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Sit Beside Me

Date:4/29/18

Series: Easter

Category: 2018 Sermons

Passage: Acts 8:26-40

Speaker: Nicole Trotter

 

Last Sunday I preached on the 23rd Psalm...In that sermon we listened to a Mary Oliver sermon and one line has stayed with me all week, and really came to light as I read this weeks scripture....

Tell me about your despair, yours, and I will tell you about mine.

You see there's a key moment...in todays scripture, where that line comes to life...

The spirit which is alive and well in the book of acts is sending Phillip, an apostle of Jesus Christ further out into the world to spread the good news...

An Ethiopian eunuch (which by the way, I didn't know what a eunuch was till this week. Somehow, and I know this is crazy... I got to 52 years of age without knowing what a eunuch was, or if I did know it, I forgot it, which is not uncommon these days...but now I know.) it was common for someone in service to royalty to be castrated as a way of protecting royalty from sexual advances. So he's Ethiopian, which presumably makes his skin color darker. Ethiopia is not next door to Phillips home, so the cultural norms will be different, different customs than Phillip, different food, dress, plus there's an economic divide. If this man is part of the Queen's court, and rides around in a chariot, he's wealthy, he is reading Greek, which means he's highly educated...but none of that seems to be the focus of this nameless man...Instead, the word  eunuch is used 5 times, so we can assume the focus is more on that that anythng else...this castrated man has been to the temple and is heading home. Scripture tells us he had come to Jerusalem to worship, which means he's already practicing Judaism, which would present a problem...

Especially if you're familiar with this lovely verse in Duet 23-which I'm sure you'd all like to memorize-

No one whose testicles are crushed or whose penis is cut off shall be admitted to the assembly of the Lord. (the assembly of the Lord, worship)

I don't write it, I just preach it.

There it is, which means, that this man would probably have been prevented from entering, or entering specific areas...

Stay there with me for a minute...he's traveled from his home about 1000-1500 miles from Jerusalem by chariot on dirt roads through desert.... and is now returning home...

He's stopped his chariot on the side of the road, after being rejected from worshipping his God because he's considered unclean, unworthy, not good enough...not like other men.

And....he's reading scripture....You see if I walked into a church and was told I wasn't good enough for the God I desired to worship I would probably feel so distraught and rejected, I would have thrown the bible away...and vowed to find another religion or give up altogether...

Tell me about your despair...

But this man, sits on the road reading scripture, aloud, because that's how it was done then, reading silently comes later...

And he's reading, and this is really important...he's reading Isaiah...He's not reading Deuteronomy...he's reading from the prophet who gives him hope...

The prophet who wrote in another passage that God will recover the remnant that is left of his people...from Ethiopia. (11:11)And Isaiah also promises in chapter 56 that eunuchs who keep God's sabbath will be welcome in the house of God and receive a name better than sons and daughters.[1]

So here you have it, a contradiction within the bible. Deuteronomy on one side and Isaiah on the other....And how is he to make sense of it?

Enter Phillip, a man who doesn't look like the Ethiopian man, probably doesn't sound like him, doesn't dress like him...has no chariot, they appear to have nothing in common.

Except for scripture....and it's the hearing of scripture that brings them together.

Do you understand what you're reading? Phillip asks. And the eunuch answers with another question; How can I, unless I have someone to help me?

That's an invitation.

This man invites Philip, who doesn't look like him, sound like him, is much poorer than him, just a commoner to his royal connected self...He invites Phillip to sit beside him....to understand scripture.

And the Isaiah passage he's reading is not either one of the two I mentioned, about eunuchs or Ethiopia...But verses from chap 53;

 

“Like a sheep, he was led to the slaughter, and like a lamb silent before its shearer, so he does not open his mouth. In his humiliation justice was denied him. .... For his life is taken away from the earth.”

Then the eunuch asked Philip, “About whom, may I ask you, does the prophet say this, about himself or about someone else?”

If you listen hard you can imagine the subtext of what this man is really asking...Could he be speaking about me, or someone just like me.......Humiliation and justice denied...As a eunuch who is rejected by the people of God... he knows this up close and personally...invites Phillip to sit beside him....

Let me tell you about my despair...it lives here on this page in scripture...so I know I'm not alone... 

The common interpretation of this scripture is about evangelism; that Phillip and all of us are sent into the world, far from home to tell the good news of Jesus christ to everyone, especially those who have been marginalized, like this eunuch.

But who is evangelizing to whom? Who is showing faith to whom in this story? This man despite his rejection holds this deep desire for God...through scripture...and in his desire for faith, invites Phillip to sit with him, despite every rational reason he would have for throwing in the towel.

Those who look beyond the fallible people of the church, the fallible doctrines of the church...because of a God they believe in who is so much bigger than the church. 

Nadia Bolz Webber, a Lutheran pastor in Colorado who has a large church of every kind of people... likens the situation of the eunuch to the countless men and women who have been rejected by the church because of their sexuality, but then she expands that to those who have been rejected because they have the wrong personality or the wrong socio economic status or the wrong gender or the wrong immigration status or the wrong politics to fit under the tent. (or in the walls of the church)

She writes; I think maybe that we can’t actually know what this Jesus following thing is about unless we too have the stranger show us. This is far more than “inclusion”. Inclusion isn’t the right word at all because it sounds like in our niceness and virtue we are allowing “them” to join us – like we are judging another group of people to be worthy to be a part of this thing. “inclusion” seems like a small thing. A charity. A mercy. But the truth is that we need the equivalent of our Ethiopian Eunuch to show us the faith. (end quote)

Tell me about your despair, your struggles and I'll you about mine....sit with me, that's where we find one another, in faith that knows despair, because that's also where faith knows restoration and grace, and the ability to love one another despite every obstacle. 

Just this past week, within just a few hours of one another, I heard, two radio interviews with people who wrote books. The first someone who was arguing against tribal identity. That we've deepened this idea of belonging to a tribe. And unless you walk and talk and think like I think than your against me. And that we need to move beyond that. I thought, "yes, he's right." It's Galatians 3:28 one of my favorite verses.... There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.

Then two hours later I heard a woman saying, "no, we have to understand one another's tribal identity, to understand where we've come from, to hear how one group of people have been affected by a system that doesn't speak to all people as one, but a system that still discriminates... and her example of this, as a woman who had a black mother and a white father, was that she gets three options on the census; white, black and other. There is no both. And I thought, "yes, we need to appreciate where others are coming from, understanding and appreciating tribal history, the way I understand my own Grandfather coming over on a boat from Italy in 1913.

Two authors, seeing the world differently, and somehow I feel both are right. So clearly I have no back bone, or I'm more moderate than I think I am...

So I went back to the bible in my thinking,, and asked as many of us do....which would Jesus prefer? Jesus sat down with everyone in conversation...often around a table...he was not just blind to difference, or moving beyond identity... he embraced the other's identity, he embraced difference, as a way to express his faith in a God who loves everyone. Everyone. It is in Christ that we both embrace difference and move beyond it to ultimately live in him and through him...Both and...

So where does that leave us during this time of intense division. How do I follow Jesus christ into a conversation with others that I feel there is no room for conversation. Just this week someone said, there are just some people who I can't talk to, don't want to talk to. And I get that too...

How does one enter into conversation, for example, with a neo nazi, for example. I'm not sure I could. We all have our breaking point.

But this faith, has never been about the way we see it...This is always about Jesus Christ..And when Jesus confronted the 'other" and stood up, it it was to the systems of power that perpetuated the alienation of others...and it cost him his life.

We are limited, but God is not. Our job is to enter into those highly uncomfortable places that lead us to frustration, to hopelessness...to sit beside the other despite our limitations, because their is something bigger than us at play...the spirit leads in this passage and all over the book of Acts... The spirit works best when we get out of the way...

The people who have been given every reason to walk away but stay in faith, inviting others in to help them understand... find no reason not to be baptized from above... What is to keep me from baptism the eunuch asks....what is to keep me from moving beyond every societal construct, every rejection, every hatred, every disgust....what is to keep me from being born again into a life where there is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.

Nothing is keeping you form that...and nothing is keeping us from that...

César Chávez, a symbol of hope to millions of Americans. was told  be nearly everyone his ambitions were impossible. But for a time his ambition succeeded beyond anyone's wildest imaginings. An ardent advocate of nonviolence, Chávez was one of the most inspirational leaders of the 20th century, with an influence that stretched far beyond the California fields.[2]

This was his prayer...and the relevance of his prayer moves beyond the farm workers he was praying for then and into the relevance of today as we continue to categorize and divide...

Show me the suffering of the most miserable;
So I will know my people’s plight.
Free me to pray for others;
For you are present in every person.
Help me to take responsibility for my own life;
So that I can be free at last.
Grant me the courage to serve others;
For in service there is true life.
Give me honesty and patience;
So that I can work with other workers.
Bring forth song and celebration;
So that the spirit will be alive among us.
Let the spirit flourish and grow;
So we will never tire of the struggle.
Let us remember those who have died for
justice;
For they have given us life.
Help us love even those who hate us;
So we can change the world

Amen.

 

[1] Feasting on the Word, Thomas G Long

[2] https://aflcio.org/about/history/labor-history-people/cesar-chavez