As residents of San Francisco, we live in a bubble of liberalism and inclusion. With the homeless crisis that we live with and with the signs of drug addiction that confront us, out in the open, every day in the city, we are keenly aware that our society is not taking care of people in the way that it should. But if we dig a little deeper, we soon arrive at the fact that there are systems in place in our country that prevent many people from living the life that God intended them to have.
I am talking about the systemic oppression of people of color, of the disabled, of non-heterosexuals, of trans individuals and of women. Our society continues to privilege straight, white, able-bodied men. And of course, most of the people who fall into that category have no idea that this privilege exists. Without an experience of discrimination yourself, anyone would operate under the assumption that our society is essentially fair and that anyone who works hard can get ahead. Along with white, male privilege goes a blindness to the discrimination against others who are not the same. It’s easy to understand.
On the bright side however, the experience of those who are relegated to the margins is often the source of artistic expression and cultural attention. This past week, I joined about nine hundred people who thronged to Grace Cathedral to experience the Beyonce mass. I am going to be honest with you, I had deep reservations about this event. In the first place, it seemed like the worst sort of cultural appropriation. The photo of the crew from the Vine, the innovative church community at Grace, was a picture of five young people, who all appeared to be white. Using the popularity of a superstar whose subject matter is the experience of black women in America seemed like the worst sort of cultural appropriation. In short, it just seemed like a gimmick to get people to come to church.
And on that score, it was wildly successful. I got there thirty minutes before the service and the line was wrapped around the courtyard several times. Mostly young people, with a smattering of older hipsters, and a much larger number of people of color than one would usually see at Grace Cathedral. About five minutes into the service, I realized that the Beyonce mass was really quite wonderful.
You may have read about it in the press. Several of Beyonce’s songs were used in the service, sung live by an amazing African American female soloist with a backup choir. And the preacher was an African American woman, a professor at SF Theological Seminary, who uses the songs of Beyonce as an example of empowerment in the face of oppression.
If women continue to earn less than men in this country, and to be passed over for promotion and top jobs, African American women have a double strike against them. Beyonce’s music seeks to show that each individual, no matter how marginalized, disadvantaged and oppressed, each person has her or his own hidden power. When the powers that be try to prevent people from living the abundant life that God wants them to live, the music inspires people to rise up and claim their place in the world. The message is that everyone is significant, everyone matters and everyone has the right to rage against oppression. As Rev. Yolanda Norton preached, to rage with love, to fight contempt with compassion and injustice with God’s vision of a world in which every person is worthy of love and deserves to have their voice heard. Beyonce has become, in effect, the voice of many who are voiceless.
Now, as you may also have heard, there were some haters of the Beyonce mass, among the evangelical community. Some of the comments from these quarters were blatantly misogynistic and most likely racist as well. How dare the church celebrate the music of an empowered, African American woman, in their terms, a Jezebel?
These people really don’t know their bibles as well as they think they do. Fro example, have they read the passage we heard this morning from Acts concerning Philip and the Ethiopian Eunuch? Have they conveniently forgotten this unusual story about how a person who would have marginalized in every way from the established religion is singled out for inclusion into the kingdom of God?
As one commentator wrote, the story of Philip and the Ethiopian eunuch is the story of two wrong people. Philip was not one of the big name apostles like Peter or James and John. He was one of the deacons, commissioned to serve the poor in Jerusalem. And yet he finds that God works through him in the most unusual of circumstances with the most amazing impact. Meanwhile, the Ethiopian eunuch is a person who would never have been acceptable in the old religion, due to his genital mutilation. Only properly intact men who had been circumcised could enter the temple. And yet God bestows the gift of faith upon this very individual, even given his status among the marginalized. My sense is that had he been alive today, the Ethiopian eunuch would have been a Beyonce fan.
Philip comes upon him reading from the Hebrew Scriptures, a very poignant passage from the prophet Isaiah. It is based on the theme of the suffering servant of God who will sacrifice his life for the people. Philip explains that the Scripture has been fulfilled in the form of Jesus the Christ: Jesus who was put to death and raised up again. And the Ethiopian believes. This suffering servant from the court of Candace, accepts the good news of God’s intervention into human history and wishes to be baptized.
What is to stop me? He asks. This is amazingly ironic as it highlights the barriers to his inclusion into the old religion. As a castrated man, from sub-Saharan Africa, he would not have been allowed to appear in the Temple. But there are no such obstacles to being accepted into the church of Christ. The Ethiopian Eunuch is not even required to make an appointment with a priest and receive instruction first. No, Christ’s church is open to all who are called to be there. We hold this to be true with regard to the Communion Table as well. All who are called by God to be here are welcome to receive Holy Communion at this table.
In our society today, people continue to be shut out of opportunities for education, healthcare, decent housing, safe neighborhoods, healthy food, economic opportunity, fulfilling jobs. But Christ’s church should not be on the list of organizations that fail to welcome all who want to experience a community centered on the love of God. Baptism is the entry into this community, and it is available to all who want to be part of God’s kingdom on earth.
But just what does it mean to be a member of God’s kingdom on earth. As we heard this morning, it means to be attached to the Vine, who is Jesus, and because of this attachment, to bear good fruit with our lives. What does that good fruit look like? I submit to you this morning that, as Rev. Yoland Norton preached, it is a life that rages with the power of love. It is a life defined by love as a verb not just a known. It is a life that seeks the wellbeing of all people, not just the self and those who support the self. It is a life that is comfortable being in community with someone who is different from oneself, as the Ethiopian was from Philip. It is a life that rages with love against the individualism of our society and embraces community in order to better understand what life is all about, just as the Ethiopian sought out community with Philip to understand God’s purpose in the old and the new religion.
My friends, I submit to you that we are here under false pretenses unless each one of yearns for baptism, celebrates our union with the one who is the true vine and does his or her best to bear the good fruit. Love is the verb, and the noun that should define our lives. Maybe we all need a little Beyonce so that we too can resist oppression and rage with love. Amen.