Alleluia! Christ is risen! One of my favorite theologians is the Rev. Dr. Yvette Flunder. She is currently a pastor in the United Church of Christ, but was raised in the Southern Baptist and Pentecostal traditions. She’s a fiery woman with a heart and soul for social justice. On top of all of that, she’s an amazing preacher. She has taught me a lot about radical hospitality and inclusivity. She says that the goal of “radical inclusivity is to help the church become church.” It requires of us a new way of seeing and/or being. When I last heard her preach (almost a year ago) she encouraged us to exhibit radical hospitality as well. We, as the church, should know each other in flesh and in spirit. If we do not know each other in flesh and in spirit then how can we provide sanctuary for one another’s flesh and spirit. I love she said “you can never know me if I never bring me–if I have ‘church me’ and ‘me me’ then you don’t get the entire me.”
I find sometimes in the church that we categorize people in the “usta been” and “coulda been” categories. As in “he usta be a ….” or “she coulda been a ….” Last week I talked about knowing and being known. The peace that comes from being really known. That is peace that God can give us. Rarely are we just who we are. Instead, we are often “usta be’s” and “coulda been’s.” If you’ve ever reconnected with someone who knew you from “back in the day” then they might have known your “usta been” and may end up surprised with who you are on this day. Unfortunately, we tend to only think of those around us as “usta been’s” and “coulda been’s” and as ourselves as the real deal.
But, when the Holy Spirit nudges (as she often does) it is best for us to forget all about those “usta been’s” and “coulda beens” and follow Spirit. Now, I know this sounds a little crazy, but the chances might be pretty good that the Holy Spirit actually knows more than we do and knows better than we do. So, when the Holy Spirit nudged Philip to speak to the Ethiopian eunuch, Philip went. After all, this reading is from the book of Acts, not the book of Sits. When the Spirit leads, it may lead us to places we never thought of going and to interact with people we may have otherwise ignored. It may be easy to think that the eunuch is an outcast. He is dark skinned, from another land, and on top of that, he is a eunuch. Which means he is a castrated male. But, we aren’t told any of that. Instead, the eunuch is rich enough to ride in a chariot, he’s well educated (because he can read the Greek that the text was written), he’s very devout (reading Isaiah) and also humble enough to appreciate (and take) Philip’s help.
The Holy Spirit is the counter of our mental “usta been” and “coulda beens.” When the Holy Spirit leads us in a direction, our first instinct might be to fight it. We conjure up excuses. “Isn’t that the man who usta be…” or “what if these people are mighta beens” even worse “is this the kind of ministry we ought to be doing.” The oughtta been. Beloved, if the Holy Spirit is the one leading us, who are we to question. Because if the ministry we do in the name of Christ doesn’t reach those on the margins then we must ask ourselves if our ministry really is of Christ. When God calls us to do something, go somewhere, talk to someone, whatever the case may be, then we go. Excuses are the secrets that Satan himself has whispered to us and now we make verbal. Because evil doesn’t want to see Christ moving in the world. Evil doesn’t want us evangelizing. Evil doesn’t want us to point to even the smallest bit of water and proclaim that “nothing is to stop you from being baptized.” Instead, evil wants us to point out the usta been’s, shouldda beens, coulda beens, to make people feel less than, to make people feel like outcasts, to make people feel like they have been forgotten.
And instead of being forgotten, we are called to serve a God who sides with, who walks with, who dwells with the marginalized. We are called to learn from and with those whom society deems not worthy. We are the ones who have been called to say “I don’t care about your usta been, your shouldda been, your coulda been. Let me tell you about a guy you usta be a kid from Nazareth. He coulda been a carpenter. He shouldda minded his own business. But here we are.” Philip could have found out more about the Ethiopian eunuch and said “nah. Forget about it.” But instead, he sat with him, learned with him, learned from him, and then … just when things were getting really interesting, Philip told him the story of Jesus. This encounter wasn’t an accident. These two men didn’t just happen to run into one another. This conversation and this encounter has the Holy Spirit written all over it. There actually were a lot of things preventing the man from being baptized. But, in that moment, in that instant, when he asked “what is to prevent me from being baptized” the Holy Spirit responded “nothing. Absolutely nothing.”
How awesome is it that the man heard the story about Jesus and wanted to be part of that community as soon as possible. He didn’t wait until the next Sunday. He didn’t wait until this was done or that was done. He didn’t even wait for his momma. He saw a pool of water, commanded the chariot to stop, and demanded he be baptized right on the spot. He is no longer a usta been he’s now a gonna-be. So is Neela. She’s gonna-be a child of God. She’s gonna-be our newest evangelist. She’s gonna-be claimed by God. No matter what else happens in her life, she will always belong to God. And as we make promises to Neela and one another today, we are reminded that the same goes for us. It doesn’t matter who we usta-be, shouldda-been, or couldda-been. We’re all gonna-be’s. Which means we’re gonna-be open to moving when the Spirit tells us to move. We’re gonna be brave when the Spirit tells us to speak. We’re gonna be bold when the Spirit tells us to act. We’re going to shut down the negative voices and denounce the powers of the devil and all of the forces that defy God. Should the day come when someone, anyone asks us, followers of Christ, “what is to prevent me from being baptized?” how great will it be to respond “nothing. Absolutely nothing”?
Salvation is there for us all. Spirit sends us to teach and preach. Spirit sends us to wash away the usta-beens and declare the gonna-be in all people. We are not the keepers of the waters. We are not the landlords of heaven. The good news is this: alleluia! Christ is risen! We are not to keep that to ourselves. The Spirit is calling. She leads, we follow. Let’s go.
Nb: part of this sermon was inspired by a sermon and lecture given by Bishop Flunder at the Festival of Homiletics held in San Antonio in May 2017.