Expansive Love

+ A sermon for Pride Sunday for online worship with Holy Cross Lutheran Church, Bellevue, WA; Northlake Lutheran Church, Kenmore, WA; and Lakeridge Lutheran Church, Seattle, WA on June 27, 2021 +

Text: Acts 8:26-40


52 years ago this week, police raided a bar in New York City.
This was nothing new.
Raids were fairly common at the time, especially for a bar of this type.
Police would frequently crack down on what they deemed immoral activity that would happen inside this bar—forcing handcuffed patrons into wagons, publicly exposed to shame and humiliation should their name or picture make the paper.
But this time was different.
This time, the crowd was filled with a spirit of resistance and they defiantly fought back.
Someone shouted, “Gay Power,” as the clash began and for two nights, the LGBTQ community of New York City battled against the police forces in what would become known as the Stonewall Riots or the Stonewall Uprising.
This wasn’t the first time the queer community had rioted against police brutality, and it certainly wouldn’t be the last time either, but for whatever reason, this time was different.
This would mark a turning point in the gay rights movement that would spread across the globe.
This would be the event that, more than a half century later, we celebrate and commemorate each year in June with Pride Month.

Icon of Marsha P. Johnson by Kelly Latimore

Now, it seems there will always be a certain degree of uncertainty about how exactly the events of that fateful night transpired, but it seems clear that the uprising was started by a diverse group of people who had been forced to live on the margins.
Excluded by their families, their churches, the wider society because of their race, their sexual orientation, their gender identity, and more.
Many had been forced to live on the streets, doing what they had to do to stay alive, forced to hide themselves from the world.
But there is one person from that night who stands out over the years: Marsha P. Johnson, a Black, gender nonconforming drag queen who decided they had enough of police brutality and demanded their rights and equality.
Who spent the rest of their life advocating for themself and their beloved community.
And each year following that June night, the queer community has gathered again to mark how far we have come and how far we have yet to go.
To defiantly celebrate who we are and to demand that we have the same rights and place in society as our straight and cisgender neighbors.
And though the streets of New York and Seattle and countless places across the globe are filled with celebration rather than riots this Pride month, it is through the tireless work and activism of people like Marsha P. Johnson and the protestors at Stonewall that our queer community has reason to celebrate.
That we can stand tall, proud of who we are, confident that we have a place in the world and are worthy of love and respect and equality.
And the movement that was sparked that night on Christopher Street grew and expanded, calling not only for gay rights, but for lesbian and bisexual rights, for transgender and gender nonconforming rights, for broader understanding and acceptance of intersex and asexual folks and more.
And over the past 50 years, the queer movement that stems from that uprising has shown how we can change the world just by being who God has created us to be.

+ + +

Our reading from Acts picks up at the start of another movement.
It’s the early days of what would now call the Church, not long after Jesus ascended into heaven following his resurrection and declaring that the Church would be his “witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”
And even though Pentecost has happened, even though the Holy Spirit has already filled the Church with the fire of urgency and possibility, for the most part, they are still stuck in Jerusalem.
I guess right before this, the deacon named Philip (who we hear about today) had just returned from his missionary trip to Samaria, but much of the Church is remaining pretty stagnant and certainly hasn’t made it to the ends of the earth yet.

But in today’s text, something different happens.
An angel comes to tell Philip to get up and go, to make his way on the wilderness road leading down from Jerusalem to Gaza.
I can’t begin to guess what Philip would have expected to find on this divinely led journey, but I’d imagine that he was surprised when he arrived.
We’re told that he meets an Ethiopian eunuch—and though we do not know this person’s name, we know a fair bit about them.
We know they’re Ethiopian, a dark-skinned black African from ancient Nubia.
We know they oversee the Ethiopian queen’s treasury.
We know that they themself had just been up in Jerusalem to worship and are reading the book of the Prophet Isaiah—and though we don’t know whether or not this person was Jewish, we do know that under Mosaic law they would have been excluded from worshiping inside the Temple because of the other main thing we know: this person is a eunuch.
Even this descriptor, though, is not exactly clear in its meaning.
Scholars believe that the term “eunuch” was kind of a catch-all term for a variety of situations.
It could mean this person was castrated as a child or perhaps was born what we would now call intersex.
It could also refer to someone of a sexual or gender minority.
But whatever this person’s situation, it is clear they fall outside the gender binary and societal norms.

Boeckl, Herbert, 1894-1966. Philip and the Ethiopian Eunuch

So, I wonder if Philip wasn’t surprised with where he had been led.
Out on the wilderness road, on the margins of society, he finds this person who is also on so many societal margins.
And perhaps most surprising of all, Philip finds that the Holy Spirit is already there, urging him to go talk with this person.
When the traveler invited Philip into the chariot, he started explaining to them the scriptures and sharing the good news of Jesus Christ.
And after receiving this gospel message, the eunuch declares, “Look, here is water! What is to prevent me from being baptized?”
I really wonder how Philip reacted to that.

What is to prevent them?
Well, let’s see…they’re a foreigner, an official in a foreign court.
They’re obviously wealthy and has not given their possessions to the poor.
They may be a Jew, but that’s unclear—but regardless, Deuteronomy 23:1 clearly states that eunuchs “shall not be admitted to the assembly of the Lord.”
How could this person be a part of the church?
What do they mean ‘what’s to prevent them?’

Scripture itself!

I bet that if it were up to Philip, up to the early Church in Jerusalem, up to the Church today, this person would have been asked to continue on their way.

And yet…this is where the Holy Spirit met Philip.
This is who She urged him to talk to, to share the gospel with.
This is the place She guided these two travelers, along a flowing stream of possibilities bursting out of the desert.
So they go down into the water and the eunuch is baptized.
This person who from a different land, from a different government, a different skin color, and outside of any sort of gender norms was one of the first converts to the gospel of Jesus as if God is showing us exactly how expansive this gospel really is.
As if God was challenging the Church’s assumptions of what the ends of the earth really meant.
And, according to tradition, this eunuch returned home to Ethiopia—literally the ends of the earth in the minds and maps of the time—and proclaimed the good news of Jesus Christ, helping to establish a church that continues to this day.

Now, it would be easy to regard this as a simple conversion story—that Philip came and brought this nameless Ethiopian eunuch to the faith.
But I wonder if there isn’t more going on here.
I wonder if Philip also didn’t experience a sort of conversion himself.
That through this Spirit-led encounter, Philip saw a wider understanding of the Church’s mission, a more complete vision of the implications of the gospel, a fuller picture of the new world order that God is cultivating in our midst.
That this fellow child of God, as different as they may appear on the outside, is just as beloved, just as worthy, just as assured of a place in God’s Kingdom as Philip is.
Our story from Acts ends with the travelers parting ways—the Ethiopian eunuch goes on their rejoicing back home and Philip, we are told, goes off to a new region going through the countryside proclaiming the good news to everyone he met.
But I wonder if Philip’s gospel message wasn’t a little more heartfelt, a little more detailed, a little more expansive than it was before this encounter—before his own conversion on the wilderness road.

It’s a conversion that I sure wish had taken more root in the Church, beloved.
Because, while our three congregations can rightly celebrate that we are welcoming and reconciling communities, we also are well aware that we are not the norm in the Church universal.
That in many, many parts of the Church people like me, people like some of you, people like this Ethiopian eunuch would be excluded from full participation in the life and ministry of a congregation be it because of our sexual orientation, our skin color, our national origin, or our gender identity.
That in many parts of our country, the Church is hard at work—whether explicitly or implicitly—to support legislation aimed at teaching a false history of racism in our country or actively excluding our trans siblings from accessing healthcare, gaining recognition for their true gender identity, or even playing youth sports.

Today, our three congregations are boldly celebrating Pride Sunday thanks in no small part to these two Black, gender nonconforming ancestors—Marsha P. Johnson and the nameless Ethiopian eunuch.
We do this not just to celebrate ourselves and how we have grown to be Reconciling in Christ congregations, but to proclaim to the whole Church that each and every LGBTQIA+ person is a beloved child of God and has a place in our assembly.
How will the examples, the witnesses, of these queer ancestors inspire us again this morning to seek out those on the margins, who have been excluded from the assemblies of God, but who are yet beloved children of God, worthy of full inclusion in the Church?
Where will we go out of our buildings, leaving behind our assumptions and doctrinal statements and seek out the margins on the wilderness roads, on our city streets, only to find that the Holy Spirit is already there, comforting and protecting and guiding those whom we have overlooked?
How, like Philip, will we allow the full inclusion of our marginalized siblings to show us how expansive God’s love is, to expand our vision of what the Church should be, to give us a fuller picture of what the Kingdom of God really looks like?
And how will this inspire us to redouble our efforts to demand full inclusion for our trans siblings and the rest of the LGBTQIA+ community not only in the Church, but in every aspect of our society and fight back against unjust and dehumanizing laws?
Because, even in this Pride month as we celebrate how far we have come, we are keenly aware of how far we have yet to go.

+ + +

When Philip first found the eunuch, they had been reading what is now known as part of Isaiah 53.
I wonder, as Philip was explaining the scriptures to this person, if he scrolled over just a few pages and showed him Isaiah 56, which proclaims that God will welcome the foreigner and give eunuchs “a monument and a name better than sons and daughters…an everlasting name that shall not be cut off.”
I wonder if, with new eyes, Philip saw the fulfillment of this promise in his midst.
And I wonder how we will take our place in fulfilling this promise in our midst.
We like to think that we can decide who can be part of the Church and who should be excluded.
But as we hear today, the Spirit is not interested in our human delineations—She is blowing where She will and showing us that in God’s house there are no barriers because we all have been welcomed to the table.
That we are called to sit alongside the marginalized and experience the wideness of God’s love, a dual conversion of sorts where we look together for where God’s kingdom is springing forth like water on a wilderness road and go on our way rejoicing together proclaiming the goodness and expansiveness of the love of God.

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