Easter 5  –  April 29, 2018

Rev. Lyle McKenzie  Lutheran Church of the Cross of Victoria
Acts 8:26-40; Psalm 22:25-31; 1 John 4:7-21; John 15:1-8

– Christ is risen!

Philip “the evangelist,” as he seems to be called later in Acts, is told by God’s angel to go down a wilderness road to Gaza, and then told by the Spirit to join an Ethiopian eunuch…

I was invited to the opening of a conference at UVic sponsored by the Chair in Transgender Studies, the only such chair in North America, and one of only a few in the world. It is a biennial conference, 50 people the first year, 150 people two years later and over three hundred were registered for this year. The four day conference was filled with presentations, workshops, and forums; and opportunities to view the transgender archives, representing one of the most significant collections of transgender related materials going back centuries. The conference theme was, “Moving Trans History Forward.”

I rushed over following our last Lenten evening prayer and walked into the atrium in the Continuing Studies building. After picking up my name tag, the first person I met at the refreshment table was CBC broadcaster Shelagh Rogers, there as Chancellor of the University, and I learned later strong advocate for the conference, having attended all three. She said to me, “Hello Lyle,” how are you? I was a little surprised and pleased that she recognized me and recalled my name – we have met a few times at University convocations when I was present to give the invocation on behalf of Multifaith Services. (This sense of pride in being known by someone well known lasted until sometime later when I realized that I had put on the fairly large name tag as I came in that read “Lyle – Multifaith Services.”) I replied, “I am well,” and asked the same of her, and she too said she was well, and very glad to see the great response to the conference, and pleased that I was there from Multifaith Services. After exchanging words, “Nice to see you,” she went up to her place near the front, and I found a place nearer the back.

The conference opening included a number of speakers, in person and on video, an indigenous welcome, UVic President, Jamie Cassels, MP’s, MLA’s, Civic officials, Shelagh Rogers and others. The feature presenter that evening was Isabel Rose, a mother of a transgendered child who became instantly well known because of a public letter she sent to Ivanca Trump, daughter of the US President, asking her to speak to her father about his stance against transgendered people, and the harm caused to people living that reality. The letter went viral as we say, and she became an ally and advocate for her child and transgendered people everywhere. Her essential theme was, “I have a nine year old transgendered child,” and all that means, sharing with us stories and images of the challenges, barriers, prejudices, and the joys and triumphs, faced by her child and their family. Dr. Aron Devor, who holds the UVic Chair in Transgendered Studies, spoke at the end of the evening, thanking the speakers, organizers, and everyone for coming, inviting everyone to take in as much of the conference as they could, but especially to take time to meet others, recognizing the tremendous diversity in everyone who was there, to be patient with one another, to forgive mistakes as we learn from and with one another. It was a very gracious invitation and encouragement in a room full of diverse people and stories and a common humanity. I visited with a few people and then headed home after a long day, but wishing I could have stayed longer and taken in more of the conference to participate and learn with others who are different, and the same, as we were invited to do.

The person Philip joins, a queen’s official in charge of her entire treasury, returning from Jerusalem where they worshipped, but not allowed to enter the temple proper, never considered a convert, because of their physical reality and judged not a whole person, is reading from Isaiah, where interestingly the prophet later (56:1-8) describes a time when all people shall be included, and specifically mentions eunuchs and foreigners, that God’s house be a place of prayer for all. Philip asks if they understand what they are reading, and the person responds, “How can I, unless someone guides me.” And invites Philip to join them; and they read, and “Then Philip began to speak, and starting with the scripture, he proclaimed to them the good news about Jesus.”

I recalled a story from the Festival of Homiletics at this time last year, the theme, “Preaching on the Borders,” where William Willimon, a perennial speaker, a Methodist and Dean of Duke University Chapel, often called a “southern gentleman,” spoke about his long ministry as pastor and bishop, and that his best times were when “Jesus pushed him over a boundary.” He said, “Jesus never faced a door he couldn’t kick in, a border he wouldn’t cross, or a dividing wall he wouldn’t tear down.” Willimon went on to talk about a temporary placement he was asked to fill in Raleigh, NC. An urban church in decline, he and some people from the congregation asked a person from the neighbourhood what they should do to connect more with the community around the church. The person answered, “Drag Queen Bingo.” Willimon answered. “I am not sure we’re ready for that.” The neighbour answered, “Oh, I thought you were serious about meeting your neighbours.” So they went and enjoyed and learned and laughed with others different and just like themselves. I don’t know what happened to the church, but it was clear it was for Williomn one of those best times when Jesus pushed us over a boundary.

The person Philip joins sees some water and asks, “What is to prevent them from being baptized?” And so the person and Philip go in to the water together and Philip baptizes them and when they emerge from the water, the Spirit “spirits” Philip away to more far off foreign places and the newly baptized eunuch from Ethiopia, beloved child of God, went on their way rejoicing.

On the CBC radio program, “Out in the Open,” in an episode on “Neighbours,” host Piya Chattopadhyay, interviewed Aron Jackson, founder of an organization called, “Planting Peace.” He described using Google earth to look at the site of Westboro Baptist Church in Topeka, Kansas, founded by Fred Phelps in 1950, and led by the Phelps/Roper families ever since, it’s famous for its extreme protesting of LGBTQ rights, in scenes with people of the church, even children, carrying signs about how God hates other people, held up in protest, even at funerals. As he looked online at the property around the church, he noticed a “for sale” sign on a house across from the church. He smiled and in a moment of impulse decided to buy it. He moved from Florida to Topeka, moved in with some friends and after three months of living there and thinking carefully about what to do as allies and in response to his neighbours across the street, decided they would paint the house the rainbow colours of the pride flag. (The night before a neighbour Joe came over, not a member of the church, though most in the neighbourhood are – the church owns 22 houses in the vicinity of the church, Joe brought cookies and a card, thanking Aron for being a quiet neighbour). Well, the painting of the house the colours of the pride flag across from Westboro church brought out thousands of people and international attention. Quiet it was not.

But what Aron spoke about was still being neighbours, including with the church, despite an ongoing vehement debate and disagreements, mostly online, “it wasn’t like the South Korea North Korea border” he said; still watching out for one another –  the church expressing great concern when seven bullets were fired through the front window of the house one night, or church people sharing ideas to help the house’s community garden, suggesting Aron cut back a tree limb that was shading the garden to help it produce more; and relationships, including with Zach Phelps-Roper, grandson of Westboro founder, who said at one time he hated Aron, but eventually left the church, and became involved with some of the activities of the house, and friends with Aron, and shared a story that in a church meeting, his grandfather/founder said to church leaders, “That equality house across the street, they got it right and we got it wrong,” and he was excommunicated for it. Aron said that, it isn’t direct confrontation, with the kids for example, which breaks my heart, and would only fuel the church’s view of people hating them, but “by getting along and seeing each other as people…”

“Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; …there is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear; …we love because God first loved us. The commandment we have from God is this: those who love God must love their brothers and sisters also.”

Today we have the opportunity to join in a Blanket Exercise, a way to share an experience of the affects of colonization on indigenous peoples that continue today… to learn and grow as people together, seeking greater equity and reconciliation together,  loving one another as God loves.

I am the true vine, and my Father is the vine grower.  …Abide in me as I abide in you… I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit…

Love and abide in God in Christ Jesus, and there is no telling where and how far and beyond what human boundaries the Spirit will lead us together as God’s people, all of us.

Christ is risen! Alleluia! Amen.