Sunday, May 6, 2012

One Pastor's Reponse to Amendment One...via Acts

I read a startling statement this week: “The dominant religious tradition
in our society is to worship the family.”  Interesting, isn’t it? TV
preachers exhort us to embrace ”traditional family values”-  whatever
they are- and whose tradition are we talking  about anyway? and
campaign to defend the family from perceived  threats. Churches
market themselves as being “family friendly,”  and see “family ministries”
as not only being a sure fire growth strategy but as integral to the nature
and purposes of the Church.

However, the emphasis on families and family life can be quite alienating
for some people. If perfect happy families- one mother, one dad, and
children- are the ideal image of the Christian life, not everybody is able
to measure up.For some, the experience of  family life has been one of
oppression and fear, or even outright brutality. For others it has just
been awkward and disappointing. For still others, it has turned out to
be an impossible dream…And for countless others, the shape of their
family just doesn’t fit the "perfect" mold.

In the story from Acts 8 we encounter just such a person; someone
  who was finding himself on the outside of the family-focused Jewish
    religion. We are told he was a high ranking public official, a man of
      considerable political accomplishment, a high official in the court
        of Queen Candace of Ethiopia, and probably quite wealthy as a
          result. But he was also a man with a hunger to find his place in
            the life of God, and he had travelled a long way to make a
              pilgrimage to the Jerusalem Temple to worship God.

We are not told what had happened when he got there,
  But we are given enough detail to know that he would not have
    been made welcome. We are told that he was from Ethiopia, he was
      an African; therefore, a gentile, And there were ethnic barriers to
        full participation in the worship that took place in the Jerusalem
          Temple. Gentiles could only go into the outer court, so this man
            could come only so close to the center of the religious action.
               Mosaic law barred him from coming any closer.

But he was not only an African.
This man was a eunuch; that is, his
  genitalia had been completely removed, probably as a child in slavery.
    This was a common practice in that day and time and, actually,
      eunuchs were often the preferred candidates for various positions
         of political authority, precisely because of their inability to father
           a family. They were especially favored as the high officials of
             female monarchs and this man we meet was a high official in
             the court of Queen Candace of Ethiopia.

However, although being a eunuch may have had some political
  advantages in Ethiopia, it certainly had no social or religious
    advantages in Jerusalem, where producing offspring was an essential
      part of Jewish culture and religion. A eunuch, being unable to father
        children, was both pitied and despised, as well as being regarded
          with deep suspicion for his abnormal sexuality. His social
            acceptability had literally been  “cut off”. And when it came to
              religious participation, he was legally “cut off”.

The law of Moses in Deuteronomy was quite explicit on this: “No one
  whose testicles are crushed or whose penis is cut off shall be admitted
    to the assembly of the LORD”
       (Sorry for the explicit language, but it IS there in scripture…)
         So, although he believed in Yahweh and loved the Hebrew
          Scriptures, though he clearly desired to be part of the great
            company of God’s people, he could not. The Scribal law had
              effectively constructed a huge wall in front of people like him,
                with a sign on the gate which said “Keep out, God does
                   not want you”…kind of like the placards carried by the
                    followers of a certain Kansas pastor some years ago
                      proclaiming, “GOD HATES GAYS”.

So what was he doing making a religious pilgrimage to Jerusalem? 

  Wouldn’t he know that he would be refused entry? Well, probably. But
    he would also be, in all likelihood,  a man with a pretty strong desire
      to find a place of belonging, a place of acceptance, a place where
        he was not cut off on racial and sexual grounds. And perhaps he
           had found reason to think that the God of Israel  might accept him.

When we meet him, as Philip draws alongside his chariot, the Ethiopian
  is reading the writings of the Hebrew prophet Isaiah. And starting with
    those words Philip explains the good news of God’s love and
      acceptance made known in Jesus the Messiah, himself often an
        outsider, an outcast among his own  people. Can you imagine the
         eunuch’s joy when Phillip shares this new interpretation of the
           Jewish faith with him? Beginning with the Isaiah’s account of a
             suffering servant, Phillip spoke of a God who vindicated the
               servant’s just cause by raising him from the dead so that his
                 name and his cause, would live forever. In the preaching of
                    Phillip,  the man hears about a different God, a God who
                       loves and welcomes everyone who believes, no matter
                         what their ethnic or religious heritage (or race or
                           sexual orientation or, indeed, the state of their
                             genitalia!)

The story is remarkably brief here. We are told that Philip explains the
   good news, and then immediately we are told that the African eunuch
     spots a waterhole by the side of the road and asks if there is
        anything to prevent  him being baptized right now.  And there
            wasn’t…so they stop the chariot and Philip baptizes him on the
               spot, the eunuch becoming part of God's people, not through
                circumcision, but through faith in Jesus and the rite of
                   baptism, in which we relinquish our future into the hands
                      of Christ, and are raised with new God-centered life... 
                        And in the background of the story, Luke, the
                           theological innovator, is telling his hearers that
                              because God loves those outside the circle, so
                                   should they. And so should we.

It is telling how the Ethiopian asks the question, isn’t it? “Is there
   anything to prevent me?” He is so used to hearing the promises and
     then being cut off from access to them, that it is as though he can’t
        quite believe that the same thing isn’t about to happen again.
           That’s what happens to outsiders, to those who are seen as
               “less than” over time…discouragement…hopelessness…the
                  certain expectation of being excluded. But it doesn’t.
                     This time he is welcomed into the family of God's people.
                        This time he is not refused the rite by which a person
                           is adopted into the family…without restriction… 
                             unconditionally...

And that is crucial to the point Luke is making- that those who are racially
  or sexually or socio-economically different from us are not offered an
    acceptance that is in any way  conditional on their willingness to
      behave like us. They are welcomed and accepted- PERIOD.
        This new family is not founded on conformity to the established
          family values, but on the new value of UNCONDITIONAL LOVE.
             And for those of us who have been loyal followers of the
                established family values, those who hav not found them-
                  selves on the wrong side of the racial or sexual or
                     behavioral norms, that is a challenge.
                                      
You see, we are being called, in no uncertain terms, to make sure we
   don’t turn the new family of God into a mirror of the old exclusive
      families of favored bloodlines and clear boundaries and exclusive
         inheritance rights. However, like so many things in life, this is
            easier said than done. If we have grown up with a particular
              way of living life, of thinking about the meaning of our lives,
                 it can be very threatening to be exposed to other ways of
                    life, to other ways of thinking...to other ways of living
                      and being. We feel safeest among those who know us
                        and understand not only our language, but also our
                           basic assumptions about what is important and
                              acceptable and what is not…people like us.
                                                    
And this means that when we find ourselves encountering people who
   look and speak differently than we do, who clearly have quite another
      set of values or another lifestyle, we become uncomfortable, or even
        afraid. Why? Perhaps because the existence and perseverance of
           these ‘other’ ways, these ‘other’ people, implicitly calls into  
              question our own ways, our own assumptions about life…
                 and as a consequence, our own foundations may feel less
                    steady.

Admittedly, asking people to open and welcome and accept those very
  different from themselves is like asking them to break out of a cocoon,
     or to leave the safety of their mother’s womb. Change, letting go of
        what has been, is HARD, after all. Yet . . . this is precisely what
           God calls us to do. God says “If you really know me, if you
               really have my love down deep inside of you, then you'd
                 want these 'others' to share in that love. And you'd be
                    willing to open yourselves to the rich ways in which my
                       life is manifested in their strange and beautiful ways...”
                          not just accepting and welcoming but celebrating
                             the incredible uniqueness- and connectedness-
                                manifested among the children of God…
                                  recognizing that there is not an “us” and “them”
                                     but only a “we”.

This loving, caring, accepting God sends us out beyond the circle to
   bear the fruit of love and justice in a world which has ceased to
      believe that these are possible. And we can do this because we
         carry the love of God with us, and the lovee of God is powerful.
            It is the power of the resurrection, which is stronger even
                than death.
                        
And for those who come to this story from the other side, the “out side”,
    cut off by dysfunctional families or broken marriages or homosexuality,
        by disability or lack of opportunity or any other reason, this promise
           resonates with even more hope, as with the Ethiopian eunuch,
              and brings the realization that there is nothing separating
                 them/us from the love of God in Christ Jesus.
                                              
So together let us examine our lives. How much do we trust in the
   abiding love of God- a love which promises to hold us in life, even in
      the midst of alien territory? While it is absolutely true that God ask
         us to do an impossible thing, God seems not to be as troubled
            as we are by impossibilities. You see, God has promised that if
               we stay connected, then we will be given the power we need
                  to do that impossible thing…to not only welcome and accept
                     the outsider, the OTHER, but to celebrate them in the
                        totality of who they are, finding within ourselves the
                            desire and the energy and the love to go out from
                               our comfort-zones into more difficult territory.
                                                
And for those of us already living “outside” the usual, acceptable
   societal boundaries, that promise of God means that we are connected…
      abiding in…fully accepted by…the One who Loves without limits.
         And today…every dayTHAT IS THE GOOD NEWS!!!
             Thanks be to God!!!! Amen


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