The Rev. Dr. Robert S. Langworthy, preaching
April 29, 2018
In his book, Invisible Man, Ralph Ellison depicts the degrading, dehumanizing experience that African-Americans (and others) have too often had to endure: that of being treated as if they were invisible, as if they were nothings whose presence need not be recognized.
Columbia University’s Sauder School of Business recently did a study that proved that being ignored or shut out damages workers’ morale more than being harassed or bullied. Withholding acknowledgement of a person’s presence conveys the debilitating judgement that their being there is not worth bothering with.
In His crucifixion Jesus endured a humiliation and degradation that made Him out to be a nothing. For crucifixion was reserved for the worst criminals, those deemed to have less value than putrid meat.
With the exception of a friend or two and his mother, and of those so afraid of His influence that they stayed around to keep verbally putting Him down until He was literally put down and made invisible in a grave, people on Good Friday turned their backs on Jesus as just a nothing to be given no mind. Worse still, Jesus’ Father in heaven turned His back on Him as if He were a nothing. Thus, Jesus cried out from the cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
His crucifixion, however, was followed by the Father’s vindication of Him in Easter’s resurrection; and now, in His risen reality, He was continually reminding His followers that every person matters and nudging His followers outward in an ever-enlarging circle of concern. Through the Holy Spirit, the risen Christ kept urging them to see those who were once invisible to them, and to reach out to those folks with their proclamation and embodiment of His good news of grace for all. To Jesus no one is beyond the pale of mercy.
The earliest Christians started out reaching out only to their fellow Jews, but Christ’s Spirit prodded them to expand the scope of their caring. For example, Philip, who had already been reaching out to, and serving, the half-Jews called the Samaritans, was here called away by the Spirit into an even more outrageously disconcerting mission. The Spirit told him to venture forth into the desert wilderness where he’d be, to his surprise, brought before a new revelation of the wideness of God’s grace.
There Philip came upon an Ethiopian. Back then, the term denoted, not a resident of what we now call Ethiopia, but of the northern Sudanese kingdom of Nubia, straddling the Nile River between Aswan and Khartoum.
This Ethiopian was also a eunuch, a castrated man – at a time when kings who had harems thought it wise to render any man working in the palace less inclined to engage in sexual shenanigans.
This particular eunuch was the chief financial officer for Candace – Candace being, not a personal name, but the title of the Ethiopian king’s mother who took charge of the political administration of her son’s government because he was thought too sacred a figure to be troubled with such mundane matters of state.
Because the Ethiopian had been castrated, it is unlikely that he was a convert to Judaism. Yet, he did fear the God of Israel and practice much of the Jewish faith. So here he was returning home from having made a religious pilgrimage to Jerusalem – and was studying a perplexing text from the prophet Isaiah. He was reading aloud as was everyone’s custom at the time.
To a traditional Jew like Philip, that Ethiopian must have seemed like the ultimate outsider, a foreign and strange man in so many ways. In fact, to draw close to him, as the Spirit was moving Philip to do, required Philip to break through a number of cultural taboos instilled in him from birth. Strengthened by the Spirit under whose control he’d resolved to live, Philip did break through his inhibitions and gave his best to teach the Ethiopian how that biblical text spoke of Jesus – and Philip ended up embracing a former stranger as a new brother in Christ.
And in that miracle of outrageous outreach and expanding inclusivity, Philip led the church in its next step forward in fulfilling God’s desire to draw all humanity into the redeeming grace of Jesus. The Holy Spirit was impelling the church into a greater and greater range of outreach, and the Spirit wasn’t finished yet! For, as we read in the next chapter of Acts, the person who was the worst enemy of the church, Saul of Tarsus, would soon also be welcomed into the family as well!
Surprising people with the outrageous broadness of God’s love is just what the Spirit does! The only question is what we will do. Will we follow the Spirit as He goes ahead of us, to reach further and further afield – even to those we’d just as soon have nothing to do with? Will we embrace those once excluded, in imitation of the living and loving Savior whose heart is so big that He jumps over all boundaries and jumps in joy whenever anyone joins God’s huge, happy and wildly diverse family?
Consider the model of a Christian named Daryl Davis.
Last December Davis traveled to Charlottesville, Virginia, to meet with Billy Snuffer, the Imperial Wizard of the Rebel Brigade Knights, a sub-group of the Klu Klux Klan. Snuffer was there with other Klansmen to attend a hearing of a Klan member who was facing a gun charge from last August’s infamous “Unite the Right” rally, a rally in which a woman was killed by a racist who rammed his car into a crowd of counter-protesters.
Davis takes issue with just about everything Snuffer and his fellow Klansmen stand for, but Davis has it on his heart to engage them in conversation and listen to them. He’s approached racists like them many times, always with a polite, patient and respectful attitude. Nevertheless, what’s come back at him has often been the worst kind of vitriol. For Daryl Davis is African-American.
Sometimes Davis is not even given a ghost of a chance for real conversation. But sometimes, because he first hears out those who hate him, he is allowed to be heard out himself. As a result, Daryl Davis has been dubbed “the Klan Whisperer” as he perseveres in making a human connection with his enemies, offering them friendship and free interaction – and the conditions of grace for a change of heart. His closet is a testament to his limited but significant success. It contains dozens of Klan robes turned over to him by men who renounced their racism after experiencing grace through a black man.
God has given all of us who follow Jesus the same assignment He gave Philip and Daryl Davis: to reach out beyond our comfort zones to share the good news of Jesus – which is for all people, even those we wish didn’t exist – and to invite each and every one of them to walk through life with Jesus as He travels down the path of grace for all. Let us believe the good news and obey its call!