Today is the second to last Sunday in our series titled “Journeying Together.” We’ve been looking at stories of biblical characters on various journeys, and from those stories we’re asking where God might be leading us as a church. Next week we’ll have some time to reflect on what we’ve heard over the past 8 weeks.
The first episode of my favorite TV show, The OC, opens with young teenager Ryan Atwood stealing a car with his brother Trey. They’re quickly caught by the police and Ryan finds himself in jail. He’s assigned an attorney by the state, Sandy Cohen. Sandy gives Ryan his card and tells him if he ever needs anything to give him a call. When Ryan’s mom kicks him out and no one will take him in, he inevitably calls Sandy. Sandy takes him from the dirty streets of Chino to a posh gated community in Newport Beach.
Thus begins Ryan’s life with the Cohen’s: Sandy, his wife Kirsten, and their son Seth, who becomes Ryan’s best friend. Most of the first season revolves around the culture shock Ryan experiences transitioning overnight from a world poverty, violence, and crime to a world of prep schools, cotillions, and water polo players (we could say a world of a different kind of poverty, violence, and crime). Throughout the show, especially the beginning of the first season, Ryan is convinced that he doesn’t belong, and so are many of his wealthy peers. Repeatedly, he’s tempted to throw in the towel and go back to his old life, because he feels he doesn’t belong. He’s in the midst of this new world, and while he wants to belong – not because of the money and extravagance of Newport, but because of the love and acceptance of the Cohens – he often feels that it’s too different. He’ll never belong.
Now, I’ve never found myself suddenly adopted into a family of the super wealthy, with an infinity pool outside the private pool house that serves as my room, but I have shown up for new experiences with a sense of excitement only to be plagued by doubt when I got there, thinking maybe I don’t belong. Whether it was my first go at playing soccer when all the other kids had been playing for years, or my first time at a punk show, or my first day at college.
We’ve all had that experience of feeling like we’re on the outside looking in, of wanting to be a part of the group, but not knowing how to take that first step. We begin by standing on the periphery, probably like we did at our first middle school dance. Before we’d arrived at the gym on the night of the dance, we envisioned ourselves dancing it up, inviting our crush to join us, bouncing and swaying to our favorite songs. But when we get there, that dream sounds ludicrous. The empty dance floor is terrifying.
But what a difference it makes when that friend approaches us and asks us to dance, when that random kid on the soccer team invites us to partner with them for the current drill, when the sophomore who’s volunteered to help with freshman orientation enthusiastically shows us how to navigate the cafeteria and invites us and some other freshman to sit with them and their friends. Navigating new spaces and new experiences is so much easier when someone’s there to guide us, especially when we secretly feel we don’t belong. Ryan had Seth, Marissa, and eventually Summer to convince him to stay every time he was tempted to run away from Newport.
In our story this morning, it’s difficult to think of anyone who would’ve felt more like an outsider to the Jewish faith and the burgeoning Christian movement than an Ethiopian Eunuch. His foreign ethnicity and his sexual ambiguity would have rendered him an outsider according to Jewish law. Deuteronomy 23 says that eunuchs were not “admitted to the assembly of the Lord.” Aside from eunuchs not being allowed to enter the temple because of their identity as a eunuch, they were often unable to join Israel because of what Elaine Heath calls their “sexual wound.” She says, “[Eunuchs] were rendered permanently, spiritually unclean by their sexual wound. Even the most basic element of male Jewish identity—circumcision—was not possible for many Gentile eunuchs who might wish to become Jewish, because of the extent of their mutilation.”
It would seem, then, that to be a eunuch was to be without hope, to be beyond the reach of God’s love, to be excluded from the divine family.
The eunuch in this story embodies the ultimate other. There’s no one that would’ve seemed like more of an outsider to Philip. But Philip isn’t concerned with following social conventions. He desires only to follow the leading of the Spirit. An angel tells him to travel to a “wilderness road.” The wilderness road is a liminal space – a place that is neither here nor there, but exists between. And in that place he meets a liminal figure, a human who breaks down the ancient binary of man and woman, who exists between the two, not conforming to the ideal of either. Scholars have rightly drawn a correlation between eunuchs in biblical times and the LGBTQ+ community today. While they aren’t the same thing, both are “queer” in the sense that they break outside traditional understandings of heteronormative sexual expressions. Both have faced discrimination and even violence by dominant culture, something our queer neighbors here in Portland are experiencing right now.
As Christians, we are not to follow dominant culture – dominant assumptions about who’s in and who’s out – but we are to follow the leading of the Spirit who pushes us beyond what is comfortable and into the unknown, onto the wilderness roads, where God’s love knows no bounds.
The Spirit tells Philip to approach this liminal, non-binary figure, and as he approaches, he hears the eunuch reading the prophet Isaiah.
There might be a reason the eunuch was drawn to Isaiah. While Deuteronomy 23 excludes eunuchs, saying they are not to be admitted into the assembly of the Lord, the prophet Isaiah knew that God’s future is for everyone, even eunuchs. Isaiah 56 says, “…do not let the eunuch say, ‘I am just a dry tree.’ For thus says the Lord: To the eunuchs who keep my sabbaths, who choose the things that please me and hold fast my covenant, I will give, in my house and within my walls, a monument and a name better than sons and daughters; I will give them an everlasting name that shall not be cut off.”
Despite surely facing animosity and ridicule from the gate keepers of institutional religion in Jerusalem, despite surely being denied entry into the temple when he visited Jerusalem to worship, the eunuch has caught the vision of Isaiah 56. There’s something about the stories of Scripture that keep pulling him back. So much so that he travelled from Africa to Israel to worship, so much so that he continues to read the Scriptures on his way home, even after facing hostility in the city of David.
And yet, he himself is also caught in a liminal space. This liminal figure on a liminal road is stuck between sensing the hope and grace found within the stories of Scripture and an inability to comprehend those stories. He reads the book of Isaiah and knows there’s something important there, but he doesn’t know what it is. He needs someone to take his hand and lead him onto the dance floor. Luckily, the Spirit has led Philip there for such a time as this.
There is, perhaps, nowhere so foreign, so unusual, to the outsider as a church. I grew up in the Church, so it’s very familiar to me, but I can only imagine what it’s like to enter a church for the first time. To see all these people who know each other but don’t know you – people of different ages and backgrounds, with different interests and hobbies all mingling together, eating snacks and drinking coffee. Then they go through this ritualistic service that they seem to understand but is foreign to you. There’s silence and singing and prayer and then someone reads out of a book thousands of years old, and the stories are often weird. For example, today we read about a eunuch. How often do eunuchs come up in everyday conversation outside of the church (or even within the church)? The story begins with an angel talking to a guy named Philip, there’s a weird passage that somehow pertains to Jesus, but how Jesus is related to this passage from Isaiah isn’t clear, it just says, “Then Philip began to speak and starting with this scripture, he proclaimed to him the good news about Jesus.” It would be nice to know what Philip said, right? Then there’s a baptism (if you aren’t used to being in church, you’ve got to wonder what the deal with baptism is, right?), and then, at the end, Philip gets teleported like a scene from Star Trek.
Surely, if this is your first time ever visiting a church, you’re wondering, “What is this story about?” And what does this story of an Ethiopian eunuch riding in a carriage 2,000 years ago, reading from the words of a prophet who lived centuries before that have to do with me, a 21st century person living in the United States, driving a car powered by fossil fuels and/or electricity?
But then we have a sermon where I or someone like me does their best to make sense out of this story, like Philip makes sense out of the story the eunuch is reading. It’s understandable that the eunuch or anyone new to the Christian faith might feel like Ryan Atwood from The O.C. This world is too different, it’s not worth sticking around.
So many in our world today find themselves in this boat, especially those on the margins. At best they open the Scriptures, like the Ethiopian eunuch, and are confused. At worst, they hear Scriptures twisted to exclude them, to keep them “outside the assembly of the Lord,” or even to justify violence against them.
But in this story of Philip and the Ethiopian eunuch God’s love for the outcasts becomes apparent. In this passage we see God’s heart for those who’ve been excluded from traditional religion, who want to find a home in the church but feel they don’t belong, who’re simultaneously drawn to and confused by the weird stories we call sacred.
I believe God wants us to be a church that seeks out those religious institutions have ostracized, condemned, and excommunicated. Those who know there’s a place for them in the family of God, and yet fail to fit in when they show up in religious spaces. It’s our job to reach out and invite them into the dance.
This requires some things from us, though.
First of all, it requires that we, like Philip, follow the Spirit as the Spirit leads us to liminal spaces, spaces where we don’t always feel comfortable – places that feel like wilderness roads. It means we come alongside those who, to some of us, feel “other,” and ask if we can journey together for a while. This means we go beyond easy talk and actually do the difficult work of solidarity.
I think our growing involvement in community service is a great example of progress in this area. We’ve gone from using the phrase, “Being the hands and feet of Jesus,” to actually putting those words into action by serving those in need.
There are still ways we could grow, of course. For example, we’ve joined the Association of Welcoming and Affirming Baptists, and we’re planning on participating in Pride this year, but right now LGBTQ+ folks are in real danger. Joining and association and marching once a year isn’t enough. We need to show up for them in tangible ways, ways that may be inconvenient and may even be dangerous for us. I invite you to join me tonight at the Q Center’s town hall.
In Luke 14:12-14, Jesus says, “When you give a luncheon or a dinner, do not invite our friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbors, in case they may invite you in return, and you would be repaid. But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. And you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you, for you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.”
The people who need to know that God loves them most are those who feel the most like God doesn’t love them. People who fear that God has rejected them the way society has. Those who’ve been “excluded from the assembly of the Lord.” It’s our job to travel into marginal, liminal, wilderness places with the wonderful news that they’re invited to the banquet.
Secondly, if we’re to follow Philip’s example, we must know our Scriptures. These are the stories that shape us, that tell us about God. It’s through the Bible that we know about Jesus. But this book is confusing, especially to outsiders. Many people open it up and say with the eunuch, “How can I understand what I’m reading unless someone guides me?” Maybe some of us feel that way now, and that’s understandable, but we shouldn’t stay in that place. We should be growing in this area. We should be reading Scripture regularly, wrestling with it when we don’t understand it or disagree, discussing it with each other, letting it comfort us when it speaks to us, asking that the Spirit of God guide us as we seek to guide others. As Baptists, we don’t have creeds. We only have the Bible. If this is our primary source of revelation, we should be reading it.
Thirdly, with Philip, we should be inviting others into the waters of baptism, that is, into our family. Baptism is the ultimate way we say: you belong. When we baptize someone, we say, “You’re a part of me and I’m a part of you, and we together are part of God. You’re life and my life have been joined in Christ. You belong.”
Through baptism we break down all barriers that separate “us” from “them,” and recognize that in Christ we have become one family. This is especially important for those who society and traditional religion has rejected. They aren’t simply a project for us. We don’t want to save their soul then send them on their way. We want them to belong, to be one of us. The Church is the place where people who, according to society, have no business being friends with one another break bread and call each other family.
Lastly, we must let them keep being them, and not try to force them to look like us, think like us, or adopt our culture. The eunuch is baptized, then the Spirit suddenly snatches Philip up and takes him to a different place. The eunuch goes on his way rejoicing, still a eunuch, still an Ethiopian. During the colonial period, “christianizing” indigenous peoples really meant westernizing them. While we aren’t so explicit today, many churches continue to expect new converts to assimilate to the congregation. Let’s not be that kind of church. Instead, as new members join, we should be willing to change to meet their needs. As a living, breathing organism, we must be willing to adapt while still maintaining some kind of sense of rhythm and consistency. This is a constant challenge.
The story of Philip and the Ethiopian eunuch is a story about the endless reach of God’s love, the possibilities available when we follow the wild Spirit of God, and the radical potential for the Church to become the place where all people from all walks of life find wholeness and fulfillment through life in Christ.
That’s a pretty exciting journey to be on, amen?