The Tiny Dog Now…

(sermon 7/22/18)

doug the pug
Just for the record, this sermon actually has nothing to do with dogs.

Mark 6:30-56

The apostles gathered around Jesus, and told him all that they had done and taught. He said to them, “Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest a while.” For many were coming and going, and they had no leisure even to eat. And they went away in the boat to a deserted place by themselves. Now many saw them going and recognized them, and they hurried there on foot from all the towns and arrived ahead of them. As he went ashore, he saw a great crowd; and he had compassion for them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd; and he began to teach them many things. When it grew late, his disciples came to him and said, “This is a deserted place, and the hour is now very late;send them away so that they may go into the surrounding country and villages and buy something for themselves to eat.” But he answered them, “You give them something to eat.” They said to him, “Are we to go and buy two hundred denarii worth of bread, and give it to them to eat?”And he said to them, “How many loaves have you? Go and see.” When they had found out, they said, “Five, and two fish.” Then he ordered them to get all the people to sit down in groups on the green grass. So they sat down in groups of hundreds and of fifties. Taking the five loaves and the two fish, he looked up to heaven, and blessed and broke the loaves, and gave them to his disciples to set before the people; and he divided the two fish among them all. And all ate and were filled; and they took up twelve baskets full of broken pieces and of the fish. Those who had eaten the loaves numbered five thousand men.

Immediately he made his disciples get into the boat and go on ahead to the other side, to Bethsaida, while he dismissed the crowd. After saying farewell to them, he went up on the mountain to pray.

When evening came, the boat was out on the sea, and he was alone on the land. When he saw that they were straining at the oars against an adverse wind, he came towards them early in the morning, walking on the sea. He intended to pass them by. But when they saw him walking on the sea, they thought it was a ghost and cried out; for they all saw him and were terrified. But immediately he spoke to them and said, “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.” Then he got into the boat with them and the wind ceased. And they were utterly astounded, for they did not understand about the loaves, but their hearts were hardened.

When they had crossed over, they came to land at Gennesaret and moored the boat. When they got out of the boat, people at once recognized him, and rushed about that whole region and began to bring the sick on mats to wherever they heard he was. And wherever he went, into villages or cities or farms, they laid the sick in the marketplaces, and begged him that they might touch even the fringe of his cloak; and all who touched it were healed.

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“The quick brown fox jumped over the lazy dog.” If you grew up primarily speaking and writing English, and you’re older than, say, 25 or so, you probably know that sentence. You know it because when you were learning to write cursive, you likely had to write that sentence over and over again, because it contains every letter in the English alphabet. It’s a silly, maybe even absurd statement, but it’s a useful device that helps us to understand or remember something; it’s a means to an end. We use those kinds of devices in a number of aspects of our lives. We remember the names of the Great Lakes by remembering the word HOMES – for Huron, Ontario, Michigan, Erie, and Superior. In music, we remember the lines of the Treble staff by remembering Every Good Boy Does Fine; or the Bass staff lines, Good Boys Do Fine Always.

Today, I’m going to very briefly introduce you to another one of those devices, one that many preachers have been taught as a tool to help them organize and structure and stay on point as they develop a sermon. There are all sorts of ways to prepare a sermon, but this is one common tool. It’s the sentence “The Tiny Dog Now Is Mine.” TTDNIM. Here’s what those initials represent:

The Tiny Dog Now Is Mine

Today, I want to focus on the “N” in that list – what existential human need does the text speak to, both within the story itself, and by extension, in our own lives?

We heard in this gospel story that Jesus and the disciples had been working hard, and they were being besieged by people coming to hear Jesus, and to be healed by him. As the story begins, Jesus tells his disciples that they all needed to get away for a bit to enjoy a little bit of downtime – similar to a text we looked at a few weeks ago. But the people still followed them, and we end up with this story of Jesus feeding the multitude with just a few loaves of bread and a couple of fish. A lot of people get caught up in the miraculous aspect of the story, and in all honesty, it is a curiosity to wonder about, how it all happened. I suppose if it had happened here, around this time of year, it might have been a lot more believable if instead of fish, they’d started out with a few zucchini, since those seem to just multiply beyond all human comprehension this time of year.

Putting the miraculous aspect aside though, at least for today, can we focus on Jesus, and the disciples and all those who had gathered to be there with Jesus, and see what’s going on here as a model for the church, in this sense: Like us, they all had gathered in that place, coming with different backgrounds, different motivations, different thoughts, different energy levels; bringing all of their own particular problems and stresses and needs. And there’s the key word – they’d all arrived with their own particular needs. And together, in that time, in that place, their particular needs were being addressed, being spoken to. They were being taught. They were hearing God’s good news that they were loved. They were being healed. They were being fed. They were being reassured that they mattered to God, in a world that often told them they didn’t.

And ironically, considering that Jesus and the disciples had originally intended to escape from the crowds, maybe their existential needs were being addressed, too. Maybe in that moment, when they were feeling exhausted, and worn down, they had begun to wonder if they were really making a difference in anyone’s life at all. If they were making a dent. If it was all worth it. Now, in this moment, this existential need of their own, to know that they really were making a difference in people’s lives, was being addressed, too, when they saw how these people’s lives were being affected in this dramatic, truly miraculous way. Maybe their existential need at the moment was validation, and they definitely got that in a big way.

So does this idea that this story can be seen in at least one way as an illustration of what the church is like hold water? Personally, I think it does. We all come here without own stuff and stresses. We all come here with our own needs, not wants, and for the most part, not material needs, but rather, emotional and spiritual needs. Maybe we have concerns about our health – a troubling diagnosis, or a long recovery. Or maybe we have concerns at work – maybe the boss is a jerk, or maybe they can’t keep their foot out of their own mouth, and that’s going to create instability and stress. Or maybe we’re dealing with a strained family relationship. Or we’re battling loneliness, or we’re feeling like we’re insignificant, that the world has passed us by. Or we’re just burned out and exhausted by the chaotic, divisive nature of our public discourse these days, and you just want to get away from it all.

All these things, and so many other examples we could come up with, create deep, existential need within us. And in most of the examples I could think of, they all seem to boil down to the need to know these core, essential Christian truths:  a.) That the God who created all this, and us, too, is really present and caring for us, even when it’s hard to see or feel that presence; b.) That we’re loved by that God and by others around us; and c.) That our lives matter to that God, and others around us. 

A part of our Presbyterian Constitution, part of our Book of Order, is a list of the six “Great Ends of the Church” – what the Church is supposed to be all about. One of those “Great Ends” is “the shelter, nurture, and spiritual fellowship of the children of God.” We the Church, were established to be the original “safe space” for people. We haven’t always lived up to that, but we can, and sometimes do. We were established to be a literal “sanctuary” where we can sometimes get away from all the craziness and negativity and hopelessness and uncertainty outside our walls, and where this existential need of ours is answered by proclaiming, and reminding, and reinforcing those three truths: God is present and caring for us even when it doesn’t feel like it. We are loved. We matter.

And like the gospel story we heard this morning, together, we help to meet that existential need for one another – bringing all of our own stuff and stress and baggage, along with our goodness, along for the journey, and somehow, with God’s help, melding ourselves into a community who has committed to love and accept and support one another through it all, and to let one another know just how loved and important they are. We make this happen, together, when we truly are a “safe space” for one another. While we can’t, and we aren’t supposed to, just ignore what’s going on in the world outside of these walls – some of those other “Great Ends of the Church” make that clear – we need to be able, sometimes, to set all that outside stuff, and craziness, aside and simply enjoy the fellowship that we have here, among ourselves. To provide one another with the kind of love, and acceptance, that maybe isn’t possible anywhere else throughout our week. We need to be what the Church always is when it’s at its best – a real, genuine, intentional, mostly non-biological family.

We love one another not in spite of, but because of, our differences and diversity, instead of hating and mistrusting one another because of them, the way so much of the world seems to be geared right now. Here, inside these walls, we recognize one another as God’s people – all different, all flawed, all in our own way a little weird and funky and half-baked – and if you think you aren’t, you’re mistaken – your friends are just keeping a secret from you; trust me, we all fit the pattern. But that’s OK, because we’ve all committed to loving one another, with God’s help, just as we are; and because God already loves us, just as we are.

That’s a different way to live than the world says is normal. It’s a strange way. Some would say it’s an absurd way. And maybe it is absurd – maybe it’s as absurd as a quick brown fox jumping over a lazy dog. But by living that way, absurd though it may be, we end up seeing the face of God in everyone around us – and maybe, if we’re lucky, in ourselves, too.

Thanks be to God.

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Hearing Jairus

(sermon 7/1/18)

Jairus daughter

“The Raising of the Daughter of Jairus,” detail, painting by Jeremy Winborg

Mark 5:21-43

When Jesus had crossed again in the boat to the other side, a great crowd gathered around him; and he was by the sea. Then one of the leaders of the synagogue named Jairus came and, when he saw him, fell at his feet and begged him repeatedly, “My little daughter is at the point of death. Come and lay your hands on her, so that she may be made well, and live.”

So he went with him. And a large crowd followed him and pressed in on him. Now there was a woman who had been suffering from hemorrhages for twelve years. She had endured much under many physicians, and had spent all that she had; and she was no better, but rather grew worse. She had heard about Jesus, and came up behind him in the crowd and touched his cloak, for she said, “If I but touch his clothes, I will be made well.” Immediately her hemorrhage stopped; and she felt in her body that she was healed of her disease. Immediately aware that power had gone forth from him, Jesus turned about in the crowd and said, “Who touched my clothes?” And his disciples said to him, “You see the crowd pressing in on you; how can you say, ‘Who touched me?’” He looked all around to see who had done it. But the woman, knowing what had happened to her, came in fear and trembling, fell down before him, and told him the whole truth. He said to her, “Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace, and be healed of your disease.”

While he was still speaking, some people came from the leader’s house to say, “Your daughter is dead. Why trouble the teacher any further?” But overhearing what they said, Jesus said to the leader of the synagogue, “Do not fear, only believe.” He allowed no one to follow him except Peter, James, and John, the brother of James. When they came to the house of the leader of the synagogue, he saw a commotion, people weeping and wailing loudly. When he had entered, he said to them, “Why do you make a commotion and weep? The child is not dead but sleeping.” And they laughed at him. Then he put them all outside, and took the child’s father and mother and those who were with him, and went in where the child was. He took her by the hand and said to her, “Talitha cum,” which means, “Little girl, get up!” And immediately the girl got up and began to walk about (she was twelve years of age). At this they were overcome with amazement. He strictly ordered them that no one should know this, and told them to give her something to eat.

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This is a story of three people who have become locked together in time – three people, forever connected by the way the writer of Mark’s gospel tells the stories of their meeting with Jesus. Each one of them very different, each one encountering Jesus from a different vantage point, each one being an important part of this whole story for the ages.

Mark’s story begins with Jesus and his disciples crossing the Sea of Galilee in their boat. They did this an awful lot in the gospels, moving back and forth from one place to another along its shoreline. Sometimes they crossed over in order to go *to* somewhere, to do something over there – but many times they’re doing it to get *away* from somewhere, to be able to relax and enjoy their own time in peace. Word had spread about Jesus pretty quickly; everyone had heard about his powerful words of hope, of good news – and especially abut his healing powers. So wherever he went, countless people who were suffering from all sorts of situations swarmed him in the hopes that in Jesus, they would find a chance at a better life. In at least one of these boat trips, Jesus and the disciples seem run down, feeling like all these people who keep thronging around them are preventing them from taking care of heir own needs and self-preservation – and they still kept coming, crossing the sea or taking the longer, more circuitous land route around the sea’s edge just to get to Jesus.

Jairus was one of those people. A leader in the synagogue, a respected person, and educated person, someone with position and some measure of power – the only person in this story whose name is considered worth remembering. And yet, despite the position and his ability in most settings to be in control of things, now he finds himself helpless and desperate, because his twelve year-old daughter is gravely ill, near death, and no one around him can help to save her. So, filled with desperation and hope, Jairus left his home and came to Jesus.

The next person in this story is just about the exact opposite of Jairus. This woman is an ordinary person without any position of respect or authority. It’s just her, by herself, struggling to find health and the acceptance of the community around her, a culture that considered her ritually unclean and literally untouchable because of her medical condition. She was as good as dead to them, and Mark’s author tells us this had gone on for twelve years. So, in desperation, hoping for a new beginning, a new life, she left her home that day and came to Jesus, hoping just to be able to touch the hem of his garment, which she knew would be enough to save her, just hoping for the slightest bit of mercy from him.

Finally, we meet the third person in this story – Jairus’ sick daughter, on her deathbed. Surely she’s the most helpless, the most in need of compassion of anyone in the story. Not in control of anything in her life – subject to the decisions of her parents in everything; what she could or couldn’t do; where she could or couldn’t go – wherever they decided to go, and do, she had to follow along. And now, not even in control of her own care in her illness. It was her father’s decision, not hers, even to go to Jesus to help her.

Despite the fact that Jesus had trekked across the Sea of Galilee, recognizing that he and the disciples needed to take time to take care of themselves and put their own needs first for a bit, when Jairus came to him, Jesus looked into his face, heard his words, saw his need, and he still set out immediately to help. And when he encountered the unnamed, suffering woman along the way, terrified, afraid to even speak to him, seeking healing, acceptance, life, he looked into her face, heard her words, saw her need, and he helped her.

We know from the story that Jairus’ daughter died before they could arrive, so we don’t hear any words from her. As helpless in death as she was in life, Jesus went into her room, looked into her face, felt compassion for her, and he provided all the words that were needed – Talitha cum; little girl, get up.

Jesus was undoubtedly tired, and in all likelihood feeling some burnout and “compassion fatigue” with all the huddled masses trying to get to him for an improved life, but in the end, he looked into these three faces, and heard their stories, and knew their suffering, and he must have thought to himself, “How can I *not* help?”

There’s an interesting sidebar that happens in this story. Mark’s author seems to be making an intentional parallel between the fact that the little girl was twelve years old, and that the woman had been suffering for twelve years. When something good, the girl’s birth, happened, some corresponding bad, the woman’s illness, occurred – and twelve years later, seemingly the moment that something good happened to the woman – she was healed, and given a new life – the little girl dies. It seems to project this common thought at the time the gospel was written, and which continues in some quarters even today, that in order for something good to happen somewhere, to someone, some corresponding loss has to happen somewhere, to someone else – it’s the idea that the universe is essentially a big zero-sum game, where helping someone in need is going to cause one’s self some cost or loss.

But in this instance, Mark seems to be intentionally making the point that Jesus blows that idea out of the water, by saving both the woman *and* the little girl, showing that goodness, that compassion – that *life* – is not a zero-sum game. That helping others in need doesn’t result in a net loss, but is actually a net gain.

Jesus looked into these three people’s faces and heard them, and he worked miracles to help them. This same Jesus, our Lord, has looked into each of our faces, too, and heard us, and has worked wonders in our lives every bit as miraculous. And this same Jesus calls us, out of gratitude for the good news he’s brought to us, the new life that he’s given to us, to look into the faces of others – and to use the immense resources that we have been given, living in the richest and most powerful nation in the history of the world, to work miracles every bit as real as Jesus’, in the lives of those people whose faces we see. Jesus calls us to look into the faces of men, women, and children, who desperately need help, and hope, and new life every bit as much as Jairus, and the suffering, unnamed woman, and the helpless little girl. As a core, fundamental issue of our Christian faith, we’re called to look into those faces – and having seen them, to ask, “How can we not help?”

How can we not?

Amen.

David in the Village and Beyond

(sermon 6/24/18)

child versus sumo wrestler

1 Samuel 17:1…49

Now the Philistines gathered their armies for battle. And there came out from the camp of the Philistines a champion named Goliath, of Gath, whose height was six cubits and a span. He had a helmet of bronze on his head, and he was armed with a coat of mail; the weight of the coat was five thousand shekels of bronze. He had greaves of bronze on his legs and a javelin of bronze slung between his shoulders. The shaft of his spear was like a weaver’s beam, and his spear’s head weighed six hundred shekels of iron; and his shield-bearer went before him. He stood and shouted to the ranks of Israel, “Why have you come out to draw up for battle? Am I not a Philistine, and are you not servants of Saul? Choose a man for yourselves, and let him come down to me. If he is able to fight with me and kill me, then we will be your servants; but if I prevail against him and kill him, then you shall be our servants and serve us.” And the Philistine said, “Today I defy the ranks of Israel! Give me a man, that we may fight together.” When Saul and all Israel heard these words of the Philistine, they were dismayed and greatly afraid.

Now David was the son of an Ephrathite of Bethlehem in Judah, named Jesse, who had eight sons. The three eldest sons of Jesse had followed Saul to the battle. David was the youngest; he went back and forth from Saul to feed his father’s sheep at Bethlehem. David rose early in the morning. He came to the encampment as the army was going forth to the battle line, shouting the war cry. He ran to the ranks, and went and greeted his brothers. As he talked with them, Goliath came up out of the ranks of the Philistines, and spoke the same words as before. And David heard him. All the Israelites, when they saw the man, fled from him and were very much afraid.  David said to the men who stood by him, Who is this uncircumcised Philistine that he should defy the armies of the living God?”

When the words that David spoke were heard, they repeated them before Saul; and he sent for him. David said to Saul, “Let no one’s heart fail because of him; your servant will go and fight with this Philistine.” Saul said to David, “You are not able to go against this Philistine to fight with him; for you are just a boy, and he has been a warrior from his youth.” But David said to Saul, “Your servant has killed both lions and bears; and this uncircumcised Philistine shall be like one of them, since he has defied the armies of the living God.” The Lord, who saved me from the paw of the lion and from the paw of the bear, will save me from the hand of this Philistine.”

So Saul said to David, “Go, and may the Lord be with you!”  David took his staff in his hand, and chose five smooth stones from the wadi, and put them in his shepherd’s bag, in the pouch; his sling was in his hand, and he drew near to the Philistine. When the Philistine looked and saw David, he disdained him, for he was only a youth, ruddy and handsome in appearance. The Philistine said to David, “Am I a dog, that you come to me with sticks?” And the Philistine cursed David by his gods. The Philistine said to David, “Come to me, and I will give your flesh to the birds of the air and to the wild animals of the field. But David said to the Philistine, “You come to me with sword and spear and javelin; but I come to you in the name of the Lord of hosts, the God of the armies of Israel, whom you have defied. This very day the Lord will deliver you into my hand, and I will strike you down and cut off your head; and I will give the dead bodies of the Philistine army this very day to the birds of the air and to the wild animals of the earth, so that all the earth may know that there is a God in Israel, and that all this assembly may know that the Lord does not save by sword and spear; for the battle is the Lord’s and he will give you into our hand.”

When the Philistine drew nearer to meet David, David ran quickly toward the battle line to meet the Philistine. 49David put his hand in his bag, took out a stone, slung it, and struck the Philistine on his forehead; the stone sank into his forehead, and he fell face down on the ground.

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Mark 4:35-41

On that day, when evening had come, he said to them, “Let us go across to the other side.” And leaving the crowd behind, they took him with them in the boat, just as he was. Other boats were with him. A great windstorm arose, and the waves beat into the boat, so that the boat was already being swamped. But he was in the stern, asleep on the cushion; and they woke him up and said to him, “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?” He woke up and rebuked the wind, and said to the sea, “Peace! Be still!” Then the wind ceased, and there was a dead calm. He said to them, “Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?” And they were filled with great awe and said to one another, “Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?”

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David lived in the village, out in the middle of nowhere, a young, good-looking but scrawny kid, living with his parents and his older brothers and their families. Being as young as he was, his contribution to the family’s work was to be the shepherd of the family’s flock of sheep and goats, while his older brothers did the tougher work.

But now, the king was at war, and that tougher work meant that his brothers were fighting in King Saul’s army against the Philistines, those perennial adversaries of the Israelites who seemed to always be mocking them and their God. On this particular day, the armies were encamped, facing each other, at a place not far from David’s village – so close, in fact, that David’s mother decided to send her boys a care package – sending them some good home-cooked food that had to be better than that army food, maybe forwarding on a letter telling how everyone was at home and encouraging them to be careful, and sticking in the last few hometown newspapers, maybe sending them a few pairs of fresh new socks, whatever. And once the package was ready, David was sent out to the encampment to deliver it. Once he got there and did that, he decided to stick around for a while, because frankly, herding sheep is kind of boring, and this was all very new and different and exciting, and really, wouldn’t you? What he saw there was unbelievable. Goliath, this big, hulking mountain of a man, standing out on the battlefield, taunting and mocking the Israelites to a one-on-one face off, calling them out and mocking them, and everyone, even the King himself, was cowering in fear.

Everyone, that is, except David, who, on this particular day, said no. Enough. Why should we put up with this bully? Why are we afraid of this big blowhard? Why? Maybe to some degree, it came out of that mindset that all young people have that they’re immortal, but he trusted God, and maybe figuring that no one else was going to challenge him, and if they didn’t, the Philistines were going to beat the Israelites, David figured he really didn’t have anything left to lose. And so he stood up to the man.

Of course, we know how it turned out. Because of this young, scrawny kid’s trust in God, and his willingness to stand up and do something about this injustice, God used David to advance peace and justice for the people.

There was another David, in another village – only this wasn’t a village out in the middle of nowhere, it was Greenwich Village, in the middle of Manhattan, and the year was 1969. This David didn’t live in the Village because that’s where his parents were; he lived there because it’s where they weren’t. They’d thrown him out of the house when he tod them he was gay. He was a young, good-looking but scrawny kid who was homeless, living on the streets, and who had to use all of his wits just to survive, which was all the harder because the world considered him a criminal, or a moral degenerate, or mentally ill, or maybe all three. He wasn’t even old enough to drink legally – but he had a fake ID that looked real enough, if you didn’t look too hard. In those days, New York’s liquor control authority could designate a bar or restaurant a public nuisance, and would revoke their liquor license, if it served even one customer who was gay, or who even seemed to look, gay, whatever that meant. What that led to was that most of the bars where gays could go were owned and operated by the Mafia, who could use their connections and bribes to usually keep the police away from the place, at least during the peak hours, and who would get tipped off before any raids did happen, so they could hide most of the money in the register so it wouldn’t be confiscated in the raid.

On this particular night, David decided to use his fake ID to get into a nearby place like that, a grimy little hole in the wall called the Stonewall Inn.

1 - Stonewall Inn

On one hand, he hated the place. It was dark, and dirty, and it sold mob liquor and beer, most of it coming off of highjacked trucks, all of it watered down and priced at twice what it would cost at the bar a few doors away. On the other hand, in a world that was completely hostile to him, it was his sanctuary – it was his equivalent of a church, where he could go, and relax, and feel reasonably safe, and where he could enjoy time together with his friends, being validated and not judged, and form a community, one to replace the community outside the doors that had rejected him. It wasn’t much, but it was one of the few places where he could just be himself.

But this night, there would be no sanctuary, because in a highly unusual situation, the bar was raided without any advance tip-off, during its peak business hours. In those days, if a person got arrested in a place like that, their name was printed in the paper, maybe even their picture would be printed. Many people were disowned by their families, many people lost their jobs, a number of people even killed themselves out of the humiliation and the consequences that would come from getting arrested. The police would taunt David and his friends mercilessly, and often beat them with their nightsticks, almost like it was a sport. Usually, when they were arrested, people wouldn’t do anything. They never tried to fight it, or to claim that they had a right to privacy. What could you do? You can’t beat City Hall, or the police.

But this night, something was different. Something clicked. This night, as the police started dragging people out of the bar and putting them into a paddy wagon to take them in for booking, something snapped. David and his friends suddenly thought, why are we allowing ourselves to put up with these bullies? No. No more. And so, on June 28th, 1969, David and his friends, a bunch of brutalized and harassed street kids who figured they really had nothing left to lose, stood up to their Goliath, the police and the system that criminalized them. Together, they fought back, engaging in an uprising that ran for three consecutive nights, but that really is still going on in many ways even today. Their courage in standing up to their bigger, more powerful enemy that night was the thing that got the gay rights movement to finally take off, causing positive change to the world, and yes, the church, too. God used David and his friends to bring things a little more in line with God’s wishes for justice in this world. If you’d said to David that God had used him this way, he’d have laughed at you, or maybe even spit at you, but still, that’s exactly what happened that night.

My first point here is that just as with the biblical story of David and Goliath, God uses unexpected, and often unlikely, people as agents of positive change in the world. And my second point, which we see in the story of David in Greenwich Village, is that by coming together, we can achieve far greater good than we could ever achieve by ourselves. Honestly, this is one of the key principles behind why Christ established the church itself, and it’s a key principle in our theological understanding that we’re called to be a connectional church, not just a lot of separate, independent congregations.

We know these things are true. We’ve seen how God can and does use normal, everyday people, often bringing them together as a group, in order to bring positive change. We saw it in the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s, when people of faith, including the Stated Clerk of the Presbyterian Church, Eugene Carson Blake – there he is in the spiffy straw hat, arm in arm with Dr. King –

2 - ECB and MLK Wash DC 1963

people of faith, and people of no faith, coming together to march in Washington, and countless other places. The power of their witness was the power of David over Goliath, and they brought real, positive change to our society.

We saw it just this past week, too, in several ways. Last Saturday, the Presbyterian General Assembly kicked off in St. Louis with a worship service. During the service, an offering was received, which was to be used to pay the bail of non-violent prisoners who were stuck in jail awaiting their trial, sometimes up to a year waiting for a court date, even before any possible conviction, stuck in jail because they couldn’t afford bail. It is truly the reinstitution of debtor’s prisons, one of the key grievances against England that spurred the American Revolution. Then, on Tuesday, a thousand Presbyterians marched through the street

3 end cash bail 2018a(1)

from the convention center to the city jail, where J. Herbert Nelson, our current Stated Clerk, delivered a check for what was received in that offering – more than $47,000,

4 end cash bail 2018b

which was two or three times the typical offering during opening worship of a GA. Coming together, the church literally set the prisoners free, and the scriptures tell us to do. Their power was the power of David over the Goliath of an unjust bail system that oppresses the poor and people of color.

We saw the same thing just yesterday, when people from all over the country came to Washington in a mass rally for the New Poor People’s Campaign,

6 poor peoples campaign

speaking up for the poor and all oppressed people in our country. This movement has been staging rallies and protests in virtually every state in the union, and they have been noticed. Their power is the power of David over the Goliath.

And we see this same truth in the countless protests around the country of our current immigration policies.

7 immigration protest

Their power is the power of David over the Goliath of immoral and unjust federal policies – and their message is getting across to government leaders, and forcing them to change at least some of their policies.

But these truths are just as true when we aren’t protesting or rallying; they’re just as true when the only sit-in we’re taking part in is the one around our own dinner table. God works through the David’s of the world – the seemingly small, he seemingly weak, the seemingly outnumbered and outgunned – unexpected, unlikely people. People like you and me. God will work through us to enable us to overcome the Goliaths in our own lives.

What’s the Goliath in your life today? What’s the seemingly insurmountable giant that’s causing you fear, worry, anxiety? Whatever it is, remember that God empowers and equips and enables you to become a David, too – because the Spirit of Christ – the same Spirit who has power over the wind and the waves, and who commanded them to be still, and they obeyed – that same Spirit dwells within you, and within me.

Thanks be to God.

A House United

(sermon 6/10/18)

hand in hand

1 Samuel 8:4-20

Then all the elders of Israel gathered together and came to Samuel at Ramah, and said to him, “You are old and your sons do not follow in your ways; appoint for us, then, a king to govern us, like other nations.” But the thing displeased Samuel when they said, “Give us a king to govern us.” Samuel prayed to the Lord, and the Lord said to Samuel, “Listen to the voice of the people in all that they say to you; for they have not rejected you, but they have rejected me from being king over them. Just as they have done to me, from the day I brought them up out of Egypt to this day, forsaking me and serving other gods, so also they are doing to you. Now then, listen to their voice; only—you shall solemnly warn them, and show them the ways of the king who shall reign over them.”

So Samuel reported all the words of the Lord to the people who were asking him for a king. He said, “These will be the ways of the king who will reign over you: he will take your sons and appoint them to his chariots and to be his horsemen, and to run before his chariots; and he will appoint for himself commanders of thousands and commanders of fifties, and some to plow his ground and to reap his harvest, and to make his implements of war and the equipment of his chariots. He will take your daughters to be perfumers and cooks and bakers. He will take the best of your fields and vineyards and olive orchards and give them to his courtiers. He will take one-tenth of your grain and of your vineyards and give it to his officers and his courtiers. He will take your male and female slaves, and the best of your cattle and donkeys, and put them to his work. He will take one-tenth of your flocks, and you shall be his slaves. And in that day you will cry out because of your king, whom you have chosen for yourselves; but the Lord will not answer you in that day.”

But the people refused to listen to the voice of Samuel; they said, “No! but we are determined to have a king over us, so that we also may be like other nations, and that our king may govern us and go out before us and fight our battles.”

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Mark 3:20-35

The crowd came together again, so that they could not even eat. When his family heard it, they went out to restrain him, for people were saying, “He has gone out of his mind.” And the scribes who came down from Jerusalem said, “He has Beelzebul, and by the ruler of the demons he casts out demons.” And he called them to him, and spoke to them in parables, “How can Satan cast out Satan? If a kingdom is divided against itself, that kingdom cannot stand. And if a house is divided against itself, that house will not be able to stand. And if Satan has risen up against himself and is divided, he cannot stand, but his end has come. But no one can enter a strong man’s house and plunder his property without first tying up the strong man; then indeed the house can be plundered.

“Truly I tell you, people will be forgiven for their sins and whatever blasphemies they utter; but whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit can never have forgiveness, but is guilty of an eternal sin” – for they had said, “He has an unclean spirit.”

Then his mother and his brothers came; and standing outside, they sent to him and called him. A crowd was sitting around him; and they said to him, “Your mother and your brothers and sisters are outside, asking for you.” And he replied, “Who are my mother and my brothers?” And looking at those who sat around him, he said, “Here are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.”

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What goes around, comes around. That must have been what Samuel was thinking as he sat considering what the people were demanding of him. God had first called him as a prophet when he was just a young child, to deliver the message to Eli, a chief leader of the people, that his time in power was coming to an end, as punishment for the misdeeds and corruption of his two sons. And now, all these years later, Samuel’s own two sons were ruling over two different regions that Samuel had put them in charge of, but they’d become corrupt, taking bribes and abusing their position in other ways, and the people were demanding an end to it. The irony couldn’t have been lost on Samuel.

Give us a king, they said. We want to be like all the other powerful kingdoms surrounding us. But Samuel understood the problem with what they were asking. Samuel understood that what was really underlying their demand was that they were actually turning away from trusting in God, and toward the conventional earthly understandings of power and the way to be a people. All the God-talk was OK when they went to the temple and offered sacrifices, but the rest of the time, they needed some kind of leadership that worked in the real world. After all, you have to be pragmatic about these kinds of things.

It boggled Samuel’s mind. So, you think there’s corruption now? he asked. Oh, just wait, if you want a king. A king will take your money, your property, your freedom, your rights, and even your children, and trample on them all, in the name of national security, national interest, national dignity, preserving the honor of the king, but really, for the most part, just to bolster the ego and provide luxurious perks for the king himself, at the expense of the people. Samuel knew this, and the history of the kings that followed showed him to be right. Even the two kings who have been held up as the best of them, David and Solomon, were deeply flawed and abusive and corrupt rulers, and the worst of the bunch were truly appalling.

And Samuel knew that the only way a king can get away with that kind of abuse of so many for any length of time without getting overthrown was to keep the people divided. Justifiably or otherwise, keep them afraid of the other kingdoms around them and see that they’re seen as a threat. And get them into nasty internal squabbles – this was a time when Jerusalem was still a Canaanite city, not an Israelite one, and there wouldn’t be a centralized temple there for many years. So where should they properly worship God – at the temple in Shiloh, or in Bethel, or Gilgal, or Mizpah, or Ramah? God could truly physically dwell in only one, so which one was it? Which one was the place for true followers of God to worship and sacrifice? And for that matter, there were countless prophets roaming around the countryside; who were the true prophets of God, and who were the false prophets? And on and on. Keeping the people arguing and fighting amongst themselves, creating artificial divisions and countless “us versus them” battles that would keep people from seeing the truth of the unity that God wanted for them, would keep them from focusing on the king’s abuses. There’s no doubt, and Samuel knew it well, that the easiest, most expedient, most self-serving way to keep ruling over the house, at least for the short term, is to keep the house divided.

But Jesus had something to say about this in today’s gospel text, when people accused him of being able to cast out demons because he was possessed by a demon himself. It was stupid, he said. What sense would that make? He asked. A kingdom divided against itself cannot stand. A house divided against itself cannot stand.

This as true today as it was then, and it’s just as true whether you’re talking about a literal household, a family, or a church congregation, or a community, or a country. And yet, everywhere we look, we see people working to create divisions, fractures, separations; to set one group of “us” against some supposedly dangerous, or immoral, or otherwise undesirable “them.” And it’s become such a natural part of our lives to constantly be at each other’s throat that we almost don’t even recognize it; we’ve been trained as well as Pavlov’s dog, as soon as a bell rings, we come out of our corners ready to fight tooth and nail over something, anything, as if our lives depended on it, and everything is reduced to black and white, no middle ground. I recently saw such a heated argument between two reasonably intelligent people online that I swear, if they’d really been in the same room together it really would have come to blows, just over whether they heard “Laurel” or “Yanny.” And of course, the divisions and brokenness that we allow ourselves to get sucked into, the things that divide our house, are often far more dangerous and harmful than that silly argument.

It’s an especially Reformed/Presbyterian thing to place a high level of belief in the idea that there is no aspect of our lives, no aspect of creation, that is outside of God’s scope or authority – that God is Ruler over all. It’s what we know as the doctrine of “the sovereignty of God.” It’s because of the sovereignty of God that Jesus always clearly, unambiguously taught his followers to work toward unity, not division, all areas of life. To mend, not to tear apart. To repair brokenness, not to create it, in our own lives, in our families, in our cities, in our world.

It’s because of the sovereignty of God, we can’t say “Oh, that all sounds good on Sunday, but that really doesn’t work come Monday morning. That just isn’t realistic. It’s naïve. You don’t understand the way things really work. You don’t understand how bad the situation is, how dangerous those people are, how immoral those people are, how different, how liberal, how conservative, blah, blah, blah. You just don’t understand how bad those other people are.

But they’re all God’s people. And everything is God’s kingdom. It’s all God’s house. And Christ calls us to be repairers, unifiers, of that house. To actively work to increase understanding, and unity, and to be peacemakers – and to just as actively work to oppose any thing, any one, any action, any policy, law, or regulation, any conventional wisdom, any stupid Facebook meme, that serves to divide and cause friction among us. Christ has taught us that we need to reach across these lines of separation, and even to work to eliminate the line to begin with, because they’re mostly artificial and meaningless anyway. And when we reach over those lines, we’ll discover the humanity in each other. And when we discover their humanity, we’ll also be able to see the  light of God dwelling within, and radiating from them. When we recognize their humanity, we’ll be able to see that they’ve been created in the divine image, the very image of God, every bit as much as we are, and are deserving of every bit as much dignity and respect, no matter how different we may seem. And we’ll be able to work together to erase those meaningless lines of separation and work for a house united.

What does that look like in practice, to be that kind of a voice of peace and unity in the world? Well, here are just a few very simple examples:

1

Here are some faith leaders forming  a line against neo-nazis and other white supremacists in Charlottesville.

2

Here’s a picture of some Christians forming a protective barrier around a group of Muslims at prayer.

3

Here’s another example of the same thing.

4

And here the roles are reversed, because it isn’t only Christians who understand that God wants us to be a house united. Here is a group of Muslims forming a human chain around a Christian church to protect it from attacks.

5

And another example of the same thing.

6

And another one, this time a group of Muslims standing in support of a synagogue in Norway.

7

And the reverse, too, Jews standing in support of Muslims.

8-keisha thomas

And finally this last one. This is a fairly well-known picture; maybe you’ve seen it before. This is a photo of a young African-American woman named Keisha Thomas, taken in 1996.  That year, the Ku Klux Klan staged a rally in Keisha’s hometown, and as usually happens when the Klan stages a protest, there was a counterprotest to oppose them. Keisha was at that counterprotest, when someone noticed a Klan member there in the middle of the crowd. When people saw him, they started punching him, kicking him, knocking him to the ground and just beating on him. But Keisha saw what was happening, she used her own body as a barrier to protect him from any more beating as he lay on the ground, as she yelled at the people around her that this wasn’t right – you can’t beat badness out of someone; you can’t beat goodness into them. This wasn’t the way.

Those were examples of people working for unity in a larger group setting. Maybe most of us wouldn’t find ourselves in a situation like those. But maybe we’ll find ourselves somewhere when an immigrant, or a person of color, or an LGBTQ person, or whoever, is being harassed and bullied. Is there some way that you could intervene and let that person know that you’re there to be helpful and supportive to them? Is there someone in your neighborhood – someone who’s really different than you are; maybe not someone you’d usually invite to the backyard barbecue – but you find out that they’re suffering some family tragedy. Can you do some kindness for them? Christians are called People of the Book; I think it’s just as true that we’re the People of the Casserole. Stopping in for a brief visit, dropping off some food, maybe opening up a conversation – letting the person know that you care about them, and that you aren’t so different after all. That’s working to establish a house united.

Whether it’s in ways large or small, out of gratitude for the love that God has first shown us, Christ calls us to say Yes, we will follow Christ’s call to love. Yes, we will follow his call to be peacemakers. Yes, we will follow his call to unite.  And we will say No, we will not agree with those why try to separate and divide us. No, we will not accept any artificial, and meaningless, and harmful divisions among us, any more. No – not in our name. Because we know a better name, and a better way than that.

Christ called us to be a house united, because he knew, just as Samuel did before him, that a house united is what God had in mind all along.

Thanks be to God.

 

And So It Begins

Sermon 5/20/18
Pentecost Sunday
MB McCandless’ Last Sunday

pentecost-painting2

Acts 2:1-21

When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place.And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.

Now there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem. And at this sound the crowd gathered and was bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in the native language of each.Amazed and astonished, they asked, “Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language? Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabs—in our own languages we hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power.” All were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, “What does this mean?” But others sneered and said, “They are filled with new wine.”

But Peter, standing with the eleven, raised his voice and addressed them, “Men of Judea and all who live in Jerusalem, let this be known to you, and listen to what I say. Indeed, these are not drunk, as you suppose, for it is only nine o’clock in the morning. No, this is what was spoken through the prophet Joel: ‘In the last days it will be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams. Even upon my slaves, both men and women, in those days I will pour out my Spirit; and they shall prophesy. And I will show portents in the heaven above and signs on the earth below, blood, and fire, and smoky mist. The sun shall be turned to darkness and the moon to blood, before the coming of the Lord’s great and glorious day. Then everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.’

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Up until this point in the Book of Acts, the author has been setting the stage for the main direction of his story – the beginning of the church, with the message of the gospel spreading out from just Jesus’ first followers, out from Jerusalem, out to the regions and nations beyond, near and far. First in this book, we get the story of Jesus ascending into heaven, leaving the disciples behind but telling the to wait there in the city until what he calls “the Paraclete,” what we call the Holy Spirit, comes to them. So as this story begins, they’re still there in the city some fifty days after the Passover, fifty days after the crucifixion, now observing the Jewish festival of Pentecost, or Shavuot, celebrating God’s giving of the Law to Moses on Mt. Sinai. And by this time, the disciples must have been wondering just when, and how, this “Paraclete” was going to show up.

Then, all of a sudden, they find out. They have this amazing experience – wind blowing, and tongues of flame dancing in the air over them, and suddenly they’re speaking languages they hadn’t known before. The Paraclete had arrived. The church is now established, and the disciples have been empowered to do the work Christ had called them to. And so it begins.

Wherever Jesus uses this word, “paraclete,” to describe the Holy Spirit, we usually translate it as “Advocate” or “Comforter.” We often think of the Holy Spirit comforting us in times of anxiety, loss, or grief. That’s certainly part of the work of the Holy Spirit. But at least as often – and certainly, in the instances where the Holy Spirit appears in New Testament stories – the appearance and work of the Holy Spirit is, at least at the beginning, something unsettling – something more discomforting than comforting. Whenever the Holy Spirit begins to move, we can be sure there’s going to be some disturbance; the pot’s going to be stirred; there’s going to be some kind of change to the status quo.

This word that Jesus uses, “paraclete,” literally means to come up alongside, in the sense of helping to lift up, and supporting, and helping to move someone forward in some way that you couldn’t do otherwise. This past week, I read about Franklin Roosevelt, who we all know now, but few people did at the time, was paralyzed. He wore heavy steel braces on his legs that with difficulty and some support, enabled him at least to stand upright, but didn’t really allow him to walk on his own. So his son learned how to walk alongside his father, locking their arms together, actually bearing most of his father’s weight and learning to do it without showing any strain on his own face, and helping to move him forward giving the illusion that his father was walking under his own energy. It was an amazing, loving deception, and as I read about it, I thought that this was actually a pretty good analogy of how the Holy Spirit, the Paraclete, works in our own lives.

I’m firmly convinced that at this moment, we’re experiencing the movement of the Holy Spirit, the Paraclete, the “discomforting comforter,” just as surely as those disciples did in Jerusalem. The holy winds are blowing within our midst, catching up MB within it, who is here with us for our last Sunday morning together. Soon, she’ll find herself in a completely different pastoral and congregational setting, with all of the excitement, and fear, and possibility, and uncertainty that will bring with it. That same wind is bring change to us, too, as we try to discern how and where we’re being led in terms of our Spiritual Nurture and educational ministries. Whenever that wind blows, whenever the Spirit moves, there’s sure to be some time of discomfort and adjustment. That’s a normal part of the way God moves, and the way we grow in our faith and mission. In the end, though, God will lead us all into paths that are good, and healthy, and which proclaim the gospel of God’s love for all, in ways even greater than before.

God has called MB, and us, into new, and different, and better things; all for the proclamation of the gospel, for the continuation of Christ’s work in the world, and for the glory of God. The winds of Pentecost have blown. And so it begins.

Thanks be to God.

Belonging

(sermon 5/13/18)

baptism water

Acts 1:15-17, 21-26

In those days Peter stood up among the believers (together the crowd numbered about one hundred twenty persons) and said, “Friends, the scripture had to be fulfilled, which the Holy Spirit through David foretold concerning Judas, who became a guide for those who arrested Jesus— for he was numbered among us and was allotted his share in this ministry.” So one of the men who have accompanied us during all the time that the Lord Jesus went in and out among us, beginning from the baptism of John until the day when he was taken up from us—one of these must become a witness with us to his resurrection.” So they proposed two, Joseph called Barsabbas, who was also known as Justus, and Matthias. Then they prayed and said, “Lord, you know everyone’s heart. Show us which one of these two you have chosen to take the place in this ministry and apostleship from which Judas turned aside to go to his own place.” And they cast lots for them, and the lot fell on Matthias; and he was added to the eleven apostles.

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John 17:6-19

[Jesus prayed,] ”I have made your name known to those whom you gave me from the world. They were yours, and you gave them to me, and they have kept your word. Now they know that everything you have given me is from you; for the words that you gave to me I have given to them, and they have received them and know in truth that I came from you; and they have believed that you sent me. I am asking on their behalf; I am not asking on behalf of the world, but on behalf of those whom you gave me, because they are yours. All mine are yours, and yours are mine; and I have been glorified in them.

And now I am no longer in the world, but they are in the world, and I am coming to you. Holy Father, protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one. While I was with them, I protected them in your name that you have given me. I guarded them, and not one of them was lost except the one destined to be lost, so that the scripture might be fulfilled. But now I am coming to you, and I speak these things in the world so that they may have my joy made complete in themselves. I have given them your word, and the world has hated them because they do not belong to the world, just as I do not belong to the world. I am not asking you to take them out of the world, but I ask you to protect them from the evil one. They do not belong to the world, just as I do not belong to the world.

Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth. As you have sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world. And for their sakes I sanctify myself, so that they also may be sanctified in truth.

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Last Sunday evening, the church staff and their spouses gathered at my place for a little farewell get-together for MB. It was a nice evening, filled with friends, and food, and stories, and laughs and sharing our thoughts about MB, her time here, and her new call. And then, just as we’d had enough to eat and were relaxing a bit, Warren got out of his chair, walked over to the piano, and said, “It’s time.” He sat down and started playing song after song, some requests from us and others that just popped into his head, and we all scrambled to google the lyrics on our phones and sang along.

At one point during that, I sat there looking at the smiling faces, all of us coming from different places, with different backgrounds, different stories, all brought together in this moment, smiling, laughing, singing – and I realized that I was in the middle of one of those very special, almost other-worldly moments that on very rare occasion, we’re blessed to be part of. Surrounded by good friends, and love, and laughter, and music. And it went deeper than it being just an ordinary gathering of friends; this was a group who had been knit together by God, brought together through our common love for God and our desire to serve God, and we were all a part of this truly magical moment. I felt so blessed, and grateful, that I was a part of it, and connected to these people. It was a deep feeling of belonging.

Both of today’s scripture texts deal in different ways with the sense of belonging. In the Acts text, we hear the story of the Apostles naming a new member of the twelve, to replace Judas. They had two equally qualified candidates and basically rolled dice to choose between the two. That sounds pretty arbitrary to our ears today, but even now, every once in a while you’ll hear about an election that results in a tie, and the winner is determined by flipping a coin. Of course, over the years, different parts of the church have come up with different polities, different ways of trying to discern God’s will when faced with making a decision. Some trust the authority of a bishop. Some rely on a congregational vote by the congregation to decide everything. We Presbyterians trust our representative, connectional polity to be the most reliable way of hearing God’s will. The truth of the matter, though, is that whatever the method that we humans come up with to try to hear God’s intentions, God is present in the process, and God will find a way to work within it.

This Acts text deals with finding who God wants to belong to the group of Apostles, and to me that point is important today – whatever the methodology used to hear it, God does call us into being a part of Christ’s Church, and a part of God’s realm. God calls us into this special kind of belonging.

We bear witness to that today, in two ways. Earlier in the service, we recognized the teachers and other volunteers who God has called to a special way of belonging in the life of the church. And in just a little while, we’ll baptize _______, in a sign and seal of God having called him into this special kind of belonging. In his baptism, _______ will begin a lifelong journey of faith, a lifetime of being a part of the covenant, the promise that God has made with us, that we will always belong to the family of God.

But this goes beyond just belonging. Along with that belonging comes the assurance of what Jesus was praying about in the text from John’s gospel that we heard this morning – that _______’s belonging is forever, and that God’s holding and protection of _______ is forever, too.

_______ will grow to know and experience all the joys and sorrows, all the awe and wonder, all the love and loss that this life brings us all. We can, and we do, pray that the laughter will outlast the tears; and that the good will outweigh the bad.  Mostly, we pray that he will always know love – love of family and friends, and church, and most of all of God. However all the chapters of his life will unfold, we all know that through the reconciliation that has been achieved through Christ in his life, death, and resurrection, God has forever claimed him; and that he has been called God’s own and that he will forever be kept in the palm of God’s loving hand – in short, that he belongs. And for that, we can all rejoice, and say

Thanks be to God.

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.