No More Gerrymandering with God
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Acts 8:26-40 May 7, 2017
Remember in West Side Story when Anita is trying to talk some sense into Maria? Maria, a Puerto Rican, has fallen hard for the very white Tony and Anita pleads with Maria to: “stick to your own kind, one of your own kind.” There are boundaries, you see. How much do the Somalis, the Ecuadorians and we white folks intermingle in NE Mpls?
In Jesus’ time, these boundaries were like walls, assigning worth and value, keeping people in their own camps.
What then do you make of this crazy story about Phillip and the Ethiopian eunuch?
The story takes place shortly after the Holy Spirit was given to Jesus’ followers. The message about Jesus was spilling over outside of the Jewish community and causing all kinds of problems because of that boundary thing.
Well, one day, Phillip, a Greek speaking Jew and leader in the early church, runs up alongside someone’s chariot and crosses all kinds of boundaries. The man in the chariot is from another continent, of a different race, belonging to a different religion, and from a much higher socioeconomic class. Phillip runs up to this guy on foot, out of nowhere, overhears him reading the Bible out loud, and asks him, “Do you understand what you are reading?” Risky question. Could have been take the wrong way. Obviously this was an educated man.
So…what possessed Phillip to cross these boundaries and strike up a conversation with an Ethiopian eunuch while he’s traveling? What do you think?
Was this part of a long range plan at Phillip’s church to reach the Ethiopians? Did Phillip just think it would be a cool thing to do? It wasn’t even Phillip’s idea. It says an angel of the Lord told him to go to that wilderness road. Then it says the Holy Spirit told him to run up alongside the chariot. At the end of the story, it says the Spirit snatched up Phillip and sent him somewhere else.
Who is the primary actor in this story? It’s God, not Phillip. All throughout the book of Acts, it’s the Holy Spirit that’s directing traffic, leading Christians here and there.
Is this true for us today, do you think? Does God run things for us, or do we usually do what we think is best? Where is God in this whole thing we call faith and church? Up “there” while we run the store or down here with his sleeves rolled up?
So this pastor is preaching his sermon one Sunday morning, and it’s going reasonably well. Not too many people have fallen asleep. But then half way through, he says, “OK, I have to be honest. This was really a busy week for me, and I only had time to write half my sermon. So, for the second half of my sermon, the Holy Spirit is going to have to take over. And then the second half of his sermon was off the cuff.
Afterward, one of his members said to him, “Congratulations, pastor. You’re a better preacher than the Holy Spirit.”
So, the second half was probably disjointed and rambling. But don’t blame the Holy Spirit for that!
Here’s why I tell this joke. It perfectly indicates what we often think about God’s Spirit in our lives: God is there for us as a “hail Mary.” By that I mean, we’re supposed to be in control, you and me, and make the best plans we can, be good people, write the best sermon we can, etc. And when all else fails, when we run out of time, when we’re not sure what to do and we can no longer come up with the plan, THEN we call on God’s Spirit to take over.
The greatest challenge 21st century Christians have is reimagining that God is an actor in our lives, even the lead actor. My friend Pat Keifert does interviews with church going folk all over America as part of his consulting work. The interviews explore what faith means to people in their lives. Pat reports that in more than 90% of the interviews, there is no reference to God where God is the subject of a verb, as in, “God does this in my life, the Holy Spirit calls me to that,” or “Jesus comforts me when…”
Do we believe that God is active in our lives? Do we want God active in our lives? Or do we think this whole religious thing is about us trying to be a good person? Chances are we believe that God is active in this world and in our lives, but we do not think, imagine or practice life that way. So we reduce it to trying to be a good person – which is always a good thing to do. It’s just not uniquely Christian or even religious.
The story today from Acts reminds us that God is alive and at work in human lives – even nudging us in certain directions, “try this road…don’t go down that one.” None of this means we’re listening all the time. We may not know how to listen. But it can be cultivated. That’s what faith practices are for. The most important thing to do is stay conscious of it, keep asking the question, “What is God up to in my life?” and for us to keep asking together, “What is God up to in our life?” and learning to listen. When we keep asking, we’re more open to the presence of God, like Phillip was.
Back to the story.
Who is this man, an Ethiopian eunuch and member of the court of the queen of Ethiopia? This is someone who had more than a passing interest in visiting Jerusalem and worshipping the God of the Jews. He had been reading the Hebrew Scriptures – what we call the Old Testament – and probably had some knowledge of Jesus and the Christians.
It’s also true that he wouldn’t have gotten far worshipping in Jerusalem. You see, an Ethiopian was an outsider and not allowed to worship with the Jews, plus this man was a eunuch. Eunuch’s were considered disabled and were not allowed to worship either. This is kind of like the religious version of gerrymandering, isn’t it? You draw the boundaries so as to keep on the outside those who you would like to see on the outside: eunuchs, Ethiopians, the sick, the lame, the stigmatized (like prostitutes).
Yet even with all this gerrymandering, this eunuch had faith, despite the obstacles. Do you think the Holy Spirit of God was at work in this guy?
So Phillip boldly asked this man in his chariot if he understood what he was reading. It turns out the man did not understand what he was reading, and he invited Phillip to join him in the chariot to help him interpret what he was reading. “How can I understand, unless I have someone to guide me,” he said to Phillip. The Ethiopian man had a particular interest in the verse from Isaiah 53, where it describes the suffering servant. Who was the one referred to as sheep, who was humiliated and denied justice, then taken away from the earth? For some reason this eunuch wanted to know who this suffering servant/social outcast was.
Phillip said, in so many words, that it was Jesus who was the suffering servant and social outcast. It was this lamb led to slaughter who was taken away from this earth by God into glory.
Do you think maybe the eunuch saw a connection between himself and Jesus, a fellow outcast? That maybe, just maybe, Jesus was with him and for him? And because he rose again, so too might the eunuch? I think we have our answer in the next question the eunuch asks.
“Look, here is water! What’s to stop me from being baptized?” asked the man. This baptism is a declaration of faith! Much like Tyler’s baptism coming up later: a declaration of faith.
It’s pretty clear why God’s Spirit told Phillip to redraw the boundaries to include an Ethiopian eunuch and does so today as well: to make sure no one is left out from the life of God – a life that connects us to community, forgiveness and healing; to faith, hope and love.
And here’s why God’s agency matters. Do you think Phillip would have gone down that road to see the Ethiopian if God hadn’t sent him and given him the power to act? He would have been having a beer back at his house. If God wants to redraw the boundaries to let more people in on God’s life, we don’t typically roll that way, do we? We stick to our own.
But if God is the one who does the redrawing, now we have something different altogether. God calls churches and individuals, to be a part of spreading the news that Ethiopian eunuchs are part of God’s plan, and so are Somalians, pretty similar to Ethiopians. And Spanish speaking folks. And also the people who look more like us who have moved into the neighborhood.
This is what God is up to in the world and here’s the big take away today: we have no shot at doing this stuff without God as the primary actor in our lives.
St Matthews Church in Como Park was holding visioning sessions a few years ago, where members were meeting and asking together, “what is God’s preferred future for us?” The following is an account of what transpired at one of these sessions.
“One night, a man named Ben showed up at one of these sessions. He was experiencing homelessness and had been loosely connected to our congregation for several months, as a few of our members had taken him to medical appointments. Ben participated regularly in a weekday Bible study, where at his request, members of the church laid hands on and prayed for him. This was during the height of the Great Recession, and beds in homeless shelters for single men were nearly impossible to find in the Twin Cities. He had been sleeping some nights in our church. He came that night looking for Bible study and was encouraged to stay for the discernment conversation, especially as it began with dwelling in Scripture. As the question about the future was put forward, he sat up on the edge of his seat: “I’m the future God is bringing forth in your midst. Every other church treated me like a problem to be solved, but you treated me like a human being.”
When God is the primary agent, we do not just stick to our own kind. Who is God calling me – and us – to go and see and welcome? God’s arena of activity in this neighborhood is so much bigger than what happens in here, and we are involved to participate. And I don’t just mean the social ministry committee. All of us. Amen.