Sermon for Sunday May 6, 2012

* This is the sermon that was written for the day, but was not preached. *

Acts 8:26-40

“Abundant Grace Awash On A Wilderness Road”

Franklin Circle Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)

Cleveland, Ohio ~ www.FranklinCircleChurch.org

Rev. Allen V. Harris, Pastor & Preacher

Dearly beloved, do you know that you are loved?

Do you know that you are loved to heights loftier than the highest of soaring skyscrapers?  Loved more awesomely than the most majestic of mountains?  Loved more broadly than the boundless seas?  You are loved!

Dearly beloved, do you know that you are forgiven?

Do you know that you are forgiven more surely than the earth’s gravitational forces will hold you close to the ground.  Forgiven more certainly than summer will follow spring and winter will follow fall?  Forgiven more copiously than all the windows in New York City, Seoul, Tokyo, Mumbai, and Mexico City – combined?  You are forgiven!

Dearly beloved, do you know that compassion enfolds you?

Do you know that compassion enfolds you more lavishly than the colors of the rainbow adorn the butterfly?  That compassion sustains you more gently than a baby’s first coo?  That compassion shelters you more completely than the best harbor shelters the most fragile boat in the fiercest storm.  Compassion enfolds you!

Dearly beloved, do you know that hope is abundantly available to you, that renewal is constantly at work with in you, and that peace is your constant companion?  They are!

Love – Forgiveness – Compassion – Hope – Renewal – Peace!

Do you/I/we truly know these truths and live fully alive in them?  If they have not become clear to you before now, then today is the day.  These truths remain fundamental to human life for these are the basic elements of grace, and grace is the essence of God at work in our world.

On a wilderness road, sometime not long after the death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus of Nazareth, one of the early followers of Jesus, Philip, met an Ethiopian eunuch, a court official of the Queen of Ethiopia.  He was reading from a Hebrew sacred book, the writings of the prophet Isaiah, and asked Philip to help him understand it.  After Philip had taught the man for a while, he asked to be baptized, and was.  The Ethiopian left rejoicing in God, and Philip continued his preaching.

Baptism of the Eunuch, Rembrandt van Rijn, 1626

Philip knew of God’s amazing grace.  Philip knew well the love, forgiveness, compassion, hope, renewal, and peace of God.  He knew it so profoundly that he could not help but tell the story to any who thirsted to know of this grace.  The Ethiopian eunuch also knew of God’s amazing grace.  Having read about it, he then studied it under Philip’s tutelage, and ultimately sought sign and symbol of God’s grace in baptism.  You can almost hear the man singing as he came up out of the water: “Order my steps in your Word, dear Lord.  Lead me, guide me, every day… Order my steps, and I’ll praise your name!”

Perhaps we do not fully grasp the breath-takingly radical and groundbreaking aspects of this story and how God’s grace was made available in new ways in the actions of Philip and of the Ethiopian eunuch.  The sweeping nature of this text bears discussion.

First, we must understand that this was not just any road.  It was a wilderness road, which is to say Philip and his entourage went “off the beaten path.”  Yes, at the request of an angel of God, but angels tell us many things that we do not do.  Am I right?  But Philip followed.  And this was not simply a wilderness road, but it was a wilderness road – in Samaria.  Now Samaria was, by all accounts, the “other side of the tracks” for good, upstanding Hebrew citizens.  Through a long, convoluted history of tragedy and travail, the Samaritans and the Jews, though united by genealogy were separated by prejudices and passions.  Biblical Scholar and Adult Conference Bible Teacher Ron Allen puts it succinctly when he writes, “Relationships between the Jewish and Samaritan communities were usually tense.” (1)

So the author of Acts reminds us that, by placing the road Philip is on clearly in Samaria, and a wilderness road at that, we are moving into dangerous and uncertain territory.  This love… this forgiveness… this compassion… this grace is risky business!

Second, Philip comes upon a man, a eunuch who is a courtier of Queen Candace of Ethiopia.  Not unlike the way our ears perceive this in our time, the early church would hear this as a quirky and highly unusual encounter.  Eunuchs were rare, but were often used to serve wealthy or prominent women as they were considered sexually safe and not a threat.  Some scholars set forth that throughout much of scripture the word “eunuch” is not always meant to be interpreted literally, but figuratively.  Catholic theologian, John J. McNeill suggests that this eunuch was “the first baptized gay Christian” (2) on the grounds that the word “eunuch” in the New Testament is not always used in a literal sense, but as a euphemism for non-heterosexual persons.

But lest you begin to infer that this is just one more sermon from your Pastor trying to bolster the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer inclusiveness of this congregation, truly this story represents a much broader, much more encompassing inclusiveness.  One might even say that it seeks to expand all our horizons.  Presbyterian theologian, Jack Rogers, says that the Ethiopian, whether gay or not, certainly “belonged to a sexual minority who was not fully welcome in the worship community of Israel,” (3) and concludes that “the fact that the first Gentile convert to Christianity is from a sexual minority and a different race, ethnicity and nationality together form a clarion call for inclusiveness, radical grace, and Christian welcome to all who show faith.”  This story calls us, yes, to be Open & Affirming of all sexual orientations, but it also demands that we not limit the abundant waters of grace to those of any one race, class, or nationality and it even pushes our limits on making the community of faith accessible to persons of all physical and mental abilities.

Finally, this encounter between Philip and the Ethiopian was one more step in the expanding of the early church beyond the bounds of the Jewish faith.  Again, and again, and again the church was being compelled to live out Jesus’ final words before he ascended, “Go, ye, into all the world…” (Mark 16:15) and “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations,” (Matt. 28:15).   It’s almost impossible for us modern folks to fully grasp the revolutionary aspect of having Philip… and Peter… and Paul… all good Jews, minister to the Gentiles beyond the familiar boundaries of family and religion.  This gospel cannot be confined to any one peoples.  Christ meant it for any… and all.  Professor Allen writes, “The witness of Philip to the eunuch from Ethiopia is another step in the journey of the witness to the realm of God to the ends of the earth.  Isaiah anticipated the ingathering of Ethiopians (and other Africans) in the divine commonwealth (Isa. e.g. 45:14)” (4)

One can see why, now, that this story tells of God’s grace in a way that is seemingly boundless and bold.

The United Methodist Church gathers in Tampa, Florida in late April and Early May for their 2012 Quadrennial General Conference

These words are familiar in this congregation.  Perhaps they have become too familiar.  Before we become too self-satisfied here at Franklin Circle Christian Church, we must remember that these limitations are not theoretical and this discussion of God’s magnanimous grace is not done and over with, here or elsewhere.  This past week our United Methodist sisters and brothers gathered in Tampa, Florida for their quadrennial General Conference.  There were many votes and decisions made there, on issues great and small.  And there was much angst, and not a few tears.  In the middle of all this was a seemingly little discussion about changing the language in one of the primary documents of the United Methodist Church.  It seems to me that it attempted to reflect God’s expansive It quoted scripture, of all things.  It alluded to Romans 8:38-39, “For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

What ensued was, by all accounts, a rather deep and sometimes harrowing discussion about God’s grace, and the extent of that grace.  The proposed statement, “We stand united in declaring our faith that God’s grace is available to all. Neither belief nor practice can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus,” eventually passed, but only by a margin of 53 to 47.  One blogger, Melissa Lauber, noted, (5) “Many delegates voiced their opposition.  They were firm in their conviction that a lack of belief and sinful living could indeed separate a person from God’s love.”  She went on to note, as did most observers, that the discussion was as much about tolerance of homosexuality as it was anything else.  But God’s grace was truly the core issue here.  Lauber pondered the ramifications of such votes when she wrote, “Are we living prayers, living witnesses, living texts to the world that God’s love is available, unconditional and abundant?”

As I read tweets, blog posts, and Facebook status updates from the General Conference, my heart broke.  I wanted to stand in front of those assembled and beseech all gathered, wherever they stood on the propositions at hand, “Dearly beloved, do you know you are loved?  Do you know you are forgiven?  Do you know that compassion enfolds you?”  I’m not sure I could have spoken it through my tears and in spite of my broken heart.

I am humbled by the fact that this challenge to be inclusive is not just a challenge to the church, it is a challenge in our world in general.  This past Friday night Craig and I went to the opening of the musical “Ragtime!” at the Near West Theatre.  It is always an intensely gratifying experience to attend theater at the Near West Theatre as I believe it is one of the few theaters in our world that trulylives out the word “community.”  But this production, in particular, stirred my soul in some compelling ways.  Set in the first decade of the last century, it charts the course of our nation through a small look at life in New York City and the region surrounding it.  It follows the lives of three communities: a wealthy white family in New Rochelle; a musician and his girlfriend in Harlem; and a father and his daughter arriving from Eastern Europe through

Near West Theatre’s production of “Ragtime.” Emma Goldman speaks to the workers and immigrant communities.

Ellis Island.  These three groups of people are exemplified in famous personages of the time, from Emma Goldman to Booker T. Washington to J.P. Morgan.

What was most fascinating about this production, based on the book by E. L. Doctorow, isn’t just how it exemplifies America through these three families through this tiny window of history, but in how it shows the various ways in which people try to be more and more inclusive; sometimes easily, sometimes haltingly, and sometimes not at all.  The musical illustrates grace as it is lived out in community (in this case mostly beyond the church walls), and the hard and frequently sacrificial work that goes into making grace (my word) real in the communities in which we live, work, play, worship, and rest.

Eric Law and Allen Harris

Eric H. F. Law, an Episcopalian priest and scholar, has done enormous work in the area of God’s expansive grace and how communities can best live out this gospel call, especially faith communities.  Law pinpoints much of our inability to grasp and live out God’s seemingly boundless margins of grace on our fear, and specifically, our fear of there not being enough to go around.  And it could be enough of almost anything.  Sometimes we fear there is not enough of the tangible resources of our world, be it food, water, land, or money.  Other times, we dread the scarcity of less concrete things, such as gratitude, a sense of belonging, safety, or love.  In any case, Law reminds us, time and time again throughout his work, that our fears fail to acknowledge the limitless nature of the divine.  Quoting 2 Corinthians 9:8 Law reminds us, “And God is able to provide you with every blessing in abundance, so that by always having enough of everything, you may share abundantly in every good work.”

Law urges us to find ways to expand what he calls the “grace margin,” which is the area between our “safe zones” and our “fear zones.”  He surmises that the more fear we have of not having enough the smaller this “grace margin” is and, conversely, the more settled we are in God’s abundant “enoughness,” the more room we have to explore, converse, abide in the challenging and risky diversity of God’s good creation.  Law writes,

“A community cannot act inclusively out of the assumption that God’s grace is limited and scarce.  In the fear of not being loved by God, we spend a lot of our energy and time enforcing the rules we set for ourselves by thinking that they are God’s rules.  We use our political influence to protect our boundaries instead of letting God be the powerful one to shape our community.  We narrow the margin between our fear zone and our safe zone and leave little room to extend our boundary to include another who might not look or act like us.  There is no room for grace.” (6)

But Law is never one to leave us hopeless.  He continues:

“Only when a community operates on the assumption that there is always an abundance of God’s grace can it be secure enough to open its boundaries to include another.  An inclusive community must believe that Christ’s compassion is boundless and God’s love is so abundant that God can love everyone on earth – not just those of us who think we are doing what is right in God’s sight, not just those who think and act like us.  God’s grace is extended to those with whom we do not get along, to those who we think are our enemies, to those who we think are sinners.  That is why Christ came – to show us that God’s grace is boundless.  Jesus, who lived in the security of God’s abundant grace, gave himself for us so that we could have life abundantly.  Out of our gratefulness for God’s graciousness, we respond with our good work, sharing God’s grace with more and more people.  When we realize that God’s grace is so rich and so full and abundant that there is enough for me and you and everyone and that there will always be leftovers, we will have the courage to imitate Christ, to give ourselves for others – to act inclusively.” (7)

I cannot hear these words without being taken back to my ordination service 21 years ago this month when other words from 2 Corinthians were read, “Yes, everything is for your sake, so that grace, as it extends to more and more people, may increase thanksgiving, to the glory of God.” (2 Corinthians 4:15)  It is this grace that allowed Philip the ability to step outside of the rigid boundaries of his religious, political, social, and personal world to share the gospel of God’s boundless grace with one who was so very different than himself.  It is this grace that is what our communities of faith, whether local congregations or denominations, need to be and become the incarnate word of God and Christ’s living presence in this world.  It is this grace, I believe, that will enable our political and social worlds, to truly embody the democracy we so proudly proclaim.

But most importantly, it is this grace that we need as individuals to know that we are loved… that we are forgiven… that compassion enfolds us…  that hope is abundantly available to us, that renewal is constantly at work with in us, and that peace is our constant companion.  May we believe deep in our hearts, souls, and minds that God desires and ensures that we all have enough and may this truth erase all our fears so that everyone, everyone can ultimately be included, welcomed, and loved.

1) Ronald J. Allen, Preaching Luke-Acts (St. Louis: Chalice Press, 2000) pp. 53-54.

2) McNeill, John J. (2010). Freedom, Glorious Freedom: The Spiritual Journey to the Fullness of Life for Gays, Lesbians, and Everybody Else. Lethe. p. 211.

3) Rogers, Jack (2009). Jesus, the Bible, and Homosexuality. Westminster John Knox.

4) Allen, pp. 53-54.

5) GC 2012 Conversations, “Living Prayers” May 5 blog by Melissa Lauber.  Found online at: http://www.gc2012conversations.com/2012/05/05/living-prayers/

6) Eric H.F. Law, Inclusion: Making Room For Grace (St. Louis, Chalice Press, 2000).  P. 35.  Order it at: http://www.chalicepress.com/Inclusion-P222.aspx

7) Ibid.

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