This Sermon is PG-13 (Hopefully Not R)

sermon on Acts 8:26-39

This old story is curiously current.

That it can seem an archaic artifact, admittedly still doesn’t prevent me from squirming, and I’ll begin apologizing now if it is uncomfortable for you addressing a guy whose private parts have been chopped off. It precedes next week’s reading that also involves a question of what proper genitals are. Today the issue of circumcision is moot, though, for this person who’d been castrated. That severing may have served as part of an official role, to make this person be or become less disposed (to say the least) to put an heir on the throne or steal to support a family or to disrupt the harem, less likely even to be able to fit into society, and so maybe reliably loyal and dependent on a place in the palace.

Besides that unfashionable uncontemporary form of ensuring servitude, many other details in this story seem old. We don’t much think of palace rooms filled with gold, counted by court officials (though maybe we do picture security guards and vaults?). This week we were confronted with a queen and behaviors around royalty; still, unfortunately, we might not be prone to picture Ethiopia or anyplace in Africa as having celebrated queens.

Even the detail of the chariot probably places this in some fairy tale olden time. Much less that the occupant of that chariot was passing the travel time by reading scripture. Thank goodness we’ve got phones and playlists and podcasts and Minecraft now, so we don’t have to “waste” our time on trips by reading the Bible!

Yet this old story is also plenty present, curiously current. In the end, there’s the stunning line, “What’s to prevent me from being baptized?”

This exciting moment in the book of Acts is a new beginning in the sweep of the Christian story because it meant the good news was spreading, salvation from Jesus was reaching to all nations. Back in chapter 1, Jesus told the apostles they would share the good news in Jerusalem, to the surrounding area, and on to the ends of the earth. Well, at that time Ethiopia was what they knew as the end of the earth.

For more breaking boundaries, in this book called “the Acts of the Apostles,” Philip, the one conveying God’s blessing, was not technically an apostle, not chosen as an evangelist or a pastor or a preacher, but merely selected as a waiter on soup kitchen detail. Yet here he was suddenly driven by the Holy Spirit to spread the preaching and the splashing of baptism farther than it had ever gone. It wasn’t in his job description, but that silly, surprising Holy Spirit was ignoring the people’s presumptuous rules.

A couple chapters later the central apostle Peter will baptize a Roman centurion, meaning that the Holy Spirit had clearly chosen to include a non-Jew into this saving movement of Jesus. Though this story today stretches to the ends of the earth, it might seem like some in-crowd. We notice that this Ethiopian eunuch was familiar with Jewish practice and with the Bible.

But to be sure we’re hearing why that was still hugely shocking, we can’t say that the eunuch was actually Jewish, because the scriptures kept this sort of person at least at arm’s length. Having been in Jerusalem, the eunuch still certainly would not have been permitted to pray in the temple while there.

Again, apologies if this causes uncomfortable conversation on your family chariot rides home, but here’s an exemplary verse from Torah, the teachings of Moses, the definitional law for Jewish religion. Ready? “No one whose testicles are crushed or whose penis is cut off shall be admitted to the assembly of the LORD” (Deut.23:1). I don’t share that just for impropriety so we’re all uncomfortable, but because that verse highlights what is going on in today’s reading.

Now, I don’t know if the chariot had a “eunuch on board” bumpersticker or something, but the story tells all the private details. So when the eunuch asked, “What’s to prevent me from being baptized?” the only response is: you are clearly… definitely…. legally… unquestionably restricted, in fact strictly forbidden from being included in the assembly of the LORD. That’s the right answer. For the Bible tells me so. You are prevented. Period. You’re out.

And yet Philip—not an apostle, not a pastor, not one who was supposed to preach, much less be baptizing—is nevertheless compelled by the Holy Spirit to go on with the baptism. What’s to prevent you? What in the holy name of God Almighty? What for Christ’s sake could get in the way of your baptism? Boundaries? The rules? The Bible itself? Aw, let’s do it! Incorporating one from the ends of the earth into the community of Christ. Breaking down what clearly classified an outsider.

Wow. This is amazingly good stuff, so let’s be clear we’re recognizing it for a second with an Alleluia! Christ is risen! (It’s the clearest boundary-breaking good news message, which is why I like saying it so much.)

That was shocking stuff then, but we’d better not hear it as an old, old story, but still curiously current here and now.

For simple starters, the Ethiopian was black. That’s also part of the point. We admit we shouldn’t picture Jesus as white. Jesus wasn’t some blondish-haired blue-eyed northern European-looking dude, am I right? We have to acknowledge that when God chose to become incarnate, to be born into our world and appear in our lives and our skin, God chose brown Palestinian, Arabic skin and eyes and hair.

But the story still has what we would identify as a racial divide. This is a black-skinned person, very intentionally included into the church. The Holy Spirit isn’t into identifying skin colors as barriers to blessing.

That racial inclusion is plenty difficult for us to live into, but maybe what sounds even more extraordinary is that this is a story about a person of ambiguous gender incorporated into the church, directly claimed and received by the Holy Spirit herself. This Ethiopian eunuch is without that body part that would most clearly identify a man, but is also not a woman. It breaks apart the gender binary.

Again that’s curiously current, as our society is struggling unfortunately even on whether, but also with good intentions on how to incorporate people who have nontraditional gender identities or expressions. Here at the MCC, we’re trying to figure out what to do with pronouns on our nametags and how to restructure our bathrooms. We keep trying to live into it, but there’s no question that the Holy Spirit will bring us into the body of Christ no matter our body type and will extend salvation beyond—and as more important than—our old stale categories.

God is intent on chasing down these lost sheep, especially when religious people have been the ones who scattered them and refused to flock together. Our story is that this is who God is. Already three chapters after that passage the eunuch was reading, the prophet Isaiah proclaimed the word of the Lord saying, “To the eunuchs I will give an everlasting name that shall not be cut off, and foreigners I will make joyful in my house of prayer for all peoples” (from Isaiah 56:4-7). This promise of God is especially made known in Jesus, who joined the lost and injured sheep to extend salvation to all. This God’s story continues as the Spirit sent Philip scampering after a chariot in the middle of the desert midday sun to catch a eunuch. And this story of a God in Jesus chasing along remains curiously current.

In the terms of this story, you may be a Philip, an unappointed apostle, finding yourself in unusual settings and circumstances, proclaiming good news. Playing catch-up to the God who breaks down barriers, you may get a part in extending an unexpected word of grace.

Or you may identify more with the eunuch, one who didn’t expect to be incorporated, whose corporeal reality, whose very body and life kept you excluded, or who was on the outs for some nonsensical reason. You may have some inner yearning to understand this God and be surprised that God yearns for you, too.

Or you may be, admittedly, a combination. Our faith is shaped and guided along not just by insiders, not even just by unofficial insiders like Philip. Some of us who have been the insiders are being taught about Jesus and salvation and what it means to share in the body of Christ by those who had been on the outside, had been excluded, by people we were even told were wrong, weren’t allowed, who surprise even us as embodiments of grace. We can give thanks we are taught God’s love in a richer way by companions who identify as LGBTQ+, by people of a different skin color, by people whose bodies are different, differently abled, or disabled, by people from elsewhere on the planet, by those who aren’t as studied or learned as us, even by situations that may give us discomfort.

With this kind of God, there are always surprises, even about being in it all together, finding a place for everyone. What will prevent it? Nothing. Not even death itself. Alleluia! Christ is risen!

 

 

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a funeral sermon

With Thanksgiving for the Life of Louis Don Nowicki

2 July 1957 + 1 July 2015

Isaiah 25:6-9; Psalm 23; Acts 10:34-36, 39-43; John 14:1-6

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

“I go and prepare a place for you.” These words from Jesus are good words, good news for us and for Louis, at this time now for him, and for all of our lives held in God’s caring embrace.

Much as the disciples ask Jesus, “What is the way, and how can we know it?” we may well want to ask where our place is. In our lives, and for Louis, we can label some of those places that are ours, that we call our own, call “home.” For him it began on the farm up north, and it is near there that he’s going to return as at Wednesday’s graveside service we commit him to his final resting place.

We might also well say that the place for Louis was in a kitchen. For a family that loves food and has hardly finished one meal before you’re already talking about what might be part of the next, Louis was in the right place; his talents and skills were well-founded. Yet it wasn’t only about meeting the needs of hunger. Louis was not just sharing the nourishment of serving food but also the meticulous creativity and care of décor, from winning dishes displayed for school and on to his dedicated work for the charter train that carried celebrities and special guests to Super Bowls and all over the country. With his careful, artistic eye and attention to those details of meals, Louis could transform even something plain and regular into a beautiful dish, spectacular and extraordinary. Yes, Louis found a passion and a good place for himself in the kitchen.

And again, in thinking of his place, there was also the house in Greenfield, the place he called home with David, a relationship that was also his place for more than 25 years. To change our perspective a bit and think about the place of that type of relationship in our society, we’re only now coming around to the place where the rest of us should be. When Louis invited me in to his apartment to show me photos of his life, I delighted in it. But I could tell it was still a nervous thing for him, going out on a limb even to be able to talk about this partner whose death he was still grieving, still in deep pain over.

There are too many even yet in society who would want to put Louis in his place, to label sins and to cast stones. Well, I’d say those stones are being cast in the wrong direction. Rather than being the one needing forgiveness, Louis embodied a gentle and forgiving presence toward the sort of people who too long condemned him and made life more difficult, less than what is should fully have been, those who would have tried to exclude Louis.

And that’s a fitting place to turn again to our words from Jesus. He goes to prepare our place, and in his Father’s house there are many rooms. If we try to insist that you have to love the right person or act the right way or believe the right things in order to get into the house, we not only limit God’s work and welcome, but also push Jesus himself out the door, disabling him from being our gracious host by our partiality.

Jesus prepares the place for us, no matter who we are. And in this household there is much room, for everybody, not just those who are alike or who fit into each other’s company. The many rooms, we must believe, aren’t so that the Father will tuck us into to our own little individual compartment. It seems more likely that there are people in the Father’s house who are so different they couldn’t stand to be in the same room with each other, but nevertheless they are welcomed, with a place secured for them by Jesus.

So, with apologies for being part of church that has too long been a place of shaming and excluding, I’m eager and delighted to proclaim that these words from Jesus are meant for Louis, “Behold, I go and prepare a place for you.”

I also want you to hear how these words are meant for you. Particularly as his family, you’ve said that you could spend lots of time worrying for Louis, about how he never planned for rainy days when things would go wrong, about how you worked to care for him and put life back together for him.

When you told me, Ed, this terrible, shocking news that Louis had died, you were struggling with grief and questions of failure, that you had tried to help him, that you all had made it work for him to move here to Madison, that so many of you—including this church community—worked to help him have a good place here, to fit in, to find friends, to be active and healthy.

But that didn’t always seem to go well, as Louis continued to confront dark and sad days with a troubled soul. There were times he withdrew from everybody, so quiet, losing track of any delight in life. Through that, you continued to encourage him, to try to motivate him, to make things better, right up until now, when we can’t do any more to care for his wellbeing.

But for your frustrations and worries of failure, for preparations that fell through, for your wishing you could’ve done more, for the loss now in this time of separation and hurt, the word of Jesus is for you, too. Jesus prepares a place for Louis. As much as you tried to make life succeed for him here and elsewhere, ultimately it isn’t your care and concern but God’s embrace that holds onto him, especially now.

And the same as you walk through dark valleys and face death, as you feel attacked by so many hardships and concerns, in the places where life won’t go as it should. Your Lord finds you wherever you are, serves you, and fulfills every need. He has prepared this table before you and offers himself to you here. And he continues to make a place for you, to welcome you home. God’s forgiveness and unconditional love and eternally abundant life is not only more than you can manage, but more than you can imagine.

Thanks be to God.

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