“The Ethiopian Eunuch”

In honor and in memory of George Floyd

Where to start? Start with a breath. God in. Peace out. Start with prayer. God, may the words of my mouth be spoken from my heart, filled with the knowledge and wisdom of my mind, carried by your Spirit with love and truth resounding. Amen.

Where to start? There is no denying on this Pentecost Sunday that the spirit of God is moving, rushing, burning, crying out, standing firm…weeping. To use the imagery of today’s scripture reading, people everywhere have come to the field of their lives only to find that there are no gleanings for them. They turn to the fringes and there is nothing there either.

Where to start? How about turn to the people? Where are you at? Let’s try some audience participation…see if we can span the fifteen second delay between my broadcast and your comments. Type the first words that come to your mind into the comments section in answer to the question: Where are you at? What are you feeling?

What am I feeling? Where am I at? The song “My Shot” from the musical Hamilton keeps ringing in my ears. The character John Laurens cries out,

“Rise up!
When you’re living on your knees,
You rise up.
Tell your brother that he’s gotta rise up.
Tell your sister that she’s gotta rise up.”

[In his notes from the libretto of Hamilton Lin-Manuel Miranda writes that “When you’re living on your knees / You rise up” was originally “Don’t this sh*t make my people wanna rise up!” which was a nod to a Busta Rhyme’s refrain.]

And then Miranda as Hamilton gets going:

“Scratch that,
This is not a moment, it’s the movement
Where all the hungriest brothers with something to prove went.
Foes oppose us, we take an honest stand,
We roll like Moses, claimin’ our promised land.
And? If we win our independence?
‘Zat a guarantee of freedom for our descendants?
Or will the blood we shed begin an endless
Cycle of vengeance and death with no defendants?

I’m past patiently waitin’. I’m passionately smashin’ every expectation,
Every action’s an act of creation!

Praise God for the prophets and the poets who breathe the very breath of the Spirit of God with each syllable they write and speak and sing!

Human beings are God-breathed. Pentecost is about being God-breathed. I imagine God forming adam, that first mud thing made from the dust of the ground. I imagine God turning this mud-thing around, gazing at it, wondering perhaps about what this mud-thing could be. And then God breathed into the nostrils of this mud-thing and the adam became a living, breathing human being. The very first time God’s breath enters into us. And then God places this living, breathing human being into a garden. A wonderful, color-full, rich, vibrant garden of delight, happiness and joy.

Now cover the garden with asphalt. Place a living, breathing human being onto the hard surface. Crushed, body crushed, face crushed into and on the hard rock with a knee on his neck. “I can’t breathe.” Our brother in Christ, George Floyd’s last words, “I can’t breathe.” A God-breathed, living human being whose last words were, “I can’t breathe.” No more blowing out of candles on a birthday cake for George Floyd.

Who was the very first Gentile convert to Christianity? I ask this because we have been wandering through the book of Acts to take glimpses of how the early church survived and then thrived in those times where followers of the Way of Christ all lived in their separate dwellings. I ask this also because we have been studying the book of Acts in our Bible study group and this coming Wednesday we get to read chapter 8 and hear about the Holy Spirit guiding Philip.

Philip goes to Samaria. Preaches. People follow. Simon the Magus believes and is particularly interested in receiving the Holy Spirit so that he has the power to dispense the Holy Spirit. Along comes Peter who sees Simon’s true intent and calls him out. “Your heart is not right before God.” In other words, you, Simon, are just in the game to exercise power and control. The way of power and control is not the way of God. The Holy Spirit cannot be controlled.

An angel tells Philip, “Head south. Go on the wilderness road.” So Philip gets up and goes. Now there was an Ethiopian eunuch, a court official for the queen of the Ethiopians on the wilderness road. The Spirit said to Philip, “Go over to this chariot and join with the one there.” The unnamed, Ethiopian eunuch is reading a passage of scripture from the prophet Isaiah. So Philip runs up to the man and asks him, “Do you understand what you are reading?” Now before I read these next few words of Isaiah’s that the eunuch was reading and puzzling over, I need to preface the words with some background.

In ancient Greek writing, and in the time of the Romans as well, there was, in the words of the biblical scholar, Ben Witherington, “considerable interest in Ethiopia and Ethiopians precisely because of their ethnic and racially distinctive features.” Homer wrote that the Ethiopians were the most distant of people. Witherington drawing on the work of other scholars writes, “Blackness and the Ethiopian were…in many respects synonymous….The Ethiopians’ blackness became proverbial….Ethiopians were the yardstick by which antiquity measured colored peoples.” Here, though, is the key that scholars of this time period have observed. “What is important to note is that, unlike the case in the West in the last [many] centuries, there is no evidence in antiquity of widespread prejudice against a particular people simply because of their color, or the combination of their color and distinctive ethnic features.”

Luke uses the Ethiopian eunuch as the representation of the gospel finally going to the very edges of the world. This man, this black man, living in the far flung fringe of the world, an alien AND a living, breathing human being becomes the…very…first…Gentile convert…to…Christianity. Philip hears the words of Isaiah that the black Ethiopian eunuch is reading. Philip helps him understand what he is reading and proclaims the good news about Jesus. The black Ethiopian eunuch is so excited when they come to some water he says, “Look, here is water! What is to prevent me from being baptized?” Nothing. And the black Ethiopian eunuch rejoices.

The first Gentile convert to the Christian faith. You would think there would be some honor attributed to the race of human beings who became the first of the Gentiles to have faith in the Way of Christ Jesus. One would think.

I close with the passage of scripture from Isaiah that the black Ethiopian eunuch was reading some two thousand years ago:

Like a sheep he was led to the slaughter,
and like a lamb silent before its shearer,
so he does not open his mouth.
In his humiliation justice was denied him.
Who can describe his generation?
For his life is taken away from earth.

Amen.

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