Have you ever hitch-hiked? You can be honest here; we’re not going to tell your Mom. After getting to know this congregation in the last year, I wouldn’t be surprised if several of you hitchhiked to Woodstock! Hitchhiking has diminished in popularity, and with good reason though it might be considered an eco-friendly method of transportation. I remember when I was a teenager, there was a woman in a prayer group I attended who liked to pick up hitchhikers so she could tell them about Jesus. We were enthralled by her stories of how unsuspecting, captive passengers would be convinced of their sin and say a prayer and get saved, all on an a two-mile impromptu ride home after football practice.
Such blatant efforts to proselytize may offend our progressive sensibilities, but there is story buried deep in the New Testament book of Acts that’s really not so different, at least not at first glance.
On the rocky wilderness road to Gaza, south of Jerusalem, the apostle Phillip responded to the urging of an angel by hitching a ride in a chariot with a man whose name we do not know but is referred to as an Ethiopian eunuch. He was a Gentile, but was likely to be what the Jews referred to as a “God-fearer.” He traveled from Africa to Jerusalem to stand at a distance and to worship in the limited ways available to him. It was on his return trip that he gave Phillip a lift and engaged him in discussion of questions based on words of the prophet Isaiah. Phillip took the opportunity to tell him about Jesus as the fulfillment of prophesy. When they passed a rare pool of water in the desert, the Ethiopian eunuch jumped from the chariot and charged into the water to be baptized by Phillip.
This story is seen as the start of an early Christian movement that brought the message of Jesus to Africa and eventually resulted in a large population of Ethiopian Christians. Last Sunday I told about visiting an ancient monastery in Israel and encountering a busload of colorfully dressed religious pilgrims from Ethiopia. A book that was published after my sabbatical two years ago includes a photo of an Ethiopian woman wrapped in silk garments holding her infant at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem prior to a baptism service. On the roof of that church is a small monastery that has been operated by Ethiopian Christians since the 1970s when the monks were driven out of Ethiopia during a political coup. The rich history of the Ethiopian Church is traced back to its origins in the story we heard today about a conversation in a chariot on a dusty desert road.
Many preachers refer to this text as an example of how to share faith and bring people to a decision about following Jesus and being baptized. There is a much more profound message here, though, that is too easily missed or ignored. The incident of Phillip sharing the story of Jesus with an Ethiopian eunuch was a dramatic and radical act of inclusion for the early Christian church.
The Ethiopian Eunuch had everything imaginable stacked against him if he wished to be part of a faith community. He was a Gentile, meaning that he was religiously offensive; he was a black Ethiopian and therefore racially different; and he was a eunuch which made him a sexual minority.
The text tells us that this man was a court official of Candace, queen of the Ethiopians. Eunuchs were men who were castrated at an early age, preventing them from maturing sexually and from therefore being considered a threat while interacting with and overseeing women. Eunuchs existed among Jews as well as Gentiles, and those who were Jewish were prevented from worshiping in the temple. Their ambiguous sexuality and their physical deformity caused people to regard them with derision and therefore exclude them from the worshipping community.
Racism and the suspicion of people who are considered foreigners is not limited to our modern age. The Ethiopian eunuch would have stood out with his dark skin among the residents and other religious pilgrims in Jerusalem and would have been viewed with suspicion. As a Gentile, there was nothing he could do to become a a part of the Jewish faith and was forever consigned a spot on the outer edge of the Temple Mount to watch with wonder but never come close.
Three strikes: race, religion, sexuality. Only one was necessary to keep him out, but he bore the weight of rejection three times over.
In a chariot, though, in the desert, with a stranger, by a pool of water, he was not rejected. When the Ethiopian eunuch saw water appear in the desert, he asked a poignant question: “What is to prevent me from being baptized?” For all of the clear obstacles that stood between the Ethiopian eunuch and a life of faith and community, not one word of caution was offered by Phillip and not a single reason was given to keep him away.
How clearly do people hear the message from the followers of Jesus that all are welcome without condition? Race and religion and sexuality are still big bugaboos twenty centuries after the Ethiopian eunuch was immersed in that desert oasis. Read the articles in Christian publications that demean and misrepresent todays Gentiles who include our Muslim neighbors. Recently Peter Kleinman and I met with leaders at our local mosque to discuss ways to learn about one another and work together. This past weekend at a Habitat for Humanity workday in Jamestown, Spense Havlick painted alongside a CU student from Saudi Arabia. She talked about her involvement in the Boulder mosque and suggested a joint Habitat workday with our church, which is something we’ve already been discussing. We’re not trying to convert one another, we’re just trying to gain more understanding and to work together toward common goals.
This has been a difficult week in regard to race relations in our country. Riots in Baltimore have once again drawn attention to the enormous economic disparity in our nation and the frustration of those who are certain that their voices are not heard. How can we hear one another? Sunday morning continues to be the most segregated time in America as Christians gather where they are most comfortable or are sorted by economic status. We illustrate that very well, and I think we are aware of the gap between our desire to be diverse in as many ways as possible and the reality of our racial near-homogeneity. Hopefully all persons who come through out door will experience a sincere welcome regardless of their ethnic background.
Bruce Jenner has also gotten much attention this week, with many articles written on the revelation that he identifies as transgender. Conservative Christian news outlets in particular have had a feeding frenzy as they’ve lined up to see who can be clearest and loudest in their condemnation on what they consider to be biblical grounds. An article on a mainline church website that I utilize for worship resources was titled “Are Transgender Christians Welcome at Church?” I was encouraged until I read the poorly researched article and saw that most commenters made it clear that transgender women and men were not welcome in their church. I couldn’t help but ponder today’s Scripture about a man who was outside of what was considered the norm in regard to his sexuality but was enthusiastically welcomed into a life of faith through baptism.
I believe we need to not be afraid to chase chariots. Phillip came alongside a chariot, asked for a ride, and shared the good news that an Ethiopian eunuch was just as worthy of inclusion in the realm of God as anyone else. There’s a lot of bad news out there for people who have been told that they are unacceptable for any variety of reasons. Many have come to believe that bad news and need to hear a clear word of welcome from us.
This is my first Maypole Sunday here at CUCC. We celebrate the arrival of spring and the return of lush, green life to our semi-arid part of the world. And we sing a song that says:
Round and round we go
We hold each other's hands
We weave our lives in a circle
Our love is strong and the dance goes on.
What a great description of who we seek to be as an inclusive community. We are an ever-widening circle of diverse human beings whose lives are woven together in a commitment to love all persons. Today as we enjoy the sunshine and warmth and joy of our Maypole tradition, remember who we are and give thanks to the God who has welcomed us, as well.