A Eunuch Goes Down to the Water 04/29/17 (Easter 5B)

A Eunuch Goes Down to the Water
Text: Acts 8:26-40
Rev. Heather M. Hinton
April 29, 2018 ~ Fifth Sunday of Easter (Year B)

First, some context.

Jesus has been resurrected and has ascended to heaven. He has told the apostles to stay in Jerusalem, until they receive the Holy Spirit. Then they will be his “witnesses in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” Soon there are so many Jesus-followers in Jerusalem that some people begin to complain that the widows are being ignored and their needs are not being met. And so the Twelve (Judas has been replaced by a man named Matthias) appoint seven men to care for the widows.

But the upstart religious movement has once again caught the attention of the religious elders, and the persecution intensifies. Stephen, one of the seven, is executed. Immediately thereafter Philip – another of the seven, not to be confused with Philip the apostle – journeys north from Jerusalem into Samaria, where he preaches, exorcises demons, and cures the paralyzed and lame.

And it’s here that we pick up today’s story.

Philip is going about his ministry in Samaria when an angel of God appears to him and tells him to go back the way he came, south to the road that connects Jerusalem and Gaza. This is, the text tells us, a wilderness road, and we know that significant things happen in the wilderness.

It is on this wilderness road that Philip, guided by the Holy Spirit, encounters an Ethiopian eunuch. The man is traveling in a chariot, which indicates that he is a person of notable wealth. He is trustworthy, for he is in charge of the queen’s treasury. We can guess that he is educated, for he’s reading in Greek. (A side note: he is reading aloud because that’s how people generally read anything in those days.) We know he’s devout, since he’s reading Isaiah and he has been to Jerusalem to worship. We don’t know if he is actually Jewish, but it’s possible that he is since the teachings of Judaism had been present in Ethiopia from the time of King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba. We know he is humble, for when Philip asks him whether he understands what he is reading, he admits that he needs help. We know that he is hospitable, because he invites Philip to join him in the chariot as they travel along the wilderness road, rather than making Philip jog alongside.

And we know that the man was an Ethiopian. Now at that time, “Ethiopian” was a name designating anyone with dark skin who hailed from the largely unknown lands below Egypt. This would have been significant to Philip; this man is a racial and ethnic minority.

And most important of all, we know that he is a eunuch, that is, a man who had been castrated, probably as a pre-pubescent boy which of course had hormonal impacts. Since they were neutered, eunuchs were trusted to perform social functions for royalty; they were considered sexually “safe.” Yet eunuchs were also considered sexually immoral, which is a paradox that really makes very little sense and seems utterly unfair.

And in Jewish tradition and teaching, particularly in the teachings of Deuteronomy and Leviticus, such men were deemed “scarred and defective.” As such, they were allowed only minimal, marginal participation in the assembly of Israel. They were kept to the outer courts of the temple and there was no way for them to be included in a more central way; they were permanently and irredeemably marginalized.

That the man Philip encounters is a sexual outcast in any religious context Philip knew was far more meaningful than the fact that he was also a member of racial and ethnic minorities.

And yet Philip, prompted by the Holy Spirit, sits beside this racially and ethnically foreign man, this sexually and therefore religiously unclean, scarred, unworthy man and teaches him about the scriptures, beginning with the passage from Isaiah. He proclaims to him the good news about Jesus. And the Ethiopian eunuch is so moved that he burns with the desire to become a part of this nascent community of Jesus-followers. As soon as he sees some water beside the road he cries, “Look, here is water! What is to prevent me from being baptized?”

What, indeed?

Everything about him – his race, his ethnicity, his job, and most crucially his sexual status – everything about him should prevent him from being baptized. And yet any reluctance Philip might have had is wiped away by the very passage that the eunuch is reading: a passage from Isaiah which reads, “Like a sheep he was led to the slaughter, and like a lamb silent before its shearer, so he does not open his mouth.” Surely Philip heard these words as being about Jesus, but the eunuch undoubtedly identified with the lamb who has been shorn. Philip, steeped as he was in his own tradition, would know that “the book of Isaiah has been a book of hope and promise for eunuchs, captives, the poor, the sick, the lame, and the outcast. Later [Isaiah] prophesies a time of messianic blessing when eunuchs and other marginalized persons are free to fully participate in the assembly.”

Promises of hope and blessing and full participation in the community of faith. The crumbling of walls of prejudice and prohibition. Promises conferred in baptism.

So let’s talk about baptism for a moment.

Baptism is one of only two Sacraments in the Protestant traditions (the other being Communion). Promises are at the center of this sacred ritual, promises sealed with water and blessing.

The Bible typically doesn’t use the word “promises.” Instead, we hear about “covenants.” At its most basic, a covenant is an agreement between two or more people. In the Bible covenants are the promises made to humanity by God. And in the church, a covenant is a solemn agreement between the members of a church to act together in harmony with the precepts of the gospel. Covenants have been foundational to churches in the US as far back as the Mayflower Compact in 1620. All along they have affirmed the central values of our faith: connection, mutual love, holy friendship, and the experience of God’s presence.

Baptism is one of the times we make such a covenant with one another.

It’s been a while since we had a baptism here at Second Congregational, so I want to briefly review the promises we make to those who are baptized in our community.

With God’s help we will proclaim the good news and live according to the example of Christ. We will surround these persons with a community of love and forgiveness, that they may grow in their trust of God, and be found faithful in their service to others. We will pray for them, that they may be true disciples who walk in the way that leads to life.

I want to tell you the story of one baptism I performed early on in my ministry. I met a woman I’ll call “Amy” at the gym I belonged to. We would frequently chat when I came or left, and we enjoyed getting to know each other. Over time, Amy began to ask me questions about being a minister, and what my church was like. Eventually she trusted me enough to tentatively reveal to me that she and her partner “Hannah” hoped to be married but they hadn’t known how to go about it. She asked me if I’d be willing to officiate.

Now, when they were girls, both Amy and Hannah dreamed of getting married in a church as so many little girls do. But as their sexuality became clear to them they resigned themselves to the fact that a church wedding was unlikely. Over the years both Amy and Hannah had been rejected by many family and friends as they disclosed their sexual orientation. And although Amy tried occasionally to attend church, she hadn’t found one where she felt safe enough to tell anyone about the love of her life – which would mean revealing her sexual orientation. And Hannah had been so thoroughly ostracized by her home church that she had no desire to step foot into one ever again.

They were, and feared they always would be, outsiders because of their sexual orientation no matter how deeply they longed to be a part of a religious community.

When I told he deacons of the church I served about Amy and Hannah’s request that I marry them, they reluctantly agreed that same-sex marriages could be performed in the sanctuary. But their discomfort and hesitation were plain. Given the still raw wounds that Amy and Hannah suffered in churches at the hands of “church people,” and given the reluctance on the part of my church, I decided not to push the issue with either the church or the couple. Instead, I simply – sadly, but without reservation – agreed to perform Amy and Hannah’s ceremony in their beautiful yard.

A couple of years later, Amy called me, her voice filled with joy, to tell me that she and Hannah were expecting twins. And as soon as she told me and heard my delight at the news, she asked me if I’d be willing to baptize the babies.

Now here was a quandary. They deeply desired for their children to be baptized – it was especially important to Amy, whose faith was strong despite her inability to brave worshiping at a church. And yet they refused to have the baptism in a church; it just felt too dishonest. They knew they’d be promising to raise the babies in a faith community, but they weren’t sure they’d ever find such a place. And the promises the congregation would make to them felt hollow and false, since they were not – and might never be – part of that community.

And so, in my insecurity and still-young ministry, I did something which I wouldn’t do today. I baptized the babies in their living room, praying all the while that God would find a way to lead them into a community that would covenant with them to love and support and affirm one another as individuals, as couples, and as families.

Not long after the babies’ baptism I moved away and lost touch with them. I don’t know if they ever found such a place, but I hope they did.

Friends, for the last several months we have been going through the Open and Affirming process. We have tried to open ourselves to hear the stories of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer people who live and work in our wider communities. We have tried to learn about what those different designations mean, and what it’s like to live on the margins because of one’s sexuality or gender identity. We have wondered together what it might mean to be not just open to, but also deeply affirming of, all people – not in spite of their sexuality or gender identity, but truly embracing those parts of themselves as integral to their whole personhood.

Our Open and Affirming Team drafted a covenant that they shared with us a couple of months back: a sacred promise between our little church community, those from the LGBTQ community, and God. After getting some feedback, the team came to the conclusion that the covenant still wasn’t specific enough. It claimed our values and said who we are, but it didn’t explicitly invite people like Amy and Hannah who would have no way of knowing whether this church would be different from all the others that claimed “all are welcome” but didn’t really mean it.

So I want to share with you the next draft of the covenant that the team has crafted. I repeat, this is a DRAFT. We will continue to work on it together, as a community. On an upcoming Sunday (as yet to be decided) after church we will gather as a faith community and workshop the covenant again, and hopefully adopt it. It will always be a work in progress, for we are always changing and growing in faith and in relationship with one another and with God. So here’s the draft:

We are the Second Congregational Church of Winchester: the Little Church with the Big Heart. We welcome all in the spirit of hope and in the name of our host, Jesus Christ. We seek to support and uplift our community by creating a place of unconditional love regardless of who you are, where you come from, who you love, or how you love.

We are an inclusive and diverse community of faith, and we invite, welcome, and celebrate people of all races, ethnicities, ages, gender identities and expressions, sexual orientations, marital statuses, faith backgrounds, physical, cognitive, and emotional abilities, economic circumstances, and family configurations. All persons are invited to fully share and participate in leadership, ministry, fellowship, worship, sacraments, responsibilities, and joys of our church family.

We believe that life is a gift and love is the point, and we encourage anyone and everyone to join us as we seek new ways to fulfill the promise of God’s love and share it with the world.

Beloved of God, we continue our journey on this road which sometimes has felt a little like the wilderness. And as we journey, we ask the question the Ethiopian eunuch, that ultimate sexual outsider, asked: “What is to prevent me from being baptized?” What is to prevent anyone from knowing that they are beloved by God as well?

If the promises we make at baptism are true, it seems that we should allow the Holy Spirit to blow down the barriers whenever and wherever they exist.

It is my hope that we can wholeheartedly and unanimously find a way to make sure that the Amys and the Hannahs of the world never feel as though there is “something preventing” them from being a part of a community of faith as beautiful and special as ours.

Thanks be to God.

Tags: , , ,

About the Author

Top