Sunday, May 12, 2013

Sermon for May 12, 2013 on Acts 8:26-40: Lines, laws, and dangerous beauty

Children's Message

I invited the kids forward to help share a "very important message."  I passed out 8 1/2 x 11 pieces of paper, taped together with numbers on the outside -- 1, 2, 3, etc -- and letters on the inside.

I asked what kind of rules we needed to put these letters into a message.  "Like a puzzle," I said.  "You can't just put the pieces anywhere."  So we started with person #1 in line, and then #2 next to them, making a straight line across the front of the room.

But then I said, "Maybe we need some more rules.  To make sure we do this right.  How about anyone under the age of four has to stand on the other side of the room?"  My three-year-olds looked at me with confused wonder.  "Okay.  Under four years old, stay where you are.  But how about if you're over ten?  Then maybe you should move to the back."

One of my confirmation kids gave me that "This isn't going to work" kind of look.

"Okay.  Anyone wearing pink should stand on a red line."  More kids moved.  The line was broken.  "And anyone wearing blue should be on a blue line."  At this point they were getting confused.  Where were they supposed to be?

"Okay!" I said, with false bravado.  "Show your letters!"

It was, of course, a jumble of chaos.  We had too many rules.

So we got back into one line, and we lined up our letters, and one of our seven-year-olds couldn't get his right-side up, but it didn't matter because when the congregation got it, they got it:

We hung the letters on clothespins, and the kids went back to their seats.


Acts 8:26-40

Reader 1:  An angel of the Lord said to Philip,

Reader 2:  Get up and go towards the south to the wilderness road that goes down from Jerusalem to Gaza.

Reader 1:  So he got up and went.  Now there was an Ethiopian eunuch, a court official of 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,

Reader 2:  Go over to this chariot and join it.

Reader 1:  So Philip ran up to it and heard him reading the prophet Isaiah. He asked,

Reader 3:  Do you understand what you are reading?

Reader 1:  He replied,

Reader 4:  How can I, unless someone guides me?

Reader 1:  And he invited Philip to get in and sit beside him. Now the passage of the scripture that he was reading was this:

Reader 5:  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.

Reader 1:  The eunuch asked Philip,

Reader 4:  About whom, may I ask you, does the prophet say this, about himself or about someone else?

Reader 1:  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,

Reader 4:  Look, here is water! What is to prevent me from being baptized?

Reader 1:  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.


Sermon  (click here to listen along)

The Ethiopian eunuch doesn’t have a name.  Did you notice that?  He never gets a name.  He’s just “the eunuch.”  And this is the only time the Scriptures talk about him.  We don’t know what happens or where he ends up.  He’s a minor character, whose path crosses with Philip and then who “goes on his way rejoicing.”  We don’t know what his life is like after this encounter.  He could have started a church in Ethiopia.  He could have cashed in his high-ranking job and come back to Jerusalem, bringing all his money to add to the growing new church.  We don’t know.  We never hear of him again.  And we don’t even know his name.

It’s good to be curious when a character in the New Testament doesn’t have a name.  After all, everyone has one.  When a name gets forgotten, when it isn’t written down, the writers turn to descriptions instead.  We do this too, right?  “Do you know so-and-so?  You know, they look like this, they work at this place...”  When names don’t work, we have to describe.  So this Ethiopian, a powerful man in charge of the entire treasury of the queen Candace, becomes just “the eunuch,” “the eunuch,” “the eunuch.”

But this is a good place to be curious, because being forced to call the eunuch just “the eunuch” would have sounded very different to the first readers and hearers of the book of Acts.  For us, we get a little queasy.  But for the first readers and hearers, the mention of a eunuch would have been shocking.  It would have reminded them of a rule, of one of the lines clearly drawn in their religious life as Jews, in Deuteronomy 23:1:  "No eunuch may enter the assembly of the LORD."

It was spelled out very clearly, in the Torah, in the books of the Law of the Jewish people.  Eunuchs could not belong.  So this Ethiopian eunuch has traveled hundreds of miles to Jerusalem to worship, but he can’t go inside the temple.  He is truly an outsider.

He is one of what the New Testament calls "God-fearers" -- people who know of the Jewish god, people who pray to this God and travel to Jerusalem to worship and study the Jewish scriptures, but are still outsiders looking in.  Because there are rules.  There are lines.  For good order, right?  If we want to preach the message correctly, there have to be some rules.

And the Ethiopian eunuch is a rich and powerful man -- very different from Philip and the rest of the first disciples and believers, who were working-class, fishermen and tax collectors and tentmakers.    Philip has just traveled about forty miles, most likely on foot.  His sandals are caked with mud.  His tunic is sweaty and smelly.  The eunuch inviting Philip into his chariot is on the level of Hillary Clinton pulling over Air Force One and inviting one of us inside.

So when the Ethiopian eunuch asks, "What is to prevent me from being baptized?" the answer is everything.  Race, and religion, and class, and his own body.  Everything about him makes him an outsider from the people of God.  There are so many lines between him and Philip.  So many rules about what is allowed, what is appropriate, what is acceptable. Philip is looking over at this grand chariot and shaking his head, going, "Well, he's certainly not who I came for."

But the Spirit has already taken Philip forty miles south, traveling through desert and wilderness.  And the Spirit says, "Go over to this chariot and join it."

See, I have this sneaking suspicion that God does not really care about a lot of our rules.  That some of them are like sending ten year olds to only stand at the back, and kids wearing red to only stand on red lines.  Some rules are good for getting the message across.  But some rules just make it harder and harder to hear God's promise of grace.  And God is on a mission to break through those rules and cross those lines to make sure the message is heard.  God is on a mission to bring us into relationship, to break down walls and fears so that we can see and hear how very much we are loved.

We see this in the life of Jesus.  Jesus, who was always doing what he shouldn’t.  Jesus, who talked with women, even though it wasn’t socially proper; and with and Samaritans, even though they didn’t believe as he did.  Jesus, who touched lepers and dead little girls, even though it made him ritually unclean.  Jesus, who healed on the Sabbath, even though no work was supposed to be done.  Jesus whose actions said, over and over again, “I will not let there be lines to cross to receive God’s grace.  There are no rules to God's abundant love."

And now the Spirit is breathing into the disciples, inspiring them to "get up and go."  Go south to the wilderness road.  Go up to the chariot.  Go into the water.  Because God's message of grace is not just for the Jewish people.  It's for the whole world.

God's message of grace is not just for people who look like us, who worship in the same temple, who stand on our side of the line.

This is beautiful.  And this is dangerous.

The book of the Acts of the Apostles is full of stories of the Jewish people of God recognizing that the message is not just for them.  The Holy Spirit is falling on the Gentiles as well as the Jews.  These Gentiles, these pagans, who have long been called “not God’s people,” are receiving the Spirit and asking to be baptized and listening eagerly to the message of Jesus.  Over and over in the book of Acts, the Jewish believers come together and say:  These people are outsiders.  They’re on the other side of the line, on the wrong side of the rules.  But God is doing something among them.  God is trying to draw them in.  Maybe we were wrong.  Maybe they shouldn’t be outsiders.  Maybe they are God’s people too.

These are important stories -- not just for them, but for us.  We are a people hungry for a taste of God, for a promise of grace, but so many of us have walked into churches -- and out of churches -- saying to ourselves, "That's not for me.  I'm an outsider.  I'm too selfish, too anxious, too depressed, too sick, too rich, too poor, too confident, too afraid, too independent, too dependent, too broken, too perfect.  My kids are too loud.  My faith is too weak.  There are rules that say who's in, and I'm out.  There are lines to be drawn, and I'm on the wrong side.  People like me aren't welcome here.  God's grace isn't for me."

And then God calls us into relationship.  Then God brings someone like Philip into our lives, someone who says, “Do you understand what you are reading?”  Someone who offers clarity, or prayer, or hope.  Someone who can tell us a story that turns out to be about ourselves.  Someone who looks across every line between the insiders and outsiders and says, “All are welcome.  That means you.”

Because when Philip finds himself standing by a river, with an Ethiopian eunuch saying "What is there to prevent me from being baptized?"  The answer is everything.  And the answer is absolutely nothing.  Because Philip's answer is to look past race and religion and class and the eunuch's very own body, and to get into the water with him and make him a part of the people of God.  Something happened in that moment that meant the laws and rules and lines that Philip knew could be let go in order to preach the message of God's grace.  The Spirit moved Philip to recognize the amazingness of God’s love.  He could get into the chariot.  He could have a conversation about Jesus with this man who was so very much unlike him.  And he could see the look in the eunuch’s eyes when he felt the beauty of God’s grace.

This kind of relationship is beautiful.  And this is dangerous.

When Philip listens to the Spirit, he ends up letting go of a lot of what he has known.  When God is in charge of drawing the lines and making the rules, the people of God look a whole lot different.  When “all are welcome” is where we start, we put ourselves in a beautiful danger.  When we stop worrying about who’s in and who’s out, and learn what is deeply meaningful and powerful to the person sitting next to us, we risk being changed.  We risk learning.  We risk seeing an old situation in a new way.  We risk changing our minds:  about who we are, about who God is, about who’s in and who’s out.  When “all are welcome” is our cry, we take a risk about who might show up.  It’s dangerous.  And it’s beautiful.  Because we are changed.

And when “all are welcome” is where we start, that welcome isn’t just for outsiders.  It’s for us, too.  For us when we draw lines within ourselves.  For us when we make rules, and fail to live up to them.  For us when we think, “I’m not enough.  I’m not worthy.  I’m not OK.  I’m not wanted.  I’m not loved.”  Every time we put up a boundary, every time we pull back and try to hide, every time we think we’ve broken the rules too much, God is reaching out across that line to say:  I know you’re broken.  Now let me show you that you’re loved.  “All are welcome” means you too.  And we are changed.

We’re made to be that love for each other.  We are made for this.  We are given mouths and ears and eyes and hands and hearts so that we can be that love to each other.  The eunuch asks, “How can I understand, unless someone guides me?”  How can I know who Jesus is, who God is, who I am unless someone is here to help me?  We weren’t made to be alone.  Philip wasn’t called to stay in Samaria alone.  The eunuch wasn’t called to ride his chariot home alone.  The Spirit drew them together so that they could both be transformed.

That kind of relationship is dangerous.  You’re asked to know yourself.  You’re asked to be honest.  You’re asked to tell your story, to be vulnerable, to talk about your fears and your hopes.  You’re asked to cross some lines and break some rules within yourself -- about what’s okay to say and share.  You put yourself at risk -- at the risk of knowing yourself, at the risk of being hurt, at the risk of change.  You’re asked to let yourself be known and loved.

That kind of relationship is scary.  But I hope and I pray and I think that every one of us has experienced how beautiful it can be.  To be known, deeply, lets us know ourselves.  To be loved, openly, lets us love ourselves.  And that knowing and loving opens up our past and present and future to something new and dangerous and beautiful.

This is where you’re invited today:  to think about those dangerous and beautiful relationships.  To think about where you’ve been given space to grow and change and be yourself.  What in you is longing for that space now?  What change are you hoping for?


Partner up with someone you feel comfortable sharing with.  It may be your spouse.  It may be a friend.  It may be a friendly looking stranger!

Think of a relationship that changed you -- that gave you space to grow and transform.  Share that story.
* Who was that relationship with?
* What was beautiful about it?
* How were you changed?

Then, think about where you are now.
* Is there a change you are longing for in your life?  If yes, what is it?
* What do you need (physically, emotionally, mentally) to start that change?
* Who can be a person that helps you start that change?  Or, what kind of person do you need to help you start?

* Is there something in you that are you longing to offer to others?
* Like Philip, are you being "sent" somewhere?  Where do you think it is?

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