Almost anywhere within the 612 United Methodist congregations of New Jersey, I can easily be made to feel at home by simply saying, “God is good.”
“And all the time.”
Within the streets and highways and byways I can easily be made to feel at home by simply saying, (sounds like) “anyahasio abendiga,” or “esta bien”. And then I would hear a response. And I have heard them. I feel at home.
Indeed, it is an honor and privilege to pay recognition to Dean Baxter, the Rev. And Bishop Chane, and if I may, to Canon Geyer, my professor at Wesley Seminary, the Canon here for Ethics and Public Policy. I pay recognition especially to my family who traveled here from Philadelphia, up early this morning to be present, as well as my church family, the District Superintendents and laity, a special tribute to Dan van Skyver for taking the risk, Dan, David, for inviting me to be here. And Fran Balanger who has been an angel of the Lord guiding me every step since I have been here. It is indeed good to be in this place and to celebrate the Gospel of Jesus Christ with you on this very special day honoring the whole special state of New Jersey.
If you would pause with me for a moment of prayer, I would like to rehearse Scripture that have already been read to you from the Act of the Apostles. Would you join me in this moment of prayer.
Come Holy Spirit, heavenly dove, with all that crippling powers. Kindle a flame of sacred love within these hearts of ours. Amen.
I would like to rehearse with you, though indeed it has been well read by District Superintendent Rotz, the Acts of the Apostles’ account as it is written. “Then an angel of the Lord said to Phillip, ‘Get up and go towards the south, to the road that goes down from Jerusalem, to Gaza. This is a wilderness road.” So he got up and went. Now there was an Ethiopian eunuch, a court official of the Candice, Queen of Ethiopia, in charge of their entire treasury. He had come to Jerusalem to worship and was returning home, seated in his chariot, and was reading from the prophet Isaiah. Then the Spirit said to Philip, “Go over to this chariot and join.” So Philip ran up to it and heard him reading from the prophet Isaiah. And he asked, “Do you understand what you are reading?” He replied, “How can I unless someone guides me?” And he invited Philip to get in and sit beside him. Now the passages of Scripture he was reading was this: “Like a sheep, he was led to slaughter. And like a lamb, silent before its shearers, he did not open his mouth. In his humiliation justice was denied him. Who can describe this generation?” The eunuch asked Philip about who may I ask you does the prophet say this? And Philips begins to speak, and starting with the Scriptures proclaims to him the good news about Jesus Christ. And as they were going along the road they came to some water, and the eunuch said, “Look, here is water. What is to prevent me from being baptized?” He commanded the chariot to stop, and both of them, both Philip and the eunuch, went down into the water. And Philip baptized him. And when he came up out of the water, the Spirit of the Lord snatched Philip away, and the eunuch saw him no more. But went on his way rejoicing.”
Awe and shock is what hit the Ethiopian eunuch when he was preemptively struck by a God of unimaginable love and power. Awe and shock was what hit this man described by commentary and also reiterated in the prophet Isaiah’s writing, as a tall, Nubian, ebony, smooth-skinned male, identified as a high court official of the powerful African nation of Ethiopian, who in Isaiah 18 said, would also one day be included in the house of the Lord and would bring gifts acceptable to God. Awe and shock is what encapsulated this tall, stately, Nubian male when the unexpected waters of baptism touched not only his body but transformed his heart and sent him leaping and rejoicing and renewed as he traveled south on a lonely, wilderness road home from Jerusalem back to Ethiopian in Africa.
A wonderful awesome God met this man from Ethiopia from which even our Holy Writ consistently identifies him by his shame, but not his name, by being called a eunuch, repeatedly even in the Holy Scriptures. But this awesome God brought him out from an outspoken humiliation changed his inner confusion to congruent and his private conflict into conversion. His lonely contradiction changed into a special new community. Because on this day Philip met him on the lonely road.
Hidden carefully between the lines of Scripture are pieces of the text you need to know. Most of you already know that a eunuch was a man who was either forced or submitted to having his male genitals mutilated, cut or castrated, if you will, often by captives, being a child of war, not by his own doing, but often done to him. Many of you already know that a eunuch was a person who though recognized in Scripture as a high official, still had a private shame, an act of humiliation that in spite of all the outer appearances, people knew he wasn’t a whole man. His humiliation was private in a way that only God knew about this trouble that he always lived with.
And also hidden within the text, a strong distance between verses 27 and 28, where the eunuch has gone to Jerusalem to worship, but we don’t know is that he was probably turned away. Because Deuteronomy 23 and Leviticus 21 made it clear that anyone with a blemish, anyone who was hunchback, with one leg longer than the other, or with crushed sexual organs, could not even enter the Temple. We don’t even know because all we hear within the text is that he went to the Temple and then he went back home rejoicing. But between those two verses are a hidden humiliation and shame by which a preemptive God, a loving God, a receiving God, a radically inclusive God, caught him up on the way back home, probably more sorrowfully than we know about, and brought him into God’s place.
I’ve chosen to title this message, “The Power of Preemptive Love.” And in three reflections, I would like to share with you about this text.
The Good News: Humiliation Preempted. Baptism, the preemptive sign of justice, and love the preemptive element of life.
The Good News: Humiliation Preempted. While there are many aspects about the good news about our Christ, what is clear about this particular place, we don’t know about it, but this man had a hungering, searching soul that drove him to the Temple to worship. He had probably already written about the fact that he was to be excluded even if he got to the door anyway, but something within drove him and pulled him in a way we Methodist like to call it ‘prevenient grace’. I like to call it today ‘preemptive love,’ that drew him to the fact that God was even bigger than the words written in Scripture. Humiliation preemptive. It was by no accident even that he was reading from Isaiah 53, about one who was humiliated, but one whose justice was denied him, but who himself became the saving grace of justice as God gathered him.
So often in our lives God may send someone to us, and we may shut them out, or God may bring a principle to us, and we may them out. God may bring some even religious thought or idea, and we may shut it out without realizing it may have been our moment of salvation.
There’s a story in African-American literature about a young person who was drawn to go to church one Sunday morning, and in so doing, went and sat on the back pew and then was carefully and decisively told by an usher, “I’m sorry young boy, this is not your church, and this is not a place where you can worship. You’re church is down the road somewhere.” The young man went out on the back stairway and began to cry, and suddenly as God always does, God found the young person crying and asked what was the matter. The young person quickly said, “God I thought you told me to go into that church, but they wouldn’t let me in.” Whereupon God quickly said, “Well, son, don’t feel so bad. I also have also been trying to get into that church, and they won’t let me in either. And in fact, son, I sent you there to bring the possibility of salvation and justice to them, and they have now denied it. But keep the faith and keep hope alive.”
In humiliation the person from Ethiopia felt in this Jesus recorded in Isaiah as preached by Philip, that he was accepted, and that indeed in spite of his unalterable state now, that God had leaped over the words of even Scripture itself, and had found him to be received.
Oh, it’s not so different from the Negro slaves who were told by their white slave masters that slaves ought to be obedient under any circumstance. But somehow God leaped over the word, leaped over the saying, and got to the hearts of the Negro slaves to know that they too were children of an almighty God.
Not so different from women who were told they weren’t supposed to preach. Who even in Scripture said when women said they were to be silent, and males interpreted that to mean that you can never preach, God jumps over that Scripture, over the humiliation, and welcomed them in. And some of the greatest preachers in the world, indeed, are women.
And God’s not through with us yet. By all the people we claim can’t be ordained for one reason or the other, God is not through with us yet.
Ah, humiliation indeed may be the salvation of our Churches and of the world!
Don’t stop looking, because God is still on the throne.
My second reflection is that baptism is a sign of preemptive justice. As they were going along the road, they came to some water. The eunuch said, as the Scripture writes, “Look there’s water; what is to prevent me from being baptized?” And again, the Scripture leaps, and the unspoken must be assumed. Philip must have preached to him in such a way as in Acts 2, “He was cut to the heart.” Or like John Wesley’s people would say, “His heart was strangely warmed.” And something had to be done as a new sign of his community. No longer was he rejected and accepted by the Temples in house, but now received in a brand new Temple with thousands of persons who recognize that they could be saved in spite of all physical irreversible issues in the world. Baptism itself is a sign of justice.
James F. White in his book Sacraments says God’s self-giving argues that the prophetic nature of our faith is expressed powerfully in our sacrament, particularly in the act of Baptism itself. The Sacraments, he writes, deal with both ecclesial and social justice. It is indeed the sacrament of equality.
The Ethiopian eunuch knew something about that. He didn’t care about what color he was or how unaltered he was or how unwhole he might have been in the eyes of persons. Something about God said, ‘you are accepted and you are welcomed.’
But there is a special point in there I want you to hear. The Scriptures say Philip and the eunuch went into the water together. There’s something about realizing that none of us are perfect. None of us are whole people. All of us need a special washing of the spirit to make this world work. There’s something about hearing the Philip and the eunuch went into the water together. And I think that out of that experience even Philip became more whole. Perhaps going into it he didn’t know that someone who was a eunuch and from Ethiopia could be brought into the household in spite of the fact that Isaiah 56 made it clear that the foreigner and the eunuch would be welcomed, just like the mission of this place, and to become a house of prayer for all people.
We need to baptize this world, my sisters and brothers. We need to baptize this world just like the wonderful state of New Jersey has already been baptized with all kinds of people in all kinds of colors and all kinds of situations and all kinds of terrains. We need to baptize the world, and perhaps New Jersey, our special challenge is to teach the rest of the world how to live. Perhaps because we’ve got so many people of color and people of language and culture and orientation and gender, ….maybe we’re the ones who need to accept that liturgical writ that at least we Methodists use that said before you are baptized you must renounce the forces of evil, you must renounce the forces of wickedness, and indeed claim your freedom that you are a child of God no matter who you may be.
Baptism itself, when those colorless waters of baptism hit our heads, we all become wonderfully technicolor people, and we can go and shine throughout this world and lift up the fact that the world is one.
With 500,000 children dying in one year from AIDS we need to baptize this world. With the untold numbers of persons who died recently in the Iraq world, we need to baptize this world. And the fact that preemptive strikes may not necessarily end the war, but create more bombings in Sudan and in Morocco and in fact to recognize that children who have died on the front page of the New York Times yesterday, we need to baptize this world with the preemptive strikes of love. Because the preemptive strikes of love will cause a ripple of salvation and not retribution. The preemptive strikes of love requires the courage to make ourselves vulnerable in humility. We need to baptize the world no matter what faith we may be in. We need to wash the world in love and take a chance on love. And perhaps preemptive strikes for the sake of some strange concept of peace will not be necessary for our future.
Well, my last point is that love is the preemptive element of the Christian life. And this in no means denies the lives of my sisters and brothers who are Jewish and Islamic. I believe preemptive love is a love of the Creator who created the whole world, and who calls us to walk hand in hand with sisters and brothers of all religions and faiths. But for we Christians to life up our special witness. And we used to say the Church is long far from perfect. I believe Dr. King who preached in this same place made it clear that eleven o’clock in the morning is the still our most segregated morning. And as wonderfully colorful as we may be here, when we go back it won’t be that way on every Sunday morning. And so we in the Church, we in our Synagogues, we in our Mosques, we need to baptize this world and be the whole people of God.
But I’d like to finally suggest that love is the preemptive element of the Christian life. The word preempt means ‘to strike first’. It means to check something before something else happens. I want to say to you that God checked us in Jesus Christ. I want to say to you what Apostle Paul says in Romans 5, ‘While we were still sinners and enemies of God, God decided to love us first, instead of first destroy us.’ God does not look at our sin, but well beyond our faults and sees our needs. This God wants to feed us and love us. That’s what I call preemptive love. A recognition that God already did it!
And what the Ethiopian eunuch found out was that in spite of what was written, and in spite of being rejected, God loved him first in Jesus Christ.
Oh my sisters and brothers, while I might apologize slightly for the illusions to awe and shock and preemptive, I don’t mean to be disrespectful in any way. The leaders of our government must do as they see fit, and we pray for them, and we pray for our troops. We pray for those who are abroad, because their lives are at risk, hopefully and presumably for our safety. But all I can do is lift up what Christ has given.
We Christians are in a contradictory world because our only tool is love. We don’t have the bombs. We can only love. We don’t have the strategies. We can only love. And I want to suggest that maybe that’