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

Text: Acts 8:26-40


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.


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.



Sermon: Sunday, December 30, 2012: First Sunday after Christmas Day

Texts:  1 Samuel 2:18-20, 26  •

In his video commentary introducing the bible study series Manna and Mercy, Alan Storey, a Methodist pastor from South Africa, presents the story of another young pastor, Dave, and the lesson his son taught him about what happens when people lose their Jesus.  This young pastor recounts a day at the playground with his four-year old child:

Video Introduction to “Manna & Mercy”

So when my son was about four years old one day I said, “let’s go to the park.”  He asked, “can I bring my Bible?” I said, “sure.” So I put my books in a bag and he put his Bible in a bag and we came to the park.

I sat on a bench and read for a while, and he played with a little girl.  I looked up after about 30 minutes or so, and I saw that he was on top of the jungle gym and the little girl was down below, playing in the mulch.  He had his Bible in a tote bag, and he was aiming at her head through the bars of the gym.  He dropped it and it fell and hit her in the head, and she started wailing and her mom got up and came over and I got up and came over.  Her mom said, “oh, it’s OK, it’s just an accident.  I said “no, I saw what happened, it wasn’t an accident.”

So I called my son down and he came up to me, kind of sheepishly, and I said to him, “Leo, the Bible is an important book, and if you’re going to use it as a weapon and hurt people with it, then I’m not going to let you have it.  So I took his Bible and I put it in my bag.  He looked at me for a few minutes.  I could see the gears working in his head, and he twisted up his face in fury and said, “you can’t take God’s word away from me!”  And every parent, and every child… it was complete silence in the park.  Everyone was looking at us, and he gave me the worst tongue-lashing a four year old has ever given me.  He said, “you’re supposed to be a preacher!  You’re supposed to teach people about God, not take the Bible away from them!” and on and on.  So I said, “if you’re throwing a tantrum, we’re going to have to leave.”

So, as we were walking out of the park, this little ten year old boy was holding open the gate for us, and he was looking at us as we walked by, and Leo was shouting at me, “you wicked, wicked man!  You can’t keep me from learning about God!”  And the little boy was just looking at me, his eyes were as big as dinner plates, and thinking, “what kind of man is this, that would take the Bible away from a child?”

I think Leo and I both learned a lesson that day.  I hope that he learned that you’re not supposed to use the Bible as a weapon, and I learned that, when you tell people that, they get mad at you.

“You can’t take God’s word away from me!” the boy shouted.  Less than a week ago we gathered in this sanctuary on Christmas morning to celebrate the nativity of our Lord, the birth of the baby of Bethlehem, the Word made flesh.  We have been waiting so long for this child, this Word, this light shining in the darkness, so it’s completely understandable that we may have grown possessive of him.  It’s true, you can’t take God word away from God’s people, but that doesn’t mean you won’t lose your Jesus from time to time.

images-10I don’t remember the first time I noticed my Jesus was missing, but I remember one of them.  I was a year or two out of college, and I’d stopped going to church.  After I’d come out, I assumed that Jesus and the church didn’t have much good news for me and people like me in the LGBTQ communities.  Then I stumbled across a book by Robert Goss, a former Jesuit priest who’d earned a doctorate in Comparative Religion from Harvard University and was a member of ACT-UP and Queer Nation, both radical LGBTQ organizations who came to prominence at the height of the AIDS epidemic in the United States in the late 80s.  The book was titled, “Jesus Acted Up: A Gay and Lesbian Manifesto.”

Standing in the aisle of a gay bookstore in Boston, I thumbed through its pages wondering to myself, “what do these words even mean, ‘Christology’ and ‘liberation theology’ and why haven’t I ever heard them before?”  I’d spent my whole childhood in church.  I was sure I knew exactly who Jesus was.  He was the Son of God, born of the Virgin Mary, who died for my sins and the sins of the world.  He didn’t discriminate against women or Samaritans, he healed the sick, and he was often in trouble with the church.  But here was this book by a priest and a scholar who put Jesus’ name next to the names of radical and non-religious queer organizing communities mobilizing people with AIDS for power and change as if the two naturally belonged together.  I felt a little dizzy.  Where had my Jesus gone?

Have you ever lost your Jesus?  Can you recall how disorienting it was?  It happens all kinds of ways.  Sometimes, like with me, we lose our understanding of who he is.  We hear new interpretations of the meaning of his life and ministry, or his death and resurrection, and it feels like everything we’d been taught before has become untrustworthy.  Sometimes it’s our ability to feel his presence, his nearness, as we pray — once taken for granted, but now lost and confusing, even terrifying.  Sometimes we lose our Jesus because we’re simply surrounded by too many other voices, and we can’t hear Jesus above the din of so many other “content streams” — news, entertainment, the workplace, the marketplace, the streets.

Mary and Joseph had an annual holiday tradition not so different from the one many of us have just celebrated.  Each year at Passover they would travel in a group from Nazareth to Jerusalem.  Though the mode of transportation and the terrain were completely different, I suspect some features of holiday travel haven’t changed that much.  You pack and repack the donkey or the car.  You double-check to make sure you’ve remembered all the gifts for all the people you plan to see and stay with while you’re away from home.  You make sure there’s food for the road and toys or travel companions to keep you occupied throughout the journey.

It was on their way home, after the holiday, on a day like today, that they realized they hadn’t actually seen Jesus in a while.  They’d been so busy with the packing and the gifting and the eating, but when they stopped and took inventory, they realized they didn’t know where Jesus was.  They’d lost their Jesus.

Church people like to notice that when Jesus is found, he’s found in the church.  I think it’s good that we notice this, and I think it’s helpful for us to remind ourselves and one another that when your Jesus is lost, a good place to look is the church.  We’ve got the stories, and the histories, and the sacraments, and the small groups.  We work hard to foster as many meeting places as we can for each of us to encounter Jesus once again in the ways he reliably shows up: in the Word — read, preached and sung; and in the sacraments — touching our skin and filling our stomachs.

We should also note, though, that when Jesus is found in the church he is listening and asking questions.  The learned people of the temple, the ones who — like me, and maybe you as well — thought they already knew the whole story, are amazed at how his listening and his questions bring new ideas and understandings and possibilities to light.  This is a reminder to all of us, but particularly to those of us called to teach, that the Spirit needs our silence as well as our voices, so that questions can be asked and people can be listened to.

I think finding Jesus is a life-long process.  I don’t think we ever truly get there, or get it right.  When we start to think we’ve got Jesus nailed down, then we start to drop him on other people like that young boy on the playground.  Our answers and our understandings become leaden and freighted down with our own histories and hurts.  They can even injure those we try to share them with.

But losing Jesus is a life-long process too, and one I think we’re called to risk over and over again.  It was confusing and disorienting for me to discover that the Jesus I knew as a child had, somehow and somewhen, gotten mixed up with a community of HIV-positive radicals, even atheists!  I kept reading, finding more and more words I didn’t understand, until finally I had to call one of my childhood pastors and ask her to explain them to me.  She told me there was an entire field of religious studies concerned with the many ways people understand the meaning of Jesus, called “Christology,” a topic within the larger field of systematic theology.  She suggested that I might enjoy studying the topic more deeply, perhaps at a seminary.  I wasn’t ready to hear that quite yet, but a seed planted many years before got some fresh water that day.

We all need to lose our Jesus from time to time, even our religion.  I think Jesus knows that.  Perhaps it’s even why he wanders off from time to time, leaving our prayers unanswered, our spirits restless, our minds troubled, our hearts yearning.  Because in missing him, we begin the process of looking, and once we begin to look we are more open to what we may yet discover.