Pride Sunday — June 19, 2022
Rev. Brent Gundlah

The UCC church to which we belonged in Massachusetts — the one in which we raised our children — had many traditions (I’m sure you all know how much churches love their traditions). But there was one in particular that I found myself thinking about a lot this week.

When the kids started the level of Sunday School during which they’d actually be reading and discussing Bible stories, the church had a long-standing practice of giving them each a Bible of their own. It was a nice gesture on the church’s part, but not a terribly unique one; I’m sure that many churches do this. But for as long as anyone could remember, Reverend Jack had done something to make this gift special.

He would take each child’s Bible and underline a different passage in it before giving it them. How he decided which verses were for which kid no one ever knew. But every year the Sunday Schoolers would take their new Bibles home and search feverishly for their piece of scripture, trying to figure out why Jack had picked it and what it meant for them.

While this was a really sweet thing for Jack to do — and one that the kids definitely appreciated and remembered — I didn’t ascribe too much significance to it back in those days. But I’ve since come to understand that it meant everything.

People have been gathering in faith communities like this one for a long time now, they’ve been coming together to read and reflect upon the old stories in this book for thousands of years at this point; and there’s myriad reasons for why we do these things. At the end of the day, though, these reasons all seem to stem from the desire we have to answer one essential question, which is this: Is there a place in here for me? [pointing to Bible]. Is there a place in here for me? [gesturing to church].

The person we meet in today’s story from the Acts of the Apostles seems to be asking the very same question. As he returns home from Jerusalem, where he had come to worship, he’s riding along in his chariot reading the words of the prophet Isaiah (chapter 53, verses 7 and 8 to be precise). For the record, I’m using male pronouns to refer to this person here simply because Luke does. And we learn a few things about this person here.

First, he’s Ethiopian. These days, we know Ethiopia as a specific country in Africa with clearly defined borders but to the ancient Israelites, Ethiopia was understood more vaguely as any place south of Egypt. To folks from Jerusalem, Ethiopians were simply people from another place; they were outsiders.

Second, is that he’s kind of a big deal. Riding through the desert in a chariot — likely accompanied by an entourage — he would have been tough to miss, and this makes sense. As Luke tells us, he’s “A court official of the Candace, queen of the Ethiopians, in charge of her entire treasury.” In other words, he’s a person of considerable wealth and power. This probably opened some doors for him, but certainly not all doors; wealth and power aren’t necessarily the master key that grants one access to everything.

Third, is that he’s a follower of the God of Israel. He’d come to Jerusalem in order to worship there, and his reading material for the long ride home is the Hebrew Scriptures (the fact that he can actually read underscores his privileged position in society). By all indications, he’s what would have been known in those days as a “God-fearer,” a Gentile convert to Judaism — someone who was not born into the faith — and someone who was also not circumcised.

Which leads us to the the fourth thing we learn about this person, which is that he’s a eunuch — and this makes things a bit more complicated. He was missing some of what people have tended to associate with being male, which would have rendered him different in many people’s eyes and we all know how the world can treat people who are perceived not to be like everybody else.

And being an Ethiopian God-fearing eunuch would have made it incredibly challenging to be a devout Jew in those days. Under a strict interpretation of the Law, the last part alone would have precluded such a person from being allowed inside the Jerusalem temple. Deuteronomy 23 is clear about this: “No one who has been emasculated by crushing or cutting may enter the assembly of the Lord.” There you have it: “Sorry, there’s no place for you in here.” But the Holy Spirit seems to have more to say about that in today’s story.

The book of Acts tells us how the first communities of Christ-followers developed; I call them “Christ-followers” with great intention because they wouldn’t be known as Christians for a while yet, and because they understood themselves to be rightly-observant Jews for whom Jesus was the true Messiah that the Hebrew Scriptures had promised.

But as this new church (who didn’t really think of themselves as a new church at this point) began to organize itself, it would reckon with all sorts of questions and disagreements about who belonged and who didn’t, about who could belong and who couldn’t — Gentiles, Samaritans, former Pharisees, people living “at the ends of the earth” and, of course, Ethiopians who happen to be eunuchs.

And the Holy Spirit, who sees all sort of things, saw what just happened up there in Jerusalem too — saw this stranger from a strange land wanting nothing more than to worship getting rejected; saw someone seeking a relationship with God, and a connection to other believers, being turned away by the powers-that-be because of who they were, and it broke the Spirit’s heart.

So the Spirit, who’s never been one to let such a situation stand, calls upon Philip to go and deal with it. It’s hard to imagine a better choice for the job than Philip because he had a reputation for being open-minded (and open-hearted); for being willing to push the envelope a little, for being willing to share the gospel in places and with people thought to be, for whatever reason, beyond its reach — even when it ticked off some of the apostles and other religious types.

As Philip rolls up on that chariot in which the words of Isaiah are being read with great interest, the Spirit tells him to join it. When he does, Philip soon learns that the occupant of said chariot has a question for him: “To whom do these words of Isaiah refer?”

“Like a sheep he was led to the slaughter, and like a lamb silent before its shearer, so he does not open his mouth. In his humiliation justice was denied him.”

“Oh, that’s Jesus. The Messiah. God incarnate.”

“Wait, so you’re telling me that God actually knows and understands what it means, what it feels like, to be persecuted — to be despised by some for who they are? If that’s the case, then I see myself in here, I see myself in God; and perhaps God also sees me.

But you who claim to follow God don’t seem to have a place for me among you. So here’s another question for you, Phillip, and please consider your answer carefully: If baptism is the way in which you all acknowledge what was supposedly already true – that someone is part of the body of Christ, the reign of God, the whole human family, then look, here is water! What is to prevent me from being baptized?”

“Nothing. Absolutely nothing.

Don’t you see? There’s a place for everyone in here. [point to Bible]

And there’s a place for everyone in here [gesture to church].

That’s the whole point of it all.