Acts 8:26-40; Mark 9:38-48
This past week at the Create CommUnity Event, I met a woman who shared with me an experience she’d had one day while walking with a friend. A car pulled up at a stop sign near them and they saw a black man and a white man in the car together laughing about something. Her friend turned to her and said, “Now that’s a strange sight,” which caught her totally off guard because she is Asian American. She said she spent the rest of the walk wondering if her white friend thought it was strange that the two of them were walking together as well.
When I was in Zimbabwe, in Southern Africa, I got lost one day in the bustling city of Harare— a city of about a million people. I was riding my bike to get to the University, as I did everyday, and somehow I got on a road I didn’t recognize. When I stopped to ask the crossing guard where I was, he responded with a laugh, “You’re a long way from white town. You’ve got to go that way several miles.” To him, I was a strange sight— a white woman, on a bike, in pants nonetheless! No matter how adamant I was that I needed to get to the University of Zimbabwe, he just kept pointing me to “white town.”
Many years ago now in Minneapolis, I had the privilege to meet Michael. Michael had been coming to church for several months when he came to see me about becoming a member of the church. He and I talked about what it means to follow Jesus, about the membership covenant, about his desire to commit to a Christian community, and then Michael asked me what I thought about his being gay. He had grown up in the United Methodist church. His Dad was a Pastor in the Dakotas Conference. He was a child of the church and longed to have a community of his own now that he was an adult. But he wanted to know what I thought about his being a gay man because he had tried his whole life to keep it as a secret so that he didn’t have to lose his faith community— or his father. Michael grew up hearing that he is a beloved child of God; and yet he had also grown up being told that to be himself was too strange; to be himself was too outside of the norm; to be himself was too sinful to be in the church.
Philip knew the rules and regulations of his time. He was an early follower of Jesus, and he was also a Jew as Jesus was. And so Philip knows what he has been taught his whole life— that Yahweh is the God of the Jews; and that if you are not Jewish by blood, than the only way to become a faithful follower of God, you have to be circumcised. But Philip also knows what Jesus had been talking about for the three years of his ministry— how Jesus pointed out that the Kingdom of God is here and now; how Jesus was constantly crossing barriers— physical borders to go outside of Israel as well as economic, social, racial, and class barriers. So when Philip hears the voice of an angel one day, telling him to go to the wilderness road, it’s hard to know how surprised he was. What we do know, is he went. He had been following Jesus long enough to go when the Spirit says go. And no one could’ve predicted what would happen. For along that road comes an Ethiopian Eunuch, riding in a chariot, reading a scroll of the prophet Isaiah out loud. It was a strange sight. I mean a really strange sight. But what’s even more strange, is that as Philip sees this Ethiopian man, instead of turning and hightailing it the opposite direction, as his upbringing would have demanded of him, Philip hears the Spirit say to him, “Go over to this chariot and join it.” Not only does God’s Holy Spirit put Philip in a situation to see this man he considered strange, God’s Holy Spirit calls on Philip to join him. And the two of them read Scripture together, ask questions of one another, and experience God’s Holy Spirit in ways neither of them had ever experienced before.
We often think of this passage as a conversion story for the Ethiopian man, but this is truly as big of a conversion story for Philip. For when the man asks Philip, “what is to prevent me from being baptized?” Philip can’t think of a single thing. This man who can’t be circumcised because, as a eunuch he has al-ready been castrated, can be baptized. He can be welcomed into the community of faith. So Philip and the man enter the water together— the water that has suddenly appeared in the desert— and when they come out of the water together, we are told that the Spirit stays with the Ethiopian eunuch while Philip is whisked away.
This is a story about God’s love. This is a story about what happens when we follow Jesus. This is a story that is meant to show us that although God’s love is absolutely controversial, it cannot be stopped and it will not be detained. Philip offers to this man who is completely strange to him, God’s love first and foremost without hesitation. And this Ethiopian Eunuch, who would’ve thought that a poor, homeless, circumcised Jewish man from Jerusalem was just about as strange as anything he’d ever seen, invited Philip to sit with him in his royal carriage; and he listened to Philip tell his story about Jesus. He showed Philip God’s love first and foremost, and his life was transformed by the Holy Spirit.
Both men, at some point, had to explain themselves to their communities— and boy would they have had a lot of explaining to do! But both men put God’s love first and their lives are changed forever. And what did God command them to do? Not to convert one another. Not to judge one another. God tells them to sit together.
We sometimes act, as Christians, that while we are called to love each other, it is really just some intellectual exercise— something we can do in our homes by ourselves. But if we are serious about following Jesus, than we can see from his very example that we have to go out and join with other people. We cannot stay in our homes and judge from afar. We cannot stay in our workplaces and read about “them” out there. We cannot stay in our church building and wonder why others don’t come in. God calls us out of these walls to join together with people who seem strange to us. God calls us out of these walls to join together with people we don’t know yet. God calls us out of these walls to put love first and foremost; to recognize that God’s love is extremely controversial and to do it anyway because that’s who we are— we come together as followers of Jesus— which means we follow his way of being in the world before we even follow our own.
Last February the Administrative Council, which is the leadership council of our church, got together to discern what goals we need to make in order to get us to our mission of being an inclusive Christian community; of inviting, forming, and sending active disciples of Jesus Christ. And we came up with four goals— the first, of which, is that we come together to follow Jesus. Now this may seem obvious, but we felt it was extremely important to remind ourselves that we come together not to follow each other; or to follow our culture; but instead, to follow Jesus.
This, of course, is not easy. Jesus’ disciples, even while he is still alive, struggle with this. In the ninth chapter of Mark, John comes to Jesus and you can hear the urgency in his voice. He says to Jesus, “Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name and we tried to stop him.” And why did they try to stop him? Was it because he was doing harm? Was it because he was doing it wrong? Was it because they were concerned for the people who were being healed? No. John says to Jesus, “we tried to stop him because he wasn’t following us.” It wasn’t that the man wasn’t following Jesus. It was that the man wasn’t following the disciples.
As people inside of the church, we often talk about being the people of God— and indeed that’s who we are— Christ calls the church his own body. But all too often we think that means that in order for other people to be the church too, they have to follow us. And then we get surprised when people that we think are outside of the church look more like Jesus than we do.
We are broken, church. Stay after today to hear Linda Kotschevar share with you what’s going on in the United Methodist Church, and you will hear a story of brokenness. You will hear a story about how this worldwide United Methodist Church is arguing about whether our beloved brothers and sisters who identify as gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender can be married and ordained in the United Methodist Church. But it’s not really about that, and it’s definitely not about them. The truth is, through the absolute miraculous grace of God and nothing less, these wonderful, committed Christians who also identify within the GLBTQ community, are already a part of us and I thank God for them; I thank God for many of you who identify within that community and have stuck with this church that has so often not loved you back. We need to be honest with ourselves. In February of this year, the United Methodist Church is not deciding whether people in the GLBTQ community, members of our own churches, are good Christian people. They/You are not the issue. We are deciding if we’re comfortable with how expansive God’s love is! We are deciding whether we’re going to miss out on loving and being loved by some really amazing people, some of whom have taught me what it really means to be the church; many of whom have taught me what it really means to follow Jesus. All of whom have been asked to give way too much as they have followed Jesus’ call to love their neighbors. All of whom are already part of the body of Christ.
Throughout history we have always been tempted to draw lines around God’s love. We have always been tempted to keep some people out and see ourselves as on the inside. We have always fallen into the trap of trying to control people’s bodies and that has led us to be a stumbling block to others and to ourselves.
Jesus, however, invites us into a new way of being in the world. Jesus invites us to be about the work of offering places of healing; of feeding people who hunger; of showing up and loving our neighbors, whether we understand them or not. God’s love is controversial. It always has been, and it always will be. Which means it will sometimes seem utterly strange to us. But our job isn’t to smooth it out or to make ourselves more comfortable with it or to make sure people are following us. Our job, as Philip and the Ethiopian man found out, is to join together and see God in one another. Our job, as the disciples found out, is to celebrate God’s Spirit at work even when it’s in someone else— to see Christ in each other. We come together to follow Jesus, to put love first.
I have a dream for the United Methodist Church and for this particular church. I have a dream that some-time in the not so distant future, people will come through the doors of our church and will look around and say to themselves, “What a strange sight. I want to stay and find out how I can be a part of what God is doing here.”