Sunday, May 2, 2021
St. John’s Lutheran Church, Schuyler, NE
Fifth Sunday of Easter
Preacher: Pastor Day Hefner
watch this service online (readings start around 13:06; sermon starts around 21:27)
I was in eighth grade when Holly moved to town. Holly was outgoing and fun and super pretty – and she quickly made friends with all the most popular kids in our class. I think all the girls wanted to be her and all the guys wanted to date her. I, on the other hand, had never been one of the popular kids (shocking, I’m sure). I was always bookish and chubby, and I’d take art class over sports any day of the week, which in my home town made me a bit of an outcast and a weirdo. So I never really bothered to try to make friends with Holly – she seemed to be fitting in just fine with the popular crowd and had no reason to want to hang out with the likes of me.
You can imagine my surprise when one afternoon Holly showed up at my back door along with one of the most popular girls in our class. Holly lived just a block north of us, so she knew that we had a trampoline in our back yard, and she and this other girl had come over to ask if they could jump on our trampoline. I remember thinking to myself, “Well, that makes more sense – they just want to jump on the trampoline.” So I told them, sure, that’s fine; go ahead. But then Holly just stayed there standing in the doorway, looking at me expectantly. And finally she said, “Well, aren’t you coming?”
I was totally floored by that. I’d never imagined that the popular girls would want to hang out with me. But I said yes to her invitation, and the three of us had a great time. And it was far from being the last such invitation that I would receive from Holly. She didn’t seem to care at all about our school’s rigid social hierarchy – Holly made friends with everybody. And she hosted the most amazing parties. Nerds, jocks, cheerleaders, band geeks, people from across many classes and social cliques – she brought us all together into one joyful community in her backyard. Her parents would have these massive grill outs and we’d all eat hamburgers and hot dogs together and run around the backyard playing soccer and tag, and then we’d build a bonfire and roast marshmallows and sit with our feet stretched out around the fire until the soles of our shoes started melting.
I will never forget those times, nor how good it felt to be included. Holly had to have noticed how unpopular I was and how unwelcome I felt in most of the social circles at our school. But she didn’t care. She sought me out and made me her friend. She made me feel like I was welcome. Like I belonged.
I thought about that afternoon when Holly asked to jump on our trampoline as I was reading through our texts for this week. As someone who grew up a little different, who never really seemed to fit in, I especially find myself resonating with the story of the Ethopian eunuch in our first reading, from Acts. He is such a unique and interesting character. We only know a few details about him from the reading, but those few details raise at least as many questions as they answer.
He probably would have stood out like a sore thumb in Jerusalem, where he was traveling from. The writer of Acts calls him an “Ethiopian,” likely describing him both as someone from Africa and as someone with very dark skin, since “Ethiopian” comes from the Greek for “burnt face.” Yet despite not having a semitic background, this Ethiopian clearly has a strong connection to Jerusalem and the Jewish faith since he explicitly went there to worship.
Even more unusual, this Ethiopian was also a eunuch. “Eunuch” is a term the bible uses a bit broadly: this was often someone who was deliberately castrated, as we might think of it, or it might also be someone who suffered similar effects from an accident, or it might even be someone born this way, someone whom today we would instead describe as “intersex.” Whatever the particular case was, this “eunuch” clearly belonged to some kind of sexual minority. And as such, he would have been outcast from a lot of society – marginalized by the fact that he didn’t fit in either as a man or as a woman. And because he couldn’t have children, he would have been excluded from the basic structure of society, since there were no means in place for him to belong to a family of his own.
Eunuchs were often enslaved and usually had little power. And yet this particular eunuch seemed to be a person of wealth and influence. He was a high-ranking member in the court of a queen, imporant enough to be ferried around in his own personal chariot. And not only was he wealthy enough to own a scroll of Isaiah, he was clearly educated enough to be able to read it on his own.
This Ethiopian eunuch is a mystery. He’s a misfit and an outsider; he’s someone who still to this day just doesn’t fit neatly into any one category. Yet God chooses deliberately – and dramatically – to seek this person out. We don’t even know if this guy had a trampoline in his back yard! But God goes so far as to send an angel and then the Holy Spirit to get Philip out the door and on the road to go seek this guy out and share the good news with him. The evangelization of this Ethiopian eunuch is not an accident, not happenstance – it is a deliberate act of mission.
And I think his response shows us one of the reasons why God chooses him. The Ethiopian eunuch receives Philip’s preaching with immense joy. He is so overjoyed by hearing the good news that the instant they spot some water, he stops the car and asks Philip to baptize him right then and there. This person had lived as an outsider and misfit at the margins of society his whole life, but what he learns in this encounter is that the good news of Jesus Christ isn’t just for those who fit into the mold of what is “traditional” or “acceptable” or “normal”; the good news is for him too.
He experiences what the author of 1 John writes about in our second reading – that God is love – and that God’s love is for him too. Because “everyone who loves is born of God… and God abides in them,” and “we love because God first loved us.” God loves this Ethiopian eunuch enough to send angels and Spirits and deacons chasing after him into the wilderness to make sure that he knows it.
That’s why, in some ways, I think that this eunuch might understand God’s love even better than the disciples themselves do. I mean, think back to the times in your own life when you have felt ostracized or excluded – remember how it felt to long to be included and accepted and loved. I think back to how I felt at Holly’s parties – I don’t think there was anyone there who was more excited than I was just to be invited. No one knows the immeasurable value of being loved better than someone who has experienced being outcast and unloved.
Given all this, it actually makes a lot of sense that this is the person whom God chose to be a witness to the good news in another land. Philip got him started, sure, but you just know that this Ethiopian eunuch is gonna get home and tell absolutely everybody about what happened to him. With his position at court and his education, it’s easy to imagine that his words will reach a lot of ears. And as a joyful, Black, nonbinary person, I imagine that he will also reach a lot of hearts – because he can preach the good news as someone who knows how deeply it is true.
This story reminds me of the many reasons I am so grateful for my siblings in ministry who also preach the gospel from a place of deep truth – especially my siblings of color and my siblings in Christ who identify as bisexual, gay, transgender, and as other members of the queer community. Many of them have spent their lives being made to feel unwelcome and unloved (especially by the church, who should love them most of all); being told that their identity is wrong and their love is sinful – even though we know that “love is the fulfilling of the law” and that “everyone who loves is born of God.” These beloved friends in Christ have taught me so much about the true meaning of grace. And I have learned so much from them, and from the example they set, about what God’s deep love and welcome truly look like. Because – like the Ethiopian eunuch – they understand that God’s love is for them and for everyone.
This story invites us to remember this too: that God’s love and welcome are for us – for all of us. God’s love is for us whether we fit in or we feel left out. God welcomes us exactly as we are, and loves us in all our glorious weirdness and uniqueness. (Our eunuch-ness?) God’s love is for all of us – and for all of us.
And at the same time, this story also asks us to consider who else needs to hear this word of love and welcome. It invites us to notice who is missing from our table – and to ask ourselves how we can go about inviting them to the party. These texts invite us to make it so that the words “all are welcome” are more than just something we say – we’re invited to make it something that we live, something that we show is true by our actions as well as by our words.
We are called to welcome all of God’s children by the one who first welcomed us. And we are called to truly love one another by the one who first loved us – by the same one who invites each and every one of us to come to the party.