I think we’re learning with increasing clarity that institutions and ideas that aren’t good for everyone aren’t really good for anyone.
Last week The Globe published a devastating write-up of challenges along these lines that a major institution in our city is facing. The headline read: MIT president acknowledges women, minorities on campus feel belittled, excluded. And it talked about women’s experience on campus of being insulted, people of color and LGBTQ people being marginalized, lower prestige staff being bullied by star professors.
This was MIT, but it could have been a lot of other places too. I think more and more we’re seeing in government, in business, in education, in churches ways that communities aren’t equitable. Ways that promises of welcome have had all kinds of asterisks and hidden footnotes attached to them. Ways that so many communities and institutions need to dramatically change to really include and honor all people.
So it’s fun to hear stories where this is happening. I heard one recently on a podcast episode called Liberte, Egailite, and French Fries. It was about a McDonalds restaurant, of all places, this one located in the French town of Marseille. In a poor, immigrant neighborhood in a coastal city, the local McDonalds has the motto, “Come as you are.” And people take it seriously. The community eats there, gathers there. The restaurant employs members from the community, and actually practices decent job training and advancement for folks from the neighborhood.
And there’s this teenager named Kamel. He’s 16, he’s a high school dropout. He’s got significant dyslexia which wasn’t ever addressed, which means he can’t fill out a job application. Home life is unstable, he lives half the time on the streets, and he’s starting occasional “work” as a carjacker and small time drug dealer.
What’s happening at that same moment, though, is that he meets Ronald McDonald at a community event. Outside companies, corporate events never came to his neighborhood. And here’s an actor playing Ronald McDonald doing a magic show. And he’s got one of those big orange McDonalds coolers that he can’t carry back with him when the show ends.
So Kamel, who’s there, says I’ll do it. I’ll bring your cooler back to your McDonalds tomorrow. And the manager who was with the actor says: sure, thank you. And Kamel does it; he lugs the cooler on his scooter the next day, turns it back in, and asks for a job.
Something about being trusted as he was made him want to work there. And something about how reliable he’d been made the manager want to hire him.
The story from there is fun – Kamel rises through the ranks, he’s eventually a great employee, he becomes a manager, through that position, a significant community leader.
This branch of McDonalds takes its “come as you are” motto seriously. Be being for everyone, good things happen.
But the story is bumpy too. McDonalds isn’t a charity – they’re doing their “everyone” thing because they think it’s good for business. And sometimes it is. But in Kamel’s first few years of employment, he’s not a great employee yet. They really need to walk the distance with him. And then later, when he’s a great manager for the community – and a labor leader, really – it’s unclear if McDonalds would rather have this “Come As You Are” success story, or if they’d rather get rid of him, not really be for everyone, and increase their profit margins.
“Come as you are.” Everyone is included without exception. This is a beautiful way to be in the world. I’m preaching today that I think it’s God way in the world and God’s way for us to be in the world.
But it takes work. It gets complicated. It sounds beautiful, but it’s not always what we want.
When Grace and I were first married, we were on this rec league volleyball team. Grace had played some organized volleyball, but I never had before. And this team had these two amazing players, maybe the two best players in the league. And I thought it was great that there was room for me, who was not so great. I made so many errors. And frankly, because our team included people like me, we had a mediocre record, despite our two stars.
I’ve been on the other side of it too.
When I was teenager and into my early 20s, I sang a ton. In a period of eight years, I was in dozens of choirs – school choirs, church choir, community choruses, all-state chorus, semi-professional choir, paid little choir singing gig for a commercial.
And as I sang in higher and higher level choirs, my standards changed too. The last time I sang in a choir was as a favor to a friend of mine, where they brought me in as a ringer to this community chorus that needed a little help. I only had to show up to the last two or three rehearsals, site read the material, help fill out the sound. They even paid me a little bit. But I remember, 22-year old diva that I had become, that I wasn’t so sure I liked singing in this entry-level choir.
So I didn’t do it again. But then again, that also means that for over twenty years, I haven’t been singing in any choirs at all. Would I rather have entry level choir, or none? Which is it?
Let’s take this “everyone without exception” theme into the our series we’re in and into the scriptures.
This month we’re speaking about how our church’s five core values can animate our own faith journeys, and our third value we’re touching on says: Everyone. “We seek to welcome people in all their diversity, without condition or exception, to embrace a life connected to Jesus and others.”
We didn’t make this one up, though. I think it’s one of God’s values.
Let me read you a story from the first early history of the Jesus movement. It’s from the eighth chapter of the Bible’s book called Acts.
Acts 8:26-40 (CEB)
26 An angel from the Lord spoke to Philip, “At noon, take the road that leads from Jerusalem to Gaza.” (This is a desert road.) 27 So he did. Meanwhile, an Ethiopian man was on his way home from Jerusalem, where he had come to worship. He was a eunuch and an official responsible for the entire treasury of Candace. (Candace is the title given to the Ethiopian queen.) 28 He was reading the prophet Isaiah while sitting in his carriage. 29 The Spirit told Philip, “Approach this carriage and stay with it.”
30 Running up to the carriage, Philip heard the man reading the prophet Isaiah. He asked, “Do you really understand what you are reading?”
31 The man replied, “Without someone to guide me, how could I?” Then he invited Philip to climb up and sit with him. 32 This was the passage of scripture he was reading:
Like a sheep he was led to the slaughter
and like a lamb before its shearer is silent
so he didn’t open his mouth.
33 In his humiliation justice was taken away from him.
Who can tell the story of his descendants
because his life was taken from the earth?
34 The eunuch asked Philip, “Tell me, about whom does the prophet say this? Is he talking about himself or someone else?” 35 Starting with that passage, Philip proclaimed the good news about Jesus to him. 36 As they went down the road, they came to some water.
The eunuch said, “Look! Water! What would keep me from being baptized?”38 He ordered that the carriage halt. Both Philip and the eunuch went down to the water, where Philip baptized him. 39 When they came up out of the water, the Lord’s Spirit suddenly took Philip away. The eunuch never saw him again but went on his way rejoicing. 40 Philip found himself in Azotus. He traveled through that area, preaching the good news in all the cities until he reached Caesarea.
So apart from being a really awesome, fun story, this little account of Philip and the unnamed Ethiopian eunuch is a key moment in the early church’s experience and practice of their “come as you are” without exception journey, their learning of God’s value for “everyone.”
First century Samaritans and Jews had hostilities toward one another. Friendships, marriages, engagement of any kind really would not have happened between these communities. They definitely would have had separate McDonalds.
But Jesus had said to his followers – our good news needs to go to Jerusalem, and Judea, and Samaria, and to ends of the earth. It sounded beautiful – Jesus’ commission to take God’s good news story to everyone, everywhere.
And yet for a little while, none of Jesus’ first followers – all, like Jesus, Jewish – wanted to do it. Why would they? It wasn’t like Jews were at the top of the status pyramid in the Roman Empire? They were scapegoated, conquered, marginalized at every turn; they had to fight for every bit of dignity and freedom they got.
But Philip was like, I’ll do it. I’ll go to Samaria. Interestingly, Philip – later known as Philip the evangelist, a bringer of good news – Philip first got his start as an equity, diversity, and inclusion leader in a large church food service program. Greek-speaking Jewish widows weren’t getting the same treatment as the Aramaic-speaking Jewish widows, so knowing representation matters, some Greek-speaking Jews were appointed leaders, Philip being one of them.
But he outgrows that first calling, and he moves into a Samaritan neighborhood, makes friends there, lives and shares about God’s good news there, that through Jesus, everyone was welcome into connection with God and connection with one another in this multi-ethnic movement.
It’s from there that Philip gets this nudge to go take a long walk, and he meets this royal official from Northeast Africa.
Now back then small numbers of people from surrounding nations were intrigued by the Jewsih God, even came to Jerusalem to worship on occasion. Jews called people like this God-fearers – outsiders to the story of God who worshipped this god anyway.
And this Ethiopian court official was apparently one of these god-fearers. But today, he finds himself in the story of Israel’s God.
He is an important man. We know this because of how he talks – he is very much in charge throughout this story. We also know this because of his title – he’s the money man, the chief financial officer of the queen mother of a nation. And we know this because he’s a eunuch. To be such a prominent assistant to a female ruler meant in those times that you’d be neutered first. So, power, money, but no sex, romantic partnership, and no descendants. Cut off from what traditional cultures have seen as your best chance at a legacy and a future in the world.
So it’s interesting to me that he’s reading a passage in the Hebrew scriptures (from the prophet Isaiah) about this servant of God who accomplished great things for God and people, while also suffering greatly. And part of the suffering was to have life cut short and – like this eunuch – to have no descendants.
Later we’re told that this person will through non-biological means have many, many descendants and that what God does through this servant will be so great that people who are sad because they are without children will burst into song.
We’re even told that the eunuchs who are part of God’s new deal with humanity will be honored, remembered, and given a better legacy than if they had had children.
Reading the scriptures, this eunuch from a far-off land sees himself in God’s story.
And Philip says to him, yes, you see yourself in God’s story, and I see you in Jesus’ story.
Philip says this suffering servant of God who bears sin, who absorbs human pain, who heals disease, who is scapegoated and humiliated, who suffers injustice and then is vindicated – Philip says, this is the life of Jesus. Jesus draws all people to God, not through celebrity, not through impressive displays of might, not through conquering at the head of an army or a multi-national capitalistic marketing endeavor. No, Jesus draws all people to God through sacrificial love, through a revelation of the beautiful character of God, and through an unleashing of the Spirit of God throughout the world.
You could say this is the meaning of faith in God through Jesus Christ. That we find ourselves, whoever we are, in God’s story. And that Jesus finds us in God’s story too.
Jesus is God for you, my new friend, Philip can tell this Ethopian eunuch. And he’s thrilled. For himself, and maybe for his whole people. You could have this debate on who the first Christian nation is – Armenians will say us, the Kerala region of India might say – no us!, and Ethiopians may tell you the same, that starting from this one court official, there’s an unbroken legacy of faith among their people, in their culture.
Who knows? But it’s an interesting but part of the legacy of this passage, and the legacy of the good news for everyone story of Jesus. That Jesus is not the possession of any one people. Jesus is certainly not a White man’s Jesus, or the gift of European colonialism to the world. Jesus is not Amerian and didn’t speak English, just as he wasn’t Ethopian and didn’t speak Amharic. And yet, to me, Jesus of course speaks English. And to this man on his way home from pilgrimage to Jerusalem, Jesus was a Black Amharic-speaking eunuch just like him. Jesus, by the Spirit of God, insists on being for everyone.
This story is actually like the heartbeat of most of the founding documents of Jesus-centered faith.
I already said that this book of Acts is structured around the words of Jesus, when he said: you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in Judea, and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.
You see this in all four biographies of Jesus in the Bible too.
In Mark, Jesus is always travelling back and forth across the sea, pushing boundaries for where God can be found, on pilgrimage north outside Judea, centering the stories of ethnic and religious outsiders, like the Syro-Phoenician woman in chapter 7, and the Roman centurions in chapters 8 and 15.
In Matthew’s story of Jesus, we start with religious and national outsiders – the Magi – coming from far away to worship Jesus, and we end with Jesus’ followers told they are to go far away themselves to share back an update with the rest of the world.
The good news about Jesus told by Luke centers the outsiders, tells a story of Jesus who is including and elevating and centering all the people from the margins.
In the last gospel, told by John, Jesus is portrayed as a human still, but also as the cosmic God of the universe made flesh. John is written under the influence of the prophet Isaiah, who came up in todays’ passage. And Isaiah is the old Hebrew work of prophecy most committed to God being God of the whole world, the God who knows and loves and includes all people.
Even the letter to the Romans, what some people think of as the densest work of Christian theology in the Bible, is a plea for Jewish and Gentile followers of Jesus to learn to love each other, to be friends with one another, to eat and to worship together, together support the author – Paul – to bring good news to far off barbarians that all of them would have disdained.
The story of God is in part the story of the inclusion of all people in the honor, the dignity, and the joy of knowing we are all God’s beloved children.
So when we move toward an everyone approach to our ventures, we are fulfilling the story of God.
This is beautiful. It is important.
But it is not romantic. It is hard. To shape local communities, institutions, workplaces, churches that invite everyone, without exception, to shared belonging is to be disruptive to patterns of privilege and comfort and usual ways of doing things.
How do we make peace with God including people we can’t stand in God’s family? Not just people we don’t like, but people we find abhorrent? How do we love our enemies while not subjecting ourselves to be diminished by them?
What can our towns and cities we live in do, when we’ve practiced immense amounts of housing discrimination and exclusion in this region? When many of our communities use zoning policies to actively exclude, for instance, lower income residents?
Some of us are part of institutions that can’t include everyone, colleges that have a limit on how many students they can accept, employers that can only hire a small number of the people that apply for jobs. How can that go well? What does it mean to communicate dignity and respect and appreciation to someone when you can’t include them? How do you make sure your choices about who you include are truly equitable?
One sermon, so I get to ask the questions, not try to answer them all. But from my prayers on this question and from pouring over this passage, the Spirit of God says to me that the role of people and of human institutions isn’t to have a tight plan to manage how Jesus will love, save, dignify, uplift, transform, and empower all people That’s Jesus’ job, by the Spirit of God.
Ours is to be provoked about our tendency to exclude. Our call is to widen our embrace of others, just as we are embraced by God. Our task is to not just look at this personally, but communally, institutionally – to ask how can we participate in more of Jesus’ uplift and transformation and empowerment of people that have been marginalized.
That is why in this week’s tip for while life flourishing, I encourage you to:
Invitations to Whole Life Flourishing
Insist upon increasing equity and inclusion in your communities – take risks for people’s full, equitable inclusion in opportunity.
To whom can you be Philip, telling someone else they are loved and included by God as they are? Or opening up opportunity for someone who’s been excluded? (Who are you employing? To whom are you marketing? If you’re doing well, what kind of friend or ally are you to others? If you’re being marginalized, is this community that’s diminished you worth the fight, or is there a table you can go to where you’ll be welcomed will full honor?)
And one more thing that seems to be people’s role in facilitating Jesus’ story of inclusive, transforming love. We see it in the climax of today’s passage where the Ethiopian eunuch says – there’s water – let’s get me baptized. Our role as people is to signify to everyone who wants it that they are enfolded in God’s love in Jesus Christ. And the historical community of faith’s clearest way of doing that for centuries has been the rite of baptism.
I wrote more about baptism on our blog you can find at reservoirchurch.org, but a few words here.
Baptism is a Christian take on an ancient Jewish rite called a mikveh, which symbolizes a cleansing by God. And since the first century, for followers of Jesus, baptism has been a central rite by which we experience this inclusion in God’s love for us in Christ.
Chrisitans have done this in different ways.
Our church’s roots are in the Protestant renewalist tradition – churches in modern charismatic and Pentecostal denominations and unaffiliated churches like ours that emphasize and treasure lived, felt experience of God by faith. For these churches, baptism – usually by immersion under water – has been an opportunity to express one’s faith in Jesus. It has also been a physical experience of God’s cleansing and powerful love and a symbol of our union with Jesus, who died and is risen. In this tradition, a person chooses to be baptized as an expression of faith and eagerness for more life in God. When parents have infants or young children, they can dedicate their children and their parenting to God, but the child will choose – or not choose – baptism for themselves when they are older. That is how I was baptized.
The majority of Christian churches, both now and throughout Christian history, have also baptised children of all ages, including infants. For these churches, baptism is an expression by the community of faith that the child is known and loved by God and included in God’s family. Infant baptism is an expression of grace – that God loves and chooses us before we can love or choose God, and even when we struggle to love and choose God ourselves. Generally, when infants are baptized, they are not immersed, but a small amount of water is sprinkled or poured on their heads, with the water representing the anointing of the Holy Spirit – the loving presence of God with the child. That is how many others in our community were baptized.
I’m sure some of you have baggage with Christian rituals – and why wouldn’t you? They’ve been used by people and institutions, sometimes in heavy-handed and manipulative, historically even violent, ways.
That’s one of many reasons that Reservoir Church has never told anyone they have to be baptized. It is not a requirement for participation at Reservoir and we do not believe or teach that God requires baptism for someone to live a good life or go to heaven or anything like that.
Reservoir has also always honored anyone’s baptism, no matter where that happened, and regardless of when or how it happened. This has still be true.
We just want people to see themselves in God’s story, or to know that God sees you in God’s story as well. It’s that simple. So we love for people to experience this rite of baptism, and we’d love to make sure in the coming year that anyone who wants this experience for themselves or their children can have that.
For families that would like their child to be baptised, our pastoral staff and Board would like to offer this for infants and children of families who are part of the Reservoir community. For parents that would prefer to dedicate their child and parenting to God and let their child choose or not choose baptism after they grow older, we will continue to offer child dedications.
We will continue to offer preparation for baptism and baptism for and adults who would like to be baptised. This is not only for children, but a powerful rite for any person interested in Jesus-centered faith.
And our youth ministry team will continue to work on the best ways to prepare youth who are interested to consider baptism and help youth who were baptised as children make sense of faith and church for themselves.
Early in the new year, we will be in touch about when and how child dedication, child baptism, youth baptism, and adult baptism will be available in 2020. Our team needs some time to work through the details. But we wanted you to know that this is one way your church community is eager to extend experience of God’s loving inclusion of you and your family.
Today, though, consider what this rite might speak to you.
Spiritual Practice of the Week
Remember your baptism – how does it speak to you about your full inclusion in God’s family? If you haven’t been baptised, consider whether you would like to experience this rite of inclusion.