Sunday, April 21, 2013

The Ends of the Earth: A Sermon on Acts 8:26-39, For the Sunday After the Boston Marathon

"The Risen Lord" by He Qi

Scripture can be found here...

Best laid plans.

Sometimes the news of the week kind of picks up the pastor’s idea of what she wanted to preach, and throws it into a blender with all sorts of other realities. What comes out doesn’t really look like the original concept. “Outcast and Stranger,” was my title. I was focusing on the unnamed Ethiopian eunuch, and I wanted to talk about the ways, despite his high status in the royal court, he was “othered,” cast out. Someone who either through a fluke of nature or the flick of a knife had become unable to father children… That is the delicate way I am going to say what I am trying to say. Which meant, according to the Law of Israel, that he was unwelcome in the Temple. Leviticus was clear:

The Lord spoke to Moses, saying: 17Speak to Aaron and say: No one of your offspring throughout their generations who has a blemish may approach to offer the food of his God. For no one who has a blemish shall draw near, one who is blind or lame, or one who has a mutilated face or a limb too long, 19or one who has a broken foot or a broken hand, 20or a hunchback, or a dwarf, or a man with a blemish in his eyes or an itching disease or scabs or…   ~ Leviticus 21:16-20

And then there is a description of something, some accident that might befall a male. And that male could never approach God almighty to offer a gift of food in the Temple.

The passage is Leviticus 21:16-20. You can look it up.

I was going to talk about how the prophets responded to this law, talking back, as it were, to this understanding of God—the reading Kevin shared with us from Isaiah—

Do not let the foreigner joined to the Lord say, “The Lord will surely separate me from his people”; and do not let the eunuch say, “I am just a dry tree.” 4For thus says the Lord: To the eunuchs who keep my Sabbaths, who choose the things that please me and hold fast my covenant, 5I will give, in my house and within my walls, a monument and a name better than sons and daughters; I will give them an everlasting name that shall not be cut off.   ~ Isaiah 56:3-5

And then I was going to talk about how, through that Isaiah passage, and through this encounter with Philip, good news came to the eunuch, one who had formerly been outcast, a stranger. Welcome had been proclaimed. That’s what I was going to talk about. That was pretty much my sermon, until Friday, the day of the lock-down in the cities and towns around Boston and Cambridge and Watertown, MA. And then I started to think about Philip.

Philip embodied the welcome Isaiah proclaimed. Philip, who was a runner, someone pointed out this week. Our translation says he “ran up to” the chariot; in the Greek is “is running” alongside it. He was a runner. And once I knew that, well. This started turning into a different sermon.

This week’s bombings at the Boston Marathon had the effect of stirring me with memories of the time I lived in that city and the surrounding area, twelve years altogether. For two of those years I lived just a few blocks from the Boylston Street location of the explosions and the carnage. The most dangerous thing that ever happened to me on Boylston Street, right in that same block, was accidentally ingesting Midori liqueur in a chilled melon soup when I was five months pregnant. I took ballet lessons at a pared down studio in Watertown, taught by a wonderful friend who’d been to Russia and was steeped in Russian classical ballet technique.

By which I mean to say, for the past twenty three years, since I left that wonderful city behind for life in a different, and differently wonderful place, I’ve had a particular way of remembering the landmarks and the parks, the restaurants and the theaters, all the things that made up my Boston. Cut over to Boylston for a quick shortcut to Symphony Hall, or the Boston Shakespeare Company? Yes. Explosions and death on Boylston? Please. No.

You may recall that Philip, in addition to being a runner, was one of those disciples chosen to be deacons in last week’s reading. An ‘angel of the Lord’ drew him to this particular spot on a wilderness road. He ran, and then caught up, and then climbed into the chariot with the Ethiopian official, and they read Isaiah together. Here’s our bible’s translation of the Isaiah passage:

Like a lamb that is led to the slaughter, and like a sheep that before its shearers is silent, so he did not open his mouth. 8By 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…  ~ Isaiah 53:7b-8a

Who is the prophet talking about, the Ethiopian official asked Philip. Is he talking about himself, or someone else? It is hard for me, this morning, to read about lambs led to slaughter without thinking about people cheering on their friends and family at the finish line… a Chinese grad student who had come to Boston University for a fresh start and a degree in statistics; a 29-year-old catering manager from Somerville, described by friends as someone who was always there for them; an 8-year-old boy who was waiting to hug a runner who happened to be his dad.

Do you notice that Philip’s answer is not given in detail? Starting with scripture, we are told, Philip proclaimed the good news about Jesus. I love that detail of the story, because it reports faithful biblical interpretation within the context of real life. When the prophet known as Isaiah first preached or wrote those words, the people of Israel, God’s people, understood this passage to be about them, collectively. Together, they were, Israel was, God’s suffering servant. Later, Christians read those words and recognized in them truth about Jesus. And through the centuries the people of God have continued to recognize themselves in these words. Christians under siege by the Roman Empire. Jews during the Inquisition and the Holocaust. This is the part of the power of the living, breathing Word of God: we continue to see ourselves and the world around us reflected here in these words, in and out of time.

The Ethiopian official’s response to Philip’s traveling bible study was swift: He, too, saw himself in the story. They were on the road from Jerusalem to Gaza, a part of the world in which improvised explosive devices are all too familiar. If you look at a map of this terrain, any body of water must have been tiny… a puddle, a rivulet. But it was enough. “What is to prevent me from being baptized?” he exclaims.

The answer is, of course, nothing. Nothing will be able to separate the Ethiopian eunuch, nothing will be able to separate you, nothing will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. And that good news, the welcome of Jesus, is extended to this once-outcast child of God. The good news continues on its travels ‘to the ends of the earth.’

Those of you who just can’t stop reading a good story might have continued on past our stopping point of verse 39. If you did, you would have encountered that description of Saul, “breathing threats and murder” against the Jesus-followers. Acts is like that. The life of the early church was like that. Life today is like that. A story of inclusion and welcome side-by-side with one of murder and mayhem. And within a few verses, the murderous Saul is on his knees and being searched and known and loved by Jesus, the One who admonishes us to pray for our enemies.

And so this week, the lectionary gives us Philip, running to catch up with a chariot so that he can follow where the Spirit has led him. And it gives us the Ethiopian eunuch, who might well have seen himself in Isaiah, a kind of suffering servant, despite his position and status. And if our curiosity, or our hope for a word from God in these dark days, or simply the name “Saul” causes us to read on, we are met by someone who is murderous at the outset, but afterwards, a fervent messenger for the gospel he formerly tried to eliminate.

What are we to take away? How does this story make sense for us this week? Where is the good news?

The good news is that Jesus’ love continues to be carried to the ends of the earth by people like Philip, snatched from the Meals on Wheels rotation by an angel and sent to bring the outcast into the fold.

The good news is that Jesus’ love is carried forward by people like the Ethiopian court official, who, after his baptism, goes on his way rejoicing.

The good news is that Jesus’ love is even carried by people like Saul, later Paul, who begins by breathing threats and murder, and ends by promising that the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard our hearts and our minds in Christ Jesus.

The good news is that, even in a week like this, a week so filled with fear, and anger, and calls for retribution, the love of God in a suffering servant finds expression in an eight-year-old boy, in Martin Richard, whose enduring image is a photograph in which he is holding a handmade sign in response to the shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, CT. The sign reads: “No more hurting people. Peace.”

In fact, that’s really all I wanted to say today. Let Martin preach the sermon. Take his message home. It’s the one we need.

No more hurting people. Peace.

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