Sermon: Sunday, May 2, 2021: Fifth Sunday of Easter

This sermon was preached at Grace Lutheran Church (ELCA) in Evanston, Illinois. I was the guest preacher that morning at the congregation where my husband and I are members while our pastor was on vacation.

Texts: Acts 8:26-40 / John 15:1-8

I began my current call as Pastor to the Community and Director of Worship at the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago (LSTC) in the fall of 2017. 2017, as some of you may remember, was the 500th anniversary of the year that Martin Luther nailed his arguments with the church in Rome to the doors of All Saints’ Church in Wittenberg, kicking off what came to be known as the Protestant Reformation. It was an interesting time to be joining a Lutheran seminary, as I was immediately thrust into plans for celebrating the this momentous anniversary that included a series of guest preachers and heightened festival worship throughout the fall semester. The sermon I remember most clearly was delivered by the Rev. Dr. Otis Moss III, pastor of Trinity United Church of Christ, who preached on the text from Acts that we’ve just read.

The Rev. Dr. Otis Moss III (L), the Rev. Dr. Linda Thomas (C), and me (R).

Although he was preaching to a multiethnic crowd, Pastor Moss was quite aware that he was also preaching at a seminary of the ELCA — a denomination now almost infamously identified by the Pew Research Center as the Whitest denomination in the United States. Our denomination. He wasn’t assigned his text for the day, as we have been, he selected this one with care and for a purpose: to show us how implicit bias creeps into even our reading of scripture. 

The story from Acts centers on a life-changing moment between two people on a wilderness road: Philip the Evangelist, one of the seven chosen to care for the poor in Jerusalem; and an Ethiopian eunuch, described as a “court official of the Candace, queen of the Ethiopians.” The scripture at this point is sharing detail after detail, each packed with meaning about the context for this encounter and foregrounding the social location of these two people. Even Philip’s name tells us an important detail about his relationship to the rest of the early church. Philip is a Greek name and this character makes his first appearance two chapters earlier in the book of Acts in the context of an ethnic dispute in the church in which the Hellenists (the Greek-speaking Jews) bring forward a complaint against the Hebrews (the Hebrew-speaking Jews), charging that the widows among the Hellenists were being neglected in the daily distribution of food (the diakonia). When the apostle Paul writes to the church in Galatia, “there is neither Jew nor Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus” (Gal. 3:28-29) he is likely speaking to this tension within the church over cultural differences that are disrupting the unity of their identity in Christ.

So, even before Philip enters the scene with the Ethiopian eunuch, we should understand that he was a leader in a community that already knew something about how ethnicity (Jew or Greek), economy (slave or free), and gender (male and female) impact our sense of belonging. Then he meets a person whose ethnicity (Ethiopian), wealth (court official and treasurer), and gender (a eunuch, in some sense neither male nor female, we might even say non-binary) pose implicit questions about whether and how the gospel of Jesus might apply. 

But friends, it gets even messier. Although this eunuch is called an “Ethiopian,” they are also named as a court official of the Candace, “queen of the Ethiopians.” This term “Candace” was applied to all of the female rulers or consorts of the kingdom of Kush, which occupied the land that today we would call Sudan, the nation to the south of Egypt, but not as far south as Ethiopia and Eritrea. The Greek word used to describe the eunuch in the book of Acts is “aithiops,” which gets translated into English as “Ethiopian.” We hear it as a political or national identity, but the word aithiops was used in the Greek-speaking, or Hellenistic, world to refer to black-skinned people in general. So, instead of referring to this character as the Ethiopian eunuch, we could perhaps just as accurately refer to them as the African eunuch, or the black eunuch.

It was on this point that Pastor Moss wanted to linger and warn us in that season of reformation not to let our own racial biases get in the way of our understanding of the text. Because there is a whole history of interpretation of this story, two thousand years long, that is concerned with the religious identity of the African eunuch, the black eunuch. And in that long history, the central question is: was this person a Jew or a Gentile? All the way back in the second century, Irenaeus (the Greek bishop of Lyon in modern day France) argued that the African eunuch was most likely a Jew. This view continued on into the present as a sort of minority report, and was also held by the Rev. Dr. Charles Francis Potter, an American and a Unitarian pastor and theologian in the early 20th century who famously supported the theory of evolution over and against the fundamentalist doctrine of creationism in a series of public debates and advised Clarence Darrow in the Scopes Monkey Trial of 1925 in which the state of Tennessee put a high school teacher on trial for teaching evolution in a public school.

But the majority opinion on the matter of the eunuch, beginning with Eusebius in the 3rd and 4th centuries, up to and including Martin Luther in the 16th century, was that the eunuch must have been a Gentile because that person was Ethiopian, which, as we now know, really means because they were African or black-skinned. But, Pastor Moss asked, don’t we remember that as far back as the story of King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba in 1 Kings 10, the nation of Israel had a connection with Africa (ironically, the nation of Sheba did include the lands that now include Somalia, Eritrea, and — you guessed it — Ethiopia). Ethiopian tradition holds that King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba had a child, Menelik, who founded a Jewish (then Christian) dynasty that lasted for nearly three thousand years. 

So, when the text says, the [African eunuch] “had come to Jerusalem to worship and was returning home,” why are some of us so quick to imagine and interpret this story as one about how the early church welcomed outsiders, even black-skinned Africans, as full members? Or, put slightly differently, given our painfully human tendency to categorize ourselves into “us” and “them” in just about every way imaginable, which character in this story do we think about as being most like “us” and which character do we imagine standing in for “them,” and why? Both Philip and the eunuch were quite possibly Jewish. Philip was part of a community, the early church, that was trying to live out a social ethic of redistributed wealth (Acts 4:32), but already struggling to do that with much success because of divisions over language and culture. The eunuch was quite likely financially well-off. They, after all, were a court official and riding along a wilderness road in a chariot, while Philip was walking. Research by the African-American historian and classicist, Frank M. Snowden Jr., demonstrates that most of the Africans encountered in Rome and throughout antiquity were not slaves or subordinates, as so many Western minds have immediately imagined, but were warriors and statesmen and mercenaries, co-existing in that ancient political and economic world without racial prejudice.

Still, the African eunuch may have had some understanding about what it was like to be both an insider and an outsider — not because they were African, but because they were a eunuch. The 23rd chapter of the book of Deuteronomy is dedicated to listing all those sorts of people who are excluded from worshipping God with the assembly and begins, “no one whose testicles are crushed or whose penis is cut off shall be admitted to the assembly of the LORD.” It goes on from there to say, “those born of an illicit union shall not be admitted to the assembly of the LORD. Even to the tenth generation, none of their descendants shall be admitted to the assembly of the LORD.” (Deut. 23:1-2). From there a whole string of peoples, or we might say, a whole catalogue of ethnicities, are denied a place in the assembly.

Later though, the prophet Isaiah offers a counter-narrative of hope for all the outcasts and excluded peoples, writing

Do not let the foreigner joined to the Lord say, “The Lord will surely separate me from God’s people”; and do not let the eunuch say, “I am just a dry tree.” For thus says the Lord: To the eunuchs who keep my sabbaths, who choose the things that please me and hold fast my covenant, 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.

And the foreigners who join themselves to the Lord, to minister to God, to love the name of the Lord, and to be God’s servants, all who keep the sabbath, and do not profane it, and hold fast my covenant — these I will bring to my holy mountain, and make them joyful in my house of prayer; their burnt offerings and their sacrifices will be accepted on my altar; for my house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples. Thus says the Lord God, who gathers the outcasts of Israel, I will gather others to them besides those already gathered.

(Isaiah 56:3-8)

This is the scroll, the prophetic voice, that the eunuch is reading when Philip appears in the story. And what if, rather than trying to make this a story about an insider like Philip making room for an outsider like the African eunuch, we imagine that the angel of the Lord who told Philip to hit the road and the Spirit that told Philip to go talk to this high-ranking court official knew that both of them needed to be reminded that the God who raised Jesus from the dead was building a house of prayer for all peoples, and all languages, and all cultures, and all genders, and all bodies. That the God who made the world and looked at it and called it good said the same thing when looking upon people getting overlooked in the redistribution of wealth, people who were poor and hungry, as well as people who wondered if bodies like theirs were welcome in the assembly, eunuchs and kids born outside of marriage or with the wrong family and kin, or who came from the wrong people, or the wrong cities, or the wrong nations. 

Philip asks the black eunuch, “do you understand what you are reading?” But all I can think this morning is, do we? How different is this story of ethnic tensions and gender anxieties and wealth disparities from our own stories? If the African eunuch, who was excluded from the assembly for failing to be “man enough” to belong among the good religious people, could meet us along our own road and hear the stories of Black trans people being murdered and receiving no justice, would they feel some sense of kinship and understanding? If Philip, a Greek speaking Jew in a Roman world, caught in the borderland between exclusion and belonging, could meet us along our own road and hear the stories of 13 year-old Adam Toledo or 22 year-old Anthony Alvarez, shot and killed by the police, would he feel some sense of kinship and understanding?

“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.”

(Isa. 53:7-8)

The modern commitment to racial profiling is so deep and so engrained. We can’t even read the scriptures without imposing our racial categories and biases on the stories of those who have gone before us in faith. 

Yet, looks what happens when the eunuch and Philip step across the lines that divide them and meet each other on the holy ground of God’s living word, revealed through the prophets and enfleshed in the person of Jesus, also humiliated, also rejected by the religious leaders, also murdered by authorities, also mourned in the streets by his mother and his friends, also laid in a grave — but then raised to new life, escaping the grave, appearing to his friends — on the road and in their homes and by the water. This is the story I imagine Philip told the eunuch and I think they wept together when he did. I think they wept for all the people they had known and loved and lost. And I think they wept for themselves, for all the misunderstandings and public humiliations they had endured. And I think they wept for joy, because they finally knew in that part of their souls that knows the truth when we hear it that they were made for something more, that they were loved with a fierceness that was stronger than any hatred they had faced, because in the words of Isaiah they heard the wisdom of God and the voice of Jesus and the sound of freedom. 

And then, faces glistening with tears of lament and tears of joy, they came upon some water and the eunuch said, “Look, here is water! What is to prevent me from being baptized?” And, read closely, Philip doesn’t have to say a word because they already knew the answer: nothing — “neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Rom. 8:38-39) 

After the eunuch is baptized Philip immediately moves on, traveling to Azotus (near Tel Aviv in modern Israel) and the African eunuch continues the journey home and, as far as we know, they never encounter one another again. But, oh, how powerful that one brief encounter was, for both of them!

Dear church, we have been injured so often and for so long by one tragic incident of profiling after another, of children and parents and joggers and motorists and on and on and on whose lives have been cut short by racial bias paired with state violence in the wider context of a nation flooded with guns. We have been trained to expect these brief encounters at the boundaries of difference to be inevitably marred by violence. 

This is a story of the opposite. This is a story of a time when people who’d been taught to believe they had nothing in common with one another encountered each other on the holy ground of God’s liberating promises and their fulfillment in the reign of Christ, into whom we — dear church — have been baptized. In those waters our deepest, truest selves have been revealed. Our differences, our cultures, our languages, our bodies — they matter. Our lives are sacred and holy, each of them. We are children of God, all of us. This, too, is our heritage and we can train ourselves to live more and more deeply into this story instead of the one the world keeps trying to teach us.

Very soon we will leave this sanctuary — physical or virtual — and we will get on with our day. We will head out onto wilderness roads of all types. As we go, I invite you to listen for the Spirit, for the sound of the genuine, for the part of your soul that knows the truth when you hear it — calling you to cross the street and enter the conversation with the person or the peoples you have been conditioned to avoid, or mistrust, or exclude, and to listen to the questions they are asking about the world and their place in it. It is there, in those questions and that discomfort that we will find our common future.

Amen.

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