To set up the first reading, let me tell a story from quite a few years ago. It takes place in Riverside Church, which is this big, powerful, prominent church in New York City. A number of years back, before the United Church of Christ became Open & Affirming, the Senior Minister at Riverside Church was giving a talk about something related to religion and society. There were hundreds of people at the talk in this vaulting gothic sanctuary. At the end there was a Question & Answer period. A young man stood up and said, “Pastor, there’s something heavy on my heart. I’ve long been a Christian. Jesus has been central to my life. But I’ve been feeling so far from God. I’m gay. And I can’t seem to change that or overcome it. It’s like I’m just broken and I can’t be fixed and God is angry.” The young man was clearly in distress. The pastor stepped down and came over to him and said, “Do you have a bible on you?’ “Of course.” “If you would, please take it out and turn to Psalm 139 and read it aloud from verse 13.” So that’s what the man did, before the hundreds of people who were gathered there.
First Reading Psalm 139:13-18 It was You, O God, who formed my inward parts. You knit me together in my mother’s womb. I praise You, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made. Wonderful are your works, that I know very well. My frame was not hidden from you, when I was being made in secret, intricately woven in the depths of the earth. Your eyes beheld my unformed substance. In your book were written all the days that were formed for me, when none of them as yet existed. How weighty to me are your thoughts, O God! How vast is the sum of them! I try to count them—they are more than the sand. I come to the end—I am still with you.
When the young gay man read those words, he just wept. The pastor blessed him before all those witnesses, saying, “You are fearfully and wonderfully made. God formed you as you are. You are wonderfully made. Use how you were made to praise your maker.” And that was how this young man heard the Good News of God’s love and mercy as made known through Jesus. He heard it and he accepted it in his heart and was saved from all that would keep him from enjoying the fullness of life that God has given him. The fact of the matter is, that throughout history it has been people like this young gay man who have been the most powerful messengers for the world transforming Word. This is how the Good News has been heard and shared and spread throughout history: through those who are outcast by society, who then come to know that, no, they are beloved – wonderfully made. Redemption is not about changing who we are, but using who we are for the glory of God. As Jesus said, the stones the builders rejected has become the head cornerstones for the Kin-dom of Heaven as come on Earth. This brings us to the second reading: The second reading takes place in the early days of the Jesus movement after Jesus, after the Holy Spirit burst in upon the Apostles and gave them the power to share the outrageously open and welcoming mercy and love and healing and saving power as known through Christ Jesus. This is about Philip, who was one of the twelve apostles.
Second Reading Acts 8:26-39 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 stones the builders have refused are becoming the head cornerstones for the Kin-dom of Heaven as come on earth. It’s incredibly meaningful that one of the first conversion stories in the book of Acts is about a Eunuch from Ethiopia. Now, what does that mean? First, “Ethiopia” here doesn’t map onto modern Ethiopia. It’s the Kingdom of Kush which was a flourishing civilization in what is now Sudan. And also what a Eunuch meant in the ancient world doesn’t map onto anything in our society or our world today … except for the important fact that being a Eunuch was at the time, a well-known label for someone to did not fit into the standard identities of male and female. Eunuchs were from the lower classes, often enslaved classes. Sometimes they were people who were born with an ambiguous biological sex – every generation every time in history, that happens in a small percentage of cases, natural genetic variation. More often though, a Eunuch was a men or boys who was castrated against their will. Sometimes this was a form of punishment for crimes of “sexual deviance.” Or sometimes a master chose to make someone who was their slave into a Eunuch because they wanted them to play a certain role that only Eunuchs could play. A Eunuch would be severed from family ties. They couldn’t reproduce, they were out of the games of sexual competition. This meant they could be better trusted to do certain jobs of administration without getting caught up in power struggles. For these reasons, in many ancient societies some Eunuchs were high-powered servants for a king or, in this case, a Queen. In the case of this Ethiopian Eunuch, he was basically the Queen’s financial manager. This gave him power and influence and education – the Book of Acts tells us he was riding in a chariot and reading – but he still had the status of a slave. He would have known that if he worked against the Queens’ interest she would quickly execute him. Eunuch’s were easily replaced because they didn’t have children or spouses who would seek retribution and make things messy for the monarch. That’s why monarchs liked having Eunuchs – if one didn’t work out, they could easily throw them to the dogs. And these were the lucky ones, the Eunuchs who had a place in the courts. Most did not have a scrap of power and were really quite exploited. Now, the Hebrew social system did not have a place for Eunuchs. They saw it as one of these horrible unnatural things that foreigners did. If a Eunuch converted to Judaism, which happened, they were not allowed to worship at the Holy Temple in Jerusalem. So, we can read between the lines in this story about Philip and the Ethiopian Eunuch. The Ethiopian is in the process of converting to Judaism – a “prosylite” is the word. They’ve been captivated by the power the Holy One of Israel, the Almighty and Merciful God who has spoken through the Prophets. They were so drawn by this holy power, that they embarked on a pilgrimage to the holy city of Jerusalem. But at Jerusalem they would have been barred from entering the Temple to worship, because of their gender identity. That’s why, as we are told, the Eunuch was returning home, having not received what he had come for. Yet he did not lose faith. The Eunuch continued to search the words of the prophets. That is when the Apostle Philip arrived to share the Good News and offer him finally the relationship with God that he had been yearning for. The Good News came through the Prophet Isaiah’s words about the Suffering Servant – this is very significant. ‘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. The Eunuch comes to see that with Jesus the stone the builder refused, has become the head corner stone for the Kin-dom of Heaven on earth. Jesus became an outcast to show just how deep and wide is the liberating love and mercy of God. The people who really get this, who really get the power of the gospel, are those who are well acquainted with being outcasts, like Jesus. The Book of Acts is making a point of this by highlighting this story of a Black person from the Kingdom of Kush, whose gender identity placed them on the outside of who the dominant temple religion was willing to welcome in without shame. This isn’t just a matter of opening the circle enough to include those at the margins. This is about shifting the circle itself to put those at the margins in the center.
To close, thinking about this being Father’s Day, I just want to honor the parents and in particular the fathers of lbgtq kids who have allowed their kids to convert them into a more loving and affirming faith. There are too many stories of the opposite, of parents gripping harder to bigoted beliefs and kicking their queer kids to the curb. But there are countless testimonies, very powerful testimonies of fathers and mothers who allow their queer kid to be not at the margins of their love but at the center, where they can convert them into knowing just how deep and wide and merciful the love of our Creator really is.
I praise you, God, for we are all wonderfully and fearfully made.