“What is to prevent me…?” | 3 May 2015

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Text: Acts 8:26-40

Every once in a while one of the lectionary readings for the day is pertinent enough to current events that it might have been the passage one would select even if one had all of scripture to choose from.  Today’s reading from Acts is one of those passages.

It’s the story of Philip, one of Jesus’ original 12 apostles, and his encounter with an Ethiopian eunuch, an official in the queen’s court, who had made the long pilgrimage to Jerusalem to worship and is now on his way home.  The Ethiopian eunuch is studying the prophet Isaiah, and Philip uses the opportunity to talk with him about the good news of Jesus…convincingly, because the man requests to be baptized right there on the spot, which Philip gladly does.

Given the events of the past week in the Supreme Court’s hearing on marriage equality, one could focus, if one were so inclined, on the fact that as a eunuch, this man was a sexual minority of his time.  As was common in various kingdoms of the ancient world, men who served in the court were often castrated so as to remove the threat of them being a sexual rival to the king or a threat to the queen.  One could become a eunuch early or later in life.  Eunuchs oversaw various functions of the court including being guardians of the harem.  Eunuchs were seen as being less-than, a deficient version of the full complete human being, the fertile male.  In the Ottoman empire the name given to eunuchs literally meant, “Chief of the girls.”

The most important first century historian of the Jewish world, Josephus, writing just a few decades after the events of Acts, wrote this: “Let those that have made themselves eunuchs be had in detestation; and avoid any conversation with them who have deprived themselves of their manhood, and of that fruit of generation which God has given to men of the increase of their kind; let such be driven away as if they had killed their children, since they have lost what would produce (children); for it is evident, that their soul has become feminine, they have transferred that effeminacy to their body also.  In like manner to you treat all that is of a monstrous nature when it is looked on.” (Antiquities of the Jews 4:290-291)

But Philip does not avoid the conversation.  He does not treat the man as monstrous or a detestation.  Instead, he invites him into the Jesus way.

The eunuch is intrigued, compelled by this message.  He says to Philip, as if anticipating a rejection: “Look, here is water!  What is to prevent me from being baptized?”  What about this man’s being might prevent him from being baptized and fully joining in the Jesus way?  Nothing.  Absolutely nothing.  They go down into the water, and Philip baptizes him, and the Spirit shows up.

There’s more that could be and has been explored here, pertinent to the events of our time as it relates to sexual minorities and full participation in the life of the community.

Given the events of the past week in Baltimore, the thousands of peaceful protestors highlighting the unjust death of another young black male, the hundreds of looters who became the subject of media attention, one could focus, if one were so inclined, on the fact that as an Ethiopian, this man had dark skin – a black male of African origin.  This would not have been the liability that it is now, and in the ancient world Africans were often spoken of as a beautiful and dignified people.

If you’re a black male in America, we basically have about three options for you: You can be an athlete, you can be a rapper, or you can be a thug.  We’ll gladly wear your jersey, buy your album, or lock you in prison.  If you don’t fit into any of those categories, we’re not quite sure what to do with you.  We get confused.  We even get scared.  When in doubt, we focus our eyes, our video cameras, on something that fits into one of those categories and reinforces our stereotypes.

Here, in this encounter with Philip, is a black man who fits into none of these categories.  He is a seeker, a spiritual pilgrim.  He is a reader, a student, perhaps even a scholar, thoughtfully engaged with a holy text.  He is a conversation partner.  He is a brother in Christ, a member of the universal family that knows no national or ethnic boundaries.  He messes with our categories and invites us to see our world with fresh eyes.

Either of these aspects of the Ethiopian eunuch could be the focus of an entire sermon, but now that I’m already well into this one, I want to pick up on a third aspect.

Tomorrow, as you most likely know by now, is the Nehemiah Action for BREAD.  We’re hoping that 100 of us Columbus Mennonites can join 3 or maybe even 4000 other people of faith from around the area and make ourselves counted.  One the great strengths of BREAD is that it enables us to directly engage our public officials on matters that lead to specific research-based changes that make Franklin County a more just place to live.  A lot of the hard work happens in smaller meetings, but this Nehemiah gathering is a way of showing our people power and giving public officials the courage and the cover to make the difficult changes we are requesting.

One of the other aspects of Philip’s encounter with this individual, is that the Ethiopian eunuch is actually a person of considerable power.  He is a court official of Candace, queen of the Ethiopians, in charge of her entire treasury.  He’s treasury secretary – this is Hank Paulson, Timothy Geithner – a cabinet level power broker, no doubt having some sway over where funds are and aren’t spent.  He’s riding in his chariot, his limo, and reading up on one of the key thought leaders of these foreigners he has just visited – the prophet Isaiah of the Jews.  In some ways, it’s actually Philip, of no special social status, who is the one with little power.  But the Spirit instructs him go and talk with this public official.

What unfolds is a dream scenario for everyone who has ever participated in BREAD or social activism.  Philip runs up to the chariot, as it says, and in a stroke of great fortune, meets the official while he’s in an open frame of mind.  He’s reading a text about injustice, and wants to learn more.  The prophet Isaiah had written about his own people’s suffering by saying: “Like a sheep he was led to the slaughter…In his humiliation justice was denied him.  His life is taken away from the earth.”  It’s a perfect set up.  The official is reading about a great injustice, and looking for what he might do – perhaps even identifying with that injustice himself through his own story.   He invites Philip to get in his chariot and sit beside him – a seat at the table, a place in the limo.  And Philip tells him about the way of Jesus.  We aren’t told what Philip says, but I’d like to think it sounded something like this:  “Yes, the prophet Isaiah speaks of injustice.  I am a follower of a great leader who committed his life to living among those who suffered like this.  He was so extreme in his passion and love that he himself was condemned and killed as a common criminal, much like the way Isaiah describes.  Even though he died, he is still powerfully alive and this outcast has called on us to gather the outcasts and those who have been denied justice to create a new kind of community.  Will you join us by giving your loyalty to this leader above all other leaders and siding with the poor, the outcasts, the victims of injustice?”

The public official is convinced on the spot, joins the movement, and goes his way rejoicing as a new agent of justice and transformation.

That’s the dream version of what BREAD hopes to accomplish and, frankly, that’s the version my peaceful Mennonite self much prefers.  I love the picture of the commoner Philip and the powerful treasurer sitting down together and gaining better understanding and finding a common commitment – the official even undergoing a transformation that will ripple out to those within his sphere of influence.  Maybe the treasurer went back to his homeland and proclaimed a Jubilee, declaring that all of society should benefit from its collective wealth, and that all debts were forgiven.  This fits into my romanticized narrative that if we all just sat down together we can find common ground, get along, and help everybody out.

If you’ve ever participated in anything BREAD does, you know that this is not how things typically unfold.  It is much more confrontational, much more conflicted, much more of a power struggle.  The official is embedded in an entire system that tends to resist change, and Philip is not just an individual, but is a diverse coalition of human beings with mixed feelings about what kinds of tactics and strategies to be employed to achieve the desired outcomes.

The most common biblical framework BREAD uses to think about itself is not Philip and this official, but Moses and Pharaoh.  Pharaoh is stuck in a narrative of scarcity in which there’s not enough to go around and power must be protected rather than shared.  Moses confronts Pharaoh with righteous anger at the slavery of his people, with a narrative of abundance that there is indeed enough resources to address our persistent problems, and demands Pharaoh to ‘let me people go.’

We have been literally acting out this framework in how we have addressed trying to get municipal identification cards for undocumented immigrants in our county.  Ohio was recently rated last of all the 50 states in policies that benefit undocumented immigrants.  (April 16, Dispatch).  That’s 50th out of 50.  Last.  For the last two years BREAD has been petitioning city council to either recognize national id cards such as the Mexican Matricula Consular or issue municipal id cards to improve the lives of immigrants in our community.  After getting basically nowhere, BREAD leadership decided to make ten trips to city council meetings, like Moses making his ten trips to Pharaoh, and use the opportunity for public comments to urge for an ordinance regarding these ID’s.  We didn’t threaten plagues, although we have thought of ourselves as perhaps a plague of gnats who keep annoyingly buzzing in people’s ears.  You can swat away one gnat and forget about it, but a whole swarm will get your attention, maybe even change your mind.  The tenth and final trip to city council happened just a few weeks ago, and included about 150 Latinos who came out of the shadows and packed the chamber, a few testifying about the fear they live with.  It feels like we may be making some progress, but there has been no conversion or baptism to date.

This year’s problem area has been crime and violence and BREAD is proposing an approach that has had significant affects reducing violent crime in other cities, including Cincinnati.  More details will be given at the Action tomorrow.

The Ethiopian eunuch treasury secretary embodies both the oppressed face of the sexual minority and the black male, and the powerful face of the public official.  It’s one of the things I love about these stories from scripture – they are multi-faceted and can speak in different ways in different circumstances.

I want to close by posing that question directed to Philip:  “What is to prevent me?”

Officials have their own answers for what is to prevent them from doing what BREAD requests, but what is to prevent us from engaging that conversation?  What is to prevent us from turning out 100+ peace and justice minded Mennonites at tomorrow’s Nehemiah Action.

I prefer to end sermons with good questions rather than good answers, so I will resist attempting to answer that question for everyone, but I will share how I am working on answering that for myself.

“What is to prevent me” from engaging in the work of BREAD?”  The time commitment, my uncomfortability with public confrontation and some of BREAD’s tactics, the little voice in the back of my mind that things aren’t going to change and that one more body in a seat at a meeting isn’t going to make a difference.  Those are the main things.

“What is to prevent me” from engaging in the work of BREAD?  Not much, maybe nothing.  I am continually challenged by the thought that those many people who experience injustice on a daily basis do not have the choice or privilege of whether or not to be engaged.  It has engaged them.  There are many ways to work for justice, but I find BREAD to be the best of model of faith communities doing justice together that we’ve got going for us in Columbus.

If you have other ways of answering this question, “What is to prevent us…?” let’s talk about it.  I am grateful that this congregation is adding a bit of Anabaptist flavor to the loaf of BREAD and I’m grateful for all the ways you all work for dignity and goodness in the settings in which you are engaged.