050221 Easter 5 The Church’s Struggle with Difference

Acts 8:26-40; I John 4; John 15:1-8

        This past week I read an article containing many stories of people who had left the church. Each one remembered their point of no return. Those stories don’t shock me. I’ve heard many stories from people who left the church because they were mistreated, or saw others being mistreated. I believe that the witness of a church, no matter how small, matters a great deal. So, it’s important that St. A and the Diocese of Los Angeles can thrive in the future. I don’t mean survive to offer services to small gatherings on Sundays. I mean to have a witness that shows to those who left, or who never came, how Jesus treat people: healing their wounds, and embracing those who are rejected.

       The other day I was talking with Bishop Taylor about this. He connected it to the upcoming Capital Campaign. When large portions of the church are communicating judgment and hatred, it matters that the Episcopal Church’s voice bearing witness to the beloved community continue to be strong. The Episcopal Church offers an image of the church that makes following Jesus a higher priority than growing churches, electing Christian politicians, or saving souls.

       At a time when many churches are fueling their growth by hating groups of people their leaders have targeted for rejection, and when the world is crying out for love, we must hear John’s message today: Those who say, “I love God,” and hate their brothers or sisters, are liars; for those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen. Of course, those churches don’t call it hatred. It’s about sin and purity. But those who are targeted know very well that it is hatred. We better make sure we’re not rejecting people out of learned habits.

       The story of the Ethiopian eunuch in Acts 8 offers clues about how to heal the disease of hatred and judgment. We know that Ethiopians are dark skinned people as part of their African heritage. We also know, and are becoming even more aware, that throughout most of history, darker skin has meant lower status and greater marginalization. For much of my life I treated that as a minor detail of the story. I now know it’s not. It’s part of the story’s core message.

       We also learn that this man was a eunuch, part of a marginalized sexual minority. Even though he was a man of high social status in the royal court, he’d been sexually mutilated – rendered sexually powerless by the deliberate actions of others. His high public office didn’t conceal the marginalized social status he was forced to endure for the rest of his life.

       The third strike against this man is that he was a gentile. He was one of those called God-fearers – a special category of gentiles that had limited access to the God of the Jews. This man also wanted to become a Jew, but his sexual mutilation disqualified him. Many eunuchs were both partially dismembered and castrated, so he could not be circumcised.

       This black African Gentile eunuch, then,  was returning from Jerusalem where he had traveled to worship Israel’s God. God’s people made it difficult for him to get to God, putting up obstacles at every turn – ritually excluding him from the festival for being physically unfit; letting him pray only at a distance.

       As people of faith are often quick to do, the guardians of religion in Jerusalem employed Scripture to justify excluding him. They pointed out a passage in Deuteronomy that people like him shouldn’t even be admitted to “the assembly of God” (23:1). Yet, this man was so captivated with Israel’s God that, even on his way back to Ethiopia, he was still scouring the Hebrew Scriptures looking for hope. He wanted God that badly. He’d gotten to chapter 53 of Isaiah when Philip came upon him. The eunuch asked Philip, about whom does the prophet say this, about himself or about someone else? Philip saw it as an opportunity to tell the eunuch about Jesus. But I think the eunuch was thinking of himself when he read that he had no form that we should look at him, nothing in his appearance that we should desire him. He was despised and rejected by others – one from whom others hide their faces. He was despised.

       He hadn’t yet arrived at the good news just three chapters further in Isaiah 56: “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. Can you imagine how good those words would sound to many people today if we substituted transgender, or nonbinary, or LGBT where it says eunuch?

       We should never care about Scripture more than we care about people. That’s where fundamentalists get it wrong. When Scripture becomes an idol, it ends up oppressing people. When official religion used a selective literal interpretation of the Jewish law, Jesus quoted a prophet to speak a different truth into the situation. Fortunately, many marginalized people have hearts like the Ethiopian’s that are so on fire for God that they refuse to allow religious institutions to keep excluding them. Those who can, often hide who they are so they can be inside enough to access God, even as they hide their true identity. They endure subtle and not-so-subtle rejection in the struggle to be accepted for who they are. Those of us who have lived a few decades in the church have seen it exclude people of color, women, LGBTQ, and now transgenders.

       I want to quote extensively from our Presiding Bishop, because the Episcopal Church is trying to offer good news to entire country being torn apart. Bishop Curry writes: The United States is being torn asunder within by the inability to be in deep relationship with each other and yet hold differing positions and convictions. And the test of this democratic experiment will be the capacity of this particular nation to hold differences in the context of deep and real human relationships. I really believe that Jesus was right. That the Way of Love, doesn’t mean the way of agreement. But it means the capacity to love each other, and therefore, to seek the good together. Whether we agree or disagree. This is the democratic experiment; this is not just religious platitude. Dr. King once said, “History is replete with the bleached bones of civilizations that have refused to listen to … love your enemies, bless those who curse you.” We must not become a valley of dry bones. And frankly, the only way is the way of love. There is no other way. And maybe, this wonderful little church of ours, can offer that — This Way of Love — to the body politic. Not for partisan ends, but to change how we relate as human beings.

       One response to that challenge in the Diocese of Los Angeles is the One in the Spirit ministry under the leadership of Susan Russell. One of the purposes of that ministry is to understand better how barriers of class, race, language, nationality, culture, politics, geography, orientation, and identification blind us to the burning image of the divine in one another. Another response in our diocese is one I’m part of: the Program Group that nurtures interfaith relationships. When the Sikh community in Indianapolis is decimated by a mass shooting, it helps to already know Sikhs with whom to stand in solidarity. When a Mosque in Christchurch, Australia, is attacked, it’s good to be in the loop to be able to support Muslims.

       Friends, this is not a side issue in the church. It is the central message of Jesus for our time. How will St. Athanasius express support, solidarity, compassion, and love to those who are suffering for being different? How are each of you already doing that? What new connections do we need to make? May God guide us.