I thought I would let you in on a little secret. The church is imperfect. God’s people are imperfect. It’s true. Always have been. Always will be. No community of faith has avoided the human pitfalls of self absorption and gossip, abuse and judgmentalism, arrogance and prejudice and sins of all ilks and kinds. Not one. We had our synod assembly yesterday, and there were moments all the uglies came out as people disagreed over climate change. And we sigh…we want to do better.
The truth is, though,every faith community of every religion is always having to come to terms with the many ways that they have hurt others and perpetrated injustice. They’ve has to confront how they have turned a blind eye to the abuse of children and other parishioners by church leaders. They’ve had to acknowledge how they have fostered the demeaning and exclusion of people of color…of indigieneous people… of women, and of the LGBTQ community.
But this need for people of faith to confront the sin we perpetuate isn’t exactly new. Because we are all in bondage to sin, as we say…and cannot, for the life of us, free ourselves. We are continually needing to reevaluate, reshape and respeak the faith so that God’s love for all is made known. We see an example of that in our story today.
As a recap of where we’ve been since Easter. Jesus’ disciples have been transformed by Jesus’ resurrection. For them, Jesus’ resurrection was God’s “YES” to all that Jesus was and all he taught — that God’s way of love and healing and restoration to life was for all people….ALL people. So now, his disciples are full of the Holy Spirit, and wanting to share Jesus’ message, even if it meant they faced anger and hate because of it. And they were experiencing that, just like Jesus did. If you were with us last weekend, you heard about the stoning of Stephen …who was killed for insisting that God was “on the loose”, and not limited to the temple and the rigid limits of the temple leaders.
The disciples are on fire with God’s love…taking risks to bring Jesus’ good news to people all over. So it’s no surprise that when Philip receives an angel’s message that he should head out of town on a wilderness road…he goes. And when he happens to see a chariot, a royal chariot, with a well off foreigner in it poring over a scroll, and he got that nudge from the Spirit that said…”you should go talk to him”…he does it. Philip is on fire.
And as it turns out ..this man happens to hold one of the highest offices in the Queen’s court in Ethiopia ..he was in charge of her whole treasury. This was an important man. But he was also entirely subject to the queen…he served her exclusively. You see, he had been made a eunuch. In kingdoms of old, Eunuchs were men who were castrated with the intent of assuring their allegiance would be solely to the monarch they served. This was sometimes chosen by adult men…but usually, it was done to young men without their consent. They were violated and abused by those in authority. But what is interesting is that this man had been in Jerusalem to worship. And that the scroll he was reading was a bit of Jewish scripture…from the prophet Isaiah, actually.
Now…for all of you who have read Deuteronomy and the codes of Jewish law…you know that castrated men are not allowed to be part of God’s people. Precisely, it says – “No one who has been emasculated by crushing or cutting may enter the assembly of the Lord.” The eunuch is not welcome as part of the Jewish community — who he is..is unclean. Unacceptable. Unwanted. Yet…there he was.
He had travelled all the way from Ethiopia to Jerusalem to worship a God who supposedly, according to the torah, didn’t want him. Why? How? What’s going on?
This is kind of the heart of this passage for me. Remember how we said God’s people have always gotten it wrong..ALWAYS. Here we have it again. God’s people had it wrong…they read scripture and thought this man wasn’t “perfect” enough for God. But somehow this man, in reading scripture, had come to believe in a God that was more than what the people who professed faith in him understood. He read the scriptures and found a God who loved him. Who knew him. He discovered a God who knew what it was to feel like a sheep led to the slaughter…to be helpless in the face of cruelty. He found in scripture a God who understood humiliation and justice that was denied. And that God, he worshipped. In that God he had hope. And Philip is able to affirm indeed that that is the God of all creation who had been revealed in Jesus. These verses describe where God is…who God is with. They describe Jesus…and they describe the Eunuch.
Philip helped the Eunuch claim his full place among God’s people…he was not deformed or emasculated in God’s eyes. In God’s eyes he was simply a beloved child — who was every bit as important and every bit as much a partner in the work of God on earth.
I am struck by how often the church, the followers of Jesus, have had to be reminded of this again and again. And I am struck by how often, in spite of the church and its leaders, people who have been denied justice and treated cruelly by the church, just like the Eunuch, have still found God’s goodness and love revealed in the Scriptures.
Matt and I have started watching the documentary on “The Black Church” on PBS — and one of the amazing things is how in spite of the white community that used the Bible to justify their racism and the enslavement and cruelty they imposed on people of color — the Bible itself revealed a God to the black community that led people out of slavery and tore down those who were in power and lifted up the lowly. God who knew, indeed what it was, to be helpless in the face of cruelty, to have justice denied, to be humiliated. They discovered the God, revealed in Jesus…that the church had completely abandoned for a God of their own making. And that God gave them hope.
The same has been true of women in the church over the centuries….the same is true of lesbians and gays, bisexual and transgender folks…indigenous folks…and all the others who have been told who they are is not good enough, in some way…for God.
Scripture itself…like the Biblical passage the Eunuch is reading…the passage Philip explains to him…shows that those who have been excluded and hurt…like Jesus..like the Eunuch…like the black community….are the ones who most clearly give voice to the breadth and depth of God’s love.
People who keep others out of the circle of God’s love do not speak for God. Jesus speaks for God. And those who have been denied justice, who face cruelty, who have been hurt…are the ones Jesus has come to welcome and restore to abundant life.
Jesus identifies with all those who are left out, humiliated, oppressed, unwelcome…and Jesus calls them family. Gives them a “new birth” as part of God’s beloved family. And that’s all baptism is, after all.
As Philip and the Eunuch are going along the road, they come to some water; and the eunuch says, “Look, here is water! What is to prevent me from being baptized?”
And the answer is Nothing. Nothing is required to be baptized but water and the grace and love of God in Jesus Christ.
And that’s where the story of Phillip and the Eunuch ends. Phillip disappears from the Eunuch’s life…but this moment of grace has changed his life forever…has given him hope…has given him joy.
You know….sometimes we see people for just a moment…but words of grace and love and acceptance can change people’s life forever. Wherever we go…whatever we do…whatever wilderness road we find ourselves along…a school hallway or store aisle or neighborhood street…we can pay attention and see those folks who need grace. We can see those folks who too often have been left out and overlooked…who have been hurt and humiliated…who have been denied justice. These are the people God’s angels are leading us to — they are God’s beloved family.
Honestly…it’s no secret that the church gets it wrong…all too often. But God’s love prevails in spite of us. And that, my friends, is the good news.