The Crazy Story of the Ethiopian Eunuch: A David Wantland Sermon

eunuchiconA sermon offered by David Wantland, Duke Divinity Student, Year B, Easter V, May 3, 2015
@TheAdvocate

 

 

Y’all, today’s Acts reading is crazy.

An angel of the LORD is sending Philip all over the place. A discerning inquirer just happens to be reading Isaiah when Philip walks by. There is conversion, there is baptism. There’s even apparition in which the Spirit “snatches” Philip away. It’s the dream scenario of evangelism. A disciple follows the unlikely leading of the Spirit and eureka, conversion of a foreign dignitary!

It’s a wild story. And, frankly, its hard to believe is true. There are, after all, certain conditions of plausibility that we western moderns believe stories are supposed to meet. When they don’t, we’re quick to gloss them over, patting them patronizingly on the head, saying, “that’s sweet, but we know better.” This story is full of such discrepancies, such incursions from a by-gone era when people believed the fantastic and the mythical. And no, I’m not talking about the angels and the Harry Potter-style apparitions, I’m talking about this eunuch and the preposterous suggestion that he has been given a family.

Today’s reading from Acts tells a story about belonging that we moderns would deny.

Let’s get some basics for this story. The man is a eunuch. For all intents and purposes, that means he has not hope of progeny. No children. Probably no spouse.

The man is a court official– a treasurer– for the Queen of Ethiopia. So he has some power and presumably some loyalty to his country of origin. Yet he is a proselyte, a convert to Judaism, and therefore likely on the periphery of the culture which he serves. His national identity is muddled, at home neither in one nor the other. He is a proselyte, who has gone up to Jerusalem for worship. But a castrated proselyte, who, at least according to Deuteronomic law, is therefore disallowed from participating in the assembly. After all, what good is a seedless man to a family-based people.

Perhaps in his study of Isaiah–that’s the prophet he reads to Philip–, he’d read God’s proclamation: “Do not let the eunuch say, ‘I am just a dry tree.’ 4 For thus says the Lord: To the eunuchs who keep my sabbaths, who choose the things that please me and hold fast my covenant, 5 I will give, in my house and within my walls, a monument and a name better than sons and daughters; I will give them an everlasting name that shall not be cut off.” Perhaps he made the journey, hoping that moment had come, that he would be permitted into the assembly. There must have been a certain amount of disappointment in his trip to Jerusalem. The hope of finding himself at home, there, at the center of his people’s religious identity, only to be kept out.

It is fitting that Philip meets him on the road in between Jerusalem and Ethiopia, because it is that liminal place that the eunuch inhabits. Neither fully one nor the other. Alone.

The eunuch was a committed student of Torah. As anyone who has tried desperately to prove they belong can attest, being a good student of the subject is crucial. I imagine Isaiah’s words about the suffering servant were not coincidentally quoted here, as if the scroll just happened to be rolled open to that section. Rather, I imagine these were well-worn words for the eunuch. A passage he turned to often in life. For they are words that describe another man, humiliated, from whom justice was denied, without hope of future generations, a man whose life was taken away. No doubt he read something of himself when he read those words.

When Philip comes upon the eunuch, this is the man he meets. A man despairing in his loneliness, for whom the rise to power in Ethiopia has not salved all wounds, a man who fears he will die alone and be forgotten. A man who is savoring in the rare occasion when he finds himself in scripture, but is not comforted by what he reads.

“Starting with this scripture, Philip proclaimed to him the good news about Jesus.” Now Luke doesn’t tell us the specifics of this gospel-telling, but we can imagine. From the mouth of a fellow observer of Torah, the eunuch hears a gospel of embrace. He hears that he belongs fully among the people of Jesus. That the life, death, resurrection, and ascension of this Messiah have meant something for him and for the whole world. That the way of Jesus speaks against the ways in which blood and border define people. That anyone who is baptized dies and is risen into new life with Jesus. That rising out of the water, however one’s body is marked and evaluated by our communities of blood and border, creates a new community of belonging.

Whatever Philip said, the eunuch gets it. And he wants to be baptized. So they get down off the chariot, wade into a nearby stream, and the eunuch is baptized.

That is it. THAT is it. Perhaps in the most mundane detail of the whole narrative, Luke makes the ridiculous, mythical claim that a man unable to produce heirs, a man without a family, with a little water now has siblings, spouses, and children. That’s the crazy.

It’s been five weeks since Easter Sunday. Thankfully the alleluias still ring out each week, but I wonder if you, like me, have already forgotten the absurd and bizarre things we proclaimed at the Easter vigil about our baptism.

“Will you who witness these vows do all in your power to support these persons in their life in Christ? We will.”

“Baptisand, you are sealed by the Holy Spirit in Baptism and marked as Christ’s own forever. Amen.

“We receive you into the household of God. Confess the faith of Christ crucified, proclaim his resurrection, and share with us in his eternal priesthood.”

We said some crazy things. In our vows and in renewing our baptismal covenant, we proclaimed what we believe God in baptism makes of us– siblings, parents, children of humans that our other communities tell us we have no business with. We belong to each other and to all people in the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church.

It’s good, five weeks out from the Vigil, to be reminded what baptism makes of us.

Especially in a time when cultural storytellers are doing there best to criminalize poverty, in a time when cultural storytellers demonize black lives and justify the murders of black Americans, in a time when cultural storytellers denigrate the lives of migrants, we, members of a majority white church, must be reminded that those storytellers are criminalizing our family, our siblings.

Now I know that, after a while, talking about baptismal identity can start to sound like abstract nonsense. But today’s reading from Acts actually gives us something to make it concrete. The eunuch goes home, to Ethiopia. And so must we.

He goes home, but no longer as one who follows the standards set for him in Ethiopia. The rules of respectability, the customs that distinguish class from class, one part of town from another, education level from education level, normative family arrangement from “the other”. He goes home but with a willingness to risk transgression, to cross boundaries of belonging, to find himself where he is not supposed to be– an official of his rank, living in a house in a neighborhood that does not reflect his income. He goes home with abandon, with a willingness to let go of the things that hedge his privilege because he knows they are his, only at the cost of another’s wellbeing. He goes home, but with a willingness to be misunderstood by all, mistrusted by most, and deemed crazy.

In short, he goes home to the same place but unsettles it. He brings the good news he has heard from Philip and establishes a new community, the church in Ethiopia. And lest we romantically or naively think that is an easy task, let us be assured that is an act of resistance. It demands a willingness to sacrifice deep-seated loves just for the sake of showing someone they are welcome. It is inherently difficult. But it is the life and the joy to which the Spirit called the eunuch and equally calls us.

We, the People of the Advocate, are at an interesting place in this church’s storied, but brief, history. We have a year under our “building” belts, the pond is finally filling back up, and there are prospects of new neighbors and (maybe) new people of the advocate. We’re at a time when our home, which has always been elastic and permeable, may stabilize and settle. And that may not be all bad. But it is precisely at this time and in this community that gathers for the grace received at this table, that we remember that returning home doesn’t mean the same thing any more. “Home” has been redefined. It is no longer the place where your government, your classs, your biological family, or your denomination’s historical identity tells you that you belong. Home is the community of resistance in which God makes new families. Here in this place and out in your world, this is what baptism teaches us about home and belonging.

Talk about a crazy story.

Amen.