trouble the waters: “a religion that keeps people out is despicable to God” or “a religion of welcome and inclusion reflects the heart of God”

social justice

Acts 8:26-40
Then an angel of the Lord said to Philip, ‘Get up and go towards the south to the road that goes down from Jerusalem to Gaza.’ (This is a wilderness road.) So he 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. He asked, ‘Do you understand what you are reading?’ He 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 him 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. But Philip found himself at Azotus, and as he was passing through the region, he proclaimed the good news to all the towns until he came to Caesarea.

Most of you know the story.
As Paul ravaged the church in Jerusalem,
the leadership scattered throughout Judea and Samaria.
Philip, one of the seven deacons “of good standing,
full of the Spirit and of wisdom” (Acts 6:3),
ended up in Samaria.
And being in Samaria, he preached in Samaria (Acts 8:1-14),
and being Philip, preached effectively.
That’s the immediate background to our story.

But our story begins with an angel of the Lord saying to Philip,
‘Get up and go towards the south
to the road that goes down from Jerusalem to Gaza.’
(This is a wilderness road.) So he got up and went.

But that’s not where our story begins either.
A lot of stories begin before we know they begin,
and, by the way, not knowing a story begins
before you’re familiar with it—(or in it)
is a sign of privilege.

So the story actually begins with an Ethiopian government official,
an African, on his way home from Jerusalem.
Many stories begin in Africa before we’re ever a part of them,
but we don’t tend to think of that.
He had been in Jerusalem—
had taken some personal time—
had come to worship, we read.
So our story today actually begins before anything we’re told,
with this Ethiopian man somehow having heard the stories of God—
been profoundly affected by the stories of God—
the presence of God—the grace of God—
the initiative of God in Africa—
enough to become one of the so-called God-fearers—
who then, on his own personal initiative,
made the long trip to Jerusalem to worship.

The Ethiopian was a eunuch—
a court official, we read, of the Candace (not a name, but a title),
mother of the king of Ethiopia.
This eunuch was in charge of her entire treasury.
He was a big deal in an ancient kingdom of great power.

Ethiopia then, by the way, was not Ethiopia now.
Ethiopia then, also known as the kingdom of Cush or Nubia,
was the power south of Egypt,
extending from the first cataract to the sixth cataract of the Nile
(Ben Witherington III, The Acts of the Apostles: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary
[Grand Rapids: Wm.B.Eerdmans, 1998] 295).
where the Blue Nile and the White Nile converge in present day Sudan.
Ethiopia was also considered, since the time of Homer,
by both the Greeks and the Romans, the ends of the earth
(F.F. Bruce, The Book of Acts in The New International Commentary
on the New Testament
[Grand Rapids: Wm.B.Eerdmans, 1988] 179).

But he wasn’t in Jerusalem in his official capacity—
wasn’t there on business.
He left Africa by choice.
That needs to be said
because of how many stories that began in Africa ended in other countries
not by choice—or by someone else’s choice.

So it’s actually well into the story that the Ethiopian
was in the Judean wilderness on his way home.

He had come to Jerusalem to worship.
That’s the pluperfect tense, by the way.
How often do you get to say that?
Or the past perfect, which isn’t as fun to say!
Y’all know the pluperfect?
It defines a time in the past earlier than another time in the past.
So he had gone to worship in Jerusalem before he was on the road home.
But there is another way of hearing such phrasing.
He had gone to Jerusalem to worship.
You hear it? He had gone to Jerusalem to worship,
but was unable to—was not allowed to—
was barred from entering into the Temple.
So, he was returning home, disappointed, we can safely assume—
rejected, excluded, seated in his chariot,
for as a eunuch, he would have been “excluded by law
from full participation in the covenant community”
(Deuteronomy 23:1; Leviticus 21:17-21)
(Robert W. Wall, The Acts of the Apostles: Introduction, Commentary,
and Reflections
in The New Interpreter’s Bible
[Nashville: Abingdon, 2002] 142).

So he was returning home
on that road south of Jerusalem,
and reading the prophet Isaiah.

I don’t think that should in any way be heard as a measure of his faith—
that even after this heartbreaking experience with the people of God,
he was nonetheless reading Scripture for consolation—comfort—assurance.
And I certainly don’t think he was sitting in his chariot
looking at a Hebrew scroll wondering what it said—
needing someone to read the text to him—to translate the Hebrew—
to interpret the meaning.
I think he was actually rereading a scroll he had read many times before—
rereading a scroll with which he was oh so familiar,
trying to figure out how he had read it so wrong.

Because Isaiah, the larger story of Isaiah,
is one of inclusion.
Isaiah writes of God gathering the remnant
of God’s scattered people from a host of different nations
including Ethiopia (Isaiah 11:11).
Isaiah writes of a specific word of invitation God speaks
to the nation of Ethiopia (Isaiah 18),
and most importantly and most specifically,
Isaiah writes and this man had read,
over and over again:
“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.
And the foreigners who join themselves to the Lord, to minister to him,
to love the name of the Lord, and to be his servants,
all who keep the sabbath, and do not profane it, and hold fast my covenant—
these I will bring to my holy mountain,
and make them joyful in my house of prayer;
their burnt offerings and their sacrifices will be accepted on my altar;
for my house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples” (Isaiah 56:4-7).

That’s what God says.

The language of superiority is not the language of God.
The language of exclusion and rejection is not the language of God.
The language of fear and violence is not the language of God.
There are not many sides to this.
Those who seek to follow God denounce such language
be it spoken by protestors, presidents or preachers.
As Martin Luther King, Jr. put it:
“Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that.
Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.”
And it was God’s language of love and grace
that had birthed this Ethiopian eunuch’s deep and profound hope
to be included—to be a part.
Can you imagine what it’s like to want to be included—
to expect to be included,
and then to be excluded?
If you can’t, by the way, that’s privilege.

As we join this story midway through it,
the Spirit, somehow, whisked Philip from Samaria into the wilderness
south of Jerusalem.
The Spirit heard the sighs, you see, too deep for words—
felt the broken heart of someone rejected by the faith community—
acknowledged the profound importance of a so-called outsider,
and sent someone,
but didn’t whisk him right onto the chariot.

So we also have to visually picture Philip,
responding to the Spirit’s direction and running—
running to catch up to the chariot—
running alongside the chariot,
before being invited aboard—
before being included.
The Spirit prompts—initiates,
but it takes Philip’s effort too.

Again, the Ethiopian didn’t need Philip to read Isaiah to him.
He didn’t need Philip to interpret what he had read.
This should in no way be understood
as any kind of colonial/condescending/patriarchal

No. When Philip asked, “Do you understand what you are reading?”,
and he responded, “How can I unless someone guides me?”,
we need to hear undertones of anger and disappointment.
“Well I thought I did,
but obviously I need someone to explain to me
how this doesn’t mean what it says.
Because obviously I got a lot of this wrong.
I mean this is what it says, but apparently not what it means.”

What happens when the invitation of God—
the assurance of Scripture—the promise of faith—
is impeded by those who claim to follow God, respect Scripture
and number themselves among the faithful?
I have said before, I’ll say again:
while so many in the Church focus on reaching the so-called “lost,”
who do not know God,
we are so much more responsible
for those who have known and rejected God because of us.

Of course, it is complicated, isn’t it?
It cannot be as easy as some obviously clear
absolute division into right and wrong.
Because the question we have to wrestle with is this:
what happens when to obey Scripture is to disobey Scripture?
What happens when to honor Scripture is to dishonor Scripture?
Because if you listen to Isaiah,
you’re not listening to Deuteronomy and Leviticus
or vice versa,
and so then you are raising the question,
if the way we treat so-called outsiders is not because the Bible says so
(because the Bible says both),
then what is it?
What drives priorities and choices and actions?
Is it what you were raised with?
What you’re comfortable with?
What preserves your privilege?
Is it what’s easier?
Because the rules are definitely easier
than the grace that surprises
not just those used to being excluded,
who find themselves included,
but also surprises those used to justifying exclusion—
that wild unpredictable grace that includes—what, them?

And what happens when someone reading
about God’s promises and assurances,
overwhelmed by grace and love,
investing in hope and possibility,
runs into the people of God’s fear and defensiveness?

This is our history—part of it—
a significant part of it,
and always a part of now too.
It was once the church and slaves and slavery.
It was once—still is in many contexts, the church and women and patriarchy.
It is the church and non-gender conforming individuals,
and the church and non-traditional expressions of sexuality and relationship—
it is the sin of racism—
not just the lies, but the heresy of white supremacy—
and always, for those with ears to hear,
fear and defensiveness and anger and rejection.

And given that our Scripture’s stories
are all placed within a core defining story—
the story of a desperate struggle against emperor and empire—
resistance to oppression of mind, body, spirit, priorities—and minorities,

it is wrong.

And we must be more willing to say it.
Not that Scripture is wrong,
but that this text is—or that one—
because they stand against the trajectory of revelation—
stand counter to the ongoing revelation of grace—
stand in opposition to justice, righteousness and humility.

Now the Ethiopian was contemplating a particular passage
within the larger scroll of Isaiah,
one of the so-called suffering servant passages.
Let me read you a few sections:
“He was despised and rejected by others;
a man of suffering and acquainted with infirmity;
and as one from whom others hide their faces he was despised,
and we held him of no account.”
That’s familiar to y’all, right?
“Surely he has borne our infirmities and carried our diseases;
yet we accounted him stricken, struck down by God, and afflicted….
He was oppressed, and he was afflicted,”
and this is the part quoted in our text:
“like a lamb that is led to the slaughter,
and like a sheep that before its shearers is silent,
so he did not open his mouth. By a perversion of justice he was taken away.
Who could have imagined his future?
For he was cut off from the land of the living,
stricken for the transgression of my people.”

“About whom,” asks the eunuch, “about whom, may I ask you,
does the prophet say this, about himself or about someone else?”
Because he’s identifying with this text—
placing his own suffering into his reading—
his own sense of being despised and rejected by others—
held of no account—his own sense of bearing
what others perceive as infirmity and affliction—
his own sense of oppression—of justice perverted.
It’s an insight into Scripture many of us miss.
That’s privilege.

Philip opened his mouth and starting with this scripture,
he proclaimed the good news of Jesus—
which I would suggest is less that Jesus suffered for us,
as that God redeemed Jesus’ suffering.
Didn’t require suffering.
Didn’t justify suffering.
Redeemed it.
And anyway, as interesting as it is to wonder what all Philip said,
it’s as interesting—more interesting? to wonder what the Ethiopian heard.
And to hope that within the story of one excluded,
sent away from a place of worship,
left studying our sacred texts on some lonely road,
trying to figure out how he had so misread
words of radically inclusive grace and love—
to hope that within the story of theologically justified exclusion,
there would be rekindled the hope of presence and grace and love—
that Philip’s sense of the gospel—the good news,
the grace of Isaiah in Jesus, the grace of God in Jesus—
his responsiveness to the leadership of the Spirit,
would all lead him to a radical inclusiveness.
“This is the story of Jesus,” he says, “and it is your story too.
You are a part of this bigger story that began before us.
For at the time of his ascension, Jesus, left the disciples with these words:
‘But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you;
and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria,
and to the ends of the earth’ (Acts 1:8).
and I myself, Philip, was a witness in Samaria before being sent to you,
and through you—through your powerful faith and hope,
the gospel will go to that distant land
between the first and sixth cataract of the mighty Nile—
will go to (according to Homer and the Romans and the Greeks)
the very ends of the earth, and will go with joy.”

Well they came to some water.
And the Ethiopian asked, “What’s to prevent me from being baptized?”
What’s to prevent me from claiming this story?—
this hope?—this truth?
What’s to prevent me from choosing to live into this story?
What’s to prevent me from believing?
What’s to prevent me from identifying myself along with you
as one following in this way of God?
What’s to prevent me?”
So far, it’s only been the people of God, right?
But Philip, again, responsive to the direction of the Spirit,
enthusiastic in his celebration of the gospel’s radical grace,
says, “Nothing. Nothing’s to prevent you. Absolutely nothing.”

They came up from the waters,
and Philip was whisked away by the Spirit of God.
The eunuch saw him no more,
but went on his way rejoicing—
went on his way with joy.

It’s beautiful.
Later in that Isaiah passage the Ethiopian was considering,
we read (he hadn’t gotten to it yet,
but it was waiting for him—he did get to it):
“Out of his anguish he shall see light” (Isaiah 53:11).

And now, finally, think about this!
It’s all part of a bigger story!
Remember how Scripture stories are placed within a core defining story?
The Ethiopian had experienced rejection and exclusion.
He was leaving oppression,
and was in the wilderness with a guide,
and, in the wilderness, God provided water!
I love Scripture!
The children left Pharaoh in Egypt
and were led through the wilderness,
were provided water
on their way within the presence of God to the promised land.
Now this man is leaving Pharaoh in the promised land
and going back to Africa—
because you don’t get to leave Pharaoh and become Pharaoh!
And even in God’s city—even as God’s people, you can be Pharaoh.
And the promised land is always less about the place
than the promise and the presence—and the spirit.

Ours is not the story of some zero-sum game
in which someone winning and others losing are the only options—
a story in which we defeat Pharaoh
only to then take his place.
Ours is a bigger, richer, deeper more profound
transformative and ongoing story of possibility
in which Pharaoh is ever being overcome—in others and in us—
in which it’s up to us
to persistently name the promise and trust the presence—

to see in our story the bigger story
of God always with those being led away from oppression—
always being led away from discrimination—
always being led away from the tactics of violence—
always being led away from rejection and exclusion and heartache—
always being led away from fear—

to see in our stories the bigger story and to know
we must always contextually place ourselves in this story—
to know that who we are in the story is not fixed,
and that how we treat others
is less a matter of our privilege than of our judgment .

Eugene Peterson, a writer I appreciate and admire,
author of the popular version of the Bible, The Message,
in an interview last month was asked, as a retired Presbyterian pastor,
about whether he would now celebrate a same-sex wedding, if asked.
and he said, yes, he would.
And then he said no, he wouldn’t.
A few days later.
Maybe, as he said, he needed more time
to think through the question and his answer.
Maybe LifeWay’s threat not to sell his books had an effect.
I don’t know.

My friend and senior co-pastor of Calvary Baptist Church in DC,
Maria Swearingen, commented,
“Welcoming and affirming queer people shouldn’t feel like pulling teeth
or dragging your feet. It should feel like joyful conversion.
Like, ‘I was blind and now I see.’ Like drinking from living waters.
It should evoke language like, ‘My theology was vapid and frail,
my God so small and close-minded that it made me demean,
belittle, neglect, and outright hate people for no … good reason.
And now I have discovered how wrong that was.
And the only thing I can imagine doing
is saying yes to their precious, wondrous lives.’ ”

In the aftermath of the last few days,
how do we possibly not identify specifically Black lives and Jewish lives—
specifically the lives of those rejected,
and say yes to their precious, wondrous lives?
And identify specifically the small broken lives of those who hate
and utterly reject that hate,
but also remind them too,
of what’s precious and wondrous about them too.

And so, in the midst of trying to figure out where all my privilege lies,
and who I exclude and who is excluded in my culture,
so much of which I take for granted,
in the midst of trying to hear the pain of those rejected,
the song of God’s love and grace,
and so trying in my life and ministry
to hear what truly celebrates Scripture and God
and what demeans and diminishes God—
sometimes even in the name of celebration—
trying to ascertain not just who we have excluded in the past
for which we must repent,
but also who we are excluding—
what “issues” we are prioritizing over “people”
made in the image of God—
in the midst of all this,
I am full of joy and hope at the prospect of my theology and my God
ever expanding—
ever embracing more—
ever celebrating more—
in the goodness not of having arrived—having vanquished,
but in the goodness of presence and promise on the way—
in the goodness of a story not reduced to winners and losers,
but ever expanding into ongoing transformation.


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