Strangely, for me, this sermon begins with rugby and the insurance business, specifically a new advertisement for the company AIG featuring the New Zealand national team: The All Blacks. Have you heard of the All Blacks? I suspect at least a few of you remember their appearance in the final scene of the movie “Invictus,” that unlikely story of Nelson Mandela, the new black president, cheering on the South African National team, which for decades had been the pride of the racist apartheid regime. The final match of the tournament fittingly pits South Africa’s Springboks against New Zealand’s “All Blacks.”
The name of New Zealand team actually refers to the color of their jerseys, but something is different about the jerseys in the new AIG commercial. In the ad, both the women’s and men’s teams stand together on the field. The AIG logo is emblazoned in the center of their chests. They hold their hands on their famously black tops, as if ready for the national anthem before the match, nothing new. Then the rugby players start to gently pull on the fabric of their shirts. It turns out that you stretch these particular shirts, the black disappears and a rainbow appears. An amazing trick of the fabric, the effect is really cool. I want one of these jerseys. But selling shirts isn’t the point of the ad. The insurance company is selling an idea. The final image has a message: #DiversityIsStrength
Diversity is strength. I’m honestly not sure what that message has to do with insurance, but it is a message at the heart of our scripture this morning. For the past weeks our first reading has come from the Book of Acts. Throughout the Easter season our calendar takes us to this volume, the story of the Holy Spirit driving the early followers of Jesus out from Galilee, out from Jerusalem, out to all sorts of unlikely folks. The Gospel must be preached to the ends of the earth. And in today’s story, as if to test the hypothesis, Phillip meets an Ethiopian Eunuch.
All the unlikely people.
This is an unlikely story. One of the first converts to the faith is of another race, nationality, ethnicity, and he is a eunuch, a sexual outsider. When eunuchs appear in Scripture, usually they are suspect, conspirators with foreign kings and queens, up to nefarious causes. Philip probably felt uncomfortable even talking with this man. He ticked all of the boxes for “outsider.” Yet here he is, asking the disciple “What is to prevent me from being baptized?”
Philip, like all of us, carries around an inheritance of prejudice. We are meant to feel the awkwardness of this moment. Good Jews were not supposed to associate with sexual minorities, with Gentiles, with foreigners. And God’s Spirit pushes Philip, literally pushes him, to see, all these categories, all these assumptions and prejudices, they need to fall to the side. The Good News is bigger than your tribe, bigger than your prejudice. God’s love is for everyone, everyone, even the sexual minority, event the Ethiopian Eunuch, even you, even me.
This is the message these chapters of Acts bring home again and again. Peter is surprised when God gives him a vision of a tablecloth descending from heaven full of all sorts of “unclean” food. “Eat.” God says. “Nothing I have made is unclean.” Peter decides it would thus be alright to baptize a Roman family. Saul the persecutor becomes Paul the preacher to the Gentiles. Just before this story with Philip, Peter and John have gone out to the Samaritans. The Gospel is not comfortable for the early followers, because the good news does not respect human categories. The Gospel drives Jesus’ followers out, out to all the people who are outsiders, out to all of the people they were taught to avoid and ignore.
And the Spirit does even more, because they don’t simply preach. Jesus’ followers don’t simply have one surprisingly good conversation with an unexpected other, and then go home patting themselves on the back. The stakes are higher. “What is to prevent me from being baptized?” asks the Ethiopian. The eunuch understands something that Philip might not have grasped on his own. If you’re looking for the date of the start of the “black church,” it is right here in Scripture.
Yesterday the great theologian James Cone died. May he rest in peace and rise in glory. Cone was often called the father of “Black Liberation Theology.” He was the first to use that term. In his more recent work, “The Cross and the Lynching Tree” he wrote about the way Jesus’ suffering appeals to suffering people. Cone made a distinction about how people are able to hear scripture, depending on their privilege. A similar distinction seems to be functioning in today’s reading. Philip has something to teach the Eunuch, but there’s a surprise, because the Eunuch has something to teach Philip as well.
There’s a reason the Ethiopian Eunuch is meditating on a passage about suffering, at least according to James Cone. Cone says that “The cross places God in the midst of crucified people, in the midst of people who are hung, shot, burned, and tortured.” The eunuch, the one who has been cast outside, not allowed in the temple. The one who has been excluded, he has something to teach Philip about what it means to follow Christ: Jesus who chose to be an outsider, who chose to suffer with the suffering, who died outside the city wall. Philip’s Christianity is less without the Ethiopian’s witness.
The theologian and one-time Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams has said that “through Baptism we are bound together in solidarities not of our own choosing.” In baptism, Philip and this supposed outsider are bound together. In baptism God says to them both, “you are my beloved children, in you I am well pleased.” In baptism we learn that the distinctions we make between people: sexuality, gender, race, ethnicity, language, culture, all those human distinctions matter less than our common humanity, our common identity as God’s beloved. Baptism binds us together with all of the wrong people. God challenges us to see our diversity not as a reason to be divided or sorted, but as a source of strength.
Beloved Community Commitment
This last year Holy Communion made a new commitment. At the annual meeting of the parish we stood together and said that our church is committed to:
- Being a beloved community in which people of diverse racial, ethnic, cultural, sexual orientation, and gender identities come together to celebrate our kinship as people who love God and who love the image of God reflected in our neighbors, in ourselves, and in creation.
We said we are committed to:
- Being a beloved community that is constantly seeking to grow in our relationship with God and each other, and to love and serve our neighbors (near and far).
We committed ourselves as a congregation to:
- Being a beloved community that is always striving to learn and practice Jesus’ way of love, especially as he calls on us to break down the walls that separate us, and to examine structures of oppression and their impact on our own lives and the lives of others.
I hope that language fills you with a bit of conviction. I also hope the language makes you at least a little bit uncomfortable. It makes me uncomfortable. I believe “diversity is strength.” I believe this congregation is stronger because of our diversity. I believe St. John when he says that we cannot love a God we have not seen, if we do not love the siblings we can see. Still, the work of examining structures of oppression, the work of talking about histories of hate and exclusion, it is uncomfortable work. Learning about privilege and sharing stories about bias, often asks us to be uncomfortably vulnerable.
It is hard to stay at a table and learn about your privilege. It is hard to listen to the story of another who has suffered because of prejudice, because of bias, because of the way our society is structured. It is hard to stay at that table.
It is also hard to stay at a table when someone is learning about their privilege, and they’re not doing it very gracefully. Let’s face it, that happens in these conversations. Those of us who grew up with privilege are prone to put our feet in our mouth. We’re prone to push back in ways that are inappropriate, and we could do a lot better if we listened to the stories of those who have suffered. It is hard to stay at the table with people who are resisting change, and it is important to stay at the table.
God’s movement demands that we go there. God’s Gospel movement today, as it did in the time of the apostles, asks us to act. God binds us together in ways that are surprising, inconvenient, and challenging, but diversity is strength. Diversity is beautiful. Doing the hard work of listening, learning, and loving God’s diverse community will make us grow, but only if we are willing to be vulnerable, to do the work.
Which brings me to Jesus’ words this morning, really to just one of Jesus’ words, but it is one that was used 14 times in today’s lessons. That word is “Abide,” it’s one of the most important in all of Scripture. “Abide in me, as I abide in you.” Jesus invites us. It’s funny. I’d challenge you to think of a time outside of church, outside of the Bible or the hymnal, when you use the word “abide.” People used to say, “I can’t abide that,” but they don’t much anymore. We tend only to use “abide” in scripture and church.
Which is a shame, because abide is a great word. In Greek the word is “meinein.” If we’re looking for a way to explain the Greek, you could say “hang in there.” If we translated that way, our Gospel would read “Hang in there with me, as I hang in there with you.” My former rector in Washington, Luis Leon, used to point out that “there’s a big difference between hanging in there, and hanging on.” You hang on with your fingernails. Hanging on is desperate. “Hanging in there,” is something else. Abiding is something else. Abiding takes time, takes settling in, takes seeking to move from being uncomfortable to comfortable.
Jesus invites us to abide, to hang in there, to spend time. Don’t just hang on. The work of God isn’t desperate, it often isn’t fast. Hang in. Take the time to get to know someone different, someone whose life story, whose economic background, whose race, ethnicity, language, ability, sexual orientation or gender identity is different than your own. Don’t just smile and play nice. Invest. Abide.
The work isn’t easy. Look, I know, as welcoming as we try to be, Holy Communion isn’t the church for everyone. Not everyone is comfortable with an openly gay pastor, married to a spouse of the same gender. Some of us miss the musical tradition we grew up in, and while our music department does incredible work and bring a wide diversity to our worship, some of us wish we could sing nothing but the old English hymnody, and others miss the church of their childhood’s gospel choir. Living together, abiding together in a church like Holy Communion requires some patience, some compromise. Becoming the beloved community takes time, and prayer, and sacrifice, and it means that sometimes we’ll be uncomfortable.
But I believe the work is worth the effort. Like Philip and the other early followers of Jesus discovered, the Gospel is bigger than any one of us, bigger than any one identity, bigger than our sometime, our own tribe. To fully see the beauty of God’s good news, we are going to have to try and wrap our embrace around the whole of humanity. To fully know the love of God, we have to learn to love, learn to be loved, by all sorts and categories of people. All the effort is worth it, because every once in awhile we get a surprising glimpse, maybe even in a rugby commercial. Through the darkness a rainbow appears. We get a glimpse. God’s love is so broad, so deep, and so high. God’s love embraces each and every one of us, and challenges us to abide, to embrace one another, across all those differences, because “God is Love.”