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All are Welcome: Eunuch – What is to keep me from being Baptized?

Preached:  May 6, 2012

Scriptures:  Excerpts from Acts 8

Then an angel of the Lord said to Philip, ‘Get up and go toward the south at noon to the road that goes down from Jerusalem to Gaza.’ (This is a wilderness road.) So Philip got up and went. Now there was an Ethiopian eunuch, a court official of the Candace, queen of the Ethiopians, in charge of her entire treasury. He had come to Jerusalem to worship and was returning home; seated in his chariot, he was reading the prophet Isaiah. Then the Spirit said to Philip, ‘Go over to this chariot and join it.’ So Philip ran up to it and heard him reading the prophet Isaiah. Philip asked, ‘Do you really understand what you are reading?’ The man replied, ‘How can I, unless someone guides me?’ And he invited Philip to get in and sit beside him.

Now the passage of the scripture that he was reading was this: ‘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. Who can describe his generation? For his life is taken away from the earth.’ The eunuch asked Philip, ‘About whom, may I ask you, does the prophet say this, about himself or about someone else?’ Then Philip began to speak, and starting with this scripture, he proclaimed to the eunuch the good news about Jesus. As they were going along the road, they came to some water; and the eunuch said, ‘Look, here is water! What is to prevent me from being baptized?’ He commanded the chariot to stop, and both of them, Philip and the eunuch, went down into the water, and Philip baptized him. When they came up out of the water, the Spirit of the Lord snatched Philip away; the eunuch saw him no more, and went on his way rejoicing.

Before I start, I need to give you a word of warning that this sermon is not rated G.  If you read the Bible, you realize that the Bible is not rated G either.  It’s at least PG-13.

In this story from Acts, an angel tells the apostle Philip to travel the wilderness road between Jerusalem and Gaza. Along that road he meets a foreigner, an Ethiopian riding a chariot, who serves as a treasurer for the queen of Ethiopia. A high government official holding a scroll of the prophet Isaiah. That is impressive. Luke tells us 5 times that he is “a eunuch”.

What do we know about eunuchs?  Most often, eunuchs were castrated before puberty to prepare them for a life of service to the royal court. Without testosterone, Eunuchs were supposed to be trustworthy because they could not be seduced, nor would they have families or offspring to embezzle for, and could attend female royalty.

This particular eunuch was on his way home to Ethiopia. He had gone up to Jerusalem to worship God. What is curious about this is that both Deuteronomy 23:1 & Leviticus 21:17 forbids a eunuch from entering the temple.  “No one whose testicles or penis is cut off shall be admitted to the assembly of the Lord.”  The Hebrew laws were very curious: One form of genital mutilation (circumcision) was required to get into the temple (Genesis 17:14). Another form of genital mutilation (castration) would keep a man out (Dt 23:1).  Their transgression was the inability to fit in proper categories.   Though he was wealthy and powerful, he was still an outsider.  Even though he would be turned away at the Temple, he does not turn away from God. His heart was still open despite his rejection.

Philip hears the eunuch reading scripture from the prophet Isaiah: “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.”  The words evoke something within him. They could have been describing his own life, when he was but a lamb, and they took the knife to him.  He asks Philip, “Who is this scripture about?”  Philip explains how it was connected to the story of Jesus. About his “life being taken away from the earth;” He spoke of resurrection.  The eunuch was deeply moved; he understood so well that he believed the impossible: that God loved him, an Ethiopian eunuch.

Then the question. “Look, here is water! What is to prevent me from being baptized?”  This question provokes debate. The scripture says clearly that no eunuch shall be admitted. That has been Philip’s tradition for all of these centuries. BUT this eunuch heard and received the living Word. He has a spiritual desire to be baptized, and he has gifts of the spirit to offer to God’s people. Should Philip reject his desire, his being, his ministry?

This question challenges Philip to enter an unchartered spiritual wilderness.   He has to make a decision. He has to act. It is a risk. He doesn’t have the approval of Peter, James, & John. The Spirit has put the pressure on.  When Phillip joined this person who desired God despite his exclusion, was Phillip the one being converted?  Perhaps it was a mutual conversion? Ultimately, Philip says “yes,” breaking down the walls of division, opening to inclusion, Philip baptized him. Right there. Right then.

Through Jesus, God was now reaching out beyond the borders of Israel to include even an Ethiopian eunuch among the people of God. The most marginalized, excluded. Someone has said that whenever we draw a line to exclude people, Jesus stands on the other side of the line. Jesus stood on the side of the Ethiopian eunuch. Who does Jesus stand with today?

This past week General Conference 2o12 was held in Tampa, bringing together 1000 delegates from around the world to vote on legislation and decide church law for the Book of Discipline.  The church continued its 40 years of official exclusion singling out gays & lesbians. The Discipline currently contains this language:  All people of sacred worth AND homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching.  Self-avowed practicing homosexuals shall not be ordained, nor shall they conduct ceremonies celebrating homosexual unions/marriages.  We are still debating. Shall gay people be barred from the community? Shall their ministries be denied to them? Shall they be denied access to marriage and ordination? Shall their gifts and spirit be rejected?

While it was not unexpected that General Conference would continue to uphold current language about homosexuality, the debate that ensued dropped to the bitter vitriol and hate-filled, fear- driven speech that we experience in our current political climate.  One would hope, and one would expect that the church could do better.

There was a proposal that we add to the preamble of our Discipline, “We affirm that nothing can separate us from the love of God.”  This is a direct quote from Romans 8. GC delegates actually debated whether anything could separate people from God.  And they debated whether or not we would affirm this foundational statement of prevenient grace, our essential Wesleyan/Methodist tenant.  53% of delegates believed in God’s unconditional love. Only 53%.

Adam Hamilton & Mike Slaughter – the pastors of our largest Methodist Churches – pastors that have struggled with the issue of homosexuality themselves – brought this legislation: “We commit to disagree and respect with love; we commit to love all persons and. above all, we pledge to seek God’s will.   With regard to homosexuality, as with so many other issues, United Methodists adopt the attitude of John Wesley who once said, ‘Though we cannot think alike, may we not love alike? May we not be of one heart, though we are not of one opinion?  Without all doubt, we may.’”  This language was voted down as well.  We could not be authentic and honest enough to even say we disagree.

Friends, this body that represented General Conference is not the Methodist church I have known, the church I have loved, the church that helped me to experience God’s grace, the church that grew me in love, or the church that helped me hear God’s call.

Years ago we were debating whether women could be ordained. People recited scripture where women were not to speak in church or should be submissive to men.  How many women today would choose language for their wedding day: love and obey?  Others spoke of the foundational sacrament of Baptism which identifies us as children of God, fully initiated into the Body of Christ. “If you won’t ordain us, then stop baptizing us.”

Eventually in 1956, General Conference and began ordaining women to serve local churches.  We followed in the path of Philip.  One who knew the tradition of Deuteronomy and Leviticus, scripture that excludes, and baptized a Eunuch anyway.  Philip did not ask the General Conference of the UMC for permission for God’s grace to be bestowed.

A well-know preacher, Barbara Lundblad said this about tradition: “Longevity of tradition does not guarantee its faithfulness. It is possible to be wrong for a long time.”

I had a moment of crisis of faith and call – In the almost 10 years I have been in ministry in this Conference, I have confirmed 40 youth into the UMC.  4 of those have realized that they are gay.  Would they have chosen the UMC if they had known that they would not be fully accepted?  That the church would decide who they could/should love?  Is there integrity in inviting people to place their membership in the UMC?

When I posted some of my questions of Facebook, Blair Paul responded back with these words: It’s not about what the church is at any moment but rather what it’s ever trying to become. The systems are in place to allow growth and reconciliation but never as fast as we would like.

There is a movement among churches, among clergy, among bishops immediately following General Conference, issuing an invitation to practice ecclesial disobedience and stand on the side of grace, to stand on the side of welcome, to stand on the side of radical inclusion.

I watched a video clip near the end of General Conference where a dozen active and retired bishops stand on the side of inclusion, Bishop Melvin Talbert had the microphone and was not only supporting, but advocating ecclesial disobedience. There must have been 15-20 bishops at this gathering.  Some of these bishops have served or have come from our own annual conference:  Bishop Calvin McConnell, Bishop Bob Hoshibata, Bishop MaryAnn Swenson, Bishop Jack Tuell, our current Bishop Grant Hagiya, and had her mother not died this past week, I know that Bishop Elaine Stanovsky would have stood in that line as well.

When we look at the ministry and welcome of SPCUMC the first place to look is our mission statement. It declares: We are an inclusive, caring community, committed to Christ’s work, seeking spiritual growth, and lovingly responding to the needs of God’s world.

That is a great start, but I am here to tell you that with the current language of exclusion in our Discipline and the actions of General Conference this quadrennium, it is not enough to have a mission statement that says we are inclusive.  Most people in this congregation would say that we are welcoming…that we want anyone, everyone to be a part of our spiritual community.  But it’s not enough.  Because people on the outside of this church will hear that the broader United Methodist Church is not fully accepting of the Gay/Lesbian community and they won’t even come through our doors, believing that we are of the same mind.

Last December when the Search Committee was back at square 1 in our search for the Director of Children & Family Ministries, I found out that one of our applicants who had withdrawn from the process applied at Wallingford UMC, a reconciling congregation.  When I heard that as the position had gone to the other finalist, I called Aubrey asking if she would consider reapplying for our position.  She told me about her partner and asked if her partner would be welcome in our congregation.  She asked if we would be accepting?  Was I to speak for the whole congregation?  We might have missed out on one fantastic staff person if we hadn’t had that conversation.

At this point I would say that we are not sure what the word inclusive in our mission statement means.  And some may well disagree about the issue of homosexuality.  But I ask of us to follow the inclusive example of Philip. Philip who realizes that nothing can separate us from the love of God.  And can we follow I John 4: Beloved, let us love one another.

If you want to explore what it might mean for us to become a reconciling congregation, or for us to state our inclusive welcome on the outside of the church walls, you need to start talking to each other about the possibility and what this would mean.  I am not going to lead the effort.

The passage from Acts of the Apostles asks us: “Where is the Spirit leading us?  What new thing is God’s Spirit calling us toward?  What boundaries and barriers do we need to break down to be faithful to God?”

There are springs in the desert just waiting to move through the dry earth, so that all may experience the deep well of God’s love.  May we all be connected and abide in the vine of love.