Sermon May 3, 2015 – I Love You, Baltimore

Scriptures: I John 4:16b-21 and Acts 8:26-40
Pastor: Rev. Kim P. Wells

The musical “Hairspray,” opens with a tribute to Baltimore, where “every day’s like an open door, every night is a fantasy, and every sound is like a symphony.” [Lyrics, “Good Morning, Baltimore” by Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman] For some. And that some does not include a short, fat, low income white girl who wants to sing and dance on TV. It also does not include black people. They are all living in Baltimore but are not all welcome to partake of its delights. Yet.

While the musical is set in the ’60’s, the sentiment still applies today. There is a wonderful reality, a beautiful city, but only certain people have access to it. Only some are welcome. Only some are treated with dignity and respect.

We can imagine Baltimore today. There is world class medical care available at Johns Hopkins Hospital. For some. There is the National Institutes of Health doing research from which some will benefit. There are cultural and historic landmarks celebrating freedom in this country. For some. There are stellar institutions of higher learning. For some. There is police protection. For some.

The recent events in Baltimore are a replay of what we see over and over and over again, going on for century after century. In recent decades, we may have thought that we were making progress as a society, becoming more fair, inclusive, and tolerant and things have improved to some degree. But all of these high tech recording devices in the hands of the masses have shown us there is more work to be done. Whatever goes on today you can be sure there is someone there with a phone that records and takes pictures which are immediately uploaded to social media or the cloud. No more confiscating the recording device or camera and containing the images as in days of yore. So we have glaringly portrayed for us, in living color, certain kinds of treatment for some people. And a different kind of treatment for others. Haves and have nots. The 99% and the 1%. The dominant class and the under class. The majority and the minority. The first class citizens and the second, and third, and fourth class citizens.

The story that we heard from Acts today speaks to the divisions and fears that surround us. In this story, we are given a crystal clear glimpse of the heart of Christianity. This story is an embodiment of God’s universal love. For all people. No exceptions. This story conveys the gospel, and we must decide whether we will accept it or reject it.

As the story opens, this Ethiopian eunuch is in his chariot. We are told that he is rich, rich, rich. He’s in charge of the treasury for his country. Definitely the 1%. We are told that he is devout. He is on his way home from Jerusalem where he had gone to worship. He had made a pilgrimage to the Jewish Temple in Jerusalem. He had dedicated significant time and effort and money to express his religious devotion to the God of Judaism, a foreign god for an Ethiopian. But this eunuch, despite his heartfelt commitment, can only stand outside the Temple precincts in Jerusalem to worship. He is not allowed in the Temple because of his physical alteration. He is not whole. So he is not clean. So he may not enter the Temple. He may only listen from the outside. He is most definitely an outsider. He can never be a full member and participant of the Jewish faith. Because of what has been done to his body by others, he is forbidden from full inclusion. There is no ritual, or prayer, or rite that can remove the stigma of his removed parts.

But even at that, this person is still so attracted to the God of the Jews, that he has gone to Jerusalem to worship. On his way home, he is reading the scriptures of the Jews. Isaiah. About the suffering servant. The sheep led to the slaughter. The lamb silent before its shearer. Humiliation. Justice denied. We can only imagine his connection to these words and images. And then Philip is sent to help the eunuch understand God’s word. Philip tells the Ethiopian about Jesus. The crucified one. The suffering servant. The lamb led to slaughter. The sheep silent before his accusers. The victim of humiliation. Justice denied. Of course the Ethiopian is attracted to a religion where the main figure has endured even worse than he has. This is a religion where maybe he can fit in. Where just maybe his condition will not exclude him. He wants to be part of this community. He wants to give his devotion to this spiritual path.

As they go along in the chariot, they pass some water. “What is to prevent me from being baptized?” This is no rhetorical question. There were a host of things preventing him from being allowed to go into the Temple. There were things that could not be changed that prevented him from being able to be Jewish. But this suffering servant? How could he be prevented from being a follower of this suffering servant? Surely he will not be prevented from receiving this saving grace, will he? Will he truly be welcomed into the Jesus community? Will they allow him to join? Will he be offered new life in Christ? It is all hanging in the balance. And Philip, a Jew, what will he do? Will he baptize a Gentile? Will he baptize one who is not allowed into the Temple? Can this eunuch be a temple for the holy spirit? “What is to prevent me from being baptized?” This is a moment of high suspense. The tension is great. Everything hangs in the balance. Maybe even the future of Christianity. What will Philip do? He conducts the baptism and is then spirited away so that he can continue to spread the gospel. And the Ethiopian? He goes on his way rejoicing. For the first time, in probably a very long time, he is accepted, wanted, loved just as he is. He is no longer a second class citizen. He is freed and made whole.

This story tells of the inclusive, universal love of God which is made known through a crucified, humiliated figure – the lamb led to the slaughter, the lowest of the low – showing that there is no one who is too lowly to be loved by God. There is no one beneath deserving dignity and justice. Everyone falls within the circle of divine love. Nothing we do, nothing done to us, can change that.

I don’t think anyone wakes up in the morning and decides, “Today, I am going to oppress someone.” “Today, I am going to be prejudiced and deprive someone of their rights.” “Today, I am going to take advantage of someone unfairly.” “Today, I am going to be part of building up a social and economic system that keeps people down.” In fact, in the US, we take pride in the opposite message: Land of the free. Liberty and justice for all. Equal opportunity.

What stands between the image and the reality? In the passage from the first letter of John, we are given the contrast between love and fear. Love and fear cannot coexist. Love is about reconciliation. Fear is about punishment. Love is about freedom. Fear is about control. Violence, injustice, abuse, degradation, it’s all about fear. People today are afraid, and that is why we get case after case like Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner, Michael Brown, and Freddie Gray, and the multitudes of people subjected everyday to economic, physical, and psychological violence and intimidation. Because people are afraid. Afraid of: not having enough money, not having a job, getting mugged or robbed, being raped or assaulted, being killed, suffering, health issues, and social problems like education and healthcare. People are afraid of a terrorist attack, global ecocide, failure – at school, in relationships, work, and life. We’re afraid of betrayal, loss, and misplaced trust. We are afraid of losing perceived power. Why do people want guns, guns, and more guns? Because we are afraid. We live in a culture of fear. Everyday, we are being indoctrinated to fear. We are being filled with messages of fear. Every time we go through security at the airport. Fear. Every time we pass through as security gate at a housing complex. Fear. Every time we see a police car. Fear. Every time we deploy our security system. Fear. Every time we have to be fingerprinted or screened to volunteer. Fear. Every time we turn on the news. Fear. Fear. Fear.

We are being force fed fear. And if we let it, it controls us. Christianity is about love. Love that is stronger than fear. Love that is powerful enough to overcome divisions. Love that has the might to vanquish oppression and injustice and war and hatred.

We are part of a movement with a central figure who was a poor, brown skinned male who was crucified unjustly for his egalitarian ideals. Despised and rejected. To redeem the despised and rejected. Suffered to redeem those who suffer. Unfairly convicted exposing the folly of our fears.

If this is what happens to our leader, what do we need to fear? If this is what happens to our teacher, than whom do we dare exclude? If this is what happens to the main figure in our faith, then how can we not work for justice in the world powered by that love which knows no fear?

So our faith is about a love that extends to everyone. There is no one beneath the love of God. There is no one beyond the scope of God’s care.

The message of Christianity is one world. Every person equally worthy of human rights and dignity. Universal love which has no room for the fear that fuels injustice and abuse and exclusivism. A love that casts out all fear. In you. In me. In St. Petersburg. In New York. In Ferguson. In Sanford. In Palestine. In Israel. In Nigeria. In Syria. In Baltimore.

So that for everyone –
“Everyday’s like an open door,”
“Every night is a fantasy,”
“Every sound is like a symphony.”

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