Sunday, July 14, 2013

Philip and the Ethiopian Eunuch - Equality and Baptism

Acts 8:26-40

“The world is a vampire…” sings Smashing Pumpkins frontman Billy Corgan.  Vampires suck the life out of the living.  They turn human beings into the undead, into vampires.  They make the human inhuman.  The world is a vampire.

The Apostle Philip was visited by a messenger who told him to head south.  He had been in Samaria preaching to the mongrel Samaritans, and now was being told to go down south.  Down there he came across an Ethiopian eunuch.  This particular eunuch seems to have been the cabinet minister responsible for the national treasury.  This minister of the treasury, who served the Queen of the Ethiopians, had come to Jerusalem to worship and was heading back to Ethiopia on his chariot.

Now, in the ancient world, Ethiopia isn’t usually identified as the same place that the modern-day country of Ethiopia exists in.  Most scholars have this “Ethiopia” existing in the region of where the fallen Kingdom of Kush once stood, basically south of modern-day Egypt in the place of where Sudan is.  For Herodotus, the Greek historian, Ethiopia was a reference to all the lands south of Egypt.  In essence, we’re not really certain about precise location, but we are certain about general vicinity.  Our scholars have also suggested that Αἰθίοψ (Aithiops) can literally be translated “aitho” (burnt) + “ops” (face) – burnt-face, which would be a reference to the blackness of the skin of the people who are from south of Egypt.  So, Philip has met a Black brother, who has risen to office of minister of the treasury, which isn’t all that impressive, since the whole country would be wall-to-wall Black folks.  He has met this Black man, who serves the Queen of a foreign country.

This foreigner is found by Philip to be reading from the prophet Isaiah, where it says:

Like a sheep he was led to the slaughter,
and like a lamb silent before its shearer,
so he does not open his mouth.
In his humiliation justice was denied him.
Who can describe this generation?
For his life is taken away from the earth.

The foreigner looks up and asks Philip, “Who is this text talking about?  Is the prophet speaking about himself or someone else?”

At that moment Philip was given the invitation he was waiting for.  Philip, a Galilean Jew, was going to kick down the Great Wall of Racism by sharing the life and ministry of Jesus Christ, the same way he had done in Samaria, with a Black man from the furthest extent of the earth.

You see, folks, the world is vampire.  It’s like the fabric of the universe has been shred up, and God is using people like Philip to stitch it back together.  Remember our history lesson about Samaria.  In the 8th century BCE there were two Israelite kingdoms – the northern one had two names Ephraim and Israel, with Samaria as its capital.  In the south was Judah, with its capital Jerusalem.  Ephraim was laid waste in the 8th century by the Assyrian Empire.  Its people were carted away and replaced by foreigners, and the formerly Israelite kingdom lost the culture that it shared with Judah.  About 2 centuries later the Babylonian Empire rose and crushed Judah, exiled a significant portion of the Israelites there, but sent them all to the capital city Babylon.  There the Judeans doubled down on what made them distinct from the Babylonians and some decades later the Persian Empire would rise to power, completely overrun the Babylonians, and release the Judeans back to the land they had come from.  When the Judeans, now Jews, returned, they began to rebuild Jerusalem and her temple there were Samaritans who had come asking, “Can we help?” The Jews, of course, acknowledging that they were, by now, of mixed ancestry rebuked them for being mongrels through intermarriage with the Assyrians (see books of Ezra and Nehemiah).  The world is a vampire.

The other thing that made the unnamed cabinet minister different than Philip is that he was a eunuch.  In the ancient world eunuchs were often castrated because they usually had positions in the palace that would place them close to the ruler of the land.  Neutering them, as was typically thought, would remove any dynastic ambition, since they could no longer have children.  The problem is that the Torah has clear command about people like eunuchs.  It says in Deuteronomy:

No one who has been emasculated by crushing or cutting may enter the assembly of the Lord. (Deuteronomy 23:1)

This clearly removes eunuchs from participation in the religious life of ancient Israel.  So it’s not just the Great Wall of Racism that the Gospel is overcoming through Philip, but an early exclusionary policy that kept folks out.

When Jesus says to Peter, “on this rock I will build my church, and not even the gates of Hades shall overcome it” he positions all of the places of death, despair, disaster, and darkness in our lives as defensively positioned.  Gates are part of a defensive posture.  Whereas the combo meal purchaser asks, “Can I have fries with that?” the wall-builder asks, “Can I have gates with that?”

The Ethiopian’s race and his social status as a eunuch were clearly stumbling blocks to the 1st-century Jew.  You see, folks, the world is a vampire.  The world seeks to dehumanize, while Jesus Christ seeks to shed light on humankind, for he comes to us in our own human skin.  The world seeks to deny people their humanity.  Christ seeks to deepen the sacredness and blessedness of being human.  There is no greater demonstration than in the eunuch’s next question and Philip’s response.

The eunuch says “Look, here is water!  What is to stop me from being baptized?”

Philip simply baptizes him, uniting them both in purpose and in kind.  Their united purpose becomes to evangelize (that is, to announce good news to the world) and their united kind is, of course, the Imago Dei that humankind is – made in the image of God.

But, as I say, the world is a vampire.  The world seeks to dehumanize the human.  Just yesterday the criminal court case of George Zimmerman, the man who killed Trayvon Martin, an innocent, unarmed Black teenager wearing a hoodie as he strolled through the neighbourhood, told us the story of the secular world – that Black folks cannot innocently walk the streets without being “up to something”.  In the Trayvon Martin case, the humanity of all Black people was put into question.

Of course there were many Canadians in an uproar, some who started up the “thank God we live in Canada” campaign, to which the Toronto Star responded to with it’s own article “Aboriginal and Black inmates disproportionately fill Ontario jails.”  The numbers are astounding.  The mythos of the nation state creates a false narrative for its own citizens by stating things like, “God keep our land glorious and free” meanwhile significant numbers of people in our own country are not held with this high ideal in mind simply because their skin is too Red, Black, or Brown.

The ancient church’s ideal was to baptize anyone interested in being baptized.  The church today worries too much about formulas and control, and not enough about people’s curiosity about God and about the church and about the world that God loves.  We spend too much time worrying about the survival of the church, when the church’s whole purpose is to bring life to places of decay, and to send the people we baptize into those places, bearing the light of the very One who breathes life into dead bones.

Black folks around the world are singing the blues.  We have been singing the blues for the last 500 years.  But when we worship God, we come alive in an intercultural group that sees a God who can “make a way out of no way”.  As theologian James Cone says:

Enslaved blacks who first heard the gospel message seized on the power of the cross.  Christ crucified manifested God’s loving and liberating presence in the contradictions of black life – that transcendent presence in the lives of black Christians that empowered them to believe that ultimately, in God’s eschatological future, they would not be defeated by the “troubles of this world,” no matter how great and painful their suffering.  Believing this paradox, this absurd claim of faith, was only possible through God’s “amazing grace” and the gift of faith, grounded in humility and repentance.  There was no place for the proud and the mighty, for people who think that God called them to rule over others.  The cross was God’s critique of power – white power – with powerless love, snatching victory out of defeat.

The way Philip Yancey says it is interesting:

Underdog.  I wince even as I write the word, especially in connection with Jesus.  It’s a crude word, probably derived from dogfighting and applied over time to predictable losers and victims of injustice.  Yet as I read the birth stories about Jesus I cannot help but conclude that though the world may be tilted toward the rich and powerful, God is tilted toward the underdog.

And you know what it’s like to be the underdog.  You have been kicked while you were down.  You have had folks try to slander your name.  You have been excluded from a party or a dinner invitation.  You have had people tell you that you won’t fulfill your dreams.  You have been ganged up on in the classroom, on the schoolyard, at the workplace.  You have been hated for your success.  You have been disliked for your opinion.  Whenever you have felt the weight of the world’s displeasure, you have been given a glimpse of the weight the person of colour has carried for half a millennia.

After yesterday’s verdict, I don’t trust the secular world to change anything.  I don’t trust the nation state either.  The world is a vampire.  The world believes that my life is worth less than yours, simply because the tones of our skin are different, and the only thing we have to combat this blasphemous reality is our mutual baptism in the Lord – the One who reconciles all of Creation.  We become equal to each other in our baptism.  We are One, not because we like the idea of being One, but because Jesus Christ, the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world, has baptized us collectively into a new world of possibility, mutual love and respect, the cherishing of human and creaturely dignity – a hope that is impossible to see without this God-fearing Beloved Community that we call ‘Church’.

Saturday, June 29, 2013

Invocation - Bentley Grad



Let us gather our hearts into one mind and reflect on these words.

Title or Testimony...which do you prefer? You will live your adult life working for the man; you will go to work, day after day...and then one day that realization will hit you...your dreams haven't come true. You grow cynical and begin thinking, life's a hassle and then you die. You will then begin to reflect on what you have done with your life.

Ten years from now you'll be at your high school reunion, catching up with old friends. Many of you will have achieved your BA, your MA, your MBA, your PhD, your MDiv, your BSc, your LLB...but what has it really gotten you? You will come to realize that reality has been creepin' up on ya without you even realizing it, and now you ask, What have I done with my life?

See, you know what you've done. You know all of the titles you have amassed. But you are still unsatisfied. You are unsatisfied because you know that at some point in your future it's coming – one day you will die, they will cry, throw you into the ground, push your face into the dirt, dust off their hands, then go back to the church to eat potato salad. And what do you have to show for it? A BA, an MA, an MBA, a PhD, an MDiv, a BSc, an LLB?

But what if you could dedicate your life to the public good? What if now was the opportune time to start dreaming up the way forward for all of humankind? What if you, a mere graduate of Bentley High School, were the answer to this province's prayers, to this nation's prayers, to this planet's prayers? You see, the people who make the biggest impact on the world are those who dance with the visions that have been placed on their hearts.

Look at Moses; he was a man who beat enormous odds; he shouldn't have lived beyond infancy. But he was thrown into a basket, dropped into the river, and drawn out by Pharaoh's daughter. She named him Moses, as the Bible says, because she, “drew him out of the water!” Moses was drawn out of the water, and his encounter with God convinced him to draw the enslaved Israelites out of Egypt for a forty year sojourn back to the Promised Land. Moses had been visited by YHWH – the God of Israel – to liberate a broken-hearted people. But then there was Pharaoh, who sought to stifle the progress of the Israelites. He enslaved them and he oppressed them and he burdened them and he worked them until their sweat turned to blood. But what we know about the long story of life in Egypt and the Wilderness is that the oppressed and enslaved Israelites got to tell the story. I mean, mean old Pharaoh was king – he had the title – but Moses delivered his struggling and hurting people out of Egypt and had one of the greatest stories of breaking the bonds of social degradation in history. Moses had the testimony.

Dear graduates of Bentley High School 2013, today is an opportunity to begin dreaming up your contributions to the world. You don't necessarily have to decide what you will do with the rest of your life right now, but at least you can begin discerning how you can serve your community, your province, your country, and even God's world through public service. You might change careers 3 or 4 times during your life, but you can always volunteeryour time to a variety of organizations like Big Brothers Big Sisters, the United Way, local churches, Optimist Clubs.

I became a Christian by osmosis. I hung out with people of deep faith, who also gave back to their communities in profound ways, and eventually I started to look like a man of faith. Just last week my foster mother, Erma Vinson, who fostered over 200 children in Windsor-Detroit over 50 years, died at the age of 89. When I was adopted into a household of 13 children I was renamed after her husband Rev. Adam Vinson. Erma saved the lives of so many desperate children, including me, that the local AME Church (AME stands for African Methodist Episcopal) was later named after her and her first husband, who died rather young (Rev. Bernie Price). The church was called the Price AME Church. They did this stuff because they felt it was necessary to bring about the beautiful world Jesus envisioned when he gave sight to the blind, healed the lame, and restored justice to the temple. Erma had the testimony.

Testimonies are the accounts people give about the lives they have witnessed. Good testimony ultimately leads to freedom.

The great 19th century African American freedom-fighter Harriet Tubman, who brought hundreds of Black folks to freedom via the Underground Railroad, said the first time she crossed the Mason-Dixon Line: “I looked at my hands to see if I was the same person. There was such a glory over everything. The sun came up like gold through the trees, and over the fields, and I felt like I was in heaven.” Tubman had the testimony.

One day when you are standing in that Great Courthouse in the Sky, what will they say about how you lived your life? Or, for those of the more agnostic and atheistic persuasions, what will they say about how you lived your life as they stand quietly beside your grave? What stories will they be telling when they get back to the church to eat that potato salad?

Today is the day you begin to carve out your legacy. Dream big, stay honest, and keep the faith. Let's pray.

Prayer to the Holy Spirit

O Spirit:

The dance floor is set, the DJ is playing the funky music, and we are now ready to make our way onto God's Great Dance Floor!

It is the life of freedom, the life of opportunity, the life of making the world a better place for everyone that we meet. It is the life of positivity, the life of possibility, the life in which our wildest dreams are realized. Give us the courage to make our way onto the floor and to show the world the moves we are making.

Spirit, let us dance with you throughout our lives, and let that dance begin here and now – tonight! Let tonight not simply be about the ending of a chapter of life, but also the pushing into the future, the unveiling of a grand adventure, the wrestling with what it means to be human.

Come, Holy Spirit, Come!

Move us into a majestic future of great accomplishment, serious questioning, passionate striving, critical self-reflection, and vision to see precious opportunities.

Come, Holy Spirit, Come!

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Remembering Grandma Vinson

Note: This post has been written as a tribute to Erma Vinson.  I am unable to make it to her funeral (Saturday, June 22) so asked if I could share something in writing.

Beloved family:

You have gathered together in loving memory of a generous human being; one we can only aspire to be like.  When the word ‘hope’ is uttered, the image of Erma Vinson always comes to mind.  Erma, in some sense, is hope personified.  We call hope wrapped in human skin Erma Vinson, for she spent an entire lifetime leading children from hopeless situations into the freedom of opportunity and possibility.

One such person was me.  I was born to a teenaged mother who struggled to care for me.  When things became difficult I wound up, as an infant, in the home of Erma, who, with her late husband Rev. Adam, became grandma and grandpa to me.  Erma and Adam would care for me until a family was found who would adopt me.

Earle and Gail Kilner, of Sarnia, Ontario eventually adopted me in the autumn of 1984 and stayed in contact with Erma, and she became, to our entire family of 13 children, Grandma Vinson.  She would remain familiar (and extremely popular) to everyone in the Kilner family as we frequently picnicked together in the early years.  As Erma aged we saw her less and less, but she always had that exciting and flamboyant personality that made it easy to fall in love with her.

The last time Erma ever visited my family in Sarnia was just over a decade ago.  I think I was just about to head off to the University of Waterloo (which means it was probably spring of 2002).  She came with some family and began reminiscing with my mom.  I remember I had two friends come over and they listened as Erma retold these stories about Jimmy Co-co Pot.  When they realized that Jimmy Co-co Pot was me they let me have it.  They still laugh at my funny nickname.

You see, I was born “James” but when I was adopted by the Kilner family they sought to honour the Vinsons by renaming me after Rev. Adam.  I had been born James Michael Vyncent Warren and was rebranded Adam James Kilner.  The Vinsons and Kilners colluded to give me a fresh set of garments, tailored for a life of overcoming the many things many of us Black folks are accustomed to being imprisoned by.

I must have been a student in seminary working on a Master of Divinity degree (at Emmanuel College at the University of Toronto) a few years ago when I made a visit down to Windsor to see Erma.  It was a Friday and she asked me if I would preach at the AME church in Chatham that Sunday.  I declined, but said I would be happy to speak the week after.  During that visit we also talked about my biological parents.  I had been in communication with my biological mother for a few years and then shared with Grandma Vinson the name of my alleged biological father.  She, of course, immediately pulls out the phone book and says, “I know who that is.  I’m gonna call him up.”

I showed up at Campbell AME Church in Chatham to share a few words and my mom and dad show up late, and so did this young couple.  They shared the same pew.  After church I went up to the young woman and asked her, “So where are you from?”  She says, “Oh, we’re from Harrow.”  I thought to myself, well that’s a long ways from here.  We finished the small talk and I went outside to throw my guitar and notes into the car and my mom was talking to the young man.  I walk up, interrupt their conversation saying, “It’s funny that you say you’re from Harrow, because my biological father is from Harrow.”  And he turns slowly toward me and says, “Well I’m him.”  Our jaws dropped.  Then I looked back up the stairs to the church and there was Grandma Vinson being pushed out on her wheelchair.  I grew suspicious.  “Did you set this up?” I asked.  She was just as surprised as we were (or she was, with a satisfied smirk, “playing dumb”).  But she did admit to calling him and telling him about the service.  She didn’t seem to think he was actually going to show up.

For me, Erma is a modern-day Harriet Tubman who, herself, was seen by Black folks of her day as a contemporary Moses.  Tubman, in her day, was called “Black Moses” because she led hundreds of slaves to freedom.  Erma did the same thing for many children of many different races and abilities.  We who were enslaved from our humble beginnings found our chains broken as Erma nurtured us.

My soul is deeply troubled by her death.  I feel like Jesus after his good friend Lazarus died.  The Greek word used in that story (embrimasthai) to articulate how troubled his soul was has no literal English translation.  It seems to be used in that story to suggest that Jesus was so overcome with grief he couldn’t find words.  All he could do was groan in sorrow.

But even as we walk through the Valley of Shadows Paul of Tarsus reminds us that as people of faith we do “not grieve as others do who have no hope” (1 Thess. 4:13).  Death does not have the last word.  Death is not the end of everything, as the Greek philosophers of the 1st century seemed to believe, and many Canadians seem to believe today.  Rather, when we look at the life of Erma Vinson it is possible to see the truth of Paul’s proclamation that “Death has been swallowed up in victory” (1 Cor. 15:54), for the seeds that Erma planted and watered for so many have grown into beautiful plants and are just now beginning to blossom.  Her legacy lives on in you and in me.  And our companion through Valley, the Lord – Erma’s Lord – continues to inspire us the way he inspired her.

I am now an ordained minister in the United Church of Canada, and I trace the roots of that journey all the way back to Erma.  Whenever I think of her I see hope personified.  Remember what they said about Jesus when he began preaching in Galilee:

“The people who sat in darkness have seen a great light” (Matt. 4:16)

Didn’t we see that same light in Erma?


Rev. Adam James Kilner (Jimmy Co-co Pot)
Erma’s last infant in foster care

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Give You

Written by Adam Kilner

I'll give you praise
I'll give you praise
I'll give you praise
I'll give you praise
For the sun, for the moon
For all creation la la la la la la la la
Oh, oh, oh

Deliver us
Deliver us
Deliver us
Deliver us
From the chains
From the bondage
Of slavery

Send healing rain
Send healing rain
Send healing rain
Sending healing rain
Let it pour
Let it soak
Through all your people la la la la la la la la
Oh, oh, oh

I'll give you praise
I'll give you praise
I'll give you praise
I'll give you praise
For the sun, for the moon
For all creation

Thursday, February 9, 2012

A Smile Relieves...

Orchestral banjos fill the room
A pulse of kick drum, feel the groove
Diversity across the floor
You reconcile the rich and poor

You think I sing a bluegrass song
Freedom's a genre for us all
We gather close to make amends
Red, Black, and White, we can be friends

Do you hear the sound that's rising from us all?
Do you see all of God's children, big and small?
A light that shines so brightly onto all
Onto all

We clap our hands in unity
All of the slave and all the free
We come from all the continents
A smile relieves our hesitance

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Waiting for the Sunrise (Earth Day)

Words by Michael Khashmanian; Lyrics by Adam Kilner

Some days are good, some not so much
Seems like we've all been jaded by the golden touch
We have a chance to start anew
Deep down inside we all know what we have to do

We may have started down that slope
The word of God is there for all who have to hope
We have to learn to do what's right
Or else we'll turn our world into eternal night

That's why I'm waitin' for the sunrise everyday
Not goin' to let the dark night add to my dismay
Take a moment now and then to pray
Goin' let God's hand show me the way

Blowing dirty things into the air
Sometimes it seems like no one really gives a care
Oil pipelines gouge the countryside
We have to find a balance if we're ever to survive

Let's keep our water fresh and clean
The signs are everywhere just waiting to be seen
Things may look grim for planet earth
It's not too late for us to start with her rebirth

That's why I'm waitin' for the sunrise everyday
Not goin' to let the dark night add to my dismay
Take a moment now and then to pray
Goin' let God's hand show me the way

The hail may be pelting
The ice caps are melting
The climate is changing
Do we know what to do?

The factories belting
The iron we're smelting
The world's rearranging
Do we know what to do?

Some days are good, some not so much
Seems like we've all been jaded by the golden touch
We have a chance to start anew

Monday, January 16, 2012

Come On Oceans

Written by Adam Kilner

O mountains arise
And eagles take flight
We're on an adventure
To see all the sights

O rivers rush through
Stars twinkle the night
The Creator's renewing your minds

Come on oceans and roar with delight
Come on creatures and sing with your might
A new day is coming, just open your eyes
And all of creation, and all of creation...arise!

O people join in
Breaking the chains of sin
The chasm of chaos
Has us falling in

Bring your shouts to your God
And renew your old songs
And all of creation will know they belong

Come on oceans and roar with delight
Come on creatures and sing with your might
A new day is coming, just open your eyes
And all of creation, and all of creation...arise!

There is a world
There is a land
A great invitation
Where we're held in God's hand

The mountains bow down
As Lord Jesus ascends
Divine, human amends

Come on oceans and roar with delight
Come on creatures and sing with your might
A new day is coming, just open your eyes
And all of creation, and all of creation...arise!