Winthrop Congregational Church, United Church of Christ
No matter who you are. No matter where you are on life's journey. You are welcome here.
Then an angel of the Lord said to Philip, ‘Get up and go towards the south to the road that goes down from Jerusalem to Gaza.’ (This is a wilderness road.) So he got up and went. Now there was an Ethiopian eunuch, a court official of the Candace, queen of the Ethiopians, in charge of her entire treasury. He had come to Jerusalem to worship and was returning home; seated in his chariot, he was reading the prophet Isaiah.Then the Spirit said to Philip, ‘Go over to this chariot and join it.’ So Philip ran up to it and heard him reading the prophet Isaiah. He asked, ‘Do you understand what you are reading?’ He replied, ‘How can I, unless someone guides me?’ And he invited Philip to get in and sit beside him.Now the passage of the scripture that he was reading was this:
‘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.’
The eunuch asked Philip, ‘About whom, may I ask you, does the prophet say this, about himself or about someone else?’ Then Philip began to speak, and starting with this scripture, he proclaimed to him the good news about Jesus. As they were going along the road, they came to some water; and the eunuch said, ‘Look, here is water! What is to prevent me from being baptized?’ He commanded the chariot to stop, and both of them, Philip and the eunuch, went down into the water, and Philip baptized him. When they came up out of the water, the Spirit of the Lord snatched Philip away; the eunuch saw him no more, and went on his way rejoicing. But Philip found himself at Azotus, and as he was passing through the region, he proclaimed the good news to all the towns until he came to Caesarea.
I'd like to tell you a story about two men. One of them was named Frank. As far as I can tell, if he wasn’t a founding member of my home church in Tennessee, he joined the church early on, in the late ‘50’s through the late ‘60’s. He was very wealthy, but he could be very hateful. Once, when a black family visited the church, which was predominantly white, he became so incensed that he stomped out of worship, went downstairs and cut off the lights during the middle of the service, and went home. He was so racist that turned the side of the building in which he ran his business into a giant billboard from which he could broadcast racist message after racist message.
The other man I want to tell you about was named John. He became the pastor of that congregation in the early 1980’s. John was deeply shaped by anti-racism work and the Civil Rights Movement. Where Frank felt as though his faith supported his contention that black people deserved to be second class citizens, John's faith taught him that all people are equally God's children. With such drastically different ideas about faith and race, you might wonder how they managed to be at the same church. A good relationship between the two of them might seem impossible. But, for some reason, maybe pure bullheadedness, John and Frank did not give up on each other. One day, they were talking after church, and Frank said, “Oh, the wildflowers must be beautiful right now.” And John said, “Well, Frank, let’s go look at them tomorrow.” Surprisingly, Frank agreed. And so began an amazing relationship between two people who should have not gotten along.
Something powerful bloomed as they walked along the path looking at flowers in the wilderness. Starting that day, very slowly, things began to change. One major turning point was when Frank stood up in church and said, “I love everybody, even blacks, except for Martin Luther King, and I’m working on him.” Eventually, it would seem that Frank was putting in as much time trying to make up for his racist past as he had put into actually being racist. He even helped develop a program called Servant of All, a program that is a bit like our Deacons Love Fund, that was meant to help all people, congregants and outsiders, who came to the church looking in need. Today, one of the greatest honors in that congregation is be given the Frank Haile Servant of All Award. When they remember Frank, they hope to inspire all of us to push beyond the boundaries of who we have learned are acceptable in the eyes of God, and offer hospitality to all of God’s creation, not just people like us.
Honestly, I don’t know if I could have been so gracious to a man who cut off the lights during worship because a black family dared walk in the church door. But, John found a way. Some of it had to do with the way that John chose to use his privilege. As a white man who was supported by broader congregation and who knew he could probably find another job if he needed it, he had some freedom to engage with Frank. He came to understand that talking to him, one Southern white man to another, would do far more good than ignoring or avoiding him. Maybe if John could tell him about how he learned to reject the racism he was raised with, maybe Frank could see that a different life was possible. It worked. It probably wasn't all John. But, due at least in part to these pastoral conversations, Frank changed. To this day, when John talks about their time together, John says Frank was his only conversion.
John and Frank's story is not the only story about an unexpected relationship that you have heard today. The author of Acts tells a story that is just as fraught with ethnic, class-based, and religious conflict as the story I just told you about two men from my home church back in Tennessee. The more I read about the complexities of navigating the social world as a eunuch, the more I'm surprised that Philip and the Ethiopian were able to develop any relationship, even one as short as the one described in this encounter. They probably shouldn't have even been talking to each other. But, as we learned from John and Frank, the Spirit can lead us in places we never expected.
Philip was a leader among the Greek-speaking Jews who followed Jesus. He had a particular calling to leave Jerusalem to preach the Gospel. It is interesting that he went to preach in Samaria when he left Jerusalem. As some of you may know, one would be hard-pressed to find many groups of people more reviled than the Samaritans in Scripture. Though Samaritans and Jews shared a common religious and ethnic history, disagreements over ritual observances had created such a rift between the two groups that they hardly recognized one another as kin anymore. Samaria would seem like the last place Philip would go. But, as I noted before, the Holy Spirit can lead us down some unexpected paths. The Spirit seemed to lead Philip to preach among people whom he had been taught to hate. He, and the Holy Spirit, must have inspired some other folks because John and Peter followed him there. But, the Holy Spirit did not stop with the Samaritans. There was more Gospel to share and more boundaries to push. So, the Holy Spirit took Philip to the Ethiopian.
For as strange as it would have been for Philip to be told that he was supposed to spend time with Samaritans, spending time with an Ethiopian eunuch would have been almost as difficult. Eunuchs were among some of the most reviled people in his culture. Though this eunuch appears to love the Jewish God, eunuchs were expressly prevented from being a part of the covenantal community in Deut. 23.1. He would have never been allowed to convert to the religion that he appeared to find so meaningful because he was unable to fit into the social and religious roles that all men were expected to fill. He could not procreate, thus passing on his covenantal relationship to offspring. Also, he could not be circumcised, an essential ritual act for all Jewish men. As a eunuch, though he was definitely not a woman, they were not considered true men either. They existed in an in-between gender role as a sexual minority. This in-betweenness meant that they were not considered whole and therefore could not be considered to be part of God's holy people. The fact that most people who were eunuchs were enslaved and had been castrated as punishment or a sign of their subjugation did not seem to matter. Even though this eunuch had high status in some ways (he was wealthy and had a trusted position in a foreign court), he would always be an outsider.
At the outset, Philip and the Ethiopian seem to have so little in common, less even, than Frank and John. But, the Spirit led them together. And, as we heard this morning, Philip took the Ethiopian's faith seriously, treating him as a whole person asking honest questions about God. And, the Ethiopian, likely accustomed to rejection due to his status outside expected gender norms, accepted Philip's offer to teach him. Imagine the strength it took him to trust someone who he knew had been taught to reject him. No matter how much wealth he had, the eunuch could never have bought his way into community with Philip. Only the Holy Spirit could have inspired the eunuch to accept Philip’s hand of welcome, filled with the waters of baptism and an offering of spiritual relationship. Despite everything that stood between them, the Holy Spirit brought them together, and the Ethiopian learned not only the Good News of Jesus Christ, but also encountered a disciple who was a living embodiment of the power of the Holy Spirit to overturn all of the prejudices that we have learned that keep us from fully knowing God's love.
Now, I realize that Frank and John's story and Philip and the Ethiopian's story are not exact parallels. Frank and John were men of similar privilege and status, similarities that likely helped create a foundation on which they could build their relationship. Similarity aided transformation in their case. They seem a little more like John and Peter who saw Philip preach to the Samaritans and followed him into the lands of people they had been taught to avoid. Philip and the Ethiopian had few parallels beyond their faith in a Jewish God. Philip had a certain amount of privilege as a man who fit common expectations of manhood and as one welcome in his religious community. He was low status in other ways, particularly in his poverty and his strained relationship with the ruling elites. The Ethiopian was wealthy and educated, but would never be fully welcome in the community of faith where he had found God. They were able to meet across differences and still able to find common ground in faith in Jesus.
I think both of these stories can teach us something about how to be followers of Christ primarily by showing us two different ways that the Holy Spirit can push us into unexpectedly fruitful relationships. In some cases, we may be like John and Frank, and the similarities we have with people with whom we disagree will be the foundation for the relationship we build together. We can use our privilege as a way into a relationship where we can share the story of how we came to know a more just, move loving life through Christ. In other cases, we will find ourselves in the wilderness with people whose lives could not seem more different from our own. In these cases, the Holy Spirit will flourish when we're not afraid to go against the prejudices we've learned and recognize the dignity that exists in the people we've been taught to fear. The Holy Spirit can push us to see wholeness where the culture has taught us to see brokenness, and new faith can be born.
Any of us who watches or reads the news is probably deeply familiar with the brokenness that, while always present, is now getting a lot of attention in our country. It could be very easy to ignore the people with whom we disagree about the root causes of the conflicts among poor people, people of color, and people who serve in law enforcement. In the press of a button on my computer or the change of a channel on television, I could easily spend all of my time with people with agree with me. But, these two stories show me that I am doing no service to the Gospel by ignoring the people I disagree with and avoiding the people whose life experiences are drastically different than mine. In the story of the Ethiopian and Philip, we see that the Gospel does not prevent anyone from living as whole children of God based on their ethnicity or gender identity. Those kinds of prejudice have no place in this God's reign of love and justice. So, I'm continually called to use my privilege to talk with people who trust me because of it, as well as being called to hear the words of people with lives different than mine, and understand them to be faithful. This isn't always easy work, but, if we're lucky, sometimes it can be a walk among the flowers.
Works that Pastor Chrissy consulted while writing this sermon
Coleman Baker's commentary: https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2445
Mitzi J. Smih's commentary: https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=1235
Richard Jensen's commentary: https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=307
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Pastor Chrissy is a native of East Tennessee. She and her wife moved to Maine from Illinois. She is a graduate of the Divinity School at Wake Forest University and Chicago Theological Seminary.