Sermon preached by Brent Newberry
July 30, 2017
It’s the task of a minister to speak to contemporary concerns, to convey how God and the gospel converge with our current context. Yet I have to admit I’m getting tired of addressing things that happen in our country.
I’m not interested in being partisan, and I don’t think I should be from the pulpit. Maybe it’s because of our Scripture reading this morning, but this week I’ve been keenly aware of the ways we try to devalue the humanity of our neighbors through policies and legislation that seeks to make them or how they live illegal.
And that’s when I, as a minister of the gospel, must speak out.
Because any time an individual or group of individuals are made to feel or be seen as less than their full humanity demands, it is an affront to both the God and the gospel we say we believe in. Demeaning others is undeniably sinful, and it must be confessed and resisted.
Transgender persons and genderqueer people—a self-defining term that is used to express a person who does not subscribe to conventional gender distinctions for themselves—have experienced extensive hatred and have been demeaned along with so many other minority groups in this country. Because of the excessive bullying and bigotry they face daily, a shocking 41% of transgender individuals in the US have attempted suicide at least once. According to the Human Rights Campaign, 22 transgender individuals were murdered because of their gender identity in 2016. And as it notes, sadly, 2017 is trending even higher, as already 15 people have been killed simply because of their gender identity.
On top of this constant state of fear and hatred, the news in the past couple weeks only seems to exacerbate our nation’s moral condition regarding these beautiful human beings.
That’s because our government has effectively banned anyone who is transgender from serving in the military, after inviting them to openly do so last year. This move has been almost universally condemned by retired military service men and women, politicians on both sides of the aisle, and many churches, including this one.
Similarly, in my former state of Texas, the governor, after seeing his request shot down as the legislative session expired, has now called a special session, against his party’s own principles of limited government and reduced spending, at a cost of additional millions of dollars to his state, all in order to legislate against the rights of Trans individuals to use the bathroom of the gender with which they identify.
So much pain, so much intolerance, so little compassion, so little understanding.
It’s not dissimilar to what the characters in our story were experiencing in their daily lives.
Philip is a follower of the Way of Jesus, in a world growing increasingly intolerant of Christians and their rapid growth as a movement.
And as he moves further from home, he meets a man on the way. Someone described as an Ethiopian eunuch.
Two scholars are particularly helpful with historical background on this text—Mikeal Parsons of Baylor and Willie Jennings of Yale.
Parsons takes note of extensive historical accounts that document 1st century views of Ethiopians. Because of both their darker skin color and their geography at the far stretches of the known world, Ethiopians were somewhat exotic. By this time though, the view of Ethiopian individuals had shifted from somewhat positive, to decidedly negative.
In many ways, Luke’s story here in Acts 8 works to counter these racist elements that had creeped up in society, showing us that the gospel includes—and consequently we must include—even those we might despise or fear because of their country of origin or the color of their skin.
But the story doesn’t stop with a man who is simply from Ethiopia. No, Luke includes that this man was a eunuch. While a handful of scholars believe this title could simply indicate an official in a royal court, most scholars believe this to refer to a man who has been mutilated. It is most likely because he has been castrated that he is able to serve on the court—because he would no longer be perceived as a threat to the queen.
Here, Parsons is again extremely helpful. Taking note of other scholars’ works and the writings of the time, he points out that eunuchs “belonged to the most despised and derided group of men.” Without diving into all the various hurtful quotes from antiquity on this, of which Parsons provides plenty of examples, we can summarize it this way. Eunuchs in the first century were despised and demeaned and ostracized “in part because of their ambiguous gender identity.”
For Jews, the matter was such that eunuchs were considered unclean (Leviticus 11:9-12; 21:19-20) because they belonged neither to “the cultural expectations of male nor female.” Further, based on the fifth book of the Law, eunuchs were even forbidden from worshipping in the assembly of God. Deuteronomy 23:1, “No one whose testicles are crushed or whose penis is cut off shall be admitted to the assembly of the Lord.”
So here you have a man from Ethiopia, already considered “other” because of his darker skin color, who is even more despised and ostracized because of his physical condition, reading the Scriptures about a lamb who will be mutilated and slaughtered and humiliated, all the while justice eludes him.
I imagine he felt something in common with this person in the Scriptures.
And then Philip steps in.
The unnamed man from Ethiopia invites Philip into the chariot to show him what it means, and Philip steps in and sits with him.
Before he could even explain the gospel to this man from Ethiopia, Philip embodies it, by stepping in and sitting down with him.
Indeed, Luke wants us to leave this story just as changed as both characters.
Because the gospel of Jesus Christ is that inclusive.
That everyone is invited in.
It demands that we cherish the dignity of every person,
And value their full humanity.
Even those who the Scriptures themselves might have banned or condemned—they are precisely who this gospel is for.
How else could it be good news if only those who are good or right or acceptable enough can step in?
The man from Ethiopia, upon learning about Jesus, and how he was despised and rejected, and how it was in solidarity with those who experience the same thing, it was upon hearing this good news that God is with him and for him, quite literally, that he says, “What would prevent me from being baptized?”
The resounding refrain of the good news is “nothing!”
And so they slam on the brakes and Philip baptizes him right then and there.
What would prevent me?
Rachel Gonzales asked herself the same question. Rachel is a transgender girl who drove with her family to the state capital of Texas in Austin. Despite the odds, and in spite of her age, she testified before a committee in the state legislature, advocating for herself, that they would not pass a law that made her have to go into the men’s restroom simply because of the gender she was assigned at birth.
She stepped into that towering capitol, and sat down at that table, and invited the members of congress to join her.
And while they listened, they didn’t really hear her.
And they went on to vote the bill through the committee overwhelmingly.
But she would not be prevented from being seen as fully human.
The National Institute of Health has an article that describes the resiliency factors that transgender individuals possess. Skills that help them to cope and survive in a world hellbent on hurting them. Some of these are “assertive communication, self-advocacy, spiritual coping, honesty, integrity…being future-oriented… being outspoken, strong, friendly, outgoing, independent, determin[ed]…”
Rachel exhibited so many of those qualities in her brave testimony before the committee.
The man from Ethiopia, likewise.
Because no matter what the dominant culture might say,
no matter what rules religion might have,
no matter what policies empires might pass,
our transgender siblings are just as fully human as we are, and in some ways, even more so.
And if we believe in a gospel that demands that every life matters,
Then it means that black lives must matter,
And that transgender lives must matter.
So, what would prevent us?
From acknowledging that their lives matter as much as our own?
What would prevent us
from stepping in and sitting down into new friendships,
embodying a gospel that reaches anyone,
wherever they are,
no matter who they are,
that sees one another as human beings,
and not as categories
or less-than-human political punch lines
or retweetable policies?
What would prevent us from being changed?
During a time when we can find articles and news outlets and religious institutions that simply recite what we already believe,
it seems that anymore,
it is primarily through the power of relationships,
sharing our lived experiences,
and creating new stories together,
that we are able to change our minds.
What would prevent us
from being brave enough to advocate on behalf of those who are marginalized and demeaned simply because they don’t subscribe to the dominant cultural expectations on gender identity and expression?
What would prevent us?
As Parsons concludes,
“Luke is adamant.
God shows no partiality.”
So, what would prevent us?
That’s what Luke is asking us.
It’s what a man from Ethiopia is asking us.
It’s what a seven-year-old girl in Texas is asking us.
 Willie Jennings, Acts, 83. Here, Jennings quotes others as he points to the sin of racism, and that we must not be threatened by someone’s blackness.
 Mikeal Parsons, Body and Character in Luke and Acts, 134.