God’s Call to Get in the Chariot with the Oppressed… in Baltimore and here in Gettysburg.

Text: Acts 8: 26-40 Easter 5b

We’ve watched the city of Baltimore in flames this past week. Many of us have watched from a safe distance… Questioning the violence, questioning the protesting. In our household, we watched the riots this week with tears, seeing the deep pain of the people in the city we love and the senseless destruction of the places we frequented in our young adulthood. We listened Monday to a lot of fear and anger. “How does rioting bring justice?” my brother asked. He lives 5 minutes from Mondowmin mall. Another dear friend described this week as living in a war zone. No one on the beltway during rush hour. One helicopter and siren after another. She slept in her street clothes Monday night incase she had to make a fast escape.
While many of us may have loved ones affected first hand by the violence and destruction, it’s easy for us to sit up here an hour and a half away and feel like these events don’t affect our lives. This far away, it’s easy to dehumanize the relatively small group of broken people responsible for the rioting and looting, or to write the whole city off as a lost cause.
Before Monday night and ever since Monday night tens of thousands of people have protested peacefully, demanding answers in the death of Freddie Gray and demanding change in an unjust system that creates unhealthy tension between police officers trying to faithfully protect and serve and communities where the most prevalent source of income is dealing illegal drugs. These protests are about so much more than Freddie Gray’s tragic death. They’re a call for justice in our world, a call for all of the systemic changes needed in Baltimore and across our country to break the cycle of poverty and cultural dehumanization of the poor.
What happened this week in Baltimore is exactly what can be expected when a large segment of the population experiences inequality for generations. Whether you believe that the source of that unequal treatment is race, socio-economic status, or both, the point remains that a large group of people feel that their lives are not valued by society. Through what they’ve experienced repeatedly over generations, they’ve come to feel disposable. What we’ve seen in Baltimore this week is nothing short of the outcry of the oppressed, and we’ve seen that expressed in both healthy and unhealthy ways.
The Spirit of the Risen Christ calls us to listen and to walk with the oppressed, with the voiceless, with all who are suffering in Baltimore right now. The Spirit calls us to walk with and to dialogue with whomever in our own lives we treat as “those people” so that all may come to know their human worth and belovedness in God…
Philip the deacon came to experience God’s call to the marginalized on the Wilderness Road which we read about in Acts today…. It was there, in the middle of nowhere, he came across one of “those people.”
He is identified in the book of acts not even with a name, but simply as “the Ethiopian eunuch.” He was a racial and sexual minority and these traits were both obvious to Philip. Eunuchs were often castrated before puberty and as such never developed masculine features as one might expect. Though slaves, they often held positions of the very highest trust and power.
The Spirit always calls us out of ourselves, and out of our comfort zones, and that’s certainly what happened to Philip. Do you think he was intimidated? Afraid? He’d probably never met an Ethiopian Eunuch in his life!
Philip followed the Spirit’s leading, ran up to the chariot and struck up a conversation. He said, “Do you understand what you are reading?” and the bewildered man responded “How can I unless someone guides me?”
The Ethiopian eunuch was hungry for God, hungry for acceptance, hungry for a community of faith, hungry to hear the Word and to experience the Sacraments. Our scripture tells us that he’d come to Jerusalem to worship… and, when in Jerusalem, of course, worship means the Temple. So, he made the long journey from his homeland in Africa to Jerusalem by chariot. He was excited, perhaps this was a once in a lifetime pilgrimage! He made the long journey, only to find that his kind were not allowed to enter the temple. Though visibly wealthy, he was one of “those people”…. A eunuch… and according to Deuteronomy 23:1, no one who has been castrated shall be admitted to the assembly of the Lord. That was the law. The Eunuch was permanently unclean, unfit to worship with God’s people in God’s holy Temple.
It’s into this atmosphere of disappointment, rejection, and exclusion that Philip appears and offers not just help in interpreting the scriptures but also compassion and companionship. Philip gets in the chariot with him. Philip himself is good news to this eunuch before he even shares the gospel with him.
They read together the suffering servant song from Isaiah which says, “He was oppressed, and he was afflicted, yet he did not open his mouth; … By a perversion of justice he was taken away, who could have imagined his future?”
This passage puzzled the man from Ethiopia and he questioned, “Who is the prophet writing about?” Philip shared the gospel with him, the gospel that reminds us that Jesus himself suffered. He suffered rejection. He suffered exclusion. He suffered the oppression of an unjust system of Roman government. He and his people suffered dehumanization as they hung on the cross for all to see. He suffered betrayal and heartache. Of course, he suffered bodily and died, but that death was not the end for Jesus. The heart of the gospel, the whole point of this Easter we still celebrate today is that death and destruction are transformed by God’s grace into life and beauty, that Jesus died and rose for all people and as such all are welcome in God’s family. The Ethiopian eunuch was struck to the heart by Philip’s witness to the resurrection. His hunger to follow God now transformed into a hunger to share this message of hope and transformation with others –those in his home country, indeed to the ends of the earth. He asked Philip, perhaps tentatively, “What is to prevent me from being baptized?!” He’d been barred from entering the temple in Jerusalem, could there perhaps be some hidden reason why he couldn’t take on Jesus’ mission? Could there perhaps be something about him that the community of faith would find unacceptable? “Look! Here is water! What is to prevent me from being baptized?”
The obvious answer is not a thing. Because NOTHING stands between God and those who have been made to feel unworthy and disposable. Nothing stands between God and the oppressed. It is through God that we KNOW every single life matters because every single life was lovingly knit together by God in the womb. Every single life received God’s breath at creation, and every single life is precious and invited into relationship with that same God.
Philip baptized him and they went their separate ways rejoicing and proclaiming the good news! No longer unclean and unwelcome, through Philip’s proclamation of the gospel and through Baptism into Christ the Ethiopian eunuch came to know that he was a valuable disciple and a beloved child of God.
Through the gospel, we are all brought together as one. “Those people” become my people, my brothers and my sisters in Christ. Their suffering and their joy becomes my suffering and my joy.
And so, the people of Baltimore are not “those people” but “our people” and we are called to walk alongside them, to pray for them, and to continue doing what we can in our own community to address deep systemic injustices -both racial and socio-economic- that limit opportunities for advancement and that leave people homeless and hungry. As people of faith, we follow the Spirit of Christ to the suffering and to the oppressed. We work diligently for God’s kingdom of justice and peace to be a lived reality for all people.
The exchange between Philip and the Ethiopian Eunuch is a great Easter story because we see the way God’s Spirit radically transforms the Ethiopian’s circumstances. We experience resurrection right along with him. He rises from the ashes of disappointment and rejection and embarks on a new life in Christ, rejoicing all the way back to Africa and sharing the way the gospel changed his life.
While the rioting and looting has been the predominant media focus this week, there have been Easter stories in Baltimore as well: A pastor who serves in the Hampden neighborhood shared with me some of the resurrection she’s experienced over the past week while walking alongside the suffering. She writes: Ordinary people are coming together to clean up the streets–literally. And they look better now than they did before the riots. Pristine condition. Looks like the suburbs around here. Thousands of people have been working together in a neighborhood they normally wouldn’t enter. We had just spent several hours at Penn and North talking with folks, praying with them, and being a presence. We handed out over 500 bags of food. One of our colleagues who pastors in the midst of this was headed back to handle other things, and I asked if we could stop and pray for him. In the middle of the blockaded road, we prayed. As we finished, a man came over and asked to join us. Then 2 women. Then some more people…it grew and grew. A reporter asked to join. We prayed and prayed [and we didn’t even know each other. We all felt God with us in that moment, total strangers holding hands as brothers and sisters in Christ]…. There are hundreds of stories like this but the idea is that together, we stand united. Together we can overcome. Together, we can “B-More”. Amen.