptures as being ineligible to be part of the assembly of God.

But as he was riding along, it wasn’t Leviticus or Deuteronomy that he was reading, but Isaiah, when he noticed the stranger approaching his chariot. The words he was reading were so intriguing, but so confusing, that he actually waved his security people off and waved the stranger over.

He’d read the words over and over, being drawn to this unknown person being described, feeling a sense of empathy and brotherhood and even some solidarity with this one who, similar to himself, had been led like a lamb to be shorn, and who had endured humiliation for it.

Read this. Do you understand it? Who is this prophet writing about? he asked the stranger. And in that moment, Philip realized why he was there, and he began to explain the fullness of God’s good news for all people. Maybe he even rolled the scroll out even further, showing him Isaiah 56, where it’s written that eunuchs like him will not only be welcome in the house and family of God, but will be given a name even better than sons and daughters. And he explained that in fact, this time had already begun to unfold, through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. Jesus was the one whose life Isaiah, whether he’d realized it or not, had foretold.

So what might this story mean to us today – in a time when the kind of caravan we’re likely to hear about isn’t one of an Ethiopian eunuch, but rather, one of Honduran refugees fleeing for their lives, or Syrians, or South Sudanese?

Well, there’s no question that this passage is a crucial teaching for us that God’s love and welcome and kingdom is for sexual minorities in a society, too. Several stories in the Book of Acts, and maybe this one most of all, speak powerfully to the truth that LGBTQ people are part of God’s plan, too, and have been from the beginning. They’re included in God’s realm, and since they are, they’re to be a welcome and important part of the church. It might have taken us 2,000 years to actually hear and understand that part of this story, but it is there, and it’s quite clear.

But there’s more to this story too. This isn’t just good news for LGBTQ folk. What resonated in the heart and mind of the Ethiopian eunuch was that he could identify with the suffering and injustice that was experienced by the one Isaiah was describing, regardless of its particular origins. Philip explained to the eunuch that God understands what it’s like to be humiliated, to be ostracized, to be pushed aside. To be shamed, condemned, or punished by all sources of intolerance, especially by sinful religious intolerance that uses bits of scripture to justify it.

So this isn’t just good news for the Ethiopian eunuch, and all the sexual minorities who followed after him. It’s good news for *anyone* who has endured shame, injustice, humiliation, rejection, and honestly, who of us hasn’t, in some way or another. Because we know that God understands our suffering, has experienced the same suffering, and walks with us through all of our suffering. So this is good news for you if you’ve ever been told that you aren’t “normal” enough.

Or smart enough.

Or good looking enough.

Or young enough.

Or thin enough.

Or funny or witty enough.

Or rich enough.

Or male enough.

Or straight enough.

Or white enough.

Or American enough.

Or Christian enough.

The good news for all of us who have been rejected for these or any other things is that though Christ, God understands us; and through Christ, God has shown us that all of those distinctions and ways that we humans have come up with to separate and reject and humiliate are *meaningless* in God’s eyes. That Jesus, the cornerstone that the builders rejected, is now the risen Christ who is over all; and in a similar way, those of us who have been rejected in all those ways in this life will be welcomed into God’s kingdom by that same Christ.

Never forget that the eternal God of the universe understands you, has felt the same kind of rejection that you’ve felt, and that you may be feeling even now. Know that God stands with arms open wide in love and acceptance. Guilt left behind. Shame left behind. Injustice, humiliation, discrimination, rejection, all left behind.

And knowing that we have that kind of love and acceptance and welcome from God, we’re called to offer the same to others.  We’re called to welcome them into the church, to have places and voices and seats that God has reserved for them long ago.

But before we can welcome them into our churches, we need to welcome them into our communities. We have to offer the same kind of love, welcome, and acceptance that God has given us, to all those we encounter on the road. To Ethiopian eunuchs. And to Honduran and Syrian refugees. And to homeless LGBTQ youth whose parents have thrown them out of the house. And to families torn apart because a parent, or a spouse, has been deported. And people of color who just by virtue of living west of Ninth Street are told their lives are worth less than others’.

We offer that same love and welcome and acceptance – in both church and society, because wherever it’s church or society, it’s all God’s world, and all God’s people. The truth is, once we’ve received that love and acceptance from God, we become Philip.

“So look!” the eunuch said. “Over there; there’s some water. What’s to prevent me from being baptized? What’s to keep me from being a part of the family of God?”

Philip looked at the man, and he carefully took stock of the situation. Here was someone who was from the wrong religion, the wrong country, the wrong sexuality, and whom the scriptures specifically excluded from the kingdom of God.  And it was only because he was being led by the same voice, the same Spirit, that had gotten him out on the road to begin with, that Philip was able to answer him, “Nothing – absolutely nothing.”

Thanks be to God.

Rabbit Season – The Final Chapter

Rabbit Season – The Final Chapter

04 May 2015

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. – Acts 8:26-40

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Oh for Pete’s sake, another week about rabbits? Well, I promise, this is the last week; next week it will be on to something different.

So as we start out this week, and just as they did in that children’s sermon in Toronto that I mentioned two weeks ago, let’s rewind, and remember where we are in this story. The rabbits in the novel Watership Down learned they couldn’t get along only as individuals; they had to learn to be a real community, working together and valuing all the members of the community in order for it to survive. And a big part of their being a community was the telling and retelling of their common stories; the morality-shaping stories of their hero-rabbit, “The Prince with a Thousand Enemies”, stories that explained how they should act and what made them a distinct community. Through those stories, they learned that they couldn’t keep silent and unengaged when someone was suffering or in trouble, or they became complicit in the wrong that was being done. They learned that doing this was a matter of justice, and extending hospitality to others, and that they were to do this even when it caused them personal risk. And that’s where we pick up our story today.

After wandering and roaming around, the rabbits finally found a suitable place to settle down and make a new home. When they did, they ended up encountering a wounded bird. At first, the rabbits didn’t want to welcome this outsider non-rabbit, but Hazel, the rabbits’ leader, said that based on all they’d learned along the way, the moral teachings in their communal stories had to be extended to more than just themselves – they applied to everyone. So the rabbits extended their welcome and hospitality to the wounded bird, and they worked together to nurse him back to health. They built a nest, and they even got over their own personal revulsion of the bird’s insect diet and they gathered up all the insects they could and fed the bird. The bird recovered and became as much a member of the warren as any of the rabbits, even providing aerial reconnaissance when the rabbits are attacked by the members of a neighboring rabbit warren. The rabbits had learned that their moral teachings, the wisdom of the hero-rabbit, was for all creatures, not just the rabbits like themselves.

This is a perfect parallel for the lesson the church had to learn, beginning in its very earliest days after the resurrection. Just like the rabbits, Jesus’ followers had to learn, step by step, that the good news of God’s grace, and love, and welcome was meant for all people, not just some specially chosen small group. Jesus himself taught them this in the incredibly diverse makeup of the apostles, the ones he chose to be part of his innermost circle. He picked both well-to-do and average working stiffs; members of the religious and political establishment and Simon the Zealot, who was what we’d call a terrorist today; people who were soft-spoken and people so loud and argumentative Jesus called them the “Sons of Thunder.” Cynics and doubters. There was a real broadness in Jesus’ inclusiveness and welcome – or what we’d often just call hospitality. And after the resurrection, it became clear that God wanted this inclusiveness and hospitality to extend even wider. In fact, this becomes a major theme of the Book of Acts; it shows up over and over and over again. We see it at Pentecost, when the welcome is extended to all the receptive Jews visiting Jerusalem at Pentecost. Then it’s extended even to the Jews who were among the Christians’ worst enemies, including Paul. Then it goes on to include Gentiles, who the scriptures said were unclean and had no place in God’s kingdom according to the scriptures. This 180-degree shift in understanding of God’s will is seen in all of Paul’s missionary work among the Gentiles, and Peter’s encounters with Gentiles in this book, also. And we see it in today’s Lectionary text from Acts, this extremely important story of God calling the apostle Philip to meet the Ethiopian eunuch, and to teach him, and to extend hospitality to him, to welcome him into the faith by baptizing him. Philip certainly knew, and so did the original readers of the Book of Acts, that eunuchs were specifically prohibited in the scriptures as being unworthy of being part of the people of God. There wasn’t anything he could do to repent and stop having been born an Ethiopian, a Gentile. There wasn’t anything he could do to stop being a eunuch. And yet, Philip accepts God’s new word, contrary to all he’d been taught previously, and he extends hospitality – God’s grace, and welcome, and acceptance to this eunuch.

This same desire of God’s continues in the church to this very day. Just like the rabbits of Watership Down, and just like Philip and the other apostles who sometimes struggled with the idea of stretching who could be considered part of God’s kingdom, we’ve had to learn this same truth – the truth of God’s calling of an ever-expanding circle of people into the fullness of the kingdom, too. Sometimes, we’ve learned this truth grudgingly and imperfectly, but time and again we’ve come to understand and accept this ever-increasing circle. This is the definition of hospitality in the kingdom of God. This is what God is trying to teach us, to accept those outside our own particular group, even when we might originally be viscerally opposed to them, just like the rabbits did with their insect-eating bird friend. This is the lesson that God has continually unfolding for us to live into as the church; in our past, our present, and into our future. This is the hospitality God has called us to adhere to, in recognition for the infinite grace and hospitality God has extended toward us.

In the final chapter of Watership Down, we read that the rabbits’ new warren succeeded and thrived, and it did so because they learned these important lessons we’ve talked about. But our own final chapter, as God’s people, hasn’t been written yet. God is continuing to call us to expand the circle that defines our community, and continues to call us to stand up and work for the good and safety and justice of all those within it. Will our story end up being a success or a failure? We’re the ones writing this chapter, so the answer to that question is up to us – but whatever the ending, it’s going to depend on whether we learned our lessons as well as the rabbits did.

Thanks be to God.