Sunday, May 3, 2015

Riding with the Ethiopian:
On Baltimore, Scripture, and Being Christian in Public


Sermon preached at St. Francis House on the 5th Sunday of Easter, Year B. These are the readings for the day: Acts 8:26-40Psalm 22:24-301 John 4:7-21John 15:1-8.

In the logic of the national public square, the U.S. Constitution exists, in part, to protect me from your faith. You can’t just impose your faith on me. Neither am I permitted to impose my faith on you. Sometimes this protection is physical, as from fundamentalists who may turn violent. Other times, the protection of the state simply preserves your right to shape your own life, without unwanted interference or help. So, if my god says to tie unwanted Sponge Bob balloons on the shoelaces of unwilling strangers at bus stops, the Constitution intervenes and says, “Hey! Stop! You can’t do that.” If you believe that all unbelieving people - however you define that - should have their eyebrows shaved off and replaced with adhesive gummy worms, you are not able to impose your conviction by force, either. 

Freedom of religion is a wonderful thing. It is one of the remarkable hallmarks of the American democratic experiment. In what follows, I don’t want to question Freedom of Religion. As my caveat probably gives away, though, I do want to question something. What I want to question is how typical people, like you and me, sometimes come to think or not think about the religious protection our Constitution affords, such that we subsequently and perhaps subconsciously shape our interactions with one another in unfortunate and limiting ways. 

For example, if I uncritically fixate on the Constitution’s protective role, with respect to my life and religion, I may conclude that religious interactions with others are inherently negative, if not threatening, in the same way that stationing machine gun toting soldiers by the entrances of public restrooms would send me certain implied, nonverbal signals about how someone, anyway, regards the safety of using that particular restroom.

Of course, most of us don’t need constitutional protections in order to feel the permission to close the blinds when we see the Mormons or Jehovah’s Witnesses approaching the front door. But I wonder if some combination of civic messaging, personal experience, and fear don’t collaborate to play a powerful, adverse role in our lives when we think - if we think - of sharing our faith with others.

“Of course it would be unwanted,” we say. “That’s why we have a Constitution. To protect us from the conflicts - if not wars - religion occasions. I should just shut my trap. Give him his space. Don’t mention your faith to her. And if she asks, don’t let it sound too strong. Certainly not compelling. It’s better, this way, for everyone.”

But the present turmoil of our nation is exposing the poverty of this logic. If there is a silver lining to the terrible string of police-involved deaths and protests that this country has recently experienced - alongside the accidental drone deaths of two American hostages overseas - maybe it is that we have been reminded that religion is not the only source of conflict, and that the state is not always, or even regularly, innocent in matters of human conflict, much less in a unique position to protect us from it. That’s to say that diluting or closeting one’s faith, publicly, may not be the failsafe contribution to the public good we once were led to think it was. 

Put more positively, two of the most remarkable responses to the present unrest in Baltimore came from African-American leaders of faith, sharing their faith on the public stage. One of these leaders, Eugene Taylor Sutton, the Episcopal Bishop of Maryland, invited his people, in a widely shared statement, to weep and pray for their city. Then, toward the end of the statement, he added: “My brothers and sisters, don’t expect me or anybody else to be the savior of this situation we find ourselves in today. I am not a savior…but I serve a Savior. My Savior is not afraid to weep, not afraid to get angry, not afraid to say and do the right thing because it’s hard, not afraid of anyone or any neighborhood – and not afraid of fear. He is strong to save because he’s strong in love, and my Lord God came down from heaven in human form to show us His children the way.”

Bishop Sutton’s words witness to us and our nation that conversations about faith are not always - and certainly not inherently - about imposing on or power over or intrusion in the lives of others. Sometimes conversations of faith are about generosity and love: giving the grieving permission to weep over situations we cannot control. Sometimes conversations of faith are about vulnerably sharing through our tears the living hope God has, in spite of everything, given us. Sometimes conversations of faith open doors for those who see no open doors, but desperately want to keep walking. Sometimes conversations of faith are not impositions, much less violations, but instead are the best kinds of gifts: glimpses of God at work in one another; the gift of living life, not at arm’s length, but together.

In today’s reading from Acts, the Spirit prompts Philip to go meet a stranger: an Ethiopian eunuch, seated in his chariot, meandering down the road, and reading as he goes. In the practice of the day - for reasons that are comical, true, and that we can talk about later - the stranger is reading out loud. Philip overhears and recognizes the book being read - Isaiah - and so he asks the Ethiopian: “You understand all that?” The stranger looks up and smiles - at least I imagine he smiles - and he gives this wonderfully honest, almost coy, answer: “How can I, unless someone guides me?” He looks around, for effect. There’s no one else around. He smiles again. He’s talking to Philip. “And he invited Philip to get in and sit beside him.”

Tell me, be honest - does a more beautiful, simple, straightforward illustration exist for considering conversations of faith in public? There, in the honesty of not knowing, the invitation to explain, and Philip’s acceptance of it, we receive a picture of the truth that the life of faith is made with friends - friends who will get in and sit beside us; strangers who invite us to get in, as new friends, and sit beside them. Haven’t you known such a moment, either as one who was assisted in faith through the faith of another or as one who was invited to assist someone else through your faith? Who was it for you? Who came to you? In whom do you seek and find that sort of friendship now?

Then he points to his place on the parchment, and Philip nods to acknowledge the spot; he begins sharing. Drawing on those three rich years with his Savior, Philip lets his life meet the verses before them. He proclaims the good news about Jesus.

I love how it starts with reading Scripture together. Lauren Winner one time asked, “What if our job as preachers is to just love the scriptures in public?”

Of course, I don’t want you to think I’m just talking to preachers. Or, better, that I don’t see you as preachers, too - as proclaimers of God’s good news with each other. What if our job as Christians - as friends in Christ, one to another - is to just love the scriptures in public - is to just share our faith, tell the stories, such that others - and we ourselves - see “the smallest glimpse of the happening of God?”

“…he invited Philip to get in and sit beside him.” 

The life of faith is personal, but it need not be private, constitutional offers to the contrary notwithstanding. Indeed, for Christians, personal cannot mean private, if by private we mean “alone.” Bishop Sutton, Philip, and our own lives remind us that conversations about faith are not always - and certainly not inherently - about imposing on or power over or intrusion in the lives of others. Sometimes conversations of faith are about unexpected generosity and love: giving the grieving permission and friends with which to weep; offering the joyful company with which to laugh. Sometimes conversations of faith are about vulnerably sharing the living hope God has, in spite of everything - in Jesus Christ! - given us. Sometimes conversations of faith open doors for those who see no open doors, but desperately want to keep walking. Sometimes your public love of the scriptures does not name imposition, much less violation, but instead is the best kind of gift: a glimpse of God at work in each other; the gift of living life, not at arm’s length, but together. 

Do you know that your trust, as you speak and hear words of faith for each other, is the work of God’s Spirit in you? That it’s one of the ways you abide in Christ? That it’s a good part of keeping Jesus’ command to love one another?

“…he invited Philip to get in and sit beside him.” 


Amen.

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