Sermon delivered by Randy Hyde, pastor of Pulaski Heights Baptist Church in Little Rock, A.R., on May 10 2009.
Psalm 22:25-31; Acts 8:26-40
Let’s admit it… since the world began, while religious fervor has done much good, it has also been the cause of a lot of bad as well. Let’s talk about the good first, and let’s do so by imagining what our world would be like without religious faith, especially as it has come to us through the Judaeo-Christian tradition.
Without a belief in God there would have been no Ten Commandments, and while there is nothing to cause us to believe we wouldn’t otherwise have some other basis for appropriate behavior, and would not have come up with some secular approach to doing the right thing, the Hebrew code of life and law has held the world in good stead since the day Moses came down from the mountain with those stone tablets in hand.
From a very practical standpoint, consider the good that has been done in the name of religious faith. Hospitals and healing have advanced because of a belief in God. The teachings of Jesus have inspired people to think less of themselves and become involved in the needs and concerns of others. Religious faith, at its best, has led people to live altruistically, and because of that, our world is a better place in which to live.
But religion has also been used to separate people from one another, to deny scientific advancement by classifying it as evil, only because those in religious and political power did not understand it. Misguided religious fervor has been the cause of hatred and wars. The situation today with extremist Islamic groups almost goes without mentioning. But let’s go back further… The very book that provides us the Ten Commandments also gives rigid, harsh laws in regard to those who are different and who do not behave exactly in the way the law prescribes. Those who are not Hebrew are to be looked upon with suspicion, and those who worship other gods are not to be tolerated… not at all. You can easily look it up. It’s all right there in that book you have with you.
A very good argument could be made that religion does as much harm as it does good, that religious fervor has caused people to build walls between themselves, walls that divide, walls that perpetuate anger and stereotypes and exclusion. Those arguments have been and are still being made. All you have to do is read your daily newspaper and see the letters sent to the editor. You’ll find it in the occasional news column, this odd mix of both good and bad.
After all, the very same faith expression that produced Mother Teresa also gave us Adolf Hitler. And we all know that Billy Graham is a Baptist, but did you know that Harry Longabaugh was as well? You don’t know Harry Longabaugh? He was also known as the Sundance Kid, as in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. If that doesn’t ring a bell with you, you need to know they were notorious train robbers in the days of the Old West. Oh, and by the way, Jesse James was a Baptist too.
Go figure. Religion can be both good and bad, and at its worst it has built walls of exclusion.
But religious faith is at its very best when it goes about tearing down walls, not constructing them. Look closely at this book that we consider our scripture, and in its pages you will find a good case for building walls… high walls, walls that divide. And then turn a few pages and you will discover stories that show God’s people at their best. Why? Because those who seek to do God’s will in a positive manner have found a crack in the wall and have slipped through it to the other side. You see, God is always found on the other side of the wall.
A good case in point is the story we read a few moments ago of Philip and the Ethiopian eunuch.
Luke, in the book of Acts, is revealing how the gospel includes different kinds of people. This was a radically new idea in that part of the world in that time. Come to think of it, it’s been a pretty tough lesson for some of us to learn as well. The way of Jesus is not an exclusionary faith, but is open and available to all those who believe. You can bet that this story rattled a few cages when it was first told because it explodes stereotypical thinking and expands the fields of the gospel harvest in ways that none other ever did.
Philip, one of the original disciples of Jesus, is not just taking a Sunday afternoon stroll. He is told by an angel to journey down the wilderness road between Jerusalem and Gaza. The distance between the two cities is not exactly a stone’s throw away, but as we know only too well today, missiles can certainly span the difference. As he is walking, Philip encounters an Ethiopian riding in his chariot reading aloud from the Hebrew scriptures.
If Philip had been intent on adhering to his old way of religious faith, the chances are he wouldn’t have been on that road in the first place. But because he was open and sensitive to the leading of the Holy Spirit, here he is out in the middle of nowhere eating the dust of the wilderness. If Philip had been intent on adhering to his old way of religious faith, when he saw the Ethiopian he would have turned and gone the other way because the Ethiopian did not look like him or talk like him or do anything like him. Philip, in the old days, would have had nothing to do with this foreigner.
But Philip was not adhering to his old way of religious faith. He had become a follower of Jesus, the Nazarene, the risen Christ. And now, everything was different. Nothing was the same as it had been. And so, led by the Holy Spirit, his attention is drawn to the Ethiopian who is in his chariot reading from the Hebrew scriptures.
It would be natural for the Ethiopian to be reading from the prophet Isaiah. We know that because we are told he is a eunuch in the service of the Ethiopian queen, known as the Candace. In today’s terminology, he would be considered her CFO, chief financial officer. Young boys were often used this way in the service of a queen so that when they became adults there would be no sexual threat involved in a royal court that was largely made up of women. That was the Ethiopian way of doing things.
So why would it be natural for him to be reading from the prophet Isaiah? Because, being a God-fearer who is quite familiar with the Jewish faith, he would also understand what the Torah has to say. And what the Torah has to say is not very nice toward strangers like himself, and is quite direct in letting people like this man know where he stands when it comes to the Hebrew way of religious life.
I will not read to you the passage from Deuteronomy that explains how a eunuch is to be treated because it is so sexually explicit. You can do so yourself in private, if you wish (you will find it in the twenty-third chapter, the very first verse), because some portions of scripture, though they are scripture, are not appropriate for public worship. Let me simply put it this way. That verse in Deuteronomy constructs a very high wall, meant to exclude people like this Ethiopian.
Found in those very same scriptures, however, are the words of the prophet Isaiah, and when you read them (and they are appropriate for public worship) you can see why the Ethiopian would be drawn to them. Isaiah says…
Do not let the foreigner (and that is what the Ethiopian most decidedly is, at least when he is in Jerusalem)…
Do not let the foreigner joined to the LORD say,
“The LORD will surely separate me from his people”;
and do not let the eunuch say,
“I am just a dry tree.”
For thus says the LORD:
To the eunuchs who keep my sabbaths,
who choose the things that please me
and hold fast my covenant,
I will give, in my house and within my walls,
a monument and a name better than sons and daughters;
I will give them an everlasting name
that shall not be cut off
Deuteronomy has constructed a wall excluding the Ethiopian, and now Isaiah has provided a crack in the wall, hasn’t he? And the Ethiopian is trying to get through to the other side of the wall where God can be found. But along the way he has found other scriptures as well, scriptures that are not as obvious in what they mean, scriptures that to this God-fearer are difficult to interpret. He thinks he’s found another crack in the wall, but he’s not sure. He could sure use some help in figuring out what this means.
Luke tells us that Philip overheard the Ethiopian reading. It was the common practice in those days for all readings to be done so aloud. It was not until the days of the monastics that people, generally the clergy, started reading silently.1
“Do you understand what you are reading?”
“How can I, unless someone guides me.”
We tend to give Philip all the credit for his openness of spirit in, as the story tells it, joining himself to the Ethiopian in the chariot. But did you notice that the eunuch invites Philip to come and sit beside him? Barbara Brown Taylor says it would be like a foreign diplomat in Washington D.C. inviting a street preacher to join him in his late model Lexus for a little Bible study.2
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.
Who can describe his generation?
For his life is taken away from the earth.
The Ethiopian understands – and is very grateful for – that portion of Isaiah’s prophecy where he, as a eunuch, is included in the family of God. But this part, this part about the sheep who is silent before his shearer, who is denied justice, who is humiliated and debased… who is this, what does it mean, what is its implication? Does it have anything to do with him?
Yes, it has everything to do with him because it has everything to do with Jesus. Jesus has re-defined the nature of God’s family. Jesus has shown us the crack in the wall that leads us to the other side. The Ethiopian is included, no strings attached. Or should we say, no walls constructed?
You want an example of how religious faith builds walls? If Philip had been a typical Baptist, he would have required the Ethiopian to join his church before he baptized him. If he had been a Baptist fifty years ago, he wouldn’t have had anything to do with the man at all because of the color of his skin. Today, some might not even talk to him because of the nature of his sexuality.
Why would an Ethiopian eunuch be drawn to the Hebrew faith when every time he visits Jerusalem he is treated like the person described in Isaiah’s prophecy? He too knew what it was like to be debased and humiliated, to be denied the opportunity to go to certain places, even in the temple. Just because of the color of his skin, just because of his sexual nature – a situation over which he has no control – just because he wasn’t like the Hebrews, he was considered an outcast.
A dramatic event is depicted early in the gospels when Jesus visits his hometown of Nazareth. He is in the synagogue and is invited to read scripture. Guess which portion of the Hebrew Bible he reads? He reads from Isaiah. Yes, that very same Isaiah who so intrigues the Ethiopian. After doing so, Jesus says to the gathered congregation, “Today, this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing” (Luke 4:21).
There is a sense in which that moment is relived over and over again for you and for me. When you and I are captured by a new understanding, when the Holy Spirit says that we are to go over and join that person in the chariot, when out in the middle of nowhere we are claimed all over again by the God who refuses to be boxed in by our limited understandings and beliefs, we realize that today – in this very moment – the scripture has been fulfilled in our hearing.
When such a thing as this occurs, we are being shown the crack in the wall. It is our duty, then, to slip through that crack and venture to the other side. It is on the other side that God will be found. And it is on the other side that we will find ourselves walking in the way of Jesus.
Lord, show us the cracks in the walls which we have built. Give us the courage to slip through to the other side, where you will be found. We ask this in Jesus’ name, Amen.