A Sermon Preached by the Rev. Susan Allison-Hatch
Two lives converged that day on the road to Gaza—two men encountered one another in the wilderness and the noon-day sun. One, a foreign dignitary, a court official, draped with the trappings of wealth and power, riding in a chariot down a wilderness road, the other, propelled by the Holy Spirit, running to catch up with the man in the chariot. The former we know only as the Ethiopian eunuch; the latter we know by his name--Philip. Two men separated by a wide gulf of class and race and sexual identity. Two men drawn to one another by the Spirit and the word of God. Two men meeting at the margins of their lives. Two men changed by an encounter on a road through the wilderness.
As he approaches the chariot, Philip hears its occupant, the Ethiopian eunuch, read from Isaiah, “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” That Ethiopian eunuch turns to Philip and asks, “About whom, may I ask you, does the prophet say this, about himself or about someone else?”
I wonder what was behind that question. Do you think that that Ethiopian eunuch was remembering the treatment he received at the temple? Was he recalling the words from Deuteronomy that were hurled at him on his pilgrimage to Jerusalem? The words that banned people like him from the assembly of the Lord. Was he remembering the temple gates slammed shut when he approached. Was he recalling the humiliation he felt?
I can imagine Philip telling that court official about Jesus and his promise to let the oppressed go free. I can hear Philip recalling the people Jesus healed and the people Jesus welcomed in his midst—prostitutes, tax collectors, the blind, the lame, even a bleeding woman. And I can imagine the Ethiopian eunuch wondering to himself, “Does that include me? Does Jesus welcome me into his midst?”
Maybe he then points to another passage in Isaiah—the passage where the prophet says, "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."
Do you wonder if maybe, just maybe, Philip found himself wondering just how broad God’s love really is. Do you think Philip was going back and forth is his mind about baptizing that Ethiopian eunuch? Maybe that’s why that Ethiopian eunuch points to the water and says, “What is to prevent me from being baptized?” “What is to prevent me from being part of God’s family?” “What is to prevent me from sharing in God’s love?”
It’s the Ethiopian eunuch who spots the water. It’s the Ethiopian eunuch who stops the chariot. I like to think that it’s the Ethiopian eunuch who leads Philip to the water. Both go down to the water—the baptizer and the baptized. Both come up out of the water. And both are changed by the encounter—the baptizer and the one baptized.
It’s that way sometimes with encounters at the margins. You meet the other, the outsider, and things change. Not always, but sometimes. You get a different perspective. You see a different side of things. Maybe even of yourself. New possibilities open up. I think that’s what’s happening in our church right now at this moment in our history as a denomination. For over thirty-five years our lesbian, gay, bi-sexual and transgendered brothers and sisters have challenged the church to open the doors to all the sacraments. “What is to prevent us from receiving communion or having our children baptized or being ordained a deacon, a priest, a bishop? What is to prevent us from being married to the one we love, to the one who shares our life?” “What is to prevent us from being a full member of the Body of Christ?” our LGBT brothers and sisters ask the church.
Come down to the water they say to the church. Step in. When we come out of those waters, we will all be changed. And that is what is happening to our denomination, to our worshipping community and I hope to you and me as well. As we see the witness of loving commitment manifest in the lives of those whose relationships shower blessings on all whom they encounter, we ask ourselves, “What is to prevent this relationship from being blessed?” As we step into the waters of same-gender blessings, as we look at the words of commitment and the theology that undergirds those words, as we witness God’s love made manifest in the couples in our midst—be they same gender or different gender, maybe we will all be changed, maybe we will all draw a little bit closer to that ideal of loving, life-giving and reconciling covenantal relationships that Christ calls us to and that our liturgies proclaim.
Step into the waters of love. They come from God.