Acts of the Apostles 8.26-40
The Rev. Hal Chorpenning,
Plymouth Congregational UCC
Fort Collins, Colorado
For me, this is one of the most memorable stories in the New Testament, not because it is about Jesus himself, but rather because it is about how his disciples — how we — can follow a path of inclusion. For many years, the UCC was nearly alone in working to include LGBTQ folk in the life of the church, and this passage yields some profound messages about welcoming those whom some Christians consider outcasts or untouchables. I remember following Matthew Shepard’s death reading a memorial sermon given at St. John’s Episcopal Cathedral in Denver by Tom Troeger, who was my preaching professor at Iliff. Tom told a story about being a little kid and his playmates during recess would link hands and form a circular human chain, and the game consisted of having one child outside the circle trying to enter the circle and the other children trying to keep them from breaking in, while chanting, “You’re out! You’re out! You can’t come in!” Have you ever felt you were kept outside the circle that you wanted to break into? Most of us have. Insiders are often good at keeping the outsiders at bay, whether on the playground, the workplace, in church or society…some people even build physical walls.
Imagine what it was like for LGBTQ folks to be rejected and excluded by the church of their youth…of maybe you yourself felt that exclusion. It is horrific and spiritually damaging. But what if the church decided to turn the tables when we speak of inclusion and of extending the love of God? What if we opened our arms wide and chanted, “You’re in! You’re in! Love won’t let you go?”
The story of the Ethiopian eunuch has become even more relevant in American society in the past few years with the wide media coverage of police shootings of African-American women and men and the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement. (You may or may not be aware that I’ve been part of a Fort Collins clergy group that has been working with Fort Collins Police Services for six years on issues surrounding dialogue, training, and accountability with our community. Overall, our police are doing things pretty well.) It is stunning to read of yet another police shooting or killing of unarmed Black men and women. The message from some quarters seems to be that Black lives really don’t matter. And you know that ISN’T what our text today says.
When Philip stops on his way to Gaza and hears a Black man, an Ethiopian, reading aloud (as was the norm in the ancient world) he stops and asks if the man knows what he is reading about. And the reason Philip does that is because he knew that Black Lives Matter. They matter to God and they matter to us.
You don’t need to look very far to find African people in the Bible. Whether Pharaoh, Simon of Cyrene, or the Ethiopian eunuch, Black and brown people populate both testaments. The Ethiopian eunuch was not untouchable because he was Black…he was considered ritually impure because he had been castrated. Though he was a court official and was educated, reading the Hebrew scriptures, the Ethiopian eunuch could never become a full member of the Jewish tradition because of what they considered his ritual uncleanliness. So, why does the author of Acts include this account? Why does the writer describe this scene of encounter, teaching, baptism, and inclusion? Jesus himself and his early followers replaced the centrality of ritual purity with the core value of compassion. This story highlights a great departure from our roots in first century Temple Judaism, namely that our religious tradition is meant to welcome the other, the untouchable, to be part of God’s household. That is our goal…as yet unattained.
God has work for us to do around compassion and inclusion. Our White sisters and brothers have work to do around examining our privilege and acting to dismantle it. We, especially White Christians, need to do a lot more listening to our sisters and brothers of color about how they experience the world. The Interfaith Council and World Wisdoms Project presented a powerful presentation on Zoom hearing the stories of people of color here in Fort Collins while asking all of the White persons on the Zoom call to mute themselves and turn off their video cameras. It gave others a chance to be seen and heard. (You can find it on the World Wisdoms Project website.)
Deep repentance, metanoia, starts by listening, hearing the brokenness of American history played out in millions of lives. It continues to transformation: changes of heart and mind, shifts in our patterns of belief and behavior. And it concludes in wholeness, both for individuals and for societies. Our nation can never be whole while the wound of racism remains open. And it takes people like you, like all of us, working together to make a difference. It’s in the way we raise our children, talk to our neighbors, lift up our voices, march where and when necessary, and vote to affect social change.
In October, you will have the chance to listen deeply to the Rev. Traci Blackmon, who will be with us as our second Visiting Scholar. She is not only our associate general minister for justice and local church ministries but was also the pastor of a UCC congregation in Ferguson, Missouri, during the shooting of Michael Brown in 2014. She knows of what she speaks, and I hope you will join us to listen and to learn.
You may know the passage from Isaiah the Ethiopian was reading: it is the story of the suffering servant from Isaiah 53. Let me read to you from that prophecy: “By a perversion of justice he was taken away. Who could have imagined his future? For he was cut off from the land of the living.”
How many perversions of justice have we seen in this nation in regard to our Black sisters and brothers since 1619? How many Black men have been taken away unjustly by mass incarceration? How many Black men have been cut off from the land of the living by miscarriages of justice in applying the death penalty?
We need to end perversions of justice. We need to work toward our goal of listening to, including, and advocating for “the other.” We need to work on our own racism, which is rooted deeply in American culture.
Christians of privilege, which includes most of us in some form or fashion, must work toward collective salvation. As Paul said, we must “work out [our] own salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure.” I do not believe that we are beyond redemption as a people. And I know that redemption of our history of racism will take lots of hard work and it will take generations. So, let’s keep on working as midwives, helping to birth the kingdom of compassion, inclusion, and justice that Jesus proclaimed. Let us not say that we are too weary…because “You’re in! You’re in! God’s love won’t let you go!”
© 2021 Hal Chorpenning, all rights reserved. Please contact hal at plymouthucc.org for permission to reprint, which will typically be granted for non-profit uses.
 Philippians 2.12-13
The Rev. Hal Chorpenning,
Plymouth Congregational UCC
Fort Collins, Colorado
In the 2009 science fiction film, Avatar, there is an alien race called the Navi, and one of the distinctive things about this movie is that a linguistics professor from USC created an entire language for the Navi. And the way this species said “hello” in that new language, Kal ti, literally means, “I see you.”
If you were creating a language from scratch, would you think of using “I see you” or I behold you” as a way of saying, “Hello”?
There are certainly moments in each of our lives when we feel unseen, even invisible, as if people don’t notice us or intentionally ignore us. If you are the new kid in class or you’ve just moved across the country, you want your classmates and neighbors to notice you, to connect with you, and to offer a friendly welcome. You want them to say, “I see you.” Even for those of us who are somewhat shy, we want to be seen. And that is especially true in a church — even more so in a religious tradition that is a little unfamiliar. We want to be seen and acknowledged and welcomed. As someone who is a bit introverted, coffee hour can be the most daunting part of a visit to a new church. Everyone else seems to belong, seems to know others, seems to have friends to connect with. It can be awkward, unless someone sees you, comes up, and engages you in conversation.
When I was serving as associate conference minister in Connecticut, and then realized that I needed to be back in parish ministry, I found a church in Vermont that was looking for a minister, so I drove up early on a Sunday morning to check it out…just to be an unannounced visitor there. Now, one of the things to know about archetypal New Englanders is that they a bit laconic…not known for interpersonal warmth, exuberance, or friendliness. In Maine, unless you were born there, you are “from away” and on Cape Cod, they call you a “wash-ashore.” So, attending the service in a lovely white meeting house in Vermont, I was able to walk in, worship with them, go to coffee hour, and drive home to Connecticut, and the only greeting I received was a cursory handshake from the interim minister. Needless to say, I realized that this church and I were not meant for each other.
When we in the church fail to say “Hello!” we are neglecting a big piece of what it means to be Christian, because we are missing the bond of fellowship and connection. When we don’t say, “Hello!” we are sending the message, “I don’t see you.” I hope the message that we send at Plymouth — especially our longtime members is that not only do we see you, not only are you welcome here, you belong! No one is “from away.”
For years, I have had an intentional practice of saying “Hello!” and smiling to people on the Spring Creek Trail behind our house as I walk Chumley, the golden retriever who owns me. I notice that most people will return the greeting. Sometimes runners with intense expressions on their faces won’t say “Hi” through their grimace. And the other group who I notice won’t make eye contact or say, “Hello!” is the cohort of children who have been trained not to — the kids whose parents have drummed “stranger-danger” into them for years. While we all want our kids to be safe, I wonder sometimes if we’ve overdone it and we are creating a self-isolating group of folks who will soon be adults. You’ve undoubtedly read about the loneliness epidemic in our society, and congregations like ours can be part of the solution as a locus of true intergenerational community.
Whether any person looks you in the eye and says, “I see you,” there is a greater force in the universe who, as the psalmist says, “has searched you and known you, and is acquainted with all your ways.”
So, here’s a question for you: Is it good news or bad news that God sees you, knows you from the inside out, really gets who you are? I suppose that depends on how you envision God and God’s activity in the world. Is your image of God like St. Nick? “He sees you when you’re sleeping; he knows when you’re awake. He knows if you’ve been bad or good, so be good for goodness sake.” And if that’s the case it may not be such good news, because we all mess up royally every now and again…and nobody wants to get a lump of coal in their stocking. But God isn’t St. Nick.
But what if you have a different image of God? In a large section of American Christianity people imagine God primarily as a judge. And if God is playing the part of the judge, your part is…well, the accused. The most famous sermon preached in colonial American was “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God,” and we’re still trying to recover from the Calvinist notion of Total Depravity that ungirds it.
To be sure, all of us miss the mark with varying degrees of regularity, but that doesn’t mean that God gives up on us. I love the poetic section of this psalm that assures us that God is with us.
“Where can I go from your spirit?
Or where can I flee from your presence?
If I ascent to heaven, you are there;
If I make my bed in the underworld, you are there.
If I take to the wings of the morning
And settle at the farthest limits of the sea,
Even there your hand shall lead me,
And your right hand shall hold me fast.” vv. 7-10
We are not left on our own! God sees us, knows us, pursues us, and won’t reject us, even when we fall short.
There was a wise Jesuit from South India named Anthony de Mello who wrote beautiful parables and aphorisms. And one of my favorites has only six words: “Imagine God beholding you…and smiling.” Hear that again: “Imagine God beholding you…and smiling.”
Will you humor me? Take a moment and turn to the person next to you and really look at them — behold them! And once you’ve exchanged glances with your neighbor…by a show of hands, how many of you saw someone smile at you?
That person your neighbor smiled at is a beloved child of God. That person is fearfully and wonderfully made, a gift of God and a gift of Creation. That person is you. “Imagine God beholding you…and smiling.”
Maybe some of us have a little nagging voice in the back of our heads that says, “Yes, but…” Yes, but I’m not devout enough or successful enough or young enough or thin enough or old enough or physically able enough.”
You are enough. I see you. There is not a person in this room who is not enough. Each of you is “fearfully and wonderfully made by God, who right hand now holds you fast.”
Each of us needs to be seen and loved, and even when our human families fall short of our needs, there is a greater parent that says, “I see you. I know you from the inside out. You are fearfully and wonderfully made. I love you.”
I’m going to leave you with a question to ponder. And for some of us this is a real conundrum, so I hope you will write this down or remember it and pose the question several times this week: What does God see in you that brings a smile to her face?
Whatever your answer, do more of that, because God’s world needs it dearly.
May it be so. Amen.
© 2019 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.
Mandy began her ministry at Plymouth in August of 2014. She is originally from Michigan where she followed her call to ministry to become a Deacon in the United Methodist Church. Her passion is helping young people grow in faith in creative and meaningful ways. Read more.