“All Are Welcome”
A Sermon Preached by The Rev. Douglas M. Donley
October 14, 2018
University Baptist Church
There I was minding my own business. Actually, I was minding the business of Candace. She’s the leader of us Ethiopians. I’m her treasurer. I’m good with money. But people don’t think of me that way. They think of me as an outcast. They don’t even remember my name. They remember me as a eunuch. That means I can’t have children. Maybe that’s why they put me in charge of the treasury. Anyway, people generally leave me alone. Do they think they’ll catch something from me?
So, I like to read. It’s my escape. It’s also how I understand the world. And I’ve seen a lot of the world on my travels. I think it’s important to understand the religions and history of our neighbors. It’s goof for business. I guess you could call me a seeker. I know to tell the good from the bad. I can even pick out good religion from bad religion. Good religion must be about acceptance. I’ve seen plenty of the other kind. You know, the kind that says if you’re not from our tribe, or do things like we do them, then you are the eternal enemy. I feel sorry for people who believe like that. What trauma has made them so fearful, so mean? Life is just too short for all of that.
So there I was reading from the scroll of someone named Isaiah and came across this passage:
‘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.’
I wondered who it was referring to. Was it someone from the past? Was it someone in the future? Was it the writer himself? I wondered, because it seemed a lot like me. I was wounded, but not for my transgressions. I am constantly humiliated. I can describe this generation, but I dare not for it might get me in even more trouble.
Another traveler, Philip, a follower of the Way, came upon me and interpreted this as referring to his leader. He called him a suffering servant. This was one who welcomed all, who stood up for the outcast and was murdered as an insurrectionist. But he rose again in the people who followed him. I wanted to be like that. Imagine rising up in power, surrounded by people who accepted me. Not tolerated me, but accepted me. Another prophet in the tradition of the Way said justice is what love looks like in public. Love welcomes all, affirms all and stands by those who are excluded.
The initiation into the Way, Philip told me, was a water ritual called baptism, where you washed away the sins of the world and committed yourself to this new Way. We passed by water and I asked Philip what was stopping me from joining the Way? (This was my test to see if his religion was worthy.) Could I be baptized too? Phillip said, sure.
What I like about this religion is that it welcomes foreigners. It affirms people who are different. It even might include someone like me. That’s religion I can be a part of. Maybe that’s why they call it the Good News. I think it’s about love—love and welcome. And that’s what I want to be about. How about you
I attended a wedding here in this beautiful sanctuary yesterday. It was a heartfelt wedding joining two people in love. The presiding preacher asked me what I was preaching on today. I told him that I was preaching on the story of the Ethiopian eunuch. He said that it was one of his favorite stories. I said I was preaching on it because it was national coming out day this week and people needed to hear the story of one who was an outcast and the one who welcomed him in. It’s a story about love. He said yes, we put up too many roadblocks—ones that Jesus never did.
And we need stories about love. In this time of naysayers and attack ads, we need to concentrate on something else, at least for an hour.
Last Sunday, I attended the United Church of Granville, Ohio—a church I attended over 30 years ago and who stood by me during my struggle to get ordained. After church, I attended a study on a book by Walter Bruegeman called “The Prophetic Imagination.” In it, he talks about about a different kind of imagination that needs to come forward in the face of the dominant narrative. One of the things he said was, “The task of prophetic ministry is to nurture, nourish, and evoke a consciousness and perception alternative to the consciousness and perception of the dominant culture around us.”
The forces of exclusion are counting on our exhaustion. They are counting on our discouragement. They are using the tools of domination to make the people numb. I saw a red hat the other day that said “make Orwell fiction again.” Let that sink in. We know something they don’t. This book (holding the Bible) is about love and it’s about using that love to change ourselves and the world we live in.
So if meanness is the consciousness of our culture, maybe the alternative is love. But what does love look like? That’s the question for today.
If you look in the 8th chapter of Acts, you find a conversation with two audacious 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. We’d call him him gender—queer. Maybe we wouldn’t even use the pronoun “him.”
But like Philip the eunuch was also coming from Jerusalem. Even though the eunuch was a well-read religious seeker, he was not allowed into the temple because of his race and because of his unique sexual function. No green card, no asylum, just judgment.
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.
These two unlikely people met each other on that same deserted highway. 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 anyway, knowing the supposed answer. Is Isaiah talking about me, or is this just another religion that talks a good game? 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.
The Eunuch heard the news of Jesus and his way. It sounded wonderful, but maybe a little too good to be true. That’s when the Ethiopian evangelized the evangelist. 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?
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. Except the mirror you are holding to me.
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 audacious question, Philip was forced to ask himself what kind of movement he was a part of. Thank God he chose to answer the way he did.
‘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 movement is open to all. 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 foreign 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 know this story so well. Now imagine if the Ethiopian is a Central American. He’s been traveling across the desert of Mexico having been rejected by his home country. He had wealth back there, but the military coups had robbed him of his fortune. The junta castrated him and would have preferred him dead. So he fled out into the desert, looking for some way to survive. He had almost given up when he met someone who told him of opportunity in a new land. There are churches in the north that will welcome you. They may even provide sanctuary for you. You don’t need repentance. You don’t need to be physically or even morally pure. Their religion is about love and welcome.
They come upon a river, maybe even a border river. And the two get themselves all wet on their way to freedom. And they find, emerging from the water, an underground network of people who have been similarly baptized who offer welcome to this stranger and others like him. A hundred and fifty years ago, they did this with runaway slaves. Now they do it for immigrants who can’t get a fair hearing because the government thugs are on their tail. But the movement for hope is on the other side of the river. Convicted as we are to this new way of being.
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.
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.
Let this house proclaim from floor to rafter: all are welcome, all are welcome, all are welcome in this place.