No Exceptions

Sunday, April 28, 2024

Deacon Stephanie Anderson

Acts 8:26-40

Just a few years ago, I had the opportunity to travel to Iringa, Tanzania to visit a few of the partners that we celebrate today on this global mission Sunday. I traveled – not with a congregation like our current travelers are doing to visit a specific parish partner – but with the synod, alongside a group of pastors and deacons from the Saint Paul Area Synod, visiting pastors and deacons from the Iringa Diocese in Tanzania.

I was so grateful for the opportunity to travel there, knowing that the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Tanzania is one of the very largest Lutheran churches in the world. Tanzania, Ethiopia, and Madagascar have the largest Lutheran churches on the planet; millions more Lutherans than we have in the United States. I remember walking the stalls at the market in Iringa and learning that every third stall or so sold Swahili Lutheran hymnals. It upended a lot of my own assumptions and reminded me that God‘s global church is truly wider than my own worldview, my own country, my own language, and my own experiences.

As a part of that trip, I tacked on about a week of travel to the country of Rwanda. Rwanda borders Tanzania immediately to the west. While it’s physically close, it’s culturally quite different in a lot of ways (language and customs and history). I travel there because we had a Young Adult in Global Mission program there when I worked for ELCA Global Mission and I wanted to spend some time in the region visiting the ELCA missionaries there and learning more.

The Lutheran Church of Rwanda is unique in a number of ways, one of which is that it is one of very few Lutheran churches in the world (one of two that I know of) that was not started by Western missionaries; not started by Europeans or Americans who had traveled to that region.

Instead, in 1994 the people of Rwanda experienced a horrific genocide that shattered the nation as neighbor took up arms against neighbor, all ignited by a history of colonialism and imperial oppression that drove them apart, and against one another. The Tutsis, the ethnic minority in the country, who were being decimated by their immediate neighbor, flooded quite literally into the wilderness to escape with their lives and the clothes on their back and eventually crossed over that Eastern border into the country of Tanzania.

When they arrived in Tanzania, it was the Lutherans who took them in, as Lutherans around the world do so well in their care for refugees and immigrants. It was the Lutherans who fed them and housed them and cared for them as their whole lives were pulled out from underneath them.

When the genocide ended, and it was safe for these Rwandan neighbors to return to their home country, they did so changed by their encounter with Tanzanian Lutherans. When they went back to Rwanda, they started the Lutheran Church in Rwanda, having their dignity and worth restored by these neighbors and having heard the story of Jesus.

Our scripture this morning tells us a story of the transformative power of encounters like this; of sharing the story of Jesus, especially across cultural or social or religious barriers. The story is of an Ethiopian eunuch, someone who is from south of Egypt, who we know is also a eunuch (someone who is castrated and didn’t fit the gender norms or expectations of wider society). Though he had come to Jerusalem to worship, we know that he would have almost certainly been ostracized and unable to enter any religious ritual because of who he was, and the various identities that he carried. He was an outcast in that place and he did not fit in the boxes, gender and otherwise, that the religious authorities wanted him to. And so he’s leaving Jerusalem and he’s riding along the road toward Gaza, when Philip the Deacon comes across him.

The Spirit tells Philip to go join him and when he does, Philip notices that he is reading from the prophet Isaiah. He asks him if he understands and the Ethiopian eunuch asks for guidance. He has questions about what this scripture means and who is the prophet might be speaking about in the particular passage is looking at. We read that Philip sits down with him and answers all of his questions and uses the opportunity to tell him about Jesus. These words were written about 50 years after Jesus was crucified and raised from the dead and Philip is recounting this amazing story that’s beginning to spread in the region.

Now I want to pause here and acknowledge that Philip is actually not an officially sent apostle. There was a group of apostles who were tasked by Jesus to spread the gospel and a group of deacons that was to support the apostles as they did that work and Philip was one of those deacons. And yet here he is, on the road, doing the work of sharing the gospel in unexpected and even marginalized places. He’s the one, not tasked with the job officially, who followed the Spirit’s leading and is on the road.

We don’t know exactly what Philip said to him about Jesus. We don’t know exactly how that conversation unfolded or what questions the Ethiopian unique may have had for him, but here is the stunning thing:

Hearing the story of Jesus and the promise of the resurrection, the Ethiopian eunuch saw himself, immediately, as a part of that story. That he was in included, too. Even as an outcast, his worth and dignity were restored, not only in Philip’s patience and kindness, but in the story of Jesus. He knew that despite what the world thought or said about his race or gender or body or identity, that the Good News was for him, too. He knew that in Christ, he was right where he belonged.

As they were going along the road, they came to some water, and the eunuch said to Philip, “What is to prevent me – right here, right now – from being baptized?”

In the answer is nothing. Nothing about who he was could be a barrier to God’s promise. Philip baptized him alongside the side of the road and welcomed him into the family of faith. And this encounter is how we understand Christianity brought to Africa, as the eunuch returned home and shared the story. A story that would centuries later would be shared by Tanzanian Lutherans to Rwandan refugees. A story that your fellow Augustana members are telling and hearing anew this very day, across the world. A story that has been carried here to this room, by a great cloud of witnesses, in each of our lives.

God will always find a way to tie us all together in love and the Gospel will always restore dignity and worth to all people, no exceptions. Today we gather on this Global Mission Sunday to celebrate the ways that God’s people – in every corner of the globe – do the good and faithful work of listening and caring and telling the story of Jesus, but even so, we remember that it is Jesus that does the saving. That it’s the Spirit that does the sending. That it’s a holy and mighty gift of grace that redeems and sustains us all, no exceptions.

Thanks be to God. Amen.

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