Preached at South Wedge Mission
Rochester, New York
29 April 2018
Fifth Sunday of Easter
Day Texts: Acts 8.26-40, 1 John 4.7-21
26 Then an angel of the Lord said to Philip, "Get up and go toward the south to the road that goes down from Jerusalem to Gaza." (This is a wilderness road.) 27 So he got up and went. Now there was an Ethiopian eunuch, a court official of the Candace, queen of the Ethiopians, in charge of her entire treasury. He had come to Jerusalem to worship 28 and was returning home; seated in his chariot, he was reading the prophet Isaiah. 29 Then the Spirit said to Philip, "Go over to this chariot and join it." 30 So Philip ran up to it and heard him reading the prophet Isaiah. He asked, "Do you understand what you are reading?" 31 He replied, "How can I, unless someone guides me?" And he invited Philip to get in and sit beside him. 32 Now the passage of the scripture that he was reading was this: "Like a sheep he was led to the slaughter, and like a lamb silent before its shearer, so he does not open his mouth. 33 In his humiliation justice was denied him. Who can describe his generation? For his life is taken away from the earth." 34 The eunuch asked Philip, "About whom, may I ask you, does the prophet say this, about himself or about someone else?" 35 Then Philip began to speak, and starting with this scripture, he proclaimed to him the good news about Jesus. 36 As they were going along the road, they came to some water; and the eunuch said, "Look, here is water! What is to prevent me from being baptized?" 37 38 He commanded the chariot to stop, and both of them, Philip and the eunuch, went down into the water, and Philip baptized him. 39 When they came up out of the water, the Spirit of the Lord snatched Philip away; the eunuch saw him no more, and went on his way rejoicing. 40 But Philip found himself at Azotus, and as he was passing through the region, he proclaimed the good news to all the towns until he came to Caesarea.
The following prayer-version of South Wedge Mission Values - Living the Questions, Practice-Based Faith, Radical Hospitality, was read together before the sermon:
Knowing there is always more to discover in our stories, we seek to live the questions,
embracing and learning from each person’s struggles and their gifts.
Seeking to live deeper into our life together as God’s people,
we practice in order to discover what we believe,
engaging the nourishing soil of prayer, scripture, the sacraments,
and other gifts of the communion of saints in all times and places.
Remembering that every human being remains a precious child of God,
we commit to radical hospitality, actively loving persons
of all sexualities, genders, classes, ages, races, ethnicities,
abilities, and traditions, as God already does.
Grace mercy and peace are yours from the Triune God,
“Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy or boast…”
It was another rainy afternoon
towards the end of my freshman year of college.
The dorm was usually empty around this time,
and I was enjoying the solitude
and the simplicity of raindrops.
And I hear a familiar voice,
reading these familiar words,
from an unfamiliar place,
across the hall in my atheist friend’s dorm room.
“It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking,
it keeps no record of wrongs…”
I peaked into the room,
and saw Calvin, sitting at Vanessa’s desk,
with a Bible open in front of him.
A word about Calvin (name changed for this sermon):
he is a beautiful man with bleached blond hair,
a model’s physique and a brilliant wit.
And he had a reputation
as an upper classman who hung around the dorms
looking for freshman hookups.
He had no problem finding willing partners,
and proudly wore his promiscuity on his sleeve.
And he is gay. “Queer” in his words.
At least as the word was used in 2001.
Calvin was the epitome of everything
the Campus Christianity wanted to save people from becoming.
As many of you know, for me,
it was a picture of Jesus highly dissonant
with the God of grace and peace and love
I had grown up with as a Lutheran.
A lot of my own struggle -
my reason for being alone in the rain that afternoon
after a third consecutive sleepless night
of journaling and reading and struggling -
was a result of that dissonance.
Feeling like I was made to choose
between accepting God and thus rejecting people like Calvin,
or accepting people like Calvin, and thus having to reject God.
And here was Calvin, the so-called abomination,
reading the words of St. Paul;
“Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth.
It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.”
Calvin hadn’t seen me yet as I poked my head in the room.
“Didn’t realize you were a Bible reader,” I offered,
trying hard not to seem like I was initiating
what would surely be a noq-consenual proselytization.
“I’m not,” he replied (he was also a vocal atheist).
“But I’m reading this at the Pride Service in the Chapel today.”
“Sounds beautiful,” I replied. “Thanks for that.”
What I thought was a crisis of faith
became that day for me
a crisis of doubt.
My paradigm shifted from the endless torment
of trying to prove that non-Christians could also be beloved of God
to a gradual loosening, a remembering -
an experience - that yes, of course,
non-Christians are beloved of God.
Not whether gay people could be Christians,
but, as many more encounters would teach me,
many gay people are Christians,
and this is a reality we not have to accept,
but can be deeply and endlessly blessed by.
In last week’s Gospel, Jesus reminded his disciples,
“I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold.
“I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold.
I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice.” (John 10.16)
And the experience of this promise,
That’s really one of the central conflicts for the Early Church,
also embodied in today’s reading from Acts.
The Jewish disciples of Jesus have experienced
a world-changing, life-altering miracle.
Yet, as they proclaim this Good News,
and follow Jesus’ instructions to make disciples of all nations,
again and again,
they find their own certainties about faith and doubt
thrown into crisis
by their encounters with the Other,
especially in non-Jewish and Gentiles converts.
The Ethiopian Eunuch - let’s call them “Eunie” -
is, as Episcopal theologian Broderick Greer notes,
the embodiment of the challenge to Insider certainty:
“a sexually Other
As my friend and colleague Scott Austin
preached this morning at Artisan,
sadly, not much has changed to this day.
Nor should we equate being a eunuch explicitly with being “queer.”
The state of one’s genitalia does not always determine
one’s sexuality or gender identity,
and certainly, does not diminish one’s humanity,
although Eunie does seem to be a favorite patron
of drag queens, transgender theologians,
and others that the church and world define as “deviant.”
And that last bit’s what’s important here.
Despite being a powerful member of the court
of Queen Candace of Ethiopia,
who drove their chariot all the way to Palestine
to worship in the temple,
someone with the wealth to have his own scroll
of the Prophet Isaiah to study in the middle of the desert -
and the will to do so! -
Eunie would not have been allowed to worship
alongside genital-ed Jews in the Temple.
Per Torah, in the book of Deuteronomy,
eunuchs were not permitted to participate in worship.
Like we said, some things still haven’t changed.
The Apostle Philip doesn’t know who it is
that the angel of God
is driving him out onto a treacherous,
bandit-inhabited wilderness road to meet.
I wonder if its because the angel knew
it would take more than an invitation
to get Phil to brave the danger for a queer outsider.
That he has to be prodded a second time by the Spirit
to approach the one he finds there
might also be indicative of how challenging this is for Philip.
A Gentile, or, if not an outright foreigner,
a non-Palestinian Jewish wannabe,
a dark-skinned African, and a eunuch.
We might even interpret Philip’s question
as one of unintended condescension:
“do you understand what you are reading?”
Because, you know, “you people,” who aren’t even allowed
in the Temple, who aren’t “real Jews,”
from, you know, “down South,”
can’t possible get all the complexities of ancient near eastern prophecy.
If I’m honest, for much of my life,
I’ve struggled what is coming be known
especially in educational circles, as a “fixed mindset.”
Generally speaking, people with “fixed mindsets”
believe that their basic abilities, intelligence
and talents are fixed at birth.
They say things internally like,
“I’m either good or I’m not;
my potential is predetermined;
failure is the limit of my abilities.”
(If it sounds like I’m quoting of the internet,
it’s because I am - but there’s a wealth of stuff on this topic!).
It’s a constant challenge on many fronts.
I have a lot of natural talent at things
like music, academics, sports, etc.
So I pick things up quickly.
But when I hit the challenging part,
the part where you need to embrace failure,
adapt and expand your paradigm,
experiment and try new things -
glazing a window, trying new food,
using a word count in sermons ;) -
I have often given up,
simply settling for the explanation,
“I’m just not good at that;
I’ll stick to the familiar and the routine;
being challenged sucks.”
Fixed mindsets often give way to either/or binary thinking;
at least for me, it was largely fear-driven.
Fear of mistakes; fear of failure;
fear of being rejected or excluded
as a result of inability, or wrong belief,
or wrong choices, or just being wrong.
That’s often the result of fear, of failure or otherwise:
closing up. Hiding in pre determinism,
shutting down investigations into the unknown,
the cessation of movement,
and the ultimate enemy of our age,
despair. We stop seeking,
stop admitting that we do not know yet,
and simply stop,
and end up missing out on so much more,
fulfilling our own fatalistic prophecy of the future.
In many ways, even post-resurrection,
Jesus first disciples struggled to shake this fixed mindset.
Peter needed Paul to call him out
about his favoritism towards Jews
and his demands that Gentile Christians
become circumcised first.
Likewise, in just a few chapters,
Peter needs a crazy vision
and an encounter with a devout Roman centurion,
to stop making rules about food and cleanliness
as a barrier to embracing new believers.
And once again, it goes without saying:
still, not much has changed.
But it’s Euny’s response I’m more interested in today.
They reply, I imagine, with a modicum of courtly dignity
and an education that allows them to read Isaiah without assistance,
“how can I, unless someone guides me?”
Because it is Eunie who shows the alternative:
what educators call a “Growth Mindset.”
A Growth Mindset believes learning and intelligence
can grow with time and experience.
Folks with a growth mindset say things like,
“failure is an opportunity to grow;
“failure is an opportunity to grow;
I can learn to do anything I want;
challenges help me to grow;
feedback is constructive;
I like to try new things.”
What strikes me is the willingness of Eunie
to live the questions, one of our SWM values.
Eunie is willing to do something that is increasingly difficult
especially for us in our information-laden era.
Eunie admits,” I don’t know.”
Three of the hardest words for any of us.
“I don’t know. But I want to. Can you teach me?”
I don’t detect any snark in this reply.
I imagine Eunie not even raising their eyes from the text,
so engrossed are they
by the prophecy of someone
who will share in the exclusion and the suffering
and the dishonor that, despite their status in Ethiopia,
they are undoubtedly subject to in Jerusalem.
But despite this,
Eunie invites Philip to sit with them in their chariot
and they engage the questions together.
See, in this story, it is the non-Christian,
the consummate Other, Eunie,
who shows the way forward.
Even though it appears that Philip is the one doing the teaching,
it is also Philip who needs to be dragged out of a fixed mindset
(Jerusalem) into the adventure of the uncertainty of the wilderness road
and to encounter the grace of God
that often only appears in the surprise of discovering
that Jesus really meant it when he said,
“I have other sheep out there.”
“I have other sheep out there.”
Eunie doesn’t need an angel or a Spirit to bring them to Jerusalem;
are not deterred by the prejudice and exclusion at the Temple;
not afraid to stop in the middle of a perilous wilderness
to live the questions on their heart.
When Philip approaches,
Eunie is not afraid to admit, “I don’t know; teach me.”
Philip’s expert theological exegesis
would not have happened without the open mind
and curious spirit
of an Outsider unafraid to transcend limits
and seek after truth.
I relate to Philip a lot.
Partly because I often need to be dragged into new situations.
Partly because I am all too ready to share my knowledge,
but struggle to ask the Socratic question
which gives birth to further conversation.
I see a lot of our world in Philip too.
Nowadays, I wouldn’t hesitate the ways people avoid the questions of faith
as a kind of fixed mindset of its own.
“I’m just not religious, you know?”
“Some people are spiritual, but I’ll never be.”
“I like the idea of the story, but there’s no way it can be true.”
“The future is bleak, the material is all there is, injustice rules,
and there’s nothing we puny humans can do about it.”
I also relate to Philip
because it’s often only in the encounter of Another,
someone who has the courage to embrace
the uncertainty and the possibility of life,
that has helped me grow beyond despair
and live into the hope of newness.
And look, I didn’t want to perseverate on our SWM values today.
We got a lot of that last week.
This is why we need to practice
“Radical Hospitality” and “Living the Questions.”
Because we never know what - or who -
our fearful fixed mindsets cause us to miss.
We cannot know the fresh joy and hope,
the full goodness and beloved-ness of this world,
the realization of God’s reconciliation and peace,
or the depth of God’s grace,
on our own. Locked away and immobile.
We need that exchange that comes
in sharing gifts, and sharing questions,
sharing struggles and sharing possibilities,
with unexpected guests and improbable Others.
If we truly believe all creation is good,
that God really is reconciling all things,
then we need to courageously step out of our fixed mindsets,
live the questions and the possibilities without fear,
and embrace God’s other sheep without prejudice.
What I l also love about living the questions,
what I find promising in today’s story,
is that often, living the questions does not take away practices,
but actually transforms and transfigures them.
Takes our spiritual life and our experience
and levels them up; makes them better.
It’s pretty clear that while Eunie doesn’t know Jesus yet,
they’re primed and ready. Their search, their living the questions,
their deep hunger for more life,
make them ready to engage the practices of the Christian faith.
To be baptized at the first sight of water.
To read and wrestle with Scripture.
What we as Lutherans call “Word and Sacrament.”
The questioning leads Eunie
to embrace and engage traditional practices
with a fresh vigor and hope
unhindered by Temples and structures and authorities
that have previously excluded them.
And Philip is giving the gift of seeing how his practice
can lead him into growth and a fresh engagement with the questions.
Instant baptism, without approval by the Bishop
or requiring Eunie to become not-a-eunuch (or straight or gendered etc).
Eunie’s “queering” of Philip’s experience
leads Philip to a broader view of grace.
That crazy bit at the end, about Philip teleporting away
a la the prophet Ezekiel?
Philip’s whole journey to meet the eunuch
is rife with mystical, inexplicable,
paradigm melting occurrences.
His experience is altered by God’s radical hospitality,
and I’m guessing his future preaching
will look a lot different,
and look for people who are a lot different
Having a mindfulness of the Gospel,
and living Christ’s invitation to the practices of Radical Hospitality
and Living the Questions,
they transfigure our practice;
give us the courage to admit what we don’t know
without abandoning the quest.
If you are in the midst of living the questions,
or you are locked into safe doubts and avoidances,
I pray that like Philip,
like me in my encounter with Calvin,
would find holy disruption.
Would find God inducing
either a crisis of faith
in those false assurances that leave you fixed and in despair,
or a crisis of doubt,
increasing your hunger and desire to live the questions
and to embrace the possibilities that unexpectedly find you.
My whole life and ministry was changed that day
that God put the words of St. Paul
on the oft-kissed lips of Calvin.
I was freed from the fixed mindset of a fixed theology and practice
and given permission to go into the wilderness,
to explore that which others said was unsafe and unclean;
it’s a lesson I’m still trying to learn,
and I’ll say, it’s a grand journey trying.
I hope that Calvin’s quest was changed too,
when someone he may have thought was just another judgmental Christian
heard, was moved by, and shared his delight,
in Calvin’s own unspoken quest for the Love of the Creator.
I hope that the life of the South Wedge Mission,
continues to change, and to grow,
and that we are transported to fantastic places
and frightening wildernesses,
and people and faces we may find are strange,
where we will learn to live the questions with all our hearts,
and embrace the practices in freedom and hope.
May your faith be troubled;
may your fear be also;
for as St. John writes,
“God is love,
and perfect love casts out all fear.”