301 First Street NW
Mount Vernon, IA 52314
Worship Sunday at 9:30 am
Preached by Rev. Lori Wunder on April 29, 2018
[Choir sang “In this Very Room” by Ron Harris]
Thank you for that anthem, choir.
“In This Very Room” is a beautiful reminder of what is true when we gather here on Sunday mornings—there is love in this room, and power in our connection to one another, and most of all, Jesus is here in our midst.
When I listen to it, I imagine a familiar room filled with the faces of so many family and friends, an image which is comforting…and warm.
The first verse says, “In this very room there’s quite enough love for one like me…” But I have to wonder—how far are we willing to go outside of our comfort zones to share love with everyone, even those who are very, very different from us, who even make us very, very uncomfortable?
Our reading from Acts gets at that very question. Philip was a follower, an insider, and one of the seven men named as deacons in chapter 6. In the previous chapter, Stephen, another deacon, became the first martyr, stoned for his belief that Jesus is the Christ. So like the others, Philip had gotten out of town until things cooled down.
An angel told Philip to go to a road leading south out of Jerusalem through the wilderness. Nothing familiar or comforting about that barren landscape! And who should Philip meet on that desolate road but an Ethiopian eunuch.
Now, this man was an outsider on multiple accounts, and I suspect he would have made Philip (and any of the other followers who were also good, observant Jews) very, very uncomfortable.
First, the man was a foreigner, which was a problem for Jews at that time, as all of their religious rituals were about separating themselves. Everything about this man would have been different—his language, his dress, his customs and social norms, his skin color, possibly even the way he smelled.
The man was also quite wealthy. He traveled by chariot with a driver and a shaded seat for himself. He owned a scroll which was very rare and VERY expensive. I have to wonder what Philip thought about seeing a sacred scroll in the hands of someone who was not a Jew, so very different, so very outside the norm.
But perhaps what made this man most an outsider was that he was a eunuch. Throughout antiquity, boys were castrated (do I need to mention it was against their will?) in order to serve specific roles. Eunuchs lost all sexual desire and they had no possibility of descendants to provide or scheme for, so they were valued by kings and rulers as loyal servants. They could be trusted be trusted around the women. This man had earned the trust of the queen of Ethiopia.
The Torah, the Jewish law, however, was very clear about the place of eunuchs in the social order. Deuteronomy 23:1 says that no male with mutilated genitals “shall be admitted to the assembly of the Lord.” Leviticus 21 was very clear that any person with a blemish or bodily imperfection of any kind was NOT allowed to make an offering in the holy temple—the very heart of worship at that time. Men like this eunuch, or one with a hunchback, or who was blind or injured in any way, were cut off from the worship life of Israel, their culture. They were outcasts.
I can only imagine Philip’s alarm, concern and discomfort when he realized to whom the Holy Spirit had sent him. What was he supposed to do with this???
All Philip had in this desolate, disorienting situation was the presence of the Holy Spirit.
And the Spirit pushed him, to go over to the chariot, where he heard the familiar words of the prophet Isaiah. This led to a conversation about how to make sense of what the Ethiopian man was reading, Philip learns that this man, this outsider, has had a yearning to worship the God of Israel, which turns into a yearning to follow in the way of Jesus.
Then there is this great moment when water suddenly appears in the middle of the wasteland, and the Ethiopian man half asks, half declares, “What is to prevent me from being baptized?”
It’s almost comical, really! Because what could prevent him from being baptized? According to Philip’s tradition, quite a lot! Both the man’s foreign birth and his physical state were disqualifying.
But in the midst of all of this wrongness and discomfort and otherness is the beautiful, glorious absurdity that this outcast outsider is the first one to hear the good news and connect the dots that this promise is also for him! Even “one like him” is included in the ever-widening circle of Jesus’ love and forgiveness and healing and welcome. This man returns to Ethiopia and shares the good news with others there. And Philip has a whole new and unexpected understanding of who is welcome and included in Christ’s kingdom.
In his book, Barking to the Choir: The Power of Radical Kinship, Father Greg Boyle writes (p. 165) “We are sent to the margins not to make a difference but so that the folks on the margins will make us different.”
Yes, the Ethiopian man was changed in this story. But Philip was changed, too, perhaps more so.
I LOVE this story. For so very many reasons.
I think it reveals the trajectory of what Jesus did and wanted his disciples to continue—ever expanding the boundaries of who is included, who is beloved of God, who “us” is.
It also has a lot to say to us in our time, because there is so much that makes us uncomfortable and afraid.
It gets at the discomfort many feel around the expression of sexuality and gender that do not neatly fall into the “norm” of male and female, and (I would argue) points toward inclusion of all.
It speaks to the way white people feel uncomfortable in the presence of people of color, the implicit bias we have against people who are not white like us, which has too often led to involvement by the police and on occasion the playing out of some officers’ own implicit bias. We have all got to acknowledge the discomfort we have around race and work on it.
Our fear of what is other is made worse by the reality that we have sorted ourselves into neighborhoods, communities, friend groups, churches that are much more homogenous than they were even twenty years ago. The more we sort and silo our lives, the more our view of who is acceptable and welcome and valuable narrows, which is absolutely contrary to the gospel.
What’s the take-away for us?
God is always creating room for one more, always pushing out the boundary of who is welcome and included, not to mention where we are called to go and be and learn.
The Holy Spirit is calling us to places and situations that stretch us and challenge us.
There’s a marvelous prayer from the Benedictines that begins with this:
May God bless us with a restless discomfort about easy answers, half truths and superficial relationships – so that we may seek truth boldly and love deep with our hearts.
May we all spend time on the margins, in the presence of what is different, so that we, by the grace of God, may be made different, too. Amen.
Preached by Rev. Lori Wunder, April 22, 2018
Are sheep stupid?
That’s their reputation, isn’t it?
But is that true? I wanted to know.
So I asked Google.
The very first result was an article from the BBC that claimed sheep are grossly misunderstood and unfairly stereotyped [link here].
The reality, this article said, is this:
Sheep are actually surprisingly intelligent, with impressive memory and recognition skills. They build friendships, stick up for one another in fights, and feel sad when their friends are sent to slaughter. They are also one of the most destructive creatures on the planet.
From this description, sheep don’t sound too different from humans, do they?
I learned more about sheep from a Barbara Brown Taylor sermon on the passage from John, in which she talked with someone who had raised sheep. She learned that sheep develop strong bonds with their shepherds. The shepherd can walk through the flock with no problem, but a stranger doing the same thing would cause pandemonium. The sheep and their shepherd also develop their own communication system. “A good shepherd learns to distinguish a bleat of pain from one of pleasure, while the sheep learn that a cluck of the tongue means food, or a two-note song means that it is time to go home.”
She also learned that sheep aren’t like cows—they can’t be driven from behind, like cowboys on horseback do with shouts and sometimes the crack of a whip. If the shepherd makes noises behind the sheep, the sheep will just circle around behind the shepherd. Cows can be pushed; but sheep? Sheep must be led. Sheep aren’t going anywhere their shepherd hasn’t been.
Sheep trust their shepherd because the shepherd has proven him- or herself to be trustworthy. The shepherd doesn’t run away at the first sign of trouble. The shepherd stays with sheep, even when, especially when the going gets tough, because the shepherd loves the sheep, and the sheep love the shepherd in return.
So, the metaphor of Jesus as the Good Shepherd is good and appropriate.
After my research this week I feel quite a bit better about Christians as sheep—not mindless followers, but companions who trust with good reason.
Of course, the metaphor of disciples as sheep has some limitations.
One enormous difference between us and sheep is that we aren’t invited to simply follow the shepherd; we are invited to become like the shepherd.
One of my spiritual practices is to pray Psalm 23. It’s one of the prayers I use with my prayer beads, or repeat to myself as I walk our dog in the early morning.
For the last several months my brain has gotten stuck—stuck on the first part of verse 5:
You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies…
I get stuck because I want to know what that looks like, exactly.
Are the enemies standing off at a distance, looking on but not invited to the feast, unwelcome at the table?
Is it a show of favoritism, of blessing to one and not the others?
Or, are my enemies at the table, too?
In the original telling of the psalm, I suspect it was intended that the enemies were excluded from the table.
But when I interpret this psalm through Jesus the Good Shepherd, the one who loves and cares for us and who leads us—sometimes into dangerous and uncomfortable places?
Well, I just don’t think there is any getting around Jesus as a table host for ALL, even the ones we consider our enemies. (Especially the ones we consider our enemies.)
Who is your enemy? Your rival? Who gets under your skin? And how does the Good Shepherd challenge your thinking about and relating to these enemies?
This last week I’ve been reading Barking to the Choir: The Power of Radical Kinship by Gregory Boyle, a Jesuit priest and the founder of Homeboy Industries, the largest gang-intervention program in the world, located in Los Angeles. Father Greg, or G or G-Dog as the Homies call him, is full of wisdom, grace, joy and the kind of faith I wish that I had more of. I cannot recommend this book highly enough.
In the introduction, Father Greg writes about the kinship of God. What does that kinship look like? Boyle writes, “…survival of the fittest is displaced by the survival of the ‘unfittest.’ Cherry-picking makes way for ‘reverse cherry-picking.’ What if we ceased to pledge our allegiance to the bottom line and stood, instead, with those who line the bottom? Us versus Them…or just Us? Good people/bad people…or just God’s people?” (p. 7)
Father Greg tells this beautiful story about one of the homies, a young man who like so very many others had turned to gangs because he was an orphan, abandoned and abused by his parents. But at Homeboy Industries, this young man found acceptance, love, a new family, new kinship.
Shortly after Christmas, Father Greg saw this young man and asked him where he was for the holiday.
“Oh, just right here.”
I said, “Alone?”
And he said, “No, I invited six other guys from the graffiti crew who didn’t have no place to go,” he said. He named them, and they were enemies, from different gangs, rivals.
I said, “What’d you do?”
He goes, “You’re not gonna believe it. I cooked a turkey.”
I said, “Well, how’d you prepare the turkey?”
He says, “Well, you know, ghetto-style…,You rub it with a gang of butter, and you squeeze two limones on it, and you put salt and pepper, put it in the oven. Tasted proper,” he said….
“Yeah, the seven of us, we just sat in the kitchen, staring at the oven, waiting for the turkey to be done…”
And Father Greg observes, what could be more sacred than seven orphans, enemies, rivals, sitting in a kitchen, waiting for a turkey to be done?
In the kinship of God, enemies don’t exist anymore.
If former gang bangers, young people who have grown up in a violent neighborhood in which the only security seemed to be aligning yourself with a gang and becoming part of the violence—if they can discover their kinship and eat a Christmas turkey together? Well…
On Friday morning around 100 students from Mount Vernon High School participated in a National Student Walkout, remembering the anniversary of the shooting at Columbine. I went over to stand witness with them. It was a peaceful assembly. There was a small group of students who disagreed with the protest, but they came out, too, to observe. Well done.
The only disruption was when a truck with a Confederate flag on the license plate and two young men inside drove by—and yelled insults and obscenities at the crowd.
They raised my hackles. I thought unkind, judgmental thoughts. And then I remembered the Good Shepherd, and I imagined myself sitting at a table with these yahoos who are being deliberately obtuse by choosing to ignore the meaning of the Confederate flag!!!!
Pray for them, my better angels told me.
One last thought on sheep: Sheep are fairly defenseless, so they have learned that their survival depends on sticking together. They don’t really have the option of going it alone. They need each other.
The same is true for us. We need each other. Stay together. Make a place for everybody. Keep our eyes on the Good Shepherd.
That’s how we’ll make it in this world. That’s how we’ll make this world…into the kinship of God. Amen.
 Barbara Brown Taylor, The Preaching Life (1993, Crowley Publishing), “The Voice of the Shepherd,” pp. 140-141.
 Krista Tippett and Greg Boyle, On Being Podcast, “The Calling of Delight: Gangs, Service, and Kinship,” November 22, 2017.