Are all welcome? – A sermon based on Acts 8:26-39

Manoel Amaro, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons (cropped)

Acts 8:26-39

I wonder how the eunuch from Ethiopia came to visit the temple Jerusalem. We don’t know exactly what his relationship is with the faith of most temple worshipers, but somehow he came to be curious enough about the temple and what that takes place there, that he decided to travel all the way to Jerusalem to worship there.

We also know that because of his status as a eunuch, he wouldn’t be allowed to fully participate in the rituals and activities that were taking place. While the very scroll he was reading from when Philip encountered him in the wilderness speaks of a day when eunuchs are fully included in temple worship, that day had not yet come in the Jewish tradition. According to the law of Deuteronomy, as a eunuch, a man surgically altered to prevent him from interfering with the royal line of succession, or injured, naturally born beyond the accepted gender binary, he wouldn’t be allowed to experience the full range of worship in the Jerusalem temple. Assuming he was also a Gentile coming to the temple to worship he would find himself relegated to the margins of the building as well. He was an outsider in the minds and the laws of the people of Jerusalem because of his identity as a eunuch and an Ethiopian.

All of us carry multiple identities as we move through the world – the ways we know ourselves and introduce ourselves to others. Think about it, when you walk through a school you might be John’s dad or Elizabeth’s grandparent or James’ sibling or Megan’s aunt.  When you are at a company gathering you introduce yourself as working for Jim or people know you as the boss’s spouse. In town you may be known because you work at the bank or belong to the running club or sit on the library board. And there are identities beyond who were are related to and the work we do – identities related to our ancestry, our national and ethnic histories, our race, and our gender and sexuality – like the ones Luke leads with as he introduces us to the Ethiopian eunuch. Luke doesn’t shy away from these identities in telling us this dramatic story of the expansion of the good news, but instead allows these identities to come to the foreground of the story without unnecessary shame or avoidance when talking about a person who, in all of his identities, bears the image of God.

Around the time of the Civil Rights Movement it started to become common among white folk to declare that we are colorblind. It was, in that time and today, a way a white person might try to communicate that they are not racist. It sounds that way, right? “I don’t see color,” one might declare when hiring a new employee or when asked about the demographics of the town in which they live. But the way that is heard by a person of color, who doesn’t step outside of their skin when they move through majority white communities and organizations, is “I don’t see you. I don’t see the experiences you have lived. I don’t see the history you carry.” And despite any good intentions that is not at all how we build deep and lasting relationships of trust and mutual respect with fellow children of God.

Another example of a similar way people sometimes try to avoid seeing and honoring the identities other’s carry relates to the diversity of gender and sexual identities. I’ve heard it said, maybe you have, too, “I don’t have a problem with people who are gay or transgender, I just don’t need to see it in public.” Or, “I can’t figure out all this pronoun stuff. ‘They’ can’t refer to a singular person. It just doesn’t make grammatical sense.” Or “She will always be Susan to me, even if she wants to be called Joseph now.” All of these kinds of statements are ways of silencing, ignoring, and erasing the identities that people carry in the world, identities they don’t need to be ashamed of or hide or reduce for anyone, but identities that bear the image of the God who created them.

For far too long identities such as race and gender and sexuality have been used to bar people from full inclusion and affirmation in churches. People are either shut out completely from the community of faith or they are asked to check who they are at the door to be welcomed and fit in. But ignoring the full diversity of identities that God has given us isn’t the answer to how to change this pattern.

The problem isn’t in seeing color or gender or sexuality or ethnicity – the problem is when we withhold access to the full range of the human experience because of them.  The problem is when we don’t recognize the barriers that have been set up to exclude people because of them.  The problem is when we don’t listen to people tell their truth about the joys they celebrate or the scars they bare because of our indifference or our very actions.

Philip listens. I love that about this story of evangelism. So many of us are understandably and maybe rightly hesitant to participate in what we think of as evangelism because of the way we imagine it’s supposed to work. We see some person who is struggling. We decided they are struggling because they don’t know who Jesus is. We approach them and tell them they need this Jesus that we have and what they will have to give up – their identities that they’ll have to leave behind – in order to get this Jesus.  That’s the stereotype of what evangelism is, right? That’s what (hopefully) makes us uncomfortable, right? I say hopefully, because that’s not at all what evangelism looks like in this passage and others throughout the New Testament.

When the Spirit sends Philip to join the Ethiopian eunuch’s chariot, Philip doesn’t run right up and start telling the unsuspecting man everything Philip knows about Jesus.  Instead he starts with a question. (And not, “Do you know my Lord and Savior Jesus Christ?) He starts by engaging in a conversation to get to know the man and build a little relationship with him. He waits until he is invited into the man’s wondering and questioning and curiosity and joins him where he is – quite literally – in the chariot and in the scriptures before he starts to tell him the good news he knows about Jesus.

They had to have talked about the eunuch’s travels to Jerusalem. I mean, if they hadn’t how would it have made it into Luke’s story to tell us? Philip had to know about the man’s exclusion from the temple rituals because of identity outside of the gender binary, his assignment to the margins of the temple grounds because of his ethnicity. Philip had to have heard about this man’s whole experience, and in passing on his story in the church, he didn’t leave out any details that we might tiptoe around because they make us uncomfortable to talk about, as if they were shameful or something to be ignored. He included them, he included this eunuch not despite his identity, but with full affirmation that in his identity he carries the image of God in his full humanity that is worthy of Jesus’s love and welcome.

In light of this affirmation we can that the problem with trying to pretend we are colorblind or expecting some identities to only be lived out behind closed doors is that it denies the very image of God that has been imprinted on children of God. The problem is that cutting out parts of people’s stories to make ourselves feel more comfortable means cutting out the truth their stories carry – that while we are saying love is love is love and we aim to judge people by the content of their character not the color of their skin, pain has been inflicted, the playing field is not level, violence against body, and mind, and spirit still occurs. The problem is that it lets us think our church, our town, our schools are welcoming if we who are of the majority feel welcome in them even while others are left wondering “What prevents me from worshiping here? Living here? Learning here?”

Did you notice that question that the eunuch asked after he heard the good news about Jesus? It absolutely squeezes my heart because I hear in it the pain of someone who knows that bringing his authentic self, that coming as God has made him or circumstances have impacted him has left him on the outside of something he desperately wants to belong to. “What prevents me from being baptized?” is the question of a person who has been prevented from being welcomed in faith communities enough times that his default assumption is that he will not belong this time. Even after an angel brought Philip to this desert place.  Even after this apostle has walked alongside the chariot, climbed up inside, and heard the eunuch’s question. Even after they have read Scripture and talked about it together. Even after he has heard the good news about Jesus who welcome all in his presence, in his love, in his mission. Even after all of that the eunuch still has had enough experience to assume he will probably be prevented from full inclusion in the faith. Wow, that squeezes my heart.

Last Saturday I officiated the funeral of a church member. Stanley was relatively new to Fox Valley Presbyterian Church compared to some of our long-timers. I don’t think his circles in the church were very wide, but he was here (when we could come here) just about every single Sunday and his smile and enthusiasm was unstoppable.  I have permission to tell the story I’m going to tell because it’s one I learned that Stanley told just about every single person in his life and his family shares openly and proudly as well. It’s one we need to hear in our congregation as we discern how we are going to show welcome and affirmation to all people.

The week after Stanley’s first visit to our church he called me to set up an appointment. He wanted to get to know a little more about the church, and he wanted to tell me a little about himself. But most importantly he wanted to ask me if our church is welcoming of people like his children. Both Stanley’s late daughter and his living adult son identify as members of the LGBTQIA community – that is as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, intersex, or asexual. (If you’ve got questions about any of those terms, I have no doubt we have a class coming up in the next year that will help you. And here is a glossary to get you started.) Stanley didn’t really think his son would be interested in coming to church because he had been hurt so many times in the past by Christian churches. But he still wanted to know if his son and people who shared his son’s identities are welcome and affirmed at Fox Valley Presbyterian Church in their full humanity, without denying or hiding or downplaying any part of themselves.

I got to meet Stanley’s son last week. He was grieving and a bit stressed out with the details of the service that weren’t all coming together as expected, and I sensed he was a bit nervous about the churchiness of everything that was going on. But when we had a chance to step away from the crowd and have a little bit of a conversation about his dad, the thing he made sure to tell me was that his dad picked this church over all the others he visited because he knew his son would be welcome and he was.

Friends, as we are in the process of discerning whether or not we will become a More Light congregation I hope it’s stories like this one that we remember.  It can be tempting to wonder if we really need to make some sort of declaration about who we are and who we affirm. In other congregations I know and have served I’ve heard people say, “Why do we need to join a group or put a flag on our website? We’re Christians. Everyone knows we are welcoming.”

But everyone doesn’t know. Everyone hasn’t experienced that kind of affirmation. “What is to prevent me from being baptized?” the eunuch asked, expecting that there are aspects of his identity that will leave him excluded. It’s the same kind of question many people who find their identities marginalized in society and the church are asking – Will I be kept out? Will I be asked to hide myself? Will I be made to feel less than the full person that God made me to be?

It’s my prayer that in the legacies of Philip who shared the good news about Jesus with enthusiasm and generosity and the Ethiopian eunuch who rejoiced at his welcome and affirmation in the faith, Fox Valley Presbyterian Church will always be a witness to God’s full welcome and affirmation. May it be so.

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