Beloved, Let Us Love One Another (aka The Ethiopian Eunuch)

5th Sunday of Easter, Year B

Acts 8:26-40
Psalm 22:24-30
1 John 4:7-21
John 15:1-8

All Saints’ Church

May 3, 2015

John said “Beloved, let us love one another.” In the name of one God, who is love. AMEN

I was sitting around a table with a few friends after dinner back in November when we heard the decision that there would be no charges against the police officer who killed Michael Brown.

One friend broke our angry silence and said: “Well, what can we do about it?”

Well, what can we do about it? This is a question that comes up over and over again, doesn’t it? Not just about what’s happened in Ferguson, MO in the past year, but about so much injustice and despair all over.

An earthquake in Nepal last week: over 7000 people dead. 130,000 houses destroyed. 24,000 people living in makeshift camps. An estimated 3 million people in need of some sort of aid there.[1] What can we do about it?

The death of a young man, Freddie Gray, in Baltimore, due to police misconduct. Peaceful protests, riots & looting, curfews imposed on the city. Schools closed down and thousands of children without lunch. What can we do about it?

Though they are both very much on our minds this week: It might seem like Baltimore and Nepal are very, very far apart–and they certainly are, geographically. But something links them–something which makes me able to stand up here in this beautiful church and talk about them to you, something which makes me feel safe, ultimately, from all of this despair.

What links them is poverty. Many, many people in both of these places living in poverty.

Because natural disasters can happen anywhere, of course. Earthquakes do not target specific victims. But those who suffer the most are those who are living in poverty, those who are already on the edge.

We have seen this in OUR country with Hurricane Katrina and Superstorm Sandy, we have seen how disproportionately LONG it takes some people, those who do not have a financial cushion, to recover from these disasters.

The UN estimates that over 40% of people living in Nepal are living in poverty.[2]

And in Baltimore, there is also intense poverty, concentrated in certain neighborhoods, mostly neighborhoods where people of color live. Across the city, nearly 25% of people live below the poverty line and the unemployment rate is 2x the national average. Now remember that these statistics are actually concentrated in certain neighborhoods and then you can imagine what that kind of poverty might look like.[3]

In response to the looting and arson that occurred during riots this past week, Baltimore city councilman Nick Mosby responded, saying that “violence is never acceptable” but that the riots can be seen as “a symptom of something much bigger than Freddie Gray, much bigger than Baltimore.” He cited the poverty of these neighborhoods that produce young people with little education and fewer opportunities. He said, “Unfortunately, this is their voice; the voice is destruction, the voice is anger.”[4]

What can we do about it?

Once, I asked a priest friend this very question, when I was feeling really powerless to do anything to help anyone’s suffering. When I was thinking, as I can think a lot, as I am sure we have all thought at some point, how can God let this happen?

What can we do about it?

And my friend said, “Well, the Gospel is a good place to start.”

I can get so busy wrestling with God, thinking about what I can DO about it, what kind of plan for world peace I can come up with all on my own, what I could say to you this morning that would inspire all of us to fix all this, that I forget that–guess what?–it’s not all about me and my plans.

So what can we do about it? Today we get a picture in three different stories: from the Gospel of John, from the Acts of the Apostles, and from the First Letter of John. We get three different reminders that it’s not all about us: three different ways to think about what we can do.

Jesus says, “I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me, and I in them, bear much fruit.” In this section of the Gospel of John, Jesus is just throwing out a lot of different metaphors to try to explain what God is like. (It’s really hard to explain God, that is one thing that is clear in the Gospels.) In this one: God is the vinegrower, the creator of the grape vine. Jesus is the grape vine, and we, all of us, are the branches. And it’s the branches–us–that bear the fruit. So we all have grapes hanging off us. I think, in this metaphor, grapes are good.

“Those who abide in me, and I in them, bear much fruit.” John is always using this word: abide–it basically means to be deeply at home. We are deeply at home in God, God is deeply at home in us, and we are all joined by the vine to bear fruit, together.

So, to extend this metaphor, you are a branch. And you might forget that you’re attached to a vine at all. You might be so focused on making a perfect little grape, that you forget there are branches on either side of you, and a vine at your foundation. But it’s not just you making those grapes, because the vine is what nourishes you. This is what God offers us again and again in the Gospel–food, bread, photosynthesis, grapes! And this is what we remember each week, when we come to the table. God gives us more life, and always reminds us that we are not doing this alone.

In the story from Acts, we get a great reminder that not only are we not doing this alone, but also God’s branches are totally diverse, (something we know if we look around the pews at All Saints’) and can look as different from each other as Philip looks from an Ethiopian Eunuch.

In the Acts of the Apostles, which is like a sequel to the Gospel of Luke, the apostles are out in the world preaching about Jesus, and trying to decide who they think should be allowed to follow Jesus. Again and again, God’s response is more and more expansive. This is for everyone.

The Ethiopian Eunuch is a super interesting character. Eunuch as a descriptor in ancient texts is a bit ambiguous and could just indicate some oddity about his gender expression, but because he is described as being a court official, it is likely that he was castrated, probably at a young age. What is fascinating is that he is described as returning from Jerusalem where he went to worship–but there are very strict laws in Deuteronomy that prohibit eunuchs from entering the temple. Was he turned away? And was he still, even after being turned away, struggling through his reading from Isaiah? Still seeking God, undeterred by how exclusive us humans can be? And so often, wrongly I might add, exclusive in the name of God?

The spirit brings Philip and the Ethiopian Eunuch together–this story is often called the “conversion” of the Ethiopian Eunuch. But I wonder:

What in Philip was converted that day along this wilderness road, meeting this man who was yearning for God? This Ethiopian who heard what Jesus had to offer and said, yes, let’s do it right now. There is water right here. I want to get baptized. And who went off from his baptism rejoicing.

Perhaps the spirit sent Philip to the Eunuch not to convert the Eunuch, but to learn from him. To see God at work in this person who was in many ways his opposite: in race, in rank, and in gender and sexual expression. Who are those people in your life? Who is the spirit leading you to–you might think you’re going to convert them, but they convert you? Who is the spirit asking you to LISTEN to?

We came to these texts asking: what can we do about it? What can we do about injustice, about local and global poverty, about suffering? Big questions. And so far we hear: we can abide in God, we can always be at home in God. And we can see God abiding in the face of a stranger, of a foreigner. We can meet God in any person. We can listen.

And finally, there is the First letter of John. The great thing about these letters in the New Testament is that we can really hear them as directives; finally a call to action. And it is so clear:

“Beloved, let us love one another.”

Let us love one another.

Cornel West has a quote he says a lot, you might have seen it thrown around this week, and I love it. He says, “Justice is what love looks like in public.” All this talk about how God is love, all these commandments to love our neighbors, all this good and frilly stuff we talk about in church: this is anemic if there is no justice.

But there is a second part to his quote. He says, “Justice is what love looks like in public, but justice is never identical to love.” Referencing the theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, West says that there is a difference between individual moralizing; our own individual idea of what justice is, our impulse to answer the question “what can we do” all by ourselves. There is a difference between that and the kind of justice that “understands the needs of its fellows.” Justice that looks out for the Ethiopian Eunuch, for Freddie Gray, for the branches on either side of us, and for the branches in Nepal. For any one of our sisters and brothers who is suffering.

Beloved, What can we do about it? Let us do justice for one another. Beloved, let us love one another.

AMEN.

[1] http://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-32564891

[2] http://www.bbc.com/news/world-south-asia-12511455

[3] http://www.washingtonpost.com/posttv/local/the-history-of-poverty-in-baltimore/2015/04/30/89035d7d-b26c-4b90-9830-442b1e89c02e_video.html

[4] http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2015/04/30/can-this-prosecutor-save-baltimore.html

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s