What is to prevent us?

(A sermon for Easter 5B–May 6, 2012–Acts 8:27-40; 1 John 4:7-21click here for audio)

She didn’t look like she belonged there, and she could see it for herself.

It was a summer Sunday, and she decided to visit a church, and she dressed casually because it was summer and it was Maine, and because, frankly, she wasn’t a dressing up kind of person anyway. She came through the rather formal entrance from the main street in town, the only door a person would readily find open, and a well-dressed couple greeted her. And as she looked around, she became more and more uncomfortable, because *everyone* was well-dressed. She could see and feel her own difference. And because I wasn’t there that day I can’t tell you how they treated her. I know the next time she came she sat in the back, and she asked the preacher – me – if the church had a dress code.

Apparently these exist.

We can tell when we’re welcome, or not.

I had a long conversation with her in which I tried to justify the people who dress up for church. I always dressed up for church, so I wasn’t really the one to make the case for coming casual. I understood why it mattered to look spruced up for Jesus. I also understood why it didn’t matter at all, and therefore put no pressure on my kids to dress up for church, figuring it mattered more to have them there. So on balance I think this makes me a moderate on dressing up for church, although I’m pretty sure I’ve only preached in pants twice, ever.

I had to try hard to see the visitor’s point of view, because I believed everyone ought to be welcome and everyone *was* welcome, as far as I could tell: welcome to come into the sanctuary, welcome to worship God, welcome to come to the table and certainly welcome to be baptized.

When Brittany asked me just a few weeks ago if Evan had to be dressed in white to be baptized, I assured her there was no dress code. I would have been just as happy to baptize him in footie pajamas as I was to baptize him in little khaki pants.
It doesn’t matter to me what a person wears to church, even though I can understand why some dress up and can support those who do not, whether the reason is philosophical, practical or personal.

For the people who greeted the lady in shorts, there was at least a long moment of wondering whether she had come to ask for money. That happened sometimes, because the church was downtown in a neighborhood gone a little to ruin, but I always thought the greeters did a great job making people welcome no matter the circumstances and no matter what they might have thought on the inside.

But I didn’t always see it up close, so if there was a moment of checking themselves, of regrouping to appear welcoming even when the feeling wasn’t there, I wouldn’t have known about it. There are invisible barriers, and when we are the ones who “live” here, we can’t necessarily see them.

I grew up in Virginia, as most of you know, and it was a time when some of the barriers were literal, spelled out on signs warning people of color not to sit in certain places or drink from certain fountains. And as things began to be integrated, I can remember overhearing a conversation at church. What would we do, people wondered, if an African-American family wanted to come to our church? This was a cause for worry, and not unlike the question of how we dress for church, the worry came from both ends of the spectrum. The youth group heard a rumor about church leaders being in the Ku Klux Klan. But what was more likely true was what usually is true in church disagreements: some people liked things the way they were, while others wanted to see the church expand its understanding of community.

The book of Acts, which we read in the season of Easter in place of readings from the Old Testament, is a story of pushing out the boundaries and including more and more people of different backgrounds and circumstances in the community of Christ’s people. Peter and the original group of disciples are all Jews. They want to expand the faith within their own race, and they struggle with the idea that you can follow Jesus without being a Jew, just like them, without following the rules about what you eat and how you wash and who can go into the Temple.

Despite their initial assumption, the message of God’s grace and forgiveness spoke to people beyond their community, and Gentiles joined them. Still, there were struggles, and Acts 6 tells us the Greek followers of Christ complained that “their” widows weren’t getting as much care as the Jewish widows. Philip, part of whose story we read today, was himself a Gentile, a Greek, and one of seven followers of Christ chosen to do active ministry, set to work making sure that inequity did not continue.

When increasing persecution caused the identifiable faithful to scatter, Philip went to Samaria to preach. The Samaritans shared ancestry with the Jews, but did not share all their practices and understandings, so Philip, a Greek, had to master another unfamiliar culture.

From a website so prim they call it “Philip and the man in a chariot.”

And then…

Then an angel of the Lord said to Philip, “Get up and go toward the south to the road that goes down from Jerusalem to Gaza.”

And the person the angel sent Philip to talk with was a lot farther outside his comfort zone than the lady in shorts was for the well-dressed greeters on Main Street, I can promise you.

The followers of Jesus were living on the margins, persecuted by the Jewish authorities, scattered to avoid mayhem, and now he was sent by the Angel of the Lord to talk to someone in a chariot?

Yes. The person in the chariot was a court official of the Candace, the ruler of what we know as Ethiopia, a queen in a line of female monarchs.* He was her treasurer, which means he holds a responsible position of authority. And he was a eunuch, a man who sacrificed part of his physical body in order to hold that position of trust, the idea being that a eunuch would not manage to marry or become involved with the queen, nor would he have a family of his own that might divide his loyalties.

I told you it was more complicated than wearing shorts to church.

The man was Ethiopian, a person of color, and he was a eunuch, and he was also a Jew. He had just come from Jerusalem, where he could go to the Temple, but not all the way inside. He knew the rules. Just getting close was enough.

Imagine if the lady with the shorts had been asked to stand in the vestibule, to listen to the service through the closed doors.
But he knew those were the rules, and he clearly left Jerusalem hungry for more knowledge, as he was reading from Isaiah, that beautiful book of prophecy that seems to point so clearly to Jesus. Certainly Philip understood it that way, and he proceeded to tell the eunuch all he knew about the life and death and resurrection of our Savior, Jesus Christ.

“Look! There is some water! What is to prevent me from being baptized?”

The eunuch was ready to commit to a new way of understanding God. Would Philip let him in? What was to prevent him?
Maybe this person was too far outside the norms being established by the new community. Maybe his differences were too … different.

From the school website.

I can tell you that over many years, the school associated with my church in Virginia became multi-racial.

I wish I could tell you that the lady in shorts came back week after week, enjoyed staying for coffee hour, made some new friends, signed up to help with a mission project and eventually joined the church. I wish I could tell you that.

I hope it’s the truth that she was the one perceiving a difference that was too … different. I know her two visits to the church got us talking about how we made people welcome, and how we failed at it, too. We weren’t limber enough to make a change so quickly, between one Sunday and the next. We needed more time to identify the barriers, to process and respond.

Philip, thankfully, did not. He got out of the chariot with the Ethiopian eunuch. He got into the water with the queer, black Jew and baptized him.

What is to prevent us from doing the same?

In the name of the One who makes us one community of love. Amen.

*Many thanks to the Rev. Wil Gafney, Ph.D. for sharing her sermon, “Black, Jewish and Queer: The Ethiopian Eunuch,” which both informed and inspired me this week.

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