Confronting Hate & Division, Following the Spirit

Scripture  |  Acts 8:26-39

Background on Text

Our second reading today comes from the 8th chapter of Acts. It is on the surface, a simple story. So simple in fact that I think its easy to miss some of the nuances that would have stood out to people who would have read this around the time it was written. 

First off, this is a story about an Ethiopian, which for the author wouldn’t have meant that this man was from the country Ethiopia, but that he had dark skin, and was from the lands beyond Egypt, unknown exotic lands, far far away. This is a word used to describe the stark differences between the two characters of the story.

Secondly, Philip, the other main character in this story is a Christian and a leader in the early church in Jerusalem. 

He is Greek by birth, and part of a growing number of Christians in the early church, who came to faith in Christ from outside of Judaism. He is accustomed to being in community with people whose customs and heritage are different than his own and working to find common ground in Christ.  Beyond this, in the Jerusalem church, he was charged with taking care of the poor of their faith community, and was likely poor himself.

Finally, the Ethiopian man is a eunuch, which meant he was in the inner circle of the queen. He had power, status, and money, which we’ll see in this story because he's shown traveling in a chariot, and having enough money to have his own copy of a scroll of scripture. One commentator lifted up the contrast between Philip and the Ethiopian man by saying “This story is like a wall street stock broker, pulling his limo over in the streets of New York, to pick up a poor street preacher for Bible study.”

The other important piece to note about this man being a eunuch is that because of this, he isn’t allowed to be a Jew. As we’ll see in this story, he comes to Jerusalem to worship, it seems like he hopes to convert to this faith, after all, he's reading aloud from the Hebrew Scriptures and from the prophet Isaiah but he isn’t allowed to fully take on this faith because of laws in the Hebrew Bible.

This story is intended to lift up stark contrasts. 
Foreignness contrasts with familiar
Affluence with poverty
The exclusion the Ethiopian man experiences in Judaism contrasts with the radical inclusion he experiences in Christ.

I always find it incredible how the Spirit works… 

Karen, Philip, and I picked the scriptures out for our new sermon series months ago. 

We went through the bible and picked out stories of scripture that we thought might tell us something about what it means to be invitational as individual disciples and as a church. 

We looked at different ways in scripture that people have shared their faith 

and talked about Jesus, and we decided to kick off this series with today's story.

We originally liked it because it's a story about a complete outsider, someone totally foreign to the area of Jerusalem and some one totally foreign to faith in Christ. And yet this outsider is completely open to this faith, with Philip’s words and the Spirits work he understands it and decides to accept this faith as his own faith right there in that meeting.

We thought this would be a great way story to begin talking about how we might share our faith.
this story of an Ethiopian, this man from a far off land,

Because it tells us that Jesus’ message, isn’t just intended for this small community of Jews and Gentiles in and around Jerusalem, but it's meant to travel to the ends of the earth. We picked it to start because it tells us that this isn’t just a story for insiders, but it's meant for outsiders too.

It is incredible how the Spirit is at work though…
that though we picked this story for worship months ago, 
we could have never known that this would be the scripture
we’d read one week after Charlottesville.
Reading this story a week after the violence and hate seen there
Reading this story after a week of strong words said, 
and hard lines drawn in the sand.
Reading this story today brings out a whole other side to the text,
And its this side that I believe God is calling us to hear today.

Because in today’s context
it becomes apparent
that this is a story about our differences
about all of the self-imposed boundaries we create between people
This IS a story about race
This IS a story about class
This IS a story about power
But more importantly, about This is a story two people who some how came together from across all of the stark boundaries of race, class, power and found common ground. They were able to understand each other, and their lives were changed forever from this encounter.

How?
How does all of this happen?
How did this happen for Philip and this Ethiopian man?
and how in OUR world of contrasts only growing starker, 
How can this happen for us?

Perhaps the most important character in this story is the one that is also the easiest to overlook.
The Spirit.

In this story, It is the Spirit that brings these two starkly contrasted people together.
Its the Spirit intervening in their lives that lead them to this deserted road in the heat of the day.
The Spirit places them here, so that God’s love might be shown across all of their differences.
And it was because they took the Spirit seriously
because they followed the Spirit,
because they listened for its direction, 
and trusted its call in their life, 
they found a connection
and the Ethiopian man found love and acceptance, 
He finds faith, his life is changed forever and he goes on his way rejoicing.
and it was from the Spirit working here in this chance encounter, 
that the Ethiopian man brought that faith home, 
He rejoiced in his faith and the tradition holds that from this one man the story of Christ spread throughout Africa.

Now, I think it's important to say that the events of this past week were not Spirit led, The people who chose to rally together publicly and express hate, chose to do so of their own free will and yet, in the midst of the difficult time for our country in the midst of hate, in the midst of racial tension, in the midst of injustice, HERE, the Spirit IS at work.

Here, where contrasts feel starker and the chasm of our differences seems to only be widening, Here the Spirit is at work.

Pushing us to confront our differences and biases, urging us to speak out in love, forcing us to look honestly at the brokenness in our world. And for those willing to listen for the direction of the Spirit, for those willing to respond to it and follow where it's leading (even if we are lead to difficult and uncomfortable situations and conversations) the Spirit will lead us to find common ground, and understanding so that our lives might change.

Last week, I spent far too much time reading the news as I’m sure many of you did. I read way too many articles and stories for my own good. But, there was one story I read that stood out from all of the breaking headlines.

It's the story of Daryl Davis, A 58-year-old Blues pianist from Chicago, A black man, A Christian.

Daryl has a very unique hobby, In his spare time over the past three decades He has travelled the country and “he befriends white supremacists. Lots of them. Hundreds. He goes to where they live. Meets them at their rallies. Dines with them in their homes. He gets to know them because, in his words, “How can you hate me when you don't even know me? Look at me and tell me to my face why you should lynch me.”

Daryl, is also a collector of KKK robes. He has over 200. He collects them as souvenirs when Klan members decide to give up on racism because of his friendship.

Daryl says: “I Never set out to convert anybody in the Klan, I just set out to get an answer to my question: 'How can you hate me when you don’t even know me?' but in my quest [to befriend them], some of them ended up converting themselves.”

He says: “It’s a wonderful thing when you see a lightbulb pop on in their heads or they call you and tell you they are quitting. I simply gave them a chance to get to know me and treat them the way I want to be treated. They come to their own conclusion that this ideology is no longer for them.

I am often the impetus for coming to that conclusion and I’m very happy that some positivity has come out of my meetings and friendships with them.”

Daryl has followed the Spirit to an incredible place.
He’s chosen to respond to where the Spirit had been leading him and
Spirit to look hate directly in the face
and the Spirit has helped him to respond to that hate with friendship.
The Spirit led Daryl to show his faith in Christ, by showing love in an extremely courageous way.
Daryl doesn’t just talk about his faith, he lived it out, he told people about Christ by living like Christ.

By following the Spirit and crossing boundaries.
By showing the world there is no one outside of God’s Radically inclusive love.

We are at a critical moment for our country, a teaching moment.
the harsh realities of our history and present have bubbled to the surface
We are having to confront them, and deal with them face to face.
If we choose to ignore this moment, if we choose to withdraw, and idle by without speaking out in love, we are missing our call to follow Christ.  We are missing the Spirit’s work in our life.
We may be brought to uncomfortable spaces, and it may be difficult. But where ever we follow the Spirit, the promise is that we will walk away changed, we will walk away rejoicing.

May it be so,
Amen.