Note: I preached a version of this sermon on May 2-3, 2015 (the Fifth Sunday of Easter) at Messiah Lutheran Church in Wauconda. It was the occasion of our fifth graders receiving their first Holy Communion.
Sisters and brothers, grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
As a preacher, I have two goals every time I preach: to be faithful to the Gospel of Jesus Christ, and to be honest about myself and the world. So in the interest of honesty, a confession:
I am a 35-year-old American male. And until this week, I had never seen the original film version of Annie.
I know. It’s shocking. And I have no idea how long this scandal would have gone on, if not for a series of random events last Sunday that put the song ‘Tomorrow’ in my mind.
So in case you, like me, have not seen this film, or if it’s been a while, a brief summary: Annie is an orphan, living in an orphanage. She is taken in for a week by Oliver Warbucks, a billionaire industrialist who works all the time and insists that he only cares about money, power, and capitalism. He needs to improve his image, and caring for an orphan for a week is just the thing.
Now there’s intrigue and danger and a delightful meeting with President Roosevelt and his wife. There are also songs that are too long and go nowhere. The story is cheesy and maudlin and emotionally cheap—I mean, she saves a stay dog from mean boys.
But the heart of the story is simple: the rich and powerful man needs to learn about real goodness and lasting happiness from a street urchin. And the urchin, who knows the secret of happiness, needs to be protected and cared for by the rich and powerful man.
In other words, there’s a reversal: the character who looks like he’s on top of the world is really not, not in the ways that matter, anyway. And the character who looks like she’s on the bottom, on the outside, is really at the top in the ways that matter.
Now it may or may not surprise you to know that this reversal is a very Christian thing. It’s something that happens over and over again in the Bible and the history of the church. It happens a lot especially in the Gospel of Luke and its sequel, the Acts of the Apostles. In fact, our story from the Acts this morning has just this sort of reversal.
In the Mr. Warbucks role is the Ethiopian eunuch. He is in one sense a very powerful man. He is the keeper of the treasury for his ruler. And this high status was not unusual for eunuchs in this age. They were often brought up for royal service. You will notice in the story that this particular eunuch can read. They were entrusted with tasks that other people could not have.
In other ways, though, they were outsiders. Most obviously they couldn’t have children. But they were also mocked, or ridiculed, or viewed with suspicion. There is debate within the Old Testament over whether someone whose body had been altered in this way could worship the holy God of Israel.
So here is this Ethiopian, and insider and an outsider. Powerful, probably rich, and at the center of power in the world; but at the margin of things in a religious sense.
And the Ethiopian encounters something: he encounters the poem in the prophet Isaiah about God’s servant, who would be abandoned and forsaken, who would be humiliated and killed but who would not open his mouth. Who would leave no heir, no children, on the earth. What, he wonders, is this about?
It just happens as he is traveling that the Ethiopian meets Philip, an apostle of Jesus. Help me understand this passage, the Ethiopian says.
And I love this moment. Because Philip is not a rich and powerful man. Philip is just some guy. He’s from a little town. He doesn’t serve a royal court. He doesn’t travel in style like his new Ethiopian friend. But Philip, who is on outsider in the world of money and power, is an insider with God.
So the big shot, who is a religious outsider, and the nobody, who is a religious insider, sit down to read the Bible together. That’s when something powerful happens. The Ethiopian eunuch shows Jesus to Philip. “Who is the prophet speaking about?” he asks—and I wonder if the Ethiopian sees himself in the story. And it hits Philip—the prophet is speaking about Jesus! Jesus had no protest, no protection, no support, no future, no children. And yet Jesus, this ultimate outsider, was the one who would bring anyone and everyone inside the kingdom of God. Jesus, who fathered no children, would be the vine that housed all the branches. Jesus the lamb who was slain would rise in triumph, with healing and forgiveness in his hands. Jesus the broken one would make us all whole.
Jesus, the world’s orphan, would lead us all to the house of the Father.
This is what Jesus does. This is what his Gospel shows us. The high and mighty learn that they need grace. The poor and excluded are lifted up. The somebodies learn what it’s like to be nobodies. The nobodies learn to feel like somebody. The outsiders come in, and the insiders see that they were really out, now that we all sit down together to hear God’s Word and to share the gifts of Christ’s body and blood, given and shed for you and me and for the Ethiopian eunuch and for Philip and Queen Candace and Mr. Warbucks.
This is what I want to leave our fifth graders with today. It may not feel like it, kids, but the world is largely set up for your benefit. You have advantages that most people alive today can only imagine. You have advantages that most people who lived and died before could not have imagined. You are the world’s insiders.
But here’s the thing: the world’s insiders can never, ever, ever, do without the world’s outsiders. In this sacrament we are about to receive together, we become the needy ones. We meet Jesus, who was poor but gives us the riches of God’s grace. We meet Jesus who was abused, but who gives us the only true protection. We meet Jesus who was executed, but who gives us forgiveness of sins, life, and salvation.
And through Jesus we are bound together with everyone who shares this sacrament. That means people we don’t know or don’t understand. It means people we are tempted to look down on. It means people we want to see as outsiders. It means people we say—in front of our own children, sometimes—deserve to suffer.
This meal brings us all together. We give what we have. We get what we need. We are outside, and Christ brings us in. They are the gifts of God for you, the people of God. Thanks be to God. Amen.