Sermons

Sun, Apr 29, 2018

Breaking boundaries

Series:Sermons

Just when I thought it was safe to open my mail again...

this week there was a letter from a certain Christian organisation addressed to "Dear friends and supporters"--

I don't know why they thought that I was either their "friend" or a "supporter"--

but, anyway, the letter began:

"We hope you will support and sign our petition calling for full, permanent and adequate protections of religious freedoms which having been developed over time are now threatened, and so protect liberty of faith and conscience in Australia".

Enclosed with the letter was a copy of their petition... 

and a booklet detailing supposed examples of the curtailment of religious freedom.

All of the examples that they cite concern issues of sexuality--

with 'good Christians' supposedly being persecuted for telling gay and lesbian people they're sinners going to hell;

or railing against the "Safe Schools" programme.

Personally...

I have no tolerance for that 'poor persecuted me' bleating...

given the hate speech such Christians have directed at the LGBTI community...

and the harm that they perpetrated on them... 

through that hideous 'Marriage Equality' debate and plebiscite.

But it saddens me, that...

for the wider community...

that defines the Church:

prejudice...

bigotry...

exclusion...

and persecution.

And it's interesting that a major study in the United States...

only a few years ago... 

noted that a vast majority of "millennials"--

that is, people born from the early nineteen-eighties through to two thousand--

prefer a 'classic' church...

(they dislike the term 'traditional')...

to a 'modern' or 'trendy' one.

According to one of the researchers...

they are "not disillusioned with tradition; they are frustrated with slick or shallow expressions of religion".

In particular, they dislike churches that...

despite appearing "hip"...

are actually "exclusive" and "closed-minded".

Indeed, the number one reason cited in the study as to why young people don't go to church is judgmentalism--

especially in the Church's treatment of gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, and intersex people.

And those findings are also supported by some recent research in Australia...

which cited the Church's treatment of people with an alternate sexual identity--

and the subordination of women--

as the main reasons for leaving Church.

Exclusion...

closed-mindedness...

judgmentalism--

that's what turns people off.

But that, for many, is what characterises the Church.

And, frankly, who could blame them?

With Christians bleating about being "persecuted" for calling LGBTI people sinners destined for hell...

or trying to defend the subordination and marginalisation of women...

or for inciting Islamophobia...

the image of the Church as rigid, dogmatic, moralistic, and exclusionary...

is not without justification.

 

And yet, nothing could be further from the image that we find in the New Testament...

especially in the book of Acts.

Take, for example, our story this morning of the Ethiopian eunuch.

Admittedly, it's not a story that probably connects with us--

culturally speaking.

In almost every respect, the central character is completely "other".

But, in fact, that's actually the point.

He was totally "other" for the intended audience of Acts as well.

After all, few of them would have encountered an Ethiopian--

dark skinned and exotic, from a far-away, mysterious land.

But he was especially "other" as a eunuch...

because eunuchs, in antiquity, were vehemently despised and derided.

They were ridiculed as effeminate;

they were called "monstrous" and "alien to human nature";

and they were ranked, on par, with those who murdered infants.

There is an account of a eunuch... 

who was barred from holding a position in philosophy at Athens because of his condition...

which, it was claimed, made him unfit to teach boys.

Within Israel, eunuchs were not permitted to serve as priests--

indeed, they were not even permitted to enter the Temple.

And at least one first century Hebrew writer argued that they ought to be completely shunned--

not just from the Temple...

but also from public life--

because of their effeminacy and their inability to reproduce.

In short, within that world, eunuchs were deviant...

immoral...

impure...

effeminate...

unnatural...

an affront to respectable, religious folk...

and, by implication, abhorrent to God.

Within the context of the ancient world...

the author of Acts could not have constructed a character who was more "other"--

more marginal...

more despised...

and more religiously contemptible.

And yet, in the unfolding narrative of Acts...

he was the first non-Israelite convert.

In the unfolding narrative of Acts, this Ethiopian eunuch--

this marginalised... 

monstrous... 

despised... 

contemptible... 

seemingly abhorrent-to-God individual--

is given pride of place.

His acceptance into the Christian community represents--

as one New Testament scholar describes it--

"a radical transgression of prevailing cultural boundaries". 

But it was also a radical transgression of prevailing religious boundaries.

And it would have been-- 

for most of the readers-- 

a direct challenge to their conception of God.

Which is, perhaps, why the author crafts this story so carefully...

infusing the whole with an almost magical element...

reinforcing--

almost labouring the point-- 

that all of this takes place under direct divine dictation...

in fulfilment of divine will.

The original, intended audience of Acts would have been utterly horrified!

In a way, the author is saying that... 

all too often...

the community of faith can be so slow to realise that it's wrong;

that its beliefs and practices can be so out of touch with God;

and yet, it's true calling--

it's very raison d'être--

is to extend God's inclusive, all-embracing love.

The author...

through this story...

is claiming that God thumbs God's nose at all of our exclusionary pontificating in God's name...

and all of our efforts to erect boundaries in God's name.

After all, that is what the resurrection is all about, isn't it?

Symbolically... 

metaphorically...

it's God's answer to human limitations;

it's God's 'yes' to every 'no';

it's God's affirmation of life in the face of every denial and denigration of life. 

Indeed, the author of Acts presents in this story an interesting theology of Easter.

There's no concern here with issues of sacrifice and all such things.

Rather, the Easter story is described--

through the exposition of the Isaiah text--

as God's exaltation of the humiliated;

God's vindication of the rejected;

God's honouring of the shamed.

Here, the cross is portrayed as a message of radical social reversal. 

In effect, the author is saying that people like this Ethiopian eunuch--

or, perhaps, like many lesbian, gay, transgender, and intersex people today--

actually understand the Easter story better than those who would deny them life;

or those who proclaim them far from the love of God.

 

Now, I can hear some of you say:

'Yes, but we're a welcoming and inclusive community.

It's part of our mission statement.

You're preaching to the converted'.

And that's true.

We're certainly welcoming and inclusive;

and we seek to provide a safe space for people with different sexual orientations.

And perhaps, for us, they aren't "other" like this eunuch was back then.

But are there other people with whom we struggle--

people from certain parts of Africa or the Middle East...

people of other religious faiths and traditions...

people who have come to us in boats--

whom we treat as "other" and exclude?

Well, this story challenges us:

unless we fully accept and include them--

whoever they are--

do we stand contrary to the risen Christ whom we claim to serve?

 

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