(You may view video of this sermon here.
Safe Sanctuary: this has been the theme that’s been guiding our worship this past month.
What does it mean for this sacred sabbath time together to provide true sanctuary, a safe harbor amidst the storms?
And what does safe sanctuary not mean?
We’ve been exploring in various was how it does not mean total comfort, but in fact can mean discomfort at times.
A place where we can be totally, honestly, as we are, and held in Grace, before God and with each other, will result in us being confronted by some profound challenges. A safe sanctuary will challenge us to grow, to heal, to question, to have a change of heart, to have a transforming encounter with each other and with a holy power much greater than ourselves Who calls us to step up as we need to step up.
Today I want to reflect a little on how our intention as a church here to provide a safe sanctuary for all in grace, means that we need to be honest about the ways the church has not been a safe sanctuary all, all the time.
The scripture reading for this morning, which we will hear in a moment, is about someone who has been excluded from sacred sanctuary. This is a story from the Book of Acts, about someone who is a eunuch from, we are told, Ethiopia.
This person desires God so fiercely, that they make the epic journey to the holy city of Jerusalem from their homeland in the civilization of Kush along the Nile river in the Nubian desert south of Egypt, which is very likely what the writer of acts means here by “Ethiopia.” It’s a long, long journey up through northeast Africa and across Sinai and into Judea.
But when they arrive in the holy city and seek to pray and to learn in great temple of Jerusalem, they would be turned back by a temple gatekeeper. It is against the law for eunuchs to set foot in the temple. What we’d now call their gender identity renders them impure in the light of the laws governing temple worship.
Let’s talk a moment about what “eunuch” means. What’s meant by eunuch in the ancient world doesn’t map perfectly onto our modern categories of gender. Some eunuchs were born what we’d now call intersex, which is a natural part of human biological variation where some people are born with both male and female organs. But the word “eunuch” also includes others who were people who were enslaved and castrated. Sometimes this was a punishment for homosexual behavior or other so-called “deviancies.”
In many ancient societies there were various roles that eunuchs had, where it was convenient to have someone who couldn’t reproduce. Some of these were miserable roles. Others carried some relative privilege. In the case of the Ethiopian eunuch in the book of acts they have an important role within the court of the Kushite queen.
The book of acts refers to the Ethiopian eunuch as “he.” You’ll notice I’ve been saying “they,” which may be out of line, but I just want to signal to us that we’re talking about someone whose gender identity is not 100% male or female. And that’s significant to the story here. Because this person who is earnestly yearning for God, earnestly seeking to find belonging within the Hebrew tradition of wrestling with the Divine’s revelations to humanity, and seeking so strongly that they journey thousands miles to learn and to pray in the holy temple of Jerusalem, this person when they arrive at the temple would have been denied safe sanctuary there because their status as a eunuch meant they couldn’t check off either male or female on official paperwork.
So, they had to turn around and head back home, over miles and miles of desert roads. It’s there on a desert road that the Apostle Phillip encounters our seeker.
This is where the story picks up:
Later God’s angel spoke to Philip: “At noon today I want you to walk over to that desolate road that goes from Jerusalem down to Gaza.” He got up and went. He met an Ethiopian eunuch coming down the road. The eunuch had been on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem and was returning to Ethiopia, where he was minister in charge of all the finances of Candace, queen of the Ethiopians. He was riding in a chariot and reading the prophet Isaiah.
The Spirit told Philip, “Climb into the chariot.” Running up alongside, Philip heard the eunuch reading Isaiah and asked, “Do you understand what you’re reading?”
He answered, “How can I without some help?” and invited Philip into the chariot with him. The passage he was reading was this:
As a sheep led to slaughter, and quiet as a lamb being sheared, He was silent, saying nothing. He was mocked and put down, never got a fair trial. But who now can count his kin since he’s been taken from the earth?
The eunuch said, “Tell me, who is the prophet talking about: himself or some other?” Philip grabbed his chance. Using this passage as his text, he preached Jesus to him.
As they continued down the road, they came to a stream of water. The eunuch said, “Here’s water. Why can’t I be baptized?” He ordered the chariot to stop. They both went down to the water, and Philip baptized him on the spot. When they came up out of the water, the Spirit of God suddenly took Philip off, and that was the last the eunuch saw of him. But he didn’t mind. He had what he’d come for and went on down the road as happy as he could be.
The Apostle Phillip doesn’t care about which box the Ethiopian Eunuch fits in or doesn’t. When he encounters this fellow child of God, this earnest sojourner far from home had been denied entrance to the Temple, Phillip simply and joyously shares the good news, the experience of God as revealed through Jesus.
The key to this experience, for both of them, is finding kindred with Jesus, who bore all the scorn and rejection that humanity can heap on a person; Jesus who then revealed how theDivine bursts through all that, bursts through the boundaries that human sin erects to separate us, to separate us from God and to separate us from each other, walls and gates and gatekeepers. The experience of Grace obliterates those separations.
We can share this Grace, as Phillip shared with the Eunuch, and so share safe sanctuary that flows as freely as streams of living water.
Now, as the years pass, Christians themselves go on to build walls around their temples, and post gatekeepers with their stern checklists, and bishops empowered to excommunicate. In short, Christians have made sanctuaries that are unsafe for whomever is deemed misfit or inadequate, for whatever reason.
And I daresay many of us here know the pain of that – either it’s our own pain, or the pain of people we care about. “Church hurt,” as some people call it, is widespread.
And some of us, if we’re honest, have contributed to that hurt, whether we’re fully aware of not, with a judgmental and unwelcoming spirit, by simply ignored someone in need or just being a bystander or passerby to someone else’s suffering – I know I have.
I want to honor all of that for us right now.
We at our church have the earnest value of being a safe sanctuary for all. I like to say, this is the recovery church, we’ve got our addiction recovery groups, we’ve also got recovering Catholics, recovering evangelicals, recovering Adventists – I know someone here who calls themselves a “recovering atheist.” This is wonderful, it’s part of the important Spirit that is at work here.
For us to continue to grow into this commitment, we must continue to be honest about our blind spots, and honest about the ways our church and our religion has caused harm. And seek to repair the breach, in a spirit of grace.
We can also be honest about the ways that we have been hurt by church. And it’s at times been despite the church that we’ve been able to know Grace and experience God and follow Jesus. How can those experiences help us in doing church and being church in a good way together.
I honor all of that. I honor all of you and the experiences you bring.
And through it all, beyond it all, I honor the Holy Source of all Grace.
Thanks be to God.
(Delivered June 20, 2021, by Rev. Nathaniel Mahlberg, at First Congregational United Church of Christ of Walla Walla)