Sermons

Sermon: Monday, April 30, 2018: Texts for the 5th Sunday after Easter

Text: Acts 8:26-40

GoPhoto_0058_Photo-Scan-00062

Pastor Erik with the (future) Rev. Leah Fowler doing street outreach in his signature summer clerical shirt that earned him the nickname “Baby Blue Priest.”

I spent the summer after my first year of seminary doing street outreach with runaway, homeless, and street-dependent youth in Atlanta in neighborhoods like Little Five Points, Midtown, the Old Fourth Ward, and downtown; but this phone call that I got on my very first cell phone (a flip phone) from an anxious mother didn’t come until the summer was over and I was back in school the fall of my middler year. I was walking back to my car after a morning of classes when the phone rang. Those were the days when I still picked up for unknown numbers. I answered expecting it to be someone from school, instead it was a woman who immediately asked who I was.

I told her my name, Erik, and wondered if she might have the wrong number. She said she’d gotten this number off a business card she found in her son’s bedroom. The card had my name and phone number and the name of my summer project, “Street Chaplains.” She wanted to know what it meant, street chaplain, and what I’d been speaking to her son about. I wish I could have taken a page from the recently terminated Congressional chaplain and replied, “hospital chaplains pray about health. Congressional chaplains pray about Congress. Street chaplains pray about the streets.”

But, the truth was, I had no idea what I’d said to her son. I’d spoken to hundreds of people over the course of the summer. I’d trained a handful of my classmates in the basics of safe, ethical outreach, work I’d done before going to seminary. Together we’d gone out in pairs, day after hot summer day, talking to every young person we found. We’d ask them if they had a safe place to sleep, or if they knew someone who didn’t. We handed out these business cards dozens of times every hour, and every once in a while we got to have a meaningful conversation with a young person experiencing homelessness. I didn’t always get people’s names, and I rarely remembered the ones I did get. So I really had no way of connecting this caller with a memory of her child.

The easier thing to do would have been to explain all this quickly and get off the phone. The summer was over, after all. The project was finished, the final report written and turned in. The subject of this conversation was in my past. To reopen the topic would be to make space for a detour on my way to the day I’d planned for myself. Except this woman had my number, and I still had the phone and this call.

I could hear something in her voice, a question she wanted to ask and an answer she didn’t want to hear. So I asked if her child was alright. She said, “I think he’s gay,” and I could tell from her voice that this thought brought her no joy. 

I remember wondering what my duty was in that moment. Did she deserve to know that she was speaking to a gay man? Should I make that clear so that she could decide how much she wanted to say, or not to say? But I didn’t. Instead I told her that I’d met lots of LGBTQIA+ (well, I probably said “gay and lesbian”) kids out on the streets, kids who’d run away from home or been kicked out. Youth who’d been humiliated. Youth who’d been denied justice. Youth led to the slaughter. I didn’t say that last part, that’s from the scroll of the prophet Isaiah. And, because the business card said “chaplain” on it, she felt free to ask me; more than that, she wanted to know what I thought the bible had to say on the topic of gay and lesbian people (though I’m sure she said “homosexuals”). So, like Philip, I was invited to help interpret scripture.

graffitti artI do remember one of the people I met that summer. I’d been outreaching in the Little Five points neighborhood on a scorching hot day. I was wearing cargo shorts, a baby blue short-sleeved clerical shirt and collar, and carrying an over the shoulder bag in which I’d packed business cards, bottles of water, a social services referral guide, condoms, etc. and I’d just purchased a soft serve ice cream cone to cool me down. Then I spotted this boy, almost a young man, no more than seventeen. He was tall, thin, white, all angles. I made it a practice to talk to anyone who looked twenty or younger, but he’d seen me scoping him out and he spoke first. Spinning on his heel to confront me at a stoplight that had just turned red, he unleashed the kind of fierce fury that’s hard for anyone over twenty to sustain. He came at me hard.

“What are you looking at, preacher man?” I told him my name, explained what I was doing, and asked if he had a safe place to sleep. “People like you are the reason I don’t. ‘Hate the sin, love the sinner.’ That’s what the priest told my parents. So Dad showed me ‘tough love’ by kicking me out and telling me not to come home until I’d manned up. So excuse me if I don’t give a shit.”  By now the ice cream had melted and was dripping down over my fist, but I couldn’t find anything useful to say. The boy just kept going, delivering his final blow, “Is your church ready for this homosexual?” My next words were pathetic and inadequate to the wounds this child had just revealed. I’ve never forgotten him, or his question.

As for this mother waiting on the phone for me to speak, I honestly don’t remember what I said next. I just know that the passages I might have quoted and the interpretations I would have given were not what she was expecting. I likely told the story from Acts 10 in which Cornelius calls for Peter, who then has the vision of the sheet being lowered from heaven, filled with unclean animals, and the divine voice that challenges Peter’s received theology and established practice, saying “What God has called clean, you must not call profane.” (Acts 10:15) Or maybe I quoted Romans 8:38, “For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

We spoke for fifteen minutes, twenty at the most. When it was over, she didn’t ask to meet me or request to be baptized. I wouldn’t even say she left the conversation rejoicing over the good news I’d shared. All I know is that, like Philip and the Ethiopian eunuch, I never heard from her again.

In the book of Acts, the Samaritan mission (under the leadership of Philip, whose saint day is observed tomorrow) signals the beginning of the spread of the gospel beyond the boundaries of traditional Judaism. For that reason, this story has served as an entry point for a number of communities that have historically been marginalized by the kinds of Christianity practiced by the dominant culture. When the Rev. Dr. Otis Moss came here to preach last fall, to kick off our commemoration of the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, this was the passage he selected for preaching, reminding us that this African figure has been misrepresented and aspects of his history and identity erased down through the centuries; the presumption that he was an outsider on the basis of his African identity a willful forgetfulness that Israelite religion had made its way to Africa as far back as King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba and that this Ethiopian eunuch is not identified in the text as a Gentile God-fearer, but simply as one “who had come to Jerusalem to worship.” He could just as easily have been a Jew attempting to worship at the temple. The very fact that later audiences, that White audiences, felt the need to imagine him as an outsider on the basis of his national identity, with its roots in Africa, speaks to modern racial ideas and not the worldview of the scripture itself.

merlin_23068533_e2a1b918-ccfe-4433-b9e7-3a7bfe56cc8c-superJumbo

The Rev. Dr. James Cone (1936-2018)

This morning I can’t help but think that these insights owe a great debt to one of the most powerful theological voices of our generation, who died over the weekend. The Rev. Dr. James Cone, author of books that shaped a generation of teachers and leaders in the church and in society: Black Theology and Black Power, God of the Oppressed, The Cross and the Lynching Tree; teacher and mentor and guide. A man whose work reflected a holy anger at the disenfranchisement of black lives and disfigurement of black bodies, but will also be remembered for the warmth of his smile and the joy in his laughter. A fully human being, who we can imagine might have heard the desperation in the Ethiopian eunuch’s voice when he read aloud, “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” and then asked, “About whom, may I ask you, does the prophet say this, about himself or about someone else?” Because, at this point in the story, the Ethiopian eunuch does not know about Jesus, so we can only assume that he hears something in this account from Isaiah that reminds him of his own suffering, which reminds us of our own suffering, which is why this figure has remained central to the theological imaginations of all who suffer and therefore to liberation theology as well. I imagine Dr. Cone stepping into that chariot with Philip and the eunuch and teaching us once again that,

Either God is identified with the oppressed to the point that their experience becomes God’s experience, or God is a God of racism … The blackness of God means that God has made the oppressed condition God’s own condition. This is the essence of the biblical revelation. By electing Israelite slaves as the people of God and by becoming the Oppressed One in Jesus Christ, the human race is made to understand that God is known where human beings experience humiliation and suffering … Liberation is not an afterthought, but the very essence of divine activity. (A Black Theology of Liberation, pp. 63-64)

What lesbian and gay, bi and trans, queer and intersex, non-binary folk and anyone else whose sexual or gender identity is not normalized by culture have seen in the Ethiopian eunuch is one who would have been excluded from the temple, Jewish or not, on the basis of his sexual or gender identity. As a castrated man, he was not allowed access to the temple under Deuteronomic law, he was a gender outlaw, scarred and defective, impure and subject to stereotypes. But the prophet Isaiah announces that God will “recover the remnant that is left of my people … from Ethiopia” (Isa. 11:11) and that “eunuchs who keep [the] sabbath” will be welcomed home and will receive “a name better than sons and daughters.” (Isa. 56:4-5) What is at stake for the Ethiopian eunuch, and for many queer exegetes, is not the authority of scripture but its interpretation. Is God the one who authorizes the exclusion from the temple, or the one who gathers the remnant and welcomes the despised and the rejected home? That is the kind of question that requires a guide, an exegete, a theologian. That is the kind of question that, depending how it’s answered, can either end a life or save one.

Black liberation theology set the table for the ever-expanding host of liberation theologies that have followed. My ability to find myself in this text owes a debt of gratitude to the work of James Cone and others who have helped me to know at the core of my being that at the very place where the world turns its back on me, God is with me, God is for me, God is on my side because God sides with the oppressed. And that, likewise, at any place where I would use the name of God to contribute to or continue the oppression of others, that is not true Christianity. It is White Christianity, it is straight Christianity, it is middle-class Christianity, it is respectability-politics Christianity, it is colonial Christianity, and therefore it is not Christianity. You and I, who have been baptized, have drowned to those lies. We rise from these waters as the children of God and joint heirs with Christ of a freedom that cannot be taken away from us. We are fully human. We are alive.

As we prepare to take our leave of one another near the end of another rich, full and difficult school year, pay attention to those who share the road with you. Listen for the phone call that threatens to take you off the path you’d set for yourself. Be prepared to give an account of the faith that is in you, in you, knowing that the right word at the right time can save a life. 

Good theology saves lives.

Amen.

Standard
Sermons

Sermon: Sunday, May 6, 2012 — Fifth Sunday of Easter

Texts: Acts 8:26-40  •  Psalm 22:25-31  •  1 John 4:7-21  •  John 15:1-8

Christ is risen! Alleluia!

Christ is risen indeed! Alleluia!

What a difference a day makes.  24 little hours, brought the sun and the flowers where there used to be rain.  My yesterday was blue, dear.  Today, I’m a part of you, dear.  My lonely nights are through dear, since you said you are mine.

Oh, what a difference a day makes.  There’s a rainbow before me.  Skies above can’t be stormy, since that moment of bliss… that thrilling kiss.  It’s heaven when you find romance on a menu.  What a difference a day made, and the difference is you.

Easter jazz, Easter joy.  Fifty days of Easter calls for a little extra singing about love, and the new life that turns on the day when God rose Jesus from the dead.  What a difference a day makes.

In the early days of the church, that spirit of love had grabbed hold of the followers of Jesus and it was sending them everywhere — to the ends of the earth — to sing its song.  So this morning we hear that Philip the Evangelist, one of the deacons who’d been selected to help manage the church’s affairs in the 6th chapter of Acts, got a wake up call from the Holy Spirit to get up and hit the road.  As he travels the road, he comes upon someone whom the scriptures call an Ethiopian eunuch, who is also described as a court official of the Candace, who is the queen of Ethiopia.  Doesn’t that sound fabulous?

A couple important pieces of information have already been shared here, the first is that Philip has stumbled upon an Ethiopian — though the word here may simply mean African — but the point is, he’s not a member of the nation of Israel.  Second, he’s a eunuch.  There’s plenty of debate about this word as well.  Matthew’s gospel refers to “eunuchs who have been so from birth” and “eunuchs who have been made eunuchs by others” and “eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven” (Mt. 19:12).  What we know is that whether this African man is literally, physically, a eunuch (perhaps as a condition of his employment with the Candace) or whether he is in some other way physically or sexually different, he is at least doubly disqualified from being able to offer praise and worship according to Temple law and Israelite tradition.

So, what do you suppose the Holy Spirit tells Philip to do as he comes upon the Ethiopian eunuch?  Like your best girlfriend at the bar, she says, “go talk to that man!”

Now you might think that, being an Ethiopian eunuch, this man would be reading a paperback novel or a biography of the Candace.  But he’s not.  He’s reading from the prophet Isaiah, because he had come to Jerusalem in order to worship.  We know, because he’s an Ethiopian eunuch, that he couldn’t have gotten very far in the Temple, but nonetheless, he must have heard something interesting, something intriguing, about God, because he’s left Jerusalem with some of the Hebrew scriptures and he’s trying to makes sense of them.

Isn’t it interesting that the passage from Isaiah he’s reading includes these words, “in his humiliation, justice was denied him.”  Here this Ethiopian eunuch has just come from his own experience of exclusion at the Temple in Jerusalem, an exclusion that very likely came as no surprise, may not have even really disturbed him given that it was the norm, just the way things were, but he finds these words in the scriptures of those people,

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.

It’s a puzzling piece of scripture, and as Philip sidles up next to the Ethiopian on his chariot he asks him the obvious question, “do you understand what you’re reading?” and the Ethiopian gives the obvious response, “how can I, unless someone guides me?”  And he invites Philip to join him in the chariot.  So far, so good, and we can imagine the Holy Spirit off in the corner giving Philip the two thumbs up for encouragement.

Then, as in all good romances, the opening banter gives way to something more real.  The Ethiopian asks Philip, “who is the prophet talking about, himself or someone else?”  And then Philip gets to open up and, starting with this scripture, he shares the whole story about Jesus.

It’s a toss away line in this passage, “and starting with this scripture, he proclaimed to him the good news about Jesus,” but it’s one I’ve been thinking about all week.  How to read that.  You could interpret this to mean that Philip, like any good teacher, starts where the student is and leads him along to something new.  The Ethiopian was reading Isaiah, and Philip was ready to preach Jesus, so Philip helped connect the dots from the ancient prophets of Israel to the revelation of God in Christ Jesus.  That makes sense.

A second interpretation, and not a mutually exclusive one, pays attention to this particular passage from Isaiah as the starting point for proclaiming the good news of Christ Jesus to the world.  This requires a bit more time to explain, perhaps even a whole day.  Because, how would it sound to you, if you were the Ethiopian eunuch, and some strange Israelite man was trying to convince you that God had made God’s self known to the world not in the wealth and power of someone like the Candace, but like a sheep led to the slaughter?  That would take a lot of preaching and teaching, right?

Fortunately, good Christians, I don’t have to work quite as hard on you as Philip did on the Ethiopian, which means this sermon won’t last a full day.  Because you already know what Philip knew.  That in Christ Jesus, God shows God’s partiality to the poor countryside Marys over the wealthy cosmopolitan Candaces.  That God’s epiphany is to shepherds keeping watch in their fields by night, and not priests keeping watch over their temple gates.  That Jesus, too, began his ministry by reading from this very same prophet, Isaiah, who declared,

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor. (Lk. 4:18-19)

Do you remember how that first sermon turned out for Jesus? Philip must have told the Ethiopian eunuch how Jesus preached that message, coming to these provocative conclusions,

But the truth is, there were many widows in Israel in the time of Elijah…yet Elijah was sent to none of them except to a widow at Zarephath in Sidon. There were also many lepers in Israel in the time of the prophet Elisha, and none of them was cleansed except Naaman the Syrian. (Lk. 4:25-27)

Those first words set the tone for a ministry to all kinds of outsiders, a man with an unclean spirit, a leper, a paralytic, a tax collector, a man with a withered hand, a Roman soldier’s servant, a sinful woman, a foreigner possessed by demons, a hemorrhaging woman.  Surely Philip shared with him Jesus’ parable of the good Samaritan, where the foreigner does the greater service to the one who has been harmed, and is commended for his faithfulness.  And surely Philip shared with the Ethiopian eunuch the great sermon on the plain, where Jesus preached the beatitudes, those amazing reversals that include,

blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude you, revile you, and defame you on account of the Son of Man.  Rejoice in that day and leap for joy, for surely your reward is great in heaven; for that is what their ancestors did to the prophets. (Lk. 6:22-23)

So, we can imagine, the Ethiopian must have heard his own life’s story wrapped up in the ministry of this baby from Bethlehem, this man from Nazareth, who also went up to Jerusalem only to be rejected at the Temple, just as he had been.  And we can imagine he must have asked Philip, “what happened to that man?  What happened to Jesus?”

And what would Philip have said, but, “well, they killed him.  Yes, they killed him by hanging him on a cross, because they thought that would be the end of him.  They killed him by hanging him on a cross because they thought they could keep us quiet about all that he said and did, all that we saw and witnessed.  They hanged him on a cross and buried him in the ground, because they thought they could bury God’s truth that the world is turning; but the Candace, and the Emperor had better watch out, because God is real, and God is alive, and all who are filled with God’s truth and God’s love and God’s mercy and God’s power can never be buried. Because when we were baptized into Christ, we heard what Jesus heard, ‘you are my Beloved, with you I am well pleased.’  Because in those waters we died with Christ so that we could rise with Christ. Because when God lifted Jesus up, God lifted me up!”

And I suppose that’s when the Ethiopian eunuch looked up from Philip’s transfigured face, shining with the light of his baptism, and said, “look, here is water! What is to prevent me from being baptized?”

And Philip knew what you good Christians already know, that there is nothing to keep the Ethiopian eunuch, or any other beloved child of God, from being baptized, from being included, from being accepted and warmly welcomed into the body of Christ.  So, Philip got down from the chariot and baptized that Ethiopian eunuch.

What a difference a day makes.

And then, this little coda to the song:

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. (Acts 8:39)

I don’t think we’re talking about a magical transportation from the water’s edge to Azotus.  I don’t think the scriptures mean for us to read this as a miraculous event. If anything, I think this verb, “snatched,” communicates to us the sudden, wrenching experience we’ve all felt when someone who has become dear to us all of a sudden has to leave.  The Holy Spirit called Philip to preach to the Ethiopian eunuch and, for a day, they were lovers.  I don’t mean to say that they were romantically involved, I mean to say that they were bound together by the love of God made known in the story of God that is the gospel, the good news that Philip preached.  They became intimates.  In the waters by the road they even became family to one another.

And then it was over.  The Holy Spirit called Philip on to whatever awaited him in Azotus, and legend ascribes to the Ethiopian eunuch the founding of the Christian Church in Ethiopia.  The Holy Spirit called them together, and then the Holy Spirit called them on into their futures.

That is how the Holy Spirit works.  We’re living in that moment here today as we say goodbye to our two seminarians, Drew and Francisco, who have preached the good news of Jesus Christ to us for the last nine months, whom we have grown to love, and who are now being snatched away by the Holy Spirit to continue their training and preparations for pastoral ministry.  It’s happening over and over in the next few weeks as friends whom we’ve come to love like sisters and brothers leave St. Luke’s, leave Chicago, to return to hometowns and rejoin relatives and start new jobs.

This is part of the nature of life in the community of Christ.  We are drawn together by the Holy Spirit — maybe for a decade, or maybe for a year, or nine months, maybe even for only a day.  But what a difference a day can make!  In Christ, the significance of our relationships isn’t defined by their duration, but by their depth.  The depth of our connection is as deep as the waters into which we were baptized — and in these deeps, we are connected forever.

So, as we prepare to say our goodbyes — today, and in the weeks to come — we know that we are once again finding out story in the story of scripture, in which strangers come to know each other as friends and as family and are able to leave one another rejoicing because of the good news that binds them together, the good news that

Christ is risen! Alleluia!

Christ is risen indeed! Alleluia!

Standard