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.