The video above includes the full service for today. You can click on the four arrows in the bottom right of the video to make it full screen. Clicking the three lines next to that will pull up the menu.
Special thanks to Elisa and Matthew Leahy for video production.
Permission to podcast/stream the music in this service obtained through One License with license A-727859
CMC Worship in Place for June 14 | Pride Sunday
As we forgo Sunday worship gatherings, we are offering a video service each week. The link to the video is sent out on Sunday morning along with prayer requests.
Welcome and Call to Worship | Jen Cartmel
Peace Candle | Stried Family
As we worship in place today, we light a Peace Candle in our home,
inviting you to light a Peace Candle in your home.
The flame joins us in spirit across distance, along with our sister church in Armenia, Colombia.
STJ 4 | You’ve got a place | Phil Hart
Children’s Time | Tim Stried
Pastoral Prayer | Jen Cartmel
Special Music | By Way of Sorrow* | Phil Hart
Scripture | Acts 8:26-36 | Jen Cartmel
Sermon | What Can Stop Us? | Mark Rupp
Hymn | There is a Time for Silence** | Phil Hart
Benediction | Mark Rupp
* Permission granted for use by artist.
** Words by Carolyn Gillette (used with permission); Music by Phil Hart
We cannot celebrate Pride without also insisting that Black Lives Matter, without recognizing the way that the experiences of oppressed groups overlap and intersect. While our focus this morning will be on queer lives, we must never forget that none of us are truly free until all of us are free. I was inspired by a protest sign I saw recently that read, “‘Matter is the minimum. Black lives are worthy. Black lives are beloved. Black lives are needed.”
What would the Church look like if it realized that both Black lives and Queer lives didn’t just matter, but were needed? Rather than spending our time justifying the right for queer people to even exist in the Church, it is far past time that we turn our focus to recognizing the many gifts that queer identity offers the whole world, including the Church.
To help us start to imagine the answers to that question, I want to invite you to listen as I read a passage from the book Queer Lessons for Church on the Straight and Narrow by Cody J. Sanders. As you listen, imagine the kind of community Sanders describes:
“The faithful community gethers as a small group on the margins of society, regularly drawing the ire of authorities seeking to quash their way of life--often through violence. In the throes of persecution, they band together as a community, developing secret code words and symbols in order to identify themselves to one another while remaining anonymous to those who wish to do them harm. They follow a moral code that draws suspicion from their neighbors and suppressions from the authorities. They exist as a subculture; meeting in secret at locations designated in advance as safe and free from the gaze of authorities. In spite of all safety measures and the close-knit care of those in the community, some are still caught and imprisoned while others are lost to violence--martyred for living against the grain of religious and governmental authority.”
Sanders crafts this narrative to show the connections between the early Christian communities and the process through which many queer people have formed communities of mutuality and hospitality. By pointing out the connections between their histories as marginalized and oppressed communities, Queer people hold up a mirror to the Church to beckon us back to the values and virtues that are cultivated only when one gives up the desire for power and control over others.
In a related book called Queer Virtue, Elizabeth Edman writes about a five-fold path of queer virtue that is developed through the formation of queer identity. She argues that this process of queer identity formation is an inherently spiritual path that calls forth not just internal conceptions of identity but deeply embodied ethical commitments.
This five-fold path goes as follows:
- One discerns an identity.
- One risks telling oneself and others about that identity.
- One engages with others through touch to fully embody that identity.
- One confronts and is confronted by scandal.
- One lives out identity with and through community, looking to the margins to see who is not yet included.
Identity discernment, engaging risks, embodiment and touch, confronting scandal, and embracing community. Again, this path of queer identity is not completely unique to queer people, but it holds up a mirror to those of us navigating a Christian identity and invites us to see ourselves in a new way.
Taking Edman’s five-fold path of queer virtue, I’d like to turn to our scripture for today, using her framework to help us see this story in a new way. By asking how identity is being discerned we can see how this discernment is not just about rejecting ideas that don’t ring true but also embracing that which is true. Looking to see which risks are being taken can help us think about our own values and our own readiness to risk ourselves for the sake of what we know to be true. Paying attention to touch can help us understand the importance of embodiment and how that always involves both strength and vulnerability. Leaning into the places of scandal in the text can help us question whether we have settled for a Christian identity that is just about making us comfortable. And looking for places where community is being formed can help reinforce the idea that knowledge of self may begin in isolation but comes alive through relationships.
Identity. Risk. Touch. Scandal. Community.
First, let’s explore the discerning of identity in our passage for today.
The Ethiopian eunuch is such an interesting character because his identity seems to subvert so many of our assumptions. First of all, the text is clear in establishing that he is a big deal: he’s riding in a chariot, he’s a court official, and not only was he in charge of the treasury, but the text name drops Queen Candace just to make sure we know how high up he was. He has status and power enough that his identity as a eunuch almost seems secondary until we start to consider the fact that he is returning home after going to the Temple to worship.
He is probably what the Jewish tradition would call a “God-fearer” or someone who was a Gentile but interested in and sympathetic to the Jewish faith. Yet, as someone who just happened to casually be reading the book of Isaiah, the Ethiopian eunuch was probably also familiar with the passage in Deuteronomy that says “No one whose testicles are cut off or whose penis is cut off shall be admitted to the assembly of the Lord.”
And so I read this text and I wonder how the Ethiopian eunuch understood his identity in relation to this faith, a faith that he is so moved by that he travels hundreds of miles only to be kept at a distance. I don’t want to draw too direct of a parallel between his identity and the identities of modern queer people, but I think it is fair to say that his presence on the margins of this faith tradition troubles the status quo in similar ways. I find myself wanting to ask him the question that sometimes lingers in the back of my mind: What is if that keeps you, that keeps us, coming back when our communities, our churches, or our denominations try to keep us at a distance?
Which brings us to risk and the engagement of risk for the sake of identity.
When Philip runs up alongside the chariot, I wonder if the eunuch recognizes him as another Jewish man here to tell him to keep his distance, a representative of the faith he longs to fully participate in, here to tell him just how close he can get. Perhaps it was already a risk for him to travel all the way to the Temple, so when he invites Philip into the chariot, is he risking one more conversation that he fears will end with him on the outside looking in? I’ve had far too many of those kinds of conversations myself, so when I read this, there’s a part of me that is subconsciously yelling at the eunuch, “Don’t do it, it’s a trap!”
And so when I think about finding my story in this story, I want to resist a reading that tries to claim that the Ethiopian eunuch is the archetype for queer people, compelling us to always say yes to well-meaning conversations. We don’t owe anyone our story, and sometimes we need to say “no” to dialogue, no matter how loving it may be, in order to protect ourselves.
But despite my best efforts to warn him otherwise, the eunuch does take the risk to invite Philip in, which brings us to the idea of exploring an identity through touch.
The two men sit next to one another, their bodies jostling against one another as the chariot rolls along and their conversation begins to go deeper.
Philip asks, “Do you understand what you are reading?”
The Eunuch replies, “How can I understand without help?”
Their conversation continues, and I imagine them becoming more comfortable with one another as their questions and answers go back and forth. As the eunuch explores his faith identity and Philip answers his questions, the distance between them begins to lessen.
I had the reading cut off at the eunuch’s final question to Philip because I wanted to emphasize that part, but as many of you probably know, the text goes on to say that they went down to the water and Philip baptized the eunuch right then and there. I picture it as a deeply intimate moment of both physical and spiritual connection. The eunuch bearing both his soul and his body, standing before Philip ready for the touch of baptism with his full humanity on display wondering whether this man who was a stranger only moments before would be willing to see not just his humanity but the divine in him as well, wondering whether he too could be named as a fully beloved child of God.
And it’s from this place that we confront the scandal of this scene.
We’ve been focusing on the eunuch, but now I want to switch to put ourselves in Philip’s sandals. I imagine that Philip is also doing the work of discerning his identity in this emerging group of Jewish Christ-followers. He is risking this identity and the truth he has found there as he follows the leading of the Spirit to come in contact with strangers.
But I wonder what he was expecting to be the outcome of the Spirit’s leading to engage with the Ethiopian eunuch? This story comes early enough in the unfolding of the fledgling group of Christ followers that they are all still figuring it out as they go along. They are flying by the seat of their tunics, being swept along by the Spirit into unfamiliar territory.
And so in the middle of this conversation, when the Eunuch turns to Philip and says, “Look, here is water! What is to prevent me from being baptized?”, I imagine Philip being taken aback. If you are following along in your bibles, some of you may notice the text jumps from verse 36 to 38 and might include a footnote in between. There are a few manuscripts that add a response from Philip that is sometimes included as verse 37, but many scholars agree that was probably a later addition.
And so the eunuch asks his question, and the oldest texts leave Philip with his mouth hanging open. Perhaps he hadn’t fully thought through the implications of this unfolding way of Christ and the Eunuch’s question confronts him with the scandal of untamed compassion. This passage is often referred to as the conversion of the Ethiopian Eunuch, but maybe Philip is the one who is being converted.
In response to one of the eunuch’s earlier questions, Philip had placed the passage he was reading in the wider context of Jesus, the one who enters into the suffering of the world in order to bring liberation and freedom. And in turn, the Eunuch begins to recognize his own story in that story.
And his question to Philip becomes almost like a challenge. “Do you really mean what you are saying? Then what can keep me from joining this community? What can stop me from becoming one with you?”
Which brings us finally to community.
There is a line at the beginning of this story that can be seen as a throwaway detail, but as is so often in scripture, it is these details that are so easy to miss that help color the stories. At the end of verse 26 where it describes how the Spirit initially led Philip on the road where the Eunuch would be, it includes the line “This is a wilderness road.” Some translations read, “This is a desert place.” The word that’s used here can mean wilderness or desert, but it also has connotations of desolation, loneliness, and isolation.
This story began in a desert, but by the end, there’s a pool of water nearby and isolation has been transformed into a possibility for communion.
At the beginning of this story, the Ethiopian eunuch’s six-word memoir about where he’s at on his journey of identity and faith is his initial response to Philip, “How can I understand without help?” He longed to be a part of that community but was kept at a distance and saw himself only as an outsider.
He was searching for someone to tell him what to do with the scriptures, how to get his interpretation just right. I imagine he wanted to find just the right apologetic of the text to prove that the good news was also for him.
But as they talk, something begins to happen. Philip replies not just with a theoretical answer that leaves the meaning of the text in some distant past. He puts the passage in the context of the wider story of the Good News of Jesus who is still alive, still moving, still acting in the world to bring redemption and liberation.
It is from this new understanding of the text and this faith not just as something that held meaning for the past, but that points toward meaning and possibilities of the action of God in the present and the future, it is from this that the Eunuch takes his cue and decides to becomes a co-interpreter with Philip. Instead of just relying on someone else to give him the answers, the Eunuch decides to see his story in God’s story and offer that interpretation as a gift to Philip.
Instead of “How can I understand without help?”, the eunuch’s six-word memoir has evolved to “What can keep me from baptism?” The Eunuch’s response is posed as a question, but I prefer to read it as a statement, an awakening to his own power as an interpreter.
The freedom to interpret within a community and have that interpretation taken seriously is the freedom to transform how that community functions. It is the move from tolerance and simply ‘mattering’ to a recognition of belovedness and how much we truly need one another. It is a powerful thing, and for too long the lives and experiences of queer people have not been taken seriously.
Similarly, the lives and experiences of Black people have not been taken seriously, and in this moment it seems the world is finally waking up to the voices that have been saying for far too long that Black lives matter.
Within this awakening, many of us are having to once again navigate our own identities in a new way. For many of us we are having to confront the reality of our White identity, discerning what about ourselves is good and true and what must be uprooted and resisted. Many of us are figuring out what risks our deeply held values are calling us to make and how to best embody these values to offer the world a healing touch. Many of us are courageously facing the inevitable scandals in the face of a system and society that refuses to acknowledge Black life. And no matter where we are on this journey, all of us need communities to both encourage us in this work and to hold us accountable to the best of who we can be together.
It’s time that we all take the responsibility seriously and accept the call to be more than just recipients of this tradition we call Christianity or consumers of the societal status quo. The truth is, we are all discerning our identities in big and small ways every single day. It may be true that my identity as a gay man puts me outside the bounds of certain aspects of power and privilege, but at the same time, I am left with hundreds of opportunities every day to choose whether or not I will identify myself with the Christ who stands alongside the marginalized and oppressed, or whether I will allow myself to hide behind any of the other walls we build to separate us from one another.
Being queer may or may not be a choice, but love is always a choice. And it is one that I hope we are all willing to make.
The choice to love one another enough to risk our truth, the choice to touch one another by embodying good news, the choice to face scandal together, and the choice to become the kind of community that is always looking to the margins because we know that God is already there.
And so my wish for us, my friends, is
- That we would move beyond simply acknowledging that Black lives or queer lives matter but would proclaim boldly that they are worthy, beloved, and needed.
- That we would attune ourselves to our own paths of identity formation and be challenged to make them look more and more like Christ.
- And finally, that we would never settle for being mere consumers of the status quo but would accept the responsibility to become active interpreters of our communities, working to transform us into a beloved community.
For truly, what can stop us?