Acts of the Apostles 8.26-40
The Rev. Hal Chorpenning, Plymouth Congregational UCC
Fort Collins, Colorado
April 29, 2018
Sometimes I wonder how certain stories made it into the Bible. This particular episode in the Acts of the Apostles, for instance, involves including someone who to the religious authorities of the day would have been an outsider and an outcast, not so much because of his African heritage, but because he was a eunuch, and therefore would be exempted from the Temple and from making sacrificial offerings. It was not simply his inability to reproduce or that he was androgen-deprived…he was considered to be ritually unclean.
Why would the author of Luke’s gospel and its companion volume, the Acts of the Apostles, have chosen to include this story? The function it serves is to show that people who previously had been excluded from the circle of those whom God favored are now included…the circle has expanded beyond just the people of Israel to include gentiles and not just some of them, but all of them...no one gets left out. No one is outcast. No one is less-than. No one is second-rate. No one is exempt from God’s love…not even you.
I’d like you to turn to a neighbor and tell them something. I know this will make a few of you uncomfortable…but give it a try anyway. Look them in the eye and say, “God loves you, and there is nothing you can do about it.” That isn’t original…it’s something Jane Anne’s dad used to do in congregations he served. And it is true.
The function of this sermon in our time, especially among progressive Christians, is to illustrate that no one has the prerogative to exclude people from full life in the church because of their sexual orientation or their gender or gender identity.
We in the UCC have been on the vanguard of the movement to extend a welcome to LGBT people for many years…from the ordination of Bill Johnson in 1972 to our national Open and Affirming declaration in 1985 to Plymouth’s adoption of its own Open and Affirming resolution in 2001. One of the most memorable moments for me as a young adult (having been away from the UCC for a dozen years) was walking into the narthex of First Congregational UCC in Boulder and seeing their Open and Affirming Declaration and thinking “Everyone is welcome here…I am welcome here.” In the fullness of who I am, they accept me, and God accepts me. Being Open and Affirming was new for the UCC back then. Think for a moment: is there a part of who you are that you think God finds unacceptable? Wrong? Not quite worthy? It doesn’t have to relate to your sexuality or your gender. God loves you, and there is nothing you can do about it.
Another memorable moment for me was speaking in favor of a same-sex marriage resolution on the floor of the UCC General Synod on July 4th, 2005. To stand up for all of my sisters and brothers who wanted to enjoy the blessing of marriage, regardless of the gender of their beloved, was profoundly meaningful. And it was costly. The Puerto Rico Conference of the UCC voted themselves out of the denomination in response. (I’ll post that online with this sermon if you’d like to see it.)
I want to take a moment to say thank you to the people who were here in 2001, who helped Plymouth to walk through the yearlong process of discernment and to those of you who may have helped another congregation to realize its mission of becoming Open and Affirming. And to those of you who wrote letters to the editor and to representative in the legislature and Congress asking our government to affirm marriage equality for all couples…thank you.
You were the people like Philip who saw that God’s love and blessing extends to all people, not to a select few, and you used your prayers, your political influence to make sure that happened. Thank you!
And the work is not done. The United Methodist Book of Discipline reads: “The practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching. Therefore self-avowed practicing homosexuals are not to be certified as candidates, ordained as ministers, or appointed to serve in The United Methodist Church.” and “Ceremonies that celebrate homosexual unions shall not be conducted by our ministers and shall not be conducted in our churches.”
I have a feeling that our Methodist sisters and brothers will get there…they just have more folks who need to hear about the Ethiopian eunuch and the gospel of inclusion!
What you may not realize is that our leadership in the UCC has helped to influence others and to heal the spiritual lives of LGBT Christians not just in our denomination but in others as well.
Back in 1985 when the UCC General Synod passed our Open and Affirming resolution, we were alone among mainline denominations. Thirty-four years later, the General Convention of the Episcopal Church USA resolved in 2009 that ordination to the priesthood should be open to all. The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America has been open to ordaining LGBT folks since 2010. The Presbyterian Church USA only in 2011 allowed its presbyteries to decide whether or not to ordain openly LGBT clergy.
We still have work to do…becoming truly Open and Affirming is more than a vote in 2001 and a moniker that we claim…it is something we need to live into every day. There may be some of us who don’t fully understand what it means to be transgender or gender-fluid. I remember a year ago when a CSU student introduced herself to me on a Sunday morning and told me that her pronouns are “they, them, and theirs.” And being the grammar nerd I am, I thought to myself “Well, plural pronouns simply don’t reflect singular individuals. How will that ever work?” The pronouns aren’t the issue, it’s how one understands oneself…as female, male, some of each, or neither. And at Plymouth we affirm that is totally okay! We have trans folks who have grown up at Plymouth as boys who now live as women. We have folks who embrace neither binary male-female gender, and we affirm that. God’s love doesn’t draw circles to delineate the loved from the unlovable…only we humans do that, and we do so to our own detriment.
The story of the Ethiopian eunuch is probably closer to including people of various gender identities than any other group. A eunuch may have appeared outwardly male but may not have considered himself as such. We do know that he and others considered him different, worthy of being categorized by his otherness.
In a child’s game, the children link arms tightly and as they move around together in a circle, they chant to the one child who is outside their group: “You’re out! You’re out! You can’t come in!” And they try not to let the one person break into the circle.
That is not how the kingdom of God works. We draw the circle ever-larger, acknowledging that each of us bears the imprint of God on our souls. And if we have a chant, perhaps it should reflect God’s love: “You’re in! You’re in! God won’t let you out.”
I’m going to guess that there are days when you have trouble finding hope that things are getting better…that God’s realm is breaking in…that we can make a difference.
And I’m here this morning to say thank you, because you are making a difference. You are changing lives. You are providing hope. You are bringing in a piece of the kingdom of God!
© 2018 Hal Chorpenning, all rights reserved. Please contact firstname.lastname@example.org for permission to reprint, which will typically be granted for non-profit uses.
The Rev. Hal Chorpenning has been Plymouth's senior minister since 2002. Before that, he was associate conference minister with the Connecticut Conference of the UCC. A grant from the Lilly Endowment enabled him to study Celtic Christianity in the UK and Ireland. Prior to ordained ministry, Hal had a business in corporate communications. Read more about Hal.