Sermons

What is to Prevent You?; On the Occasion of the Baptism of Arthur Simo Carrasco Janhunen and Our First Sunday Hybrid Service; Rev Dee Ledger; May 2, 2021

You’ve heard it said that the devil is in the details.  We usually hear this expression when something small is overlooked but leads to a much bigger problem.  Yet did you know that this phrase derives from an earlier phrase that meant, “God is in the details”?

Here’s the thing about scripture: details that seem insignificant are frequently not insignificant at all.   Those lists of biblical ancestry in Matthew’s gospel?  They link Jesus to the past and to specific people.  All those weird and wonderful characters of the bible who live soap opera lives?  They show us something about ourselves and the complexity of human behavior.

The mathematician and philosopher, Alfred North Whitehead, once said, “We think in generalities, but we live in detail.”   We live in detail; we are not 30 second soundbites that can be summed up in a FB post.  Scripture reveals this—this living in detail—and the details that have survived, lo! these many years, tell us some about the tension between God’s expansiveness and our human tendencies to restrict that expansiveness.

And so, today, we have an angel directing Philip to a specific road and one of those details occurs in the setting, in parentheses: “(This is a wilderness road.)”

Now, why would that be important?  Our setting is a road between Jerusalem and Gaza.  Likely, the road passed thru the wilderness and there’s no telling who you might meet on that road, or on your life’s journey.

A wealthy man, an Ethiopian eunuch, a court official, just happens to be on that road that day when Philip passes by.  The eunuch is a man of substance, a man of bearing, of wealth and of authority, for he serves as the Senior accountant and CFO of Queen Candace’s entire treasury.

Before the pandemic, I would sometimes travel via airplane or train.  I’d always stow a book in my bag and try to get a window seat because I am not much for making eye contact or having conversation when I travel.  Inevitably, someone will ask “what do you do for a living?” and it can be very awkward to answer “pastor” and then have someone tell me their life story or go on a rant about the pitfalls of the Christian Church throughout history.  Especially if I am a “captive” audience of one.

So, I don’t make eye contact and don’t invite conversation—unless there is something going on with the plane, the landing, or someone asks to recline their seat.

Contrast this to our CFO.  We already know that he is a man of means who could simply brush off this stranger, Philip.  But he doesn’t.  Philip approaches his chariot out in the middle of the nowhere, between place A and place B.  He could have suspected that Philip was a bandit or a robber or someone wishing to do him harm.  He could have gotten offended when Philip asks him, “Do you understand what you are reading?”

The eunuch has been caught reading Isaiah in the middle of his journey.  There are plenty of times that I don’t understand Isaiah but never have I replied, “How can I understand this unless someone guides me?” Though I have often wanted to do just that very thing.  So already, we know that the eunuch is a generous person with an open personality because he welcomes instruction; he invites it, even with all his power and prestige.  That makes him teachable and reachable.  He doesn’t respond defensively like some people on FB or twitter and he doesn’t assume that, with all his status (serving the Queen and all of that) he has all the knowledge, the resources, and perspective that he needs to interpret Isaiah or life, for that matter.

All these details are important, but there is another thing going on with this text.  The eunuch is, well, a eunuch—an impotent male and an outsider.  In fact, on this lonely wilderness road, our Ethiopian eunuch is a foreigner; he is gender-variant, and he is from a racial minority.  That makes him a triple outcast.  Eunuchs were often queer, though not always, and often castrated, though not always.  Eunuchs guarded and served the women in royal households; traditionally, their impotent status was not seen as a threat.

And here is another detail: that reading material of the Ethiopian eunuch?  This black queer man has chosen to read about a suffering servant, another man, humiliated and without voice, who had justice denied him.  Yes, this detail is important, because it is relatable.  The eunuch is also a suffering servant who had justice denied him.  The eunuch—no matter how faithful—would have been viewed as a sexual outcast in Jewish religious society.  The law of Moses specifically prohibits a person of his physical condition from entering the temple (Deuteronomy 23:1). And he has just come from the temple in Jerusalem, on his way home to his country, when he encounters Philip.   Was he shut out of the temple?  Was he treated differently because of his outsider status?  We don’t know.

What we do know is that Philip reaches out.  He tells the story of Jesus, another outcast and suffering servant, to this nameless eunuch, whom early church tradition called, “Simeon the Black” or “Qinaquis” in the African tradition.  Moreover, later in Isaiah, the eunuch will discover these words:

To the eunuchs who keep my Sabbaths,

  who choose what pleases me

  and hold fast to my covenant —

  to them I will give within my temple and its walls

  a memorial and a name

  better than sons and daughters;

  I will give them an everlasting name

  that will endure forever.

     –Isaiah 56-4-5

And after this queer black man hears the story of Jesus through Philip, he asks a question that others have asked of the church through time immemorial: “Look, here is water! What is to prevent me from being baptized?”

In this short question, the eunuch asks Philip if there are any “rules” in this faith that would keep him from being baptized and being a part of the community.

Ever since the Ethiopian eunuch asked that question, people both within and without the Christian faith community have asked, “What is to prevent me from being a part of this faith community—right here, right now?  Look, here is water!”

Today, it does not surprise me that we have this text on Arthur’s day of baptism, the first baptism we have done together as a church since this pandemic developed.  Look, we have water!  Look, we have the church family gathered (albeit via Zoom)!  And look, we have people who are willing and able like Philip to teach young Arthur what it means to be Christian in a world of plague, both the physical and the social.  What is to prevent Arthur from joining this community of Christians right here and right now during a pandemic?  Not Covid.  Not the church.  Not even our inability to meet in-person fully.   Not our lack of a fully outfitted recording studio or an in-person musician or choir.  Even if we couldn’t touch little Arthur, this baptism would still be valid.  This passage is a reminder that God’s love reaches us wherever we are, in whatever circumstance, and in whatever condition.

Being baptized into a faith community marks the beginning of a journey whereby we, as a family and as a community, promise to help someone along on this wilderness road that we call life.  By his baptism, little Arthur joins with his faith siblings around the world in living out a unique relationship with Jesus and the church that is all his own, but that is undertaken with the help and guidance of others.

Together, with Christians far and wide, we will help him to learn about a particular Savior whose love will hopefully shape his future choices, his perspective on tough social questions and problems, and who will help him to look for landmarks when he is feeling tired, or scared, or uncertain about who he is or even why he is. By this act of baptism, we hope that he will remember that if he ever feels bereft of spirit or like a triple- outsider, this church, this faith, and this God will have his back and will remind him that he is not entirely lost.

Many of us who were baptized as infants or toddlers cannot “remember” our baptism in the same way that we remember our first day of kindergarten or our first baseball game.  Indeed, we rely on our family and our church to help us to remember those promises made on our behalf when we were blessed with water.  He will remember through the daily details of our lives together.  Yes, we will teach him to stand against evil when we do.  Yes, we will help him learn to love mercy when we show mercy.  Yes, we will honor those faith questions that are uniquely his and help him to look for answers that stretch his soul and honor his being when we honor our own.  We will remind him that God can be found within him and beyond him and we will share our own misgivings as well.

To Arthur’s family: I offer these words from Henri Nouwen:

“…It belongs to the center of the Christian message that children are not properties to own and rule over, but gifts to cherish and care for. Our children are our most important guests, who enter into our home, ask for careful attention, stay for a while and then leave to follow their own way. Children are strangers whom we have to get to know. They have their own style, their own rhythm and their own capacities for good and evil…

“Many parents question the value of baptism of newborn babies. But one important aspect of early baptism is that, when the parents bring their child to the church, they are reminded that the child is not their own private property, but a gift from God given to a community that is much larger than the immediate family.[1]

Like the Ethiopian eunuch, we as Arthur’s faith family promise to be teachable and reachable too.  The world in which Arthur grows will require different things from his parents and from us.  Children teach their parents about faith in ways too numerous to mention here.  A child has a particular grace about him or her that models wonder, passion, and love without restriction.   We would do well to pay attention.

I began by mentioning Alfred North Whitehead, the mathematician and philosopher.  I leave you with this quote from him, “From the very beginning of his education, the child should experience the joy of discovery.”

May Arthur and all of us continue to experience the joy of discovery in life and in faith.  Amen.

 

[1] Henri J. M. Nouwen, Reaching Out (Doubleday Image, 1985), 81, 83.