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Hymn # 480 Take Me to the Water
Prayer of Invocation Eternal God, you have called us to be members of one body. Join us with those who in all times and places have praised your name, that, with one heart and mind, we may show the unity of your church, and bring honor to our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.
Call to Confession Our Lord Jesus said: “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.” As God has instructed us in these great commandments, and because we have not lived in full obedience, let us now confess our sins to God, trusting Christ as our Savior and Lord.
Prayer of Confession Gracious God, we believe that Christ's work of reconciliation is made manifest in the church as the community of believers who have been reconciled with God and with one another, yet we confess that we do not always live up to our beliefs. We do not live into the unity of the church, as Christ has called us to be one body. We see separation and hatred between your Children, O, God, yet we do not do enough to mend the breaches. Help us, God, to love one another and practice community with all of your children. Help us, God, to be agents of unity, in the church and in the world that you have created. Amen.
Assurance of Pardon “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.”
Passing of the Peace
Minute for Mission: Bill Canning [Insert video here.]
Prayer for Illumination
Acts 8:26-40 26 Then an angel of the Lord said to Philip, “Get up and go toward the south to the road that goes down from Jerusalem to Gaza.” (This is a wilderness road.) 27 So he got up and went. Now there was an Ethiopian eunuch, a court official of the Candace, queen of the Ethiopians, in charge of her entire treasury. He had come to Jerusalem to worship 28 and was returning home; seated in his chariot, he was reading the prophet Isaiah. 29 Then the Spirit said to Philip, “Go over to this chariot and join it.” 30 So Philip ran up to it and heard him reading the prophet Isaiah. He asked, “Do you understand what you are reading?” 31 He replied, “How can I, unless someone guides me?” And he invited Philip to get in and sit beside him. 32 Now the passage of the scripture that he was reading was this:
“Like a sheep he was led to the slaughter,
and like a lamb silent before its shearer,
so he does not open his mouth.
33 In his humiliation justice was denied him.
Who can describe his generation?
For his life is taken away from the earth.”
34 The eunuch asked Philip, “About whom, may I ask you, does the prophet say this, about himself or about someone else?” 35 Then Philip began to speak, and starting with this scripture, he proclaimed to him the good news about Jesus. 36 As they were going along the road, they came to some water; and the eunuch said, “Look, here is water! What is to prevent me from being baptized?” 38 He commanded the chariot to stop, and both of them, Philip and the eunuch, went down into the water, and Philip baptized him. 39 When they came up out of the water, the Spirit of the Lord snatched Philip away; the eunuch saw him no more, and went on his way rejoicing. 40 But Philip found himself at Azotus, and as he was passing through the region, he proclaimed the good news to all the towns until he came to Caesarea.
Sermon You’ve Got to Be Carefully Taught
Good morning. I had the idea for this sermon series on the Book of Acts several weeks ago—before George Floyd was killed and before many of the cities in our nation erupted in anger, outrage, and occasionally in violence. I knew I wanted to preach on this particular text, in part because it’s a story that’s unfamiliar to a lot of us, and in part, because it speaks to the work of the Church. It seems even more urgent now.
The story begins with an angel telling Philip, a member of the early Church that was established after Pentecost, to go on a journey. Philip was instructed to take a road through the wilderness. Anybody who heard this story in the first few hundred years of the Church’s existence would have understood that a wilderness road is a dangerous road. It’s like driving through the wrong part of town.
On that road, Philip meets a man from Ethiopia. We never learn the other man’s name, but we learn a lot of important details about the man’s life. First, the man is a eunuch—that means he was castrated at some point in his life. Second, he’s the treasurer for the Candace, the queen of Ethiopia. We are also told that the man has come to Jerusalem to worship and that he was reading something from the prophet Isaiah, most likely a scroll.
That’s a lot of information and we can make some educated guesses about some other aspects of his life. First and foremost, this is a man of wealth and power. His position as treasurer made him wealthy. Also, he’s free to travel, he owns a chariot, and he purchased a scroll of the Book of Isaiah. Both the scroll and the chariot would have been extremely expensive items. We can also conclude that the man can read, even if he doesn’t fully comprehend the words on the page.
We don’t know anything about the man’s heritage. He could have been born to a Jewish family—there were Jewish communities in Ethiopia going back, perhaps, to the time of King Solomon. But we do know that he’s a eunuch, and as such, he could never enter a synagogue. He was not considered a proper Jew. And he was never going to be. What’s more, because he was a eunuch, he was the object of scorn and derision. Yet he went to Jerusalem to worship and he picked up a scroll with the words of the prophet Isaiah.
He is an outsider.
He wants to be an insider, but he can’t get in.
He will always be seen as the other.
As some of you know, I serve on the Permanent Judicial Commission (PJC) of Monmouth Presbytery. A couple months ago I went to a training for PJC members from all the presbyteries in the Synod of the Northeast. One of the trainers at this event was a pastor named Jihyun Oh. As you might guess from her name, the Rev. Oh is ethnically Korean. She was born and raised in Kansas. English is her native language.
Rev. Oh told a story about being at a gathering of clergy. There was a priest who had convened the gathering, and at the beginning, he greeted everyone—everyone except for her and another woman. The other woman was also of Asian heritage. Later, someone asked the priest why he ignored these two women. He said, “I couldn’t understand their accents.”
Mind you, neither woman had said a single word to that priest.
And for what it’s worth, Rev. Oh has a Midwestern accent. She has the most American of American accents. If you spoke with her on the phone, you wouldn’t get any clues about her ethnicity. Of course, whether she has an accent or not, the priest still should have practiced hospitality and greeted her. But he didn’t even try. He looked at her and jumped to a conclusion; he probably didn’t think about it.
Scientists call this implicit bias. It’s not the straightforward, aggressive racism of using ethnic slurs or committing acts of violence against minorities. It’s not even the low-level racism of jokes that use ethnic slurs as a punchline—jokes that many of us have told, before we learned how offensive or hurtful those jokes can be.
Implicit bias is much more subtle than that. It’s a mental shortcut. Life is complicated and if we had to think about every little thing, every breath or every step we take, there wouldn’t be much brainpower left for anything else. Though, if you’ve had a stroke and recovered, maybe you do have to think about every step you take. But most of the time, we move and act without thinking about all the little details—we rely on these shortcuts.
And it would be easy to dismiss Rev. Oh’s story, by saying that she really wasn’t greatly harmed by that priest’s incorrect assumption. But that would be wrong. First, we have no idea how many times she’s had to deal with that sort of humiliation. While it might seem like an honest mistake to most of us white folks, I’m certain that Rev. Oh felt the weight of that slight and every other insult, based on her racial identity. That has to be exhausting.
It doesn’t take a lot of imagination to see how this can play out with deadly consequences. The Rev. Oh is a short, petite woman. She’s not physically threatening. I have trouble imagining the 9-1-1 call in which a man says he’s being menaced by a petite Asian woman. However, 9-1-1 calls about menacing black males are all too common.
On August 5, 2014, a man named John Crawford III entered a Walmart store near Dayton, Ohio. Mr. Crawford picked up a BB in the sporting goods section and continued to shop. The BB gun was not in a box, or wrapped in plastic. As Mr. Crawford continued to shop, a white customer saw him with the BB gun and called 9-1-1. The other customer said that Crawford was pointing a gun at shoppers.
The white caller did not say that Crawford had a BB gun. What’s more, store video from the Walmart showed that Crawford was talking on his cell phone the whole time. He never pointed the BB gun at anyone. But that’s not what the white caller saw, and that’s not what the caller reported to 9-1-1.
The police responded to a call that said a black male was threatening people with a gun, inside a Walmart. That was their expectation and that was exactly what they saw.
According to the police report, the responding officers ordered Mr. Crawford to drop his weapon and lie down on the floor. When he didn’t comply immediately, one of the officers fired two shots at Crawford, striking him in the arm and in the abdomen. Crawford died shortly thereafter.
We don’t know why Crawford didn’t comply with the orders. The video showed that Crawford was still holding his cell phone when the officers arrived on the scene. The video shows very little time passing between when the officers approached Crawford and when the shots were fired.
Let’s be clear about two things. At no point did Mr. Crawford ever do anything illegal. And at no point did Mr. Crawford ever point that BB gun at anyone in the store. Even if Crawford heard the police, why would he think they were talking to him? He wasn’t doing anything wrong.
For those of us who are white, it’s easy to say, “How could the police have known what they were walking into?” For those of us who are white, it’s easy to forget just how many times this scene has been repeated.
If you’re feeling a little bit uncomfortable now, that’s good. This is uncomfortable stuff, and we all need to sit with it. And now you’re probably wondering what all of this has to do with that Ethiopian eunuch from Acts.
Our scripture reading is a reminder that the good news about Jesus Christ is good news for everyone, regardless of age, race, skin color, or other physical condition. That should be clear from the text of the story, but there’s a deeper truth underlying this story.
It’s important that the Ethiopian eunuch is reading the Book of Isaiah. Remember, the prophet Isaiah preached release to the captives. Isaiah also speaks of the “suffering servant.” The passage that the eunuch was reading begins:
“Like a sheep he was led to the slaughter,
and like a lamb silent before its shearer,
so he does not open his mouth.
33 In his humiliation justice was denied him.
In the Christian tradition, we read these lines as pointing towards Christ. Jesus is the lamb who was sacrificed for our sins.
The Ethiopian eunuch knows these words are sacred, but he can’t truly understand them. They don’t make sense, in part, because Jewish custom, at that time, would not allow him to be a full member of the worshiping community. He could only exist at the margins of the Jewish community because he was a eunuch.
And then Philip came along. Philip was equipped with the Holy Spirit, and because of that, he could rightly teach what was in those words from Isaiah. What’s more, he could testify to the good news of Jesus Christ, and that we may all be connected and reconciled to God and to one another through Jesus. That’s powerful stuff!
When I hear that last line from Isaiah, “In his humiliation justice was denied him,” I see the image of George Floyd’s body, with the police officer’s knee on his back. And I think of the stories of John Crawford III, Tamir Rice, Philando Castile, and so many other African-American men.
We have to learn to see all people differently. We have to learn to see everyone as a beloved child of God, created in the image of God. We have to unlearn our fears of those who look different. And we have to acknowledge that God created us in our particular bodies and skin tones. To be “colorblind” is to ignore all of the beautiful colors that God used in creating us.
Our reading from Acts reminds us that we are called to make the world a more just and loving place. We are called to bring people into relationship with God, in and through Jesus Christ. We will be more effective witnesses to the love of God in the world when we transform the world, when we work toward building the world as God would have it. Thanks be to God. Amen.
Hymn # 100 My Soul Cries Out with a Joyful Shout (Canticle of the Turning)
Prayer of Thanksgiving We give our thanks through our talents, our time, and our treasure. Thanks be to God; whose love creates us! Thanks be to God; whose mercy redeems us! Thanks be to God; whose grace leads us into the future! Amen.
Prayers of the People
First and foremost, we ask that you open our eyes and ears and hearts to all the people around us. Purge us of our indifference, our complacency, and our tolerance for racism around us. Send us your Holy Spirit, so that we may mend the breaches in our society. Equip us to heal the divisions and take up the work of reconciliation.
Continued prayers for Trena Parks, and for all of our African American brothers and sisters in Christ whose faith has been tested during these times.
We offer prayers for everyone who is cut off from loved ones during this time; those who can’t visit their loved ones in hospitals and nursing homes; those who are in hospitals and care facilities; and most of all, those who have been unable to visit and sit with their loved ones as they have died.
As always, we offer a prayer of thanksgiving—and prayers for health and safety—for all of the helpers out there. We lift up all the nurses, doctors, lab techs, nurses’ aides, housekeeping staff, and first responders who are on the front lines of this pandemic.
We give thanks for all they do and we pray that Go
d continue to watch over them in this time. Finally, as cities and states emerge from this time of quarantine, we ask for the guidance and wisdom of the Holy Spirit for all our leaders, as they make difficult decisions about how and when to reopen businesses, schools, and houses of worship.
And we pray for wisdom and grace for all of us as we navigate the return to parts of our old routines.
The Lord’s Prayer
Hymn # 69 Here I Am, Lord
Benediction I want to bless you before I send you out into the world, but I think we all need to spend a little more time in prayer. We need to devote ourselves to prayer, like the apostles did, in that time between the Ascension and Pentecost.
Let us pray the prayer that’s attributed to St. Francis:
Lord, make me an instrument of your peace.
Where there is hatred, let me bring love.
Where there is offence, let me bring pardon.
Where there is discord, let me bring union.
Where there is error, let me bring truth.
Where there is doubt, let me bring faith.
Where there is despair, let me bring hope.
Where there is darkness, let me bring your light.
Where there is sadness, let me bring joy.
O Master, let me not seek as much to be consoled as to console,
to be understood as to understand,
to be loved as to love,
for it is in giving that one receives, it is in self-forgetting that one finds,
it is in pardoning that one is pardoned,
it is in dying that one is raised to eternal life. Amen.