Always Room For One More, Acts 8:26-40
First United Methodist Church, April 29, 2018
Pastor Toni Carmer
Because of the demographic within which I reside, as a white, middle-class, educated, employed, professional woman, there aren't very many times in my life when I can remember being an outsider looking in…being excluded. That doesn't mean life has always been fair, because it hasn't been. It doesn't mean that I've been "privileged," though I realize that when I compare my life to people in other parts of the world, I'm very privileged. And it doesn't mean there haven't been a few challenges along the way, because there have been, living out my calling as a pastor where so many still think of pastors as men, even though we've been ordaining women in the UMC for more than 60 years.
So I don't really expect to feel like an outsider looking in, as though I'm being excluded. And I'm guessing that most of you don't expect to feel that way, either.
So it surprises us when it happens.
I was surprised and troubled when it happened in an event planned by my own church.
Our denomination meets in different places across the US every 4 years. United Methodist delegates come from all over the world to make decisions about who we are and how we should work together as Christ's Body in the world. Petitions are received and voted on, there's a lot of discussion, problem-solving and compromise…and there's wonderful, creative, passionate and big worship. They pull out all the stops with visuals and great speakers and leaders and musicians. Good. Inspiring.
I've attended 3 General Conferences. My first full General Conference was in Pittsburgh where I served as an alternate reserve delegate, the second was in Fort Worth, and the third was in Tampa. Both of those times I served as a monitor. My job, along with a whole team of folks, was to keep track of the speakers in the room—the demographics and location in the room of the people being called upon—to make sure we were being inclusive. We then shared our observations with the room so our conference leaders could be aware if they were "missing" a particular section of the room, or a particular group of people, so they could adjust their vision accordingly. One response to our report was the assignment of two bishops instead of one, to look out over the room for hands held up to be sure not to miss anyone who wanted to speak. It was interesting work. The intention was to help us (as a church) to be better. More inclusive.
One evening's worship in Tampa focused on reconciliation and healing. Several people shared in the message, telling their stories. After they'd spoken, after a time of prayer, we were all invited to participate in an act of healing. Throughout Conference, including during the time of worship, our 4700 delegates were seated in designated places on the main floor. They were surrounded by a fence-like barrier to distinguish the "bar of the conference" and then beyond that, the delegates were surrounded on three sides by bleachers filled with non-delegates: reserves, monitors, staff, spouses, choirs, and other witnesses to various activities.
Water was one of the main images of the Conference. The Convention Center sits on an inlet from Tampa Bay, and in the middle of the room, running down the center of the delegate's seating area, a symbolic river had been created on the floor, with flowing lines of tape that depicted water. One evening some driftwood was added to the river; some stones were added on another evening. Outside the bar of the conference, at the end of the auditorium, a waterless fountain had been created, and stones had been placed there, as well. It was beautiful.
In this worship service, as the music played, we were invited to go to the "river" if we were a delegate, or to the "fountain" if we were a visitor or guest. We could spend a moment in prayer if we'd like, and then pick up a stone that symbolized reconciliation. I'm sure the symbolism of the stones was well explained, but when I heard "visitors and guests" it kind of caught me. Here I was, sitting in the bleachers, but all that time, after all those days of working together and praying together and being together, I didn't feel like a visitor or a guest. I thought I was part of the family.
It didn't help matters as the delegates easily went to the river "inside the bar" and returned to their seats while the rest of us stood in the outside aisles caught in a bottleneck: not moving, too many people, too small a space. Some of us were still in the bleachers because there was no place to go, no way to move. Finally the worship leader invited us into the bar where the delegates had been. Now they were all seated and waiting for us… That should be okay for us to enter that space because it was worship, right? We weren't really violating any rules. So a few of us walked by the seated delegates, but it felt a little uncomfortable.
We thought we were family, but it felt a bit like we were trespassing.
We thought we were family…and we were…but not quite.
We were visitors. Guests. Outsiders. Maybe even a bit of an annoyance, because we were taking so long, you know? Holding things up.
I later talked to someone who was seated at one of the delegate tables inside the bar. He said he heard it, too. That it didn't feel good to him, either.
It doesn't feel so good being on the outside. Not being considered a part of the family.
It made me wonder about how we do that here, at home, in our churches. How welcoming we are. If the things we do help people to feel included, or not. If everyone who joins in worship realizes they're a part of the family, whether they're here for the first time, every now and then, or all the time.
It's a question that I still ask and wonder about…especially when we say we have open hearts, open minds and open doors. How open are they? Is everyone truly welcome?
Let’s look at the scripture that was read today from Acts, Chapter 8.
Philip has been in Samaria, where he had gone to teach people who were considered by polite Jewish society as being racially impure; they were literally called "dogs." Philip was well received there as he proclaimed the Messiah; unclean spirits were cast out and people were healed. There was great joy in the city where he ministered.
An angel of the Lord then came to Philip and told him to go south to the desert road, which goes down from Jerusalem to Gaza. Philip does what the angel tells him and that's where he meets the Ethiopian eunuch.
Described as "Ethiopian" this tells us that the eunuch was dark skinned. His skin color would not have been an issue for Philip or fellow Jews, as the nation of Israel consisted of many different racial ethnic groups. Racism is more an issue in modern times. It's also possible that the Ethiopian was Jewish, as there had been Jews in Ethiopia from the time of Solomon. Or, he may have been a Gentile God-fearer attracted to Judaism. Whether he was Jewish or attracted to Judaism, he had been compelled to travel 300 miles to go to the temple in Jerusalem. But he wouldn't have been allowed to worship there, because he was a eunuch.
A eunuch is one who was purposely castrated before puberty, and then would be particularly trained for tasks that would become the work of his life. This Ethiopian eunuch is a high government official in the queen's court. He is an important man in his own context, but he would be an outsider to the faith that he sought to embrace.
The Law was very clear. If you look at Chapter 23 of Deuteronomy, verse 1 states that No one who has been emasculated by crushing or cutting may enter the assembly of the Lord. As you continue reading, there is a whole list of people who were not allowed to join the worshipping congregation. If you had married someone you shouldn’t have, you were shut out. If you were the child or grandchild or great grandchild of a mixed or forbidden marriage, you were shut out. If you were from the Ammonite or Moabite tribes, you were shut out. You weren’t welcome to join the people of God at worship.
Leviticus 22:21 even says that no animal may be offered as a sacrifice in worship if it has defect or blemish.
This is because the Hebrews saw God as perfection. And no one could enter the temple for worship if they were physically flawed. If they weren’t perfect.
If you wanted to approach this perfect God.
And yet the Ethiopian eunuch had come to Jerusalem to worship.
Which is pretty extraordinary…because he travels all that distance, and knows he won't be allowed in…knows he will be shut out…he has been told that his very presence is an offense to God. And yet there he is.
I can't help but wonder where he stood near the temple. If he was able to hear the songs and the prayers of the people on the other side of the wall. If he was able to smell the scent of the offerings being offered to God. If people saw him there, if they noticed, if they responded to him…the look on his face. How long had he been there before he decided it was time to leave…
Now he is headed home, sitting in his chariot and reading from the prophet Isaiah.
The Spirit tells Philip, "Go to that chariot and stay near it."
Philip runs up to the chariot and hears the man reading from the prophet. "Do you understand what you are reading?" Philip asks.
"How can I," the Ethiopian says, "unless someone explains it to me?" So he invites Philip to come up and sit with him.
The Ethiopian is reading a passage from Isaiah 53:7-8, a section Bible scholars call a servant song. Many of the Jews, when they read this, thought it was referring to the nation of Israel as God’s suffering people. There is evidence, as well, that this passage of scripture shaped how Jesus saw his life; that Jesus saw himself as the Suffering Servant.
The Ethiopian asks, who is the man talking about, himself, or someone else? Philip begins to teach him, proclaiming the word of the Prophet from this side of the resurrection—he shares the Good News of Jesus Christ.
The Ethiopian listens and is so convinced by Philip's words, that when he sees some water (in the desert) he asks to be baptized. "What's to prevent me from being baptized, if all that you say is true?" Philip baptizes him. When they come up out of the water, Philip is SNATCHED by the Spirit of the Lord and taken to a place where he's needed and he continues to preach the good news. The Ethiopian eunuch continues on his way home rejoicing, so thankful for all he has seen and done, and for having been welcomed into the family of God.
It seems odd to us today, doesn't it, to intentionally exclude someone from worship. That's not who we are and that's not who we want to be. And yet there are times when we do that. It may not be intentional, but we do that.
I think of that time in Tampa at General Conference. It was a beautiful service. I know there was no intention to make it difficult for so many of us to participate.
Even here, in this beloved church, we have to be sure that our Lift is working and that someone is nearby in case someone doesn't know how to use it, because we don't want to exclude anyone.
When the Lift wasn't working awhile back, I had to make a few phone calls, and it was an awful thing. "I don't think you can come to worship tomorrow," I had to say. Yuk!
That's not a phone call any of us want to make… And it's an issue we continue to work on and have to think about and pray about…how can we make sure we're accessible, open and available to all people?
But there's a conversation happening that's even bigger than that: it has less to do with physical accessibility and more to do with welcoming and being open to loving and caring for all people, without regard to sexual orientation. The conversation has been called "A Way Forward," and is about maintaining unity even in the midst of differing opinions. From what I understand, there will be a gathering next February that I'm sure we'll be reading and hearing more about. In the meantime, please pray for our church as a worldwide church, who seeks to be Christ's Body in the world. And pray for our church here, in Plymouth Indiana, as we seek to follow Christ's call, and to love God's people in a way that sends us all home thankful and rejoicing.