Carl Sandburg was once asked what the ugliest word in the English language is. He thought for a long, long time, and then replied: "The ugliest word in the English language is Exclusive."
His comment came to mind this week as I read an article in the New Yorker magazine about exclusivity in cyberspace. The title of the article is: "Cyberspace has a V.I.P. Lounge, Too." It seems that there was a large electronic bulletin board in N.Y.C., a kind of electronic salon. Over 2000 members paid $19.95 a month so they could talk via modem about such topics as politics, art, New York Life, and the like. They called their talks "conferences." The owner of the bulletin board discouraged sexual harassment, racist messages, and other miseries of some on-line services. If members persisted in offensive conversation, she kicked them off, an electronic banning known on this bulletin board as "kevorking."
Trouble, however, brewed on-line. It seems that a self-selected group of some 40 members was quietly meeting, via modem, at an exclusive night club, which they called Xenophobia, between the hours of 11 p.m. and 7 a.m. Xenophobia (which means a fear or hatred of strangers or foreigners) was established as a private conference, which means it was fitted with a software filter designed to keep uninvited people out. Unlike all other conferences on this line, membership in Xenophobia was exclusive and determined by who you knew. Now private clubs are a fact of life, not only in the real glass and concrete world of Manhattan, but in most towns and cities in this country. In cyberspace, however, at least at the beginning, such exclusive communities were almost unknown. In fact, many people joined this bulletin board precisely because it offered a refuge from the exclusivism of the f2f (face to face) world. Many members were startled and upset and hurt to find that this sort of thing existed in the electronic world too, and that once again, they were left out.
There is humor in all of this, but underlying the humor is something very sad. The sad lesson is that the electronic world is not any different than the physical world. Human beings have a penchant to exclude And exclusion, no matter where it exists, is destructive and ugly.
Perhaps you can recall a time when you were excluded from a group or club or activity, as an adult or child. Perhaps you can recall the assault your self-esteem took, how angry you were at those who excluded you , how harsh life seemed.
Many men can recall the pain of being excluded from a school team. The columnist Bob Greene remembers the time he was cut. He writes:
"I remember vividly the last time I cried. I was twelve years old, in the seventh grade, and I had tried out for the junior high school basketball team. I walked into the gymnasium; there was a piece of paper tacked to the bulletin board.
It was a cut list. The seventh grade coach had put it up on the board. The boys whose names were on the list were still on the team; they were welcome to keep coming to practices. The boys whose names who were not on the list had been cut; their presence was no longer desired. My name was not on the list.
I stood and stared at the list. The coach had not composed it with great subtlety; the names of the best athletes were at the top of the sheet of paper and the other members of the squad were listed in what appeared to be a descending order of talent. I kept looking at the bottom of the list, hoping against hope that my name would miraculously appear.
I held myself together as I walked out of the gym and out of the school but when I got home I began to sob. I couldn't stop. For the first time in my life, I had been told officially that I wasn't good enough. Athletics meant everything to boys that age; if you were on the team, even as a substitute, it put you in the desirable group. If you weren't on the team you might as well not be alive."
Being cut, being excluded is a devastating experience. It separates us from our best view of ourselves, from other people and even from God, the Lord and giver of life.
Perhaps some of you have heard John Hockenberry on NPR, for many years a correspondent in the Mid-East. He wrote a book recently called Moving Violations, a book I couldn't put down. He describes being in a car accident when in college, an accident that left him paralyzed from the mid-chest down. His memoir is a funny and poignant account of how he adapted and overcame obstacles; physical, emotional, and spiritual. In one chapter he describes his trying to hail a cab in N.Y.C. and seeing that it would take an act of God to make a cab stop for a man in a wheelchair. As a result of being repeatedly unable to get a cab, he decided to learn to use the subway. He worked out a complicated arrangement to get himself up and down the many stairs. He went down the steps on his seat with his collapsible chair tied to rope around his legs. He knew the effort would be a test of his strength and savvy. His one worry was that he would be a nuisance and get in the way of commuters. He needn't have worried.
Crowds of commuters with briefcases and head phones strode by, stepping around him without breaking stride. On the ground he found himself dirtied by the soiled and blackened subway refuse and litter. There were horrible puddles of liquid. Yet what he found was that nobody really saw him anymore than they saw the refuse on the ground. He was excluded from the world, and he himself felt like refuse, irretrievable, present only as a creature dwelling on the rusty edge of a dark drain.
As an added note, only a few people spoke to him at all, and they were black; an old woman, a young hustler, and a businessman. Some folks who know exclusion first hand don't exclude others quite so easily.
And so it goes. Exclusivism is everywhere, from cyberspace to the sports field to the subway to wherever people need to feel one up. What we see in the Bible, however, by way of Jesus Christ, is that God has nothing to do with our hierarchies and judgments as to who is acceptable and who is not. God accepts us, all of us, imperfect, unfinished, just as we are. God turns no one away; God cuts no one; God excludes no one.
What today's lesson from Acts shows us is that we, the followers of Christ, are to welcome, include and unite people; we are to counter the evil forces of exclusivism and xenophobia. Let's take a look at this wonderful account.
The angel of the Lord directs Philip to take a certain wilderness road out of Jerusalem, which he does. Once on the road, the angel directs Philip to run over to the chariot of an Ethiopian eunuch who is on the road, which he does. The Ethiopian is reading from the book of Isaiah, so Philip asks if he understands what he is reading. The Ethiopian says he needs a guide and he invites Philip to hop in and sit beside him. They read Isaiah for a while, and the Ethiopian asks who the prophet is speaking about. Philip is happy to interpret from his Christian perspective, and he tells the Ethiopian all about Jesus. Philip teaches him about Jesus, the Messiah, who came to earth, and welcomed and accepted all who were excluded; the tax collectors, lepers, prostitutes, women, the poor, children and thieves. Philip explains that Jesus died on the cross, was raised to new life, and is now working throughout the world to bring all people together before God.
The Ethiopian listens carefully. This is a story that concerns him directly. You see, because he is a eunuch he is excluded from full membership in the Jewish community. As if that were not enough, he is a foreigner and has black skin. Three strikes against his being accepted. He probably wouldn't have had to look up the word xenophobia in his dictionary.
Perhaps Philip even tells the Ethiopian about what the apostle Paul wrote: there is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free; there is no longer male or female, for all are one in Christ Jesus.
"What then is to prevent me from being baptized from being a full-fledged member of the family of Christ?" the Ethiopian asks. And Philip replies: Nothing. There are no barriers of race or culture or sexual identity or anything else in Christ. They come upon a pool of water and the Ethiopian shouts, "Look water." Both he and Philip get out, and the man is baptized on the spot. He goes under the water three times and dies to all the isolation, rejection, and humiliation of his old life; and he comes up with joy in the knowledge that God accepts him, delights in him, welcomes him, and that the followers of Jesus do likewise.
What a great story of acceptance and new life. And what a contrast to the misery of exclusivism we know so well.
Now, what do we learn from this wonderful story? First, we learn that God accepts, welcomes, and treasures all of us. There are no outcasts in the Kingdom of God.
Second, we learn that as followers of Christ, we are sent out in the world to be agents of welcome, hospitality, and inclusion. Like Philip, we are sent by God to seek out those on the side-lines. If you are in school, you can go up to the kid who is sitting alone at the lunch table, say hi, how are you doing? No big deal. Maybe even sit down. We can invite someone who used to be part of a couple to join us for dinner. We can read a book like John Hockenberry's to heighten our awareness of what it is like to be handicapped. We can write notes or call on the phone or visit folks who live alone or who are in nursing homes. The possibilities for this ministry are endless. Our mission from God is clear; to include, welcome, invite, accept, build up. No barriers. F2F. No kevorking.