Originally preached at St. Mark – ELCA on April 29, 2018
Relevant lectionary texts can be found here
This sermon is dedicated to Dr. James Cone, the father of Black Liberation Theology, whose work greatly informed this sermon, and who passed away yesterday morning.
The reading from Acts today is a Black Church story.
Its a Black Church story. Not a metaphor, although the Bible is full of metaphors. And theologically, there are a lot of reasons to think of the story of the entire Bible as the story of the Black Church….a people in the cradle of civilization, who go on to become enslaved at the hands of cruel slave-masters, who are freed from slavery by the God of Love and Liberation, who worship a God incarnate as a human being in the person of Jesus Christ – a person described as having “wooly hair,” who was a victim of a false arrest, who suffered police brutality, who was killed by the state in a lynching that Black poet Crystal Valentine describes as the blackest way possible, dying “with his hands in the air and his mother watching,” and a God who didn’t stay dead but overcame death so that we too….we could, we may, we shall overcome, one day.
Yes, there are a lot of reasons, theologically, to say that all Church Stories are Black Church Stories.
But today’s story in particular is a literal, historical Black Church Story.
Because today’s story is about the conversion of a person, a eunuch, from the land of Ethiopia, in Eastern Africa.
Somehow, some way along the line some people forgot that all Church Stories are Black Church Stories. They bleached out the Bible. They Gentrified our Lord. They painted pale Jesuses and hung him up in cathedrals and used him to justify all kinds of wickedness.
They somehow tried to make Christianity a Slavemaster’s Religion.
Well. This story from Acts today troubles that whitewashed interpretation of the Bible. Because, as John Mbiti would say, it tells the story of the way that Christianity was a religion indigenous to Africa before it flourished in Rome in the USA or anywhere else.
Yes, this church story is a literal, historic Black Church Story. It’s the story of the Ethiopian Eunuch. It’s the story of an Ethiopian Eunuch who had a conversation with Philip about Jesus. It’s the story of an African who professed faith, who was baptized, who became a Christian VERY EARLY ON, when the Jesus Movement was still in its infancy.
The story begins with an angel of the Lord telling Philip to go down a wilderness road. The Spirit loves to do this, have you noticed? She loves to send us into wild places. We don’t know what Philip thought about going down this road, but he did, and he came across a person seated in a chariot, reading scripture.
It was the Ethiopian Eunuch who was seated in a chariot alongside that road in the wilderness. He had a chariot because he was an official in the royal court of Ethiopia. Scripture tells us that he was in charge of the entire treasury for the Queen of Ethiopia. The Reverend Doctor Otis Moss III, pastor at Trinity United Church of Christ here in Chicago, has said that the Ethiopian Eunuch was the Head of the Department of the Treasury in Ethiopia. This Ethiopian Eunuch was a wealthy, powerful, well-educated African person of prestige.
And yet, no matter how accomplished he was, no matter how well-learned he was, no matter how much he traveled, no matter what job he held, there were certain places that he still didn’t have access to.
The Ethiopian Eunuch, who our reading tells us had come to Jerusalem to worship, still lacked access to the temple. He was kept outside the walls of the temple, barred from entering, even for worship, because of his identity.
Remember, the Ethiopian Eunuch was not only an Ethiopian. He was a eunuch. And according to the religious laws, according to temple regulations, eunuchs were not allowed inside the temple walls.
Maybe some of us know what it means to be a eunuch. Maybe some of us don’t. But I’m sure that all of us can relate to being shut out of a space we desperately want to be a part of, just because of who we are.
The short, family-friendly way to explain what it means to be a eunuch in the time of this Bible story is that a eunuch was a person who was considered to be a gender or sexual minority. They did not fit inside the binary of expectations for gender – eunuchs were not considered men, but they weren’t considered women either. They were their own expression of gender, a person who, in our terms today, might be considered part of the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender community.
And one of the holy books of the Law, Deuteronomy, said that no eunuchs had any business being inside the temple of the Lord.
And yet. Here we are. The Ethiopian Eunuch is one of the earliest converts to Christianity.
It can be confusing, sometimes, when the Bible seems to say one thing and do another. That happens a lot, actually, that in one place scripture says one thing, and in another place it seems to say the opposite. That is why when we read scripture, we can’t just take one little piece of it as the whole Capital “T” Truth. We have to look at the whole story, the whole narrative, the whole arc of the Gospel. We have to look at and consider what direction the story is going.
In the case of eunuchs, Deuteronomy on its own seems pretty clear. Eunuchs were not good enough to be included in holy spaces. But then we look, later on, to the book of Isaiah.
The Eunuch was sitting in his chariot and he was reading the book of the prophet Isaiah. He was reading a section of Isaiah we sometimes call the verses about “the suffering servant,” verses which we now relate to the sacrifice and suffering of Jesus. But it is not far after those verses in Isaiah about the suffering servant that there are other verses. Verses that have words from God directly to eunuchs.
In Isaiah 56 verses 4 and 5, God says:
“To the eunuchs who keep my Sabbaths,
who choose what pleases me
and hold fast to my covenant—
to them I will give within my temple and its walls
a memorial and a name
better than many descendants;
I will give them an everlasting name
that will endure forever.”
Within my temple and its walls.
Although the book of Deuteronomy said that eunuchs have no place in the temple, God says in Isaiah that God will give faithful eunuchs not only access to the temple and entrance within its walls, but a memorial. A legacy, known to generations.
And here we have in the book of Acts, an Ethiopian eunuch, whose entire legacy is known by his faith. Who is memorialized within scripture as one of the earliest faithful Christians.
We have to look at scripture not bit by bit, piece by piece, but see the entire story arc. And here we see, clearly, that the arc of the story that God tells is moving away from exclusive rules and towards more and more and more and more inclusion. That is the radical thing about our God. God keeps widening the temple and knocking down walls to make room for everyone.
Dr. Martin Luther King Junior said that, “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.” The arc of inclusion is a long road, too, but God uses the Gospel, God bends the moral arc towards more and more inclusion.
After hearing about Jesus the Ethiopian Eunuch said, “What is to keep me from being baptized!?” The answer is: it could have been a whole lot.
I wonder how Philip felt when the Ethiopian Eunuch asked to be baptized. Philip knew the rules of the temple. Philip knew what the book of Deuteronomy said. And yet, an angel of the Lord led Philip to this person, on this day. And when the Ethiopian Eunuch asked Philip to be baptized, Philip, to his credit, did not say no.
And thank God that he didn’t. Thank God that Philip saw the arc of the Gospel story. Because the Ethiopian Christian Church is one of the most ancient, most beautiful iterations of the Christian faith. It is because Philip recognized God’s Gospel arc of inclusion that all of us in the body of Christ benefit from the RICHNESS of the African church to this very day.
I’m sure when Philip saw the Ethiopian Eunuch he thought that it was his job to minister to the eunuch. But the fact of the matter is, the Ethiopian Eunuch ministered to Philip too. It is because Philip recognized the inclusive arc of the Gospel that the church is more whole and more holy today. It is because Philip recognized the inclusive arc of the Gospel that we have another great example of a Black Church Story.
The church doesn’t always get this right. We don’t always say “yes,” like Philip did. We have made mistakes. And the sad thing is, when the church excludes people, we all miss out. Not only does the excluded person miss out on the community of faith within the church…the church ALSO misses out on an opportunity to be ministered to. When the church excludes someone because they don’t fit neatly into our categories or fall outside what we understand to be the rules, the church hurts a precious child of God AND … the church ALSO misses out on an opportunity for another powerful Church Story. The church is richer when EVERYONE is brought in.
The past 7 months, my family has had the opportunity to experience the lavish love of St. Mark. We were welcomed inside the walls of this church. You showed my family kindness. You encouraged us to learn and grow. And you fed us, not only with the spiritual food of sweet fellowship, but with chicken and mac and cheese and greens and all kinds of delicious food in the St. Mark fellowship hall. St. Mark knows a thing or two about hospitality and welcome and inclusion. You do it so very well.
And still, this story from Acts today tells us we must ask ourselves some tough, reflective questions about who might still be left out. What invisible temple walls might there be, walls that are keeping people away from our church community? What people do we keep outside because we aren’t seeing the full arc of the Gospel? What members from our human family are being cut-off, left feeling unloved?
My family will be moving on soon and we are sad to have to leave St. Mark. But we will be excitedly waiting to hear about all the things that God has in store for St. Mark. I can’t wait to see the ways that you continue to explore welcome and inclusion. And I will be waiting, eagerly, to read the next chapter St. Mark writes of the next great Black Church Story.