Belonging, Behaving, Believing


A sermon delivered by Keith Herron, Pastor, Holmeswood Baptist Church, Kansas City, Mo., on May 6, 2012.

Acts 8:26-40      

When you think about it, the church has been going through a revolution in thinking these last few years. The church I first learned about God from and from whom I received my beginning theology had an equation they followed. It was an equation that went without challenge because we weren’t living in challenging times. It was an equation that drove everything about how we functioned as a church and no one questioned it. But the equation doesn’t work anymore so we’ve been forced into doing things differently. You can be the judge whether we’ve got it right in our time. Here’s the old equation:  Belief leads to behavior; and behavior leads to belonging.

First, you had to get your belief right. You had to believe the right things and the authority for those “right things” would be your pastor or your Sunday School teacher or the church deacons. But don’t be confused that right belief was known and accepted.

Second, everyone knew right belief led to right behavior and we were terrific at calling balls and strikes on your behavior. The rules were both taught and assumed, meaning if you didn’t know, you would know! [Interesting there was some talk at my table at yesterday’s funeral lunch about the piña colada cake. Sounds good, doesn’t it? In the old glory days of Baptist behavior-control, that would have just been an innocent coconut cake, don’t you know?] There was a time when the rules of the church were standard behavioral guidelines for the whole community … for church folk and everyone else. There were rules for every occasion and each age group had its unique rules to be learned at every stage of life from cradle to grave. Different ones for boys and girls; different ones for men and women. You could appeal on logic or situational circumstances but you generally didn’t win those arguments.

Only after you had the right beliefs and the corresponding acceptable behavior, were you allowed to belong. It was a form of vetting for anyone interested in faith, a certain obstacle course of faith, meant to ensure that only those who deserved made it into the church.

Got it? Belief leads to behavior and only then does behavior lead to belonging. But that’s not how it works anymore, is it?

The gospels tell the story of Jesus and from there the rest of the Christian Scriptures tell the story of the church. In Luke’s Book of Acts, he tells about the conversion of Jews in record numbers … thousands of Jews decide to follow Jesus at Pentecost and in a few other places where large numbers of Jews cross the line and commit themselves to Jesus. So why does Luke want us to know about this one black financial accountant from the state office of the Queen of the Ethiopian region who gets baptized as he’s wheeling his fancy chariot across the desert? Why is this important? It was not because man is dark-skinned because the prejudices of their day were more tribal and territorial than racial. Neither was it about his nationality as the Ethiopians have long been trading partners with the tribes of the Middle East. It was not because the man was considered wealthy and important. Luke has had a tough-minded approach on both accounts, almost lifting up the poor to moral and spiritual superiority. The wealthy have been targets of his preaching and the poor are romanticized because of Luke’s affinity of God’s social justice in the world.

What makes this story important is that Luke is pointing out just how specifically disqualified the man was from being included. He was neither Gentile nor Jew because he was a eunuch. That alone put him into his own unique category as “sexual suspect.”

“What is to prevent me from being baptized?” he innocently asked and the answer to that question is the whole point of the story. He made everybody around him nervous in that he had been surgically altered and rather than having a name, he was a category all to himself.

Even today there are a great number of folks who reach back into the law of the Old Testament to justify their position that God hates certain people that they hate. They typically draw from the Levitical Holiness laws to state with certainty that certain folks are rejected by God, damned to Hell because of some odious thing about them.

Hear the words of Leviticus: “No one who has a blemish shall draw near, one who is blind or lame, or one who has a mutilated face or a limb too long, or one who has a broken foot or a broken hand, or a hunchback, or a dwarf, or a man with a blemish in his eyes or an itching disease or scabs or crushed testicles,” (Leviticus 21:18-20). Yes, it’s all there and unblushing in its condemnation.

Or, how about this from Deuteronomy:  “No one whose testicles are crushed or whose penis is cut off shall be admitted to the assembly of the LORD. Those born of an illicit union shall not be admitted to the assembly of the LORD. Even to the tenth generation, none of their descendants shall be admitted to the assembly of the LORD. No Ammonite or Moabite shall be admitted to the assembly of the LORD. Even to the tenth generation, none of their descendants shall be admitted to the assembly of the LORD,” (Deuteronomy 23:1-3).

Get it now? This is a revolutionary story that reaches beyond the literal belief of every word of the Bible that when we realize there’s a great deal from the Bible we must try to interpret more widely as we realize the religious rules give way under the mounting pressure from Jesus’ revolutionary willingness to go past the holiness rules to love God’s children.

Let’s face it:  God includes a lot of people you and I would exclude.[1] Jesus turned the gatekeepers inside out with anger by coloring outside the lines of belonging. You can hear their thoughts of accusation:  This man is a drunkard and a glutton, they said. He eats with prostitutes and tax collectors, others reminded the self-satisfied. So it was that the early church followed Jesus’ lead and surprised the self-appointed gatekeepers for faith.

Imagine that, the Ethiopian eunuch who doesn’t even have a name was a sexual suspect. Nevertheless, despite the moral questions he had to endure, he had earned the Queen’s respect and was trusted enough to be in charge of her vast riches. He was trusted enough to handle the funds but he wasn’t trusted by the gatekeepers who mindlessly obeyed the legalities of the stringent holiness laws.

A faithful reading of the Bible should form and transform Christians’ lives more than they give detailed answers to complex ethical and moral issues. Guy Sayles suggests that rather than focusing on isolated proof texts, Christians should consider the broad themes of Scripture—particularly as seen in the life and ministry of Jesus, he said. Sayles: “The Scriptures point beyond themselves to Jesus. It is his voice we listen to hear from the Scripture’s chorus of witnesses. The Scriptures’ voices are central because they put us in touch with his heart. Their purpose is to enable us to encounter and know him.” He stressed the importance of keeping in mind the sweeping themes of the Bible and the perfect revelation of God in Christ.[2]

Barbara Lundblad, professor of preaching at Union Theological Seminary in New York, urges us to see how the Bible helps us to be responsible in how we use the Bible, resting not in citing texts that prohibit but in allowing conversation between the covenant love of God and the present. She invites us to consider how the Church, in its ongoing struggle with the present, is tempted to limit its use of the Bible to proscriptive, prohibitive texts, and fail to welcome the conversation that just a little imagination prescribes--in centuries past justifying slavery, racism, the exclusion of women from full human status, and, in our own time, excluding queer people from full human status, all by staying on the surface of the Bible and not opening ourselves to the deeper conversation the Spirit wants to have with us on the subject of choosing, holding fast to, the covenant love of God.

Fred Craddock considered his first congregational charge a failure. He was the pastor of a small church in Tennessee in a town that was booming because of atomic energy development. Folks were coming from everywhere, living in tents and trailers and all kinds of lean-to's, making do with temporary and crowded quarters, ad hoc wash lines, little kids crying and running amok, and all the other inconveniences of a makeshift settlement. And Fred called the church board together and said, “We need to reach out to those folk; they've just come in from everywhere, they're living next to us, and so here's our mission!”

And the chairman of the board said, “No, I don't think so.” And Fred said, “Why?”

And he said, “They won't fit in. After all, they're just here temporarily, living in those trailers and all.”

“Well, they're here temporarily, but they need the Gospel. They need a church now.”

“Naw, I don't think so.”

The discussion ended with a resolution offered by one of the relatives of the chairman of the board, and the resolution was this: “Members will be admitted to this church from families that own property in the county.” Says Fred, “It was unanimous, except for my vote, and I was reminded that I couldn't vote.”

Years later, Fred and his wife were on vacation and went by that little church only it was no longer a church. It was a barbecue restaurant! They went in and looked around, and the pews were pushed back against the wall, and there was music playing, and people--a rough-looking crowd--eating and laughing, and Fred said, “It's a good thing this isn't a church anymore, because if it were still a church, these people couldn't be here.”

I think the revolution that’s going on in the church is that if we’ll find a way to allow people to belong, if they feel a sense of connection and welcome, they’ll find their way to believing.


[1] Bethune, ibid.

[2] Ken Camp, “Interpret the Bible with humility, speakers tell sexuality conference,”  Baptist Standard, 4/19/12, http://www.baptiststandard.com/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=13717&Itemid=53

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Tags: Barbara Lundblad, Fred Craddock, Guy Sayles, Keith Herron, Sermons