Scripture Lesson: Acts 8:26-40
Sermon: Open Borders
Pastor: Rev. Kim P. Wells
I love this story of Philip and a treasurer from a far off land. I love it because it challenges our assumptions and our complacency. Philip, an evangelist, gets dropped here and there into unfamiliar, and perhaps unwanted, situations and is expected to deliver good news, the gospel. Whether he wants to or not. Whether it is wanted or not. And in this story, after all of the stories of Jesus and people who are poor, and sick, and forgotten, and outcast, here is the Ethiopian eunuch. About as far out as we can imagine. Stranger. Alien. Foreigner. Outlier. Not the typical down-on-her-luck type we are used to hearing about in the gospels. No. So, again, our expectations, our assumptions, are jarred.
First, Ethiopia. Where was Ethiopia? What scholars seem to agree about is that it was south of Palestine and probably south of Egypt. But since this is before the days of Google Earth, Ethiopia is really a way of saying the end of the known world. The edge. The fringe. The margin. This person was as far out as you could get, geographically, ethnically, and religiously from the mainline Jewish culture of Jesus’ day.
And as if that was not enough, we are told that the person is a eunuch. His body has been altered. He is not “normal.” He cannot function as a man in the biological, procreative sense. So, in yet another way, he is beyond, outside, over the edge.
And before we pigeonhole him as a forlorn pathetic outcast, we must remember that we are told that he is the keeper of the treasury for the queen of his country. He is a person of high esteem, great authority, important responsibility, and, yes, probably very, very rich. Think the 1%. Again, not a characteristic of the typical Jesus follower. So, again, he defies anything that could be considered “normal.”
And, perhaps as we might expect by this point, we are told that the setting for this encounter is the wilderness. Of course. A wild place. Away from typical conventions. Untamed. Unregulated. Because this story ventures into completely new territory for the Jesus movement.
We are told that this Ethiopian man is on his way back from worshipping in Jerusalem. This tells us that he is drawn to the Jewish religion. But because of his physical alteration he cannot enter the precincts of the Temple. He must remain outside and express his devotion among the other “unclean” people who must remain outside the gates of the Temple. He has made a very long journey to have this second hand spiritual experience. So we get the impression he is quite devout; a seeker.
We are also told that he is reading the prophet Isaiah about a lamb led to the slaughter. How would this sound to one who has been altered by a knife? Of course this attracts his attention. He is drawn to a religion that lifts up someone who has been killed as symbol of faithfulness and godliness for he knows what it is to be a suffering servant.
When Philip talks about Jesus, the suffering servant, who has been recently killed, we can see how this Ethiopian would be drawn to a religious figure who has known suffering and yet has stayed true to Divine Love. So he wants to be baptized, to be claimed by this Jesus, as soon as he sees the water.
And so we are told that Philip baptizes this Ethiopian eunuch. Baptizes him into the community of Jesus. He is no longer outside the gate looking in. This foreigner. This one who is unclean. This one who is not normal. This one who is rich. This one with a different language. And a different color of skin and texture of hair. This upscale outsider is accepted and welcomed fully as a follower of Jesus. He is overjoyed!
Now at a UCC church in another part of the country, the people painted 5 doors, rainbow colors, displaying the words “God’s doors open to all,” and installed the doors out in front of the church. Our church is planning on making a similar witness. And I hope we can live up to it.
The church, every church, including this church, is made up of people. And people bring their assumptions and customs and attitudes to church with them. And so in church there are often both blatant and subtle barriers to welcome and inclusion. When this church was going through the Open and Affirming process in the ’90’s, we heard from gay people who were denied communion in the church because they were gay. The clergy would not visit in them in the hospital because they were gay. And these examples were from the Episcopal church not a conservative fundamentalist church. The church creates barriers to Divine Love.
We know about churches that only let baptized members take communion. And sometimes only if they have been baptized in a certain way. We know about churches that put economic stipulations on church membership. We know about churches that restrict full participation based on gender, gender identity, and sexual orientation. And, again, not just fringe fundamentalists, but think mainstream Catholics, Methodists, and others.
And then there are the churches that insist that Christianity is the only right way to God. The only true religion superseding not only Judaism but all other religions. How does that work for someone who has friends and family of another religion? These attitudes are barriers the church puts up restricting the message of Divine Love encompassing all.
There are also perceived barriers that have to do with means. We regularly have people come to our church during the week to ask for financial help with rent or transportation or other necessities. We invite them to come to church on Sunday. They almost never do. Some have said, I don’t have the right clothes for church. Some have mentioned transportation. They have no car and can’t waste a bus fare. Some worry about the offering. What will they be expected to put in the plate? There are all kinds of perceived potential barriers that keep people out of church.
There are issues around race. After all, Sunday morning is the most segregated hour of the week. There are issues around gender and sexual identity. There are issues around financial assumptions and expectations. There are concerns around dress and hygiene. There are all kinds of things that may keep people from taking the risk of entering a church and thus keep them from receiving the spiritual sustenance of the church and from being nurtured by a supportive faith community.
This is a problem that has been created by the church. If the church had always and forever been as welcoming as the church of the New Testament, these impressions would not exist. But the church has done things throughout the centuries, subtle and blatant, to create barriers, borders, and boundaries that try to wall off, manage, and control Divine Love. This is wrong. It is not of God. It is not consistent with the teachings of Jesus. It is sin.
Some years ago, I was invited to a breakfast for ministers that was supposed to be about working on racial harmony among various religious groups. I got a letter about the breakfast. I had the church office manager call in my reservation. I appeared on a Saturday morning at the breakfast. As I went in I greeted several people that I knew. When I went to the sign in table I sensed some hesitation. I made a name tag. I introduced myself to people I did not know. But I still had a strange feeling. There were whites and blacks there. There were pastors I knew. But then I saw what was going on. There were no other women there. No one else of the female persuasion. Finally, a colleague I knew well told me that this was a breakfast for men only. But I got an invitation. Well, the person sending out the invitations made a mistake. Must not have known that I was a woman. Basically, I was not welcome. I did not fit in. Like the eunuch, I did not have the right parts. I was not supposed to be there. The men felt uncomfortable and did not know what do to with me. But I did not leave. I stayed for the whole thing. And listened to their plans for their male movement to work on breaking down racial barriers. They needed to work on gender barriers, too, but they couldn’t see that. I was not wanted and I knew it.
So even though I am white and carry my white privilege, even though I am of secure financial means and can dress appropriately, even though I am well-educated and well-spoken, even though I am a married heterosexual mother of three, I still know what it is to feel that I do not belong, that I do not fit in, that I am not accepted, that I am not welcome. And people are made to feel that way all day, every day in countless settings.
NO ONE SHOULD EVER FEEL THAT WAY IN CHURCH. EVER. Period. Even if you are a white supremacist neo nazi rapist and child molester, you should still feel that this is a place where the people will love you and open their hearts to you and treat you in a way that is compassionate. NO EXCEPTIONS. And that is the message that the world needs to hear loud and clear from the church today.
Peoples’ lives depend on it. Peace in homes, communities, and between nations depends on it. Our US democracy depends on it. The well-being of the planet itself depends on it. This is not feel-good blather. This is core to the harmonious functioning of civilization.
Jesus goes beyond the borders of his religious tradition in so many ways to make this message known: God’s love includes everyone. Every single person is created in the image of God. And Philip is dropped down in Samaria, and then in the wilderness, and then in Azotus, another foreign territory, to make the same point. Whether the people want to hear it or not. The love of God encompasses everyone.
We, too, are called to proclaim this message. Now, it’s pretty easy here where we mostly agree about this. And with our friends and family that mostly feel this way. But, like Philip, we are called to be snatched up and plunked down in situations that feel uncomfortable, unfamiliar, and maybe even unwelcoming and unreceptive, and to proclaim the bold and daring all-encompassing love of God. Maybe we even need to be seeking out these situations. We can proclaim the open borders of Divine Love with gentleness. We can do it with love. We can do it with compassion. But we MUST do it, and we must do it with strength and conviction. Whether the message is welcome or not. Whether we feel comfortable or not. Whether it is safe or not. The church, you and I, need to dismantle every border and boundary and barrier to the full humanity of every single homo sapiens sapiens. We must be a people of open borders. Amen.
A reasonable effort has been made to appropriately cite materials referenced in this sermon. For additional information, please contact Lakewood United Church of Christ.