a sermon on shifting our gaze as God bursts forth and the legacy of James Cone…

The Holy Gospel according to John 15:1-8


“The Rev. James Hal Cone taught at Union Theological Seminary until his death. He was there for decades and taught generations of students. Filip Wolak /Union Theological Seminary” npr.org

“Any message that is not related to the liberation of the poor in a society is not Christ’s message. Any theology that is indifferent to the theme of liberation is not Christian theology.”  These are the words of James Cone, black liberation theologian, prophet and preacher, writer, teacher, author of the Cross and the Lynching Tree, arguably one of the most important books in theological studies in our lifetime.  James Cone is one of the theological greats, and he died yesterday at the age of 81.

It seems odd, but perhaps fitting, that on this day, after one of the theological greats has gone on into the life beyond this one, that we would read the story of another black ancestor in faith, but this one without a name, this Ethiopian Eunuch.  

This Ethiopian shows up in the narrative of the book of Acts pretty far into the story.  It is after Pentecost in our text. The spirit of God has descended on the people, and they have been anointed with tongues of fire.  They have been sent out literally burning with the Holy Spirit. And things are getting a little intense. They have been called to go and spread the gospel to the entire world, and at times that world is not prepared for the message they are bringing.

Philip and his colleagues have been preaching and teaching and doing some miracles. They have been waiting tables and feeding people, and the spirit of God has been moving.  But there is severe persecution of this budding church. Only a chapter earlier in the book of Acts, Stephen, a contemporary of Philip and another apostle has been stoned to death because of his words.  Saul who will soon encounter God on his journey has not yet been renamed Paul, one of the most prolific writers of our biblical canon; at this point in our story he seeks to kill and destroy the church and all who profess to be Christians.
It isn’t a safe time, but the spirit continues to push these apostles out into the world to spread the news.  Philip has been sent to Samaria, and we all remember stories of how they were all supposed to be no good Samaritans.  It was a Samaritan woman that met Jesus in the heat of the day at the well, it was a Samaritan man who unexpectedly stopped to help the one left beaten on the side of the road.  Not much was expected of Samaritans, and to imagine that Samaritans would become believers in the life and death of Jesus Christ was almost like a pipe dream.
And yet it happens in the book of Acts.  Philip’s preaching has people falling on their knees, demons running for the hills, the paralyzed walking and the sick leaping for joy at their cure.  He is, without a doubt, rocking the pulpit. He’s a preacher who is changing the world. People know his name, they flock to him in order to see miraculous signs and hear amazing preaching.  People were receiving the spirit left and right.
Yet then we hear that in a dream, God tells Philip to leave Samaria.  He is to go south, on a wilderness road. It is important to note here that whenever you see the word wilderness in our biblical text it usually designates a place you don’t want to be.   The wilderness is usually a place of desolation, a place of temptation, a place full of danger and uncertainty. Our famous preacher has a dream, and in that dream he is sent out on a road of danger and desolation.  Had it been you or me, I imagine we might have had something to say about such a call. People in Samaria are converting like crazy, Philip is growing in fame and reputation, and if I were him, I’d really be into staying put.  In Samaria Philip can become famous. But Philip doesn’t even appear to bat an eye, just packs his things and heads out to where God is calling him. Perhaps he had heard that passage from the gospel of John we heard this morning- knew without God he couldn’t do anything and so he was ready to follow God’s lead and not his own.  Perhaps he had heard about Jesus being the vine, pruning him, abiding with him in order that he might bear good fruit. Philip was preaching, teaching and doing miracles, but it appears that he knew better than most of us- he knew that this life he was leading wasn’t going to lead up to much unless he kept listening and doing the work of God.

Following this dream, we find Philip on the road in the middle of the day, when a chariot drives by.  He hears someone reading, in a language he can understand, a passage from the prophet Isaiah. This one reading, this Ethiopian Eunuch is a court official, treasurer to the entire fortune of the queen of the Ethiopians.  Yet his status as a eunuch keeps him from participating fully in temple worship, the worship he has travelled all the way to Jerusalem to participate in. He is reading the prophet Isaiah aloud, a signal to us as readers that he is a person of knowledge, being able to read scripture on one’s own is quite uncommon.

Yet, all too often, our telling of this story focuses on Philip, he is after-all, our heroic preacher, one who is filled with the Spirit of God, who has been sent out in a dream.  We think of this Ethiopian Eunuch as a poor soul, one who is about to receive something from Philip. I’ve heard many a sermon extolling us to be like Philip, to seize upon these surprising moments to preach and to teach the promises of God.  Who knows when you will be on a wilderness road and a poor soul will wander by, just confused and uncertain about what the word of God is all about, and you will be able to tell them! At some level, this is true. We hear these stories so they get so ingrained inside us that we are able to share them with a world that needs them.

On this day, as we remember the prophet James Cone, and as we hear this story of another black man, perhaps the Spirit is nudging us to look away from who we might think is the main character in the story, and to imagine that instead, the central presence is not Philip, but this eunuch.  It is not the Eunuch that needs to hear something, it is Philip, who is about to get a big dose of the Holy Spirit, who is about to learn that he doesn’t understand the scriptures unless he is able to interpret them through the life of this wandering stranger on the road.

It is easy for us, in this majority white church to forget that liberation is for us, too.  It is easy for us to hold our categories of privilege, whatever they are- if we are cisgender, if we are white, if we are male, if we are of a particular class, it is easy for us to hold those categories of privilege as if they are the center of the social and theological world.  The entire world is telling us that whatever privilege we hold, it is the center of the story, but throughout scripture, we keep on hearing that it is the margins that are the center of God’s power and presence. We don’t liberate toward privilege, we engage privilege that it might be dismantled, that we might see beyond it, that we might move away from privileged categories as central to our own identities that we might find God in the other, the one who society says only has value as a source for our charity.

It is so easy for us to see this story as one about Philip’s good works, Philip’s charity toward this eunuch.  But when we shift our gaze to the eunuch, the story takes on a deeper meaning. Because here is one who is in a racial minority, who stands outside of our binary gender categories, and who says to us, reading this text, “what is to keep me from being baptized?”  

Before I came to St. Luke’s, I spent years working on a dissertation about religious trauma.  In my work as a parish pastor and in my time with queer clients in therapy, I kept hearing stories of incredible pain- stories where faithful queer people were being cast-out from their religious communities of origin, denied ordination or the sacraments, and told in no uncertain terms that they weren’t just alone in this world, but that God could no longer love them.  So many of the people I worked with had incredibly detailed visions of an eternity that awaited them in hell, burning fires, eternal separation from anything good, pain and anguish that was as real to them as anything in this life.

I’m sure you’ve heard these stories before, or have lived a story like this yourself.  When I hear this question on the lips of the Ethiopian Eunuch, What is to keep me from being baptized?  I hear this question with the weight of what it means to risk asking. Because in too many churches, in too many communities, the answer is still about barring others from the waters of life.  The answer is still no, you can’t be baptized here. You can’t dirty these waters with who you are. Baptism is for the privileged.

But here, in this post easter church, on this wilderness road, Philip is given the gift of seeing just how vast and expansive and wild the reach of the Holy Spirit truly is.  Because our God is one of liberation, our story, our Christian story is one of liberation, of freedom. Of waters of baptism that will not be held back, of a God that will not settle for the categories and the binaries of in and out that we so often try to erect.  Our God called Philip from the no-good land of Samaria, to a wilderness road, because it is Philip who needed to learn, as we do, whenever we try to keep God for ourselves, God bursts forth.

Who is to keep this eunuch from being baptized?  Let it not be us. Let it not be us who become so comfortable in our spaces of privilege that we forget that God’s plan, from the very beginning of creation, through the people Israel, in the words of the prophets, in the life and death of Jesus, all of it, is to liberate us from the forces of evil, in ourselves, in our communities, in our world.  Let us not be so comfortable that we think the story is about us, and not about all the people who are left out, who are on the margins. Let it not be us who think we can tame the waters of baptism, when they are waters of life, waters of God’s life, poured out over all of creation that we might know the freedom of eternal life.

In my work and writing, as I encountered these stories of trauma, I always felt in the back of my mind this question- when the church, when God’s people, when you have been denied and cast out, why would you come back?  Why wouldn’t you just give up? Why wouldn’t you just say, nope, this is not for me, because communities of faith are harmful awful places where they see what is beautiful in God’s people and call it twisted and ugly. But, like this Ethiopian, for many, these waters are too powerful.  Their call is too powerful. And so, thanks be to God, we have these brave and honest folks standing on the margins chanting, over and over, when the church gets in the way, “what it to keep me from being baptized?” And the answer, the resounding answer of our God is not one thing. Nothing should keep you from these waters, and all of us, who think we are the center of the story, better be ready to get out of the way.  Because God is breaking apart our binaries, breaking open our categories, showing up on the margins so that the center is just not comfortable anymore.

Hear the words of the prophet James Cone one more time- “Any theology that is indifferent to the theme of liberation is not Christian theology.”  This is our theme. Liberation. Freedom. May it be so. Amen, and thanks be to God.


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