A Sermon Preached by The Rev. Douglas M. Donley
October 12, 2014
University Baptist Church
We are rooted in courage and sustained by grace. We know that. And we also know that courageous action starts with courageous questions.
Today is national coming out day. The sanctuary is festooned with rainbow banners. We rejoice in the defeat of Amendment One in North Carolina and the hundreds of marriages that have happened and will happen across these weeks. Same sex marriage is now legal or soon will be in 35 states. Whodathunkit? People asked courageous questions of the courts and the courts courageously said, “I do” to marriage equality.
So it makes sense that we honor this week by continuing to look at the early church and some courageous questions that happened. I see a connection between ancient and contemporary questions to which we say, “I do”. And maybe as we look at those questions, we might be able to have the courage to ask and answer some courageous questions of our own.
If you look in the 8th chapter of Acts, you find a conversation with two courageous people. Philip and an unnamed Ethiopian.
The thing that we immediately notice about this story is that the main characters are odd-balls when it comes to acceptable religion or acceptable society. Philip was an ecstatic evangelist who is said to have had four prophesying unmarried daughters (Acts 21:9). He was not one of the original 12, but like the recently martyred Stephen, he was one of the first seven appointed by the Apostles to do the works of compassion with which the Apostles were too busy to bother themselves. As today’s scripture opens, Phillip is on a desert road heading away from Jerusalem toward Gaza after having led a successful campaign of preaching to the multitudes in Samaria. He’s about to meet someone who will change his world, and ours too.
The other odd-ball is the unnamed Ethiopian eunuch. Now, it is very important that this man is a foreigner, likely of a different skin color, and a eunuch. These were three reasons that he should not be an obvious choice to become the first gentile convert in Acts. There are strict Jewish laws against marrying an outsider. It speaks of the uncircumcised as the holy unwashed, the ever-present other. Israel had spent a good part of its existence establishing itself and its people as decidedly different than the Goiim, the gentiles, the rest of the world. The man was also a government official, in charge of the Queen’s treasury, obviously tainted by wealth and power. On top of this, he was a eunuch and was not seen as fully male or female.
But like Philip he was also coming from Jerusalem. Even though he was a well-read religious seeker, he was not allowed into the temple because of his race and because of his unique sexual function. He likely received the kind of racism which many outsiders feel, even those of considerable wealth. He might have been viewed with suspicion by the people of Jerusalem. The Ethiopian went to worship at a place where he knew he wouldn’t be welcome. That’s the too-common experience of the LGBT community, especially as it encounters a Baptist church, even one with rainbow banners.
Eunuchs today might be anyone who doesn’t fit into the heterosexual binary majority. Even though many cultures call them Spirit-people, third genders, shamans, they were officially excluded from going up to the mountain in Jerusalem to worship with the others. Not only that, there had recently been a few skirmishes between Rome and the Meroe, whose Queen was often referred to as the Candace. At the hands of religious sexual purists, the military and the cultural elite, he was an outcast. He was in a word, queer.
He headed out on the same deserted highway leading to Gaza.
These two unlikely people met each other on that road. And the meeting changed both of them. I wonder who did the evangelizing in the carriage. Did Philip or did the Ethiopian? I mean, the Ethiopian was clearly the other and it would have been so easy for Philip to pull out a memory verse from childhood and beat him over the head with it, showing how superior he was. But the Ethiopian was the seeker and maybe he came to become a tool of Philip’s conversion.
I imagine the Eunuch asking Philip the question posed by his reading of Isaiah. It’s a scripture about rejection. And I expect that he assumed Philip would give him the old tired answers. Well, we just don’t know what it means. Scholars disagree. It’s a mystery. Just have faith, you’ll understand it better by and by.
But he asked it again, knowing the supposed answer. Is Isaiah talking about me, or is this just some other religion that talks a good game, but is really hopeless? The Ethiopian was asking, am I welcome or not? Why would I, or anyone, worship an unwelcoming God?
Philip had to answer the question, but could not do so without asking his own questions about his movement. Was it going to be inclusive or exclusive. Was it going to be open to the Gentiles, or was it an all-Jewish club. And not only an all-Jewish club, but a pure club that only the rich and male, and healthy could attend.
So Philip had to ask a courageous question or two of himself and his community.
I have been serving on the Ordination Review Committee of our region for several years now. Each month we meet with candidates who are preparing to have their ordination councils. The role of our group is to prepare them to defend their faith. And we ask them to take courageous stands on behalf of their faith. We encourage them not to agree with the members of the committee on matters of theology—we can’t even agree on that. We instead ask them to courageously defend their positions. Not because they read it in a book somewhere, but because they know something deep in their bones. Their experience has taught them this or that about God or the nature of the church.
I asked David a few questions a little while ago while we were waist-deep in the baptistery. He answered them courageously. But the rubber meets the road after the questions are answered. For those answers yield so many more questions. As you watched him take on the waters of Baptism, were you not also confronted with your own questions?
Have I made my life a witness to God?
Have I trusted in God, leaned on God, as I took courageous stances?
Have my stances been as courageous as I had hoped they would be?
On the Gaza road, important and courageous questions got asked. The Eunuch heard the news of Jesus and his way and he wanted to test Philip. They passed a stream and the Eunuch said to Peter, Here’s some water, what is to prevent me from being baptized?
What’s to prevent me from joining the Way?
What’s to keep me as an outsider?
How far are you going to extend your table?
Do you really practice what you preach?
Those are some courageous questions.
Here’s the water. He didn’t say “can I be baptized.” He said “what’s to prevent me from being baptized.”
Well, plenty. You’re of the wrong race, the wrong culture, the wrong heritage, you have the wrong job, you’re not pure. Maybe the other disciples will laugh at me and I had better get permission first. We’ll bring your membership up to a vote. We meet again in six months. We need to vet you first. What’s to prevent you from being baptized? Plenty. Except your sincerity, your humility your commitment, your truthfulness, your courage. It overrides all of that.
The church needed to decide if it was going to be inclusive or exclusive. Was it open to just people of Jewish descent or was it for the entire world? What about those whose loyalties were not to Jerusalem? What about those who were sexually pure?
And when the Eunuch asked that courageous question, Philip was forced to ask himself what kind of movement he was a part of. Thank God he chose to answer the courageous question the way he did.
When we look at the Ebola crisis, how many of you had flashbacks to the start of the AIDS crisis? As people are being quarantined, we ask how the church ought to respond. What’s to prevent me from being baptized? Come on, I’m not going to make you impure.
‘There is nothing to prevent you from being baptized my brother, my sister, my friend. You are welcome. You are a child of God. This church is open to all. We are rooted in courage and sustained by grace. So what if other people laugh at us or don’t understand. The way of inclusion is good news. The way of exclusion is not so good news.”
Philip eventually saw him not as an Ethiopian eunuch who was the treasurer of his Queen. He saw him as a seeker who wanted to learn of the ways of Jesus. So in that government vehicle heading away from Jerusalem, heading away from the place of restrictions and heading to the desert of freedom and the desert of opportunity, at least two conversions happened.
Luke, the writer of Acts emphasizes that the ministry of the Jesus movement is to break down the restrictiveness of organized religion and offer God’s grace to the whole world. The fact that a commitment and eventually a rite of membership happened decidedly outside the temple and to a person ritually unclean reveals that the priority of the early church was on welcoming the outcast and reforming the way we look at religion and faith. He is the first gentile convert in the book of Acts. The book will have many more afterwards.
Philip was the first welcoming and affirming apostle.
We only know him as the Ethiopian Eunuch. In the late second century Irenaeus called him Simeon Bachos. He said that Simeon Bachos Irenaeus was “sent into the regions of Ethiopia, to preach what he had himself believed.”(Against Heresies: 3.12.8)
The church, if it was going to survive was going to be inclusive, not exclusive.
So because of the courageous questions and a little help from the sustaining grace of God, the Ethiopian was not only converted, but welcomed and affirmed.
Philip was convicted and possibly converted and became the agent of a new type of inclusive ministry.
And finally the Way, the early church was converted to being an inclusive movement that welcomed outsiders because they kept us honest.
And so on this Coming Out Day, we welcome the stranger. We remember that they have so much to teach us. We remember the courageous people who gave us the gospel and we are bold enough to take our tentative steps dripping wet with the waters of Baptism to proclaim good news to a world in need.
And we continue a movement rooted in courageous questions and insightful answers. And the answers to the courageous questions always contain sustaining grace and even more opportunities for courage.
My friends, the conversion which is symbolized in Baptism is what the church is all about. The conversion we seek is a conversion from restrictive religion that oppresses to a religion that embraces compassion and love.
It takes time and it takes a lot of work, but the work of Christianity is to welcome the outcast. It is to clothe the naked. It is to preach the good news that God has not forsaken us and that means that those of us who have converted to God’s ways will not forsake each other. It is to forgive. It is to proclaim the year of God’s favor for all of God’s children rich and poor, male or female, old or young, gay or not so gay, of whatever race, whatever temperament whatever physical ability or mental capacity.
And it starts with courageous questions. How are you going to live our your faith, your welcoming and affirming faith? What’s to prevent your from taking the plunge? Thank God for courageous questioners and the grace that sustains us with audacious answers.