Welcoming the OutcastRead Now
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
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