5/3/2015 sermon “Humiliated unjustly”

Preacher: Jo J. Belser
Location: Episcopal Church of the Resurrection, Alexandria, Virginia 
Text: Acts 8:26-40
5Easter, Year B, 2015

“Humiliated unjustly”

Have you been watching the news from Baltimore this week? As terrible as the protesting has been, there have been moments of grace:

“In his humiliation justice was denied him.” I wonder if this passage of scripture is referring to Freddie Gray, the Black man whose death while in police custody began the riots in Baltimore?

No? Well, if not Freddie, then who?

Have you been watching the news from the Supreme Court this week? On Tuesday the justices heard testimony from people all over the political and theological spectrum on same-sex marriage. Right smack in the middle of the case was Jayne Rowse and April DeBoer, who had sued to challenge Michigan’s ban on same-sex marriage. Maybe, depending on where your thoughts are on this issue of our time, you think that injustice and humiliation were appropriate for Jayne and April. I wonder how, if at all, this passage from Isaiah might apply to them?

No? Well, if this passage doesn’t apply to Jayne and April, then who?

Or maybe your thoughts aren’t focused on news cases at all. Maybe your thoughts are closer to home, focused on your OWN situation. Maybe you are thinking of how you are or have been humiliated by justice denied? Maybe your job was terminated because you are “too old.” Humiliated. Unjustly. Or maybe your child was stolen from you haven’t been able to see him in nine months, despite court orders to the contrary. Humiliated. Unjustly. Or maybe you just don’t have any money and have to beg for shelter and for food. Humiliated. Unjustly. Is this passage from Isaiah referring to YOU?

No? Well, if not to you, then who?

I imagine this might be what the unnamed Ethiopian man was wondering as he sat by the side of the road reading scripture. “If not me,” the man might well have been thinking, “then WHO was humiliated unjustly?”

To understand this man’s question, we have to get the full picture of where he was. He was on the road out of Jerusalem, a wilderness road, heading home (our first lesson tells us) after coming to Jerusalem to worship in the Temple there.

Now our modern brains might conclude that this man would have been successful in his pilgrimage. He had come thousands of miles, a trip of several months, all the way from east Africa to worship God. He was rich, an important official back home. What would have prevented him from completing his God-quest?

Well, we are supposed to know, are assumed to understand, that as a eunuch this man wouldn’t have been allowed to worship in the Temple. As people who were literally castrated in service of their king or queen, this was the classic “blame the victim” rule. According to Leviticus Law, Jewish law, people who were not whole were not allowed to enter the presence of God.

Humiliated. Unjustly. How that phrase must have resonated with this Ethiopian seeker.

He had a scroll, though. Do you know how improbable a circumstance this would have been? Back then you couldn’t just buy a copy of any portion of scripture, We don’t know how this man had acquired this scroll, but the acquisition must have cost him dearly. Maybe being allowed to buy this Isaiah scroll was a consolation for not being able to worship in the Temple; we’ll never know. By whatever improbable circumstance, the rich Ethiopian eunuch was reading scripture by the side of the road, in the wilderness, heading home from humiliation in Jerusalem.

And then Philip “happened” by. Philip was one of the first seven deacons of the early Christian church. Then, like now, deacons were appointed to help bishops care for the widows and orphans. As we explain the diaconal mission today, deacons are those whose function is to translate the needs of the world to the church, and to marshal the resources of the church to meet the world’ needs. In other words, deacons are the people whose God-function is to ensure that the church ministers to those who have been humiliated unjustly. So Philip, a deacon, just “happened” on this humiliated Ethiopian man.

NOT! I’m sure you’re remembering our first lesson, which explains that an angel of the Lord had appeared to Philip and had told him to “get up and go” to the very place this man was who was so hungry for God.

I wonder: what do you think of this “angel of the Lord” stuff? Have YOU ever been visited by or received a visit from an angel of the Lord? Would you even recognize an angel of the Lord if you encountered one?

This is a trick question, of course. We ALL have received such a visit, recently. Or else why are you here, at Church of the Resurrection? Sitting in a pew slated for redevelopment so that we can gift our community with affordable housing. This is so improbable a church mission an angel of the Lord HAD to have been involved, HAS to be involved. How else would you explain our mass insanity? I say that it was an angel of the Lord… but I would be happy to hear your explanation.

So, at God’s instruction, Philip ran up to this stranger’s chariot and began a conversation with him. Now I imagine this humiliated man must have been very hungry for conversation about God, hungry for religion. Otherwise, how do we account for the man inviting Philip in? Otherwise, how do we account for the Ethiopian man asking Philip who it was who had been humiliated unjustly and had suffered and died without speaking a word in his own defense?

You know the saying, “God makes fit those he calls.” Well, God had called Philip and Philip had the answers. Philip preached Jesus to this man and he believed.

Here’s where the next improbable thing happened: they happened to pass by water in the wilderness. And when the humiliated man asked what was preventing him from being baptized, can’t you hear just a bit of fear in the question? Maybe there was some rule that would have prevented his baptism. But when the man asked to be baptized, Philip baptized him.

We don’t know what happened to this new Christian and his Isaiah scroll after that. Not really, even though the first church historian, Eusebius of Caesarea, said that the eunuch spread the gospel in Ethiopia prior to the Apostle Matthew’s arrival there.

So that’s what happened on the road to Gaza, and in Ethiopia, in the first century of the Common Era. What about today? How does this event so long ago apply to us here in the Beauregard Corridor of Alexandria, so near Arlington and Fairfax County and Woodbridge and Bowie? Do you see yourself as Philip? If so, who is God calling you to go tell about Jesus? Do you see yourself as the Ethiopian? If so, how will you put your humiliation behind you and share the gospel that you have been given, in the name of the one who was humiliated unjustly for our sake?

I’m wondering, though, how God might be speaking to us as a community through this scripture? Who do we, Resurrection, know who might be stalled by the side of our street, in the wilderness so to speak, in need of Christian community? Who, improbably, is God telling us to “get up and go” deacon to?

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