The Pastor’s Page this week is adapted from my May 3, 2015 sermon based on the following story from the book of Acts.
An angel of the Lord said to Philip, “Get up and go toward the south to the road that goes down from Jerusalem to Gaza.” (This is a wilderness road.) So he got up and went. Now there was an Ethiopian eunuch, a court official of the Candace, queen of the Ethiopians, in charge of her entire treasury. He had come to Jerusalem to worship and was returning home; seated in his chariot, he was reading the prophet Isaiah. Then the Spirit said to Philip, “Go over to this chariot and join it.” So Philip ran up to it and heard him reading the prophet Isaiah. He asked, “Do you understand what you are reading?” He replied, “How can I, unless someone guides me?” And he invited Philip to get in and sit beside him. Now the passage of the scripture that he was reading was this:
“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 his generation?
For his life is taken away from the earth.”
The eunuch asked Philip, “About whom, may I ask you, does the prophet say this, about himself or about someone else?” Then Philip began to speak, and starting with this scripture, he proclaimed to him the good news about Jesus. As they were going along the road, they came to some water; and the eunuch said, “Look, here is water! What is to prevent me from being baptized?” He commanded the chariot to stop, and both of them, Philip and the eunuch, went down into the water, and Philip baptized him. When they came up out of the water, the Spirit of the Lord snatched Philip away; the eunuch saw him no more, and went on his way rejoicing. But Philip found himself at Azotus, and as he was passing through the region, he proclaimed the good news to all the towns until he came to Caesarea.
Some years ago I read a memoir by Ian Brown called The Boy in the Moon, about his son Walker who was born with cardiofacio-cutaneous syndrome, or CFC, an extremely rare genetic disorder characterized by an inability to sleep at night, inability to speak, needing to be fed through a tube, heart and skin problems, incontinence, and behaviors like hitting, scratching and biting himself.
The memoir was a vivid and excruciatingly honest account of what it was like for one family to care for a person with such severe physical and mental handicaps. Caring for Walker at home meant living for years with chronic fatigue, emotional exhaustion, family upheaval, marital stress and financial strain. Finally, when he was 11 years old, Walker’s agonized parents, unable to care for him by themselves anymore, placed him in a group home (where, in the end, Walker flourished). “Life with him and life without him: both were unthinkable,” wrote his anguished father.
Yet for all the suffering and the darkness of Walker’s and his family’s life, the book is really a story of the mystery of unconditional love. Ian Brown talks about his son’s life as a work of art in progress, a work that is teaching himself something about the true nature of love.
“The part you never hear about is the intense joy and happiness and insight and satisfaction you can have raising a boy like Walker. The more I struggle to face my limitations as a father, the less I want to trade him. Not just because we have a physical bond, a big simple thing; not just because he's taught me the difference between a real problem and a mere complaint; not just because he makes me more serious, makes me appreciate time and Hayley and my wife and friends, and all the sweetness that one day ebbs away. I have begun simply to love him as he is, because I've discovered I can; because we can be who we are, weary dad and broken boy, without alteration or apology, in the here and now. There is no planning with this boy. I go where he goes.”
Brown tells about meeting Jean Vanier, the famous founder of the L’Arche communities, where those of “normal” physical and mental abilities live in community with people who have severe handicaps. Vanier says that “whenever we meet a severely handicapped person, they want to ask us just two questions: One, do you consider me human? And two, do you love me?” Vanier and his now-international community have found that in answering Yes to these two profound questions, they themselves have been transformed into a deeper humanity.
Do you consider me human? Do you love me?
I think these questions are actually posed by all of us in all our interactions with others. They represent the deepest longing of every human being – to be loved, accepted, and embraced. These were certainly the questions of the Ethiopian eunuch in the story from Acts, as he travelled the Gaza road in his chariot.
Think of this man who has travelled all the way up from Ethiopia to worship in the temple in Jerusalem. In some ways he was the opposite of Walker Brown or any of the residents of L’Arche communities: not disabled and vulnerable, but a wealthy and powerful servant of royalty. But in other ways he had some things in common: having a body considered abnormal and maybe even a bit repulsive to others in the dominant culture (as a black-skinned eunuch).
I sometimes wonder what drew him to come such a distance, since he obviously knew his Bible and must have known what the Law said about sexually queer people like him: NOT TO BE ADMITTED TO THE ASSEMBLY OF THE LORD. Deuteronomy 23:1 could not be clearer.
But maybe he also knew the fifty-sixth chapter of Isaiah:
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 to 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.
Maybe our eunuch was hoping God’s people in Jerusalem would lean more heavily on the latter text than the former.
That’s not what he found. In Jerusalem, no matter how high or official he might have been in the queen’s court of Ethiopia, he was not admitted to the temple, God’s house. Gentiles could only come so far. Women could only come so far. Gentile eunuchs, whose sexual identity was indeterminate, certainly were not qualified to come in at all.
What heartbreak must have been his! To have a soul “longing for the courts of the LORD,” only to be told – by God’s own people! – “not human, not loved” – if not in words, then certainly in action of exclusion, which as we all know, speaks far more powerfully.
So now he’s on his way home, despondent, and trying to make sense of these contradictory scriptures, when he meets Philip, sent by the Spirit to wait at the side of the road. And, to make a long story short, he says to Philip, “Do you get any of this stuff?”
“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.”
The eunuch wants to know: About whom does the prophet say this, about himself, or someone else? Because humiliation and denial of justice sure sounds like his own life, his experience. He wants to know what we all do: is this Bible just dusty ancient history or does it have something relevant to say to my life?
So Philip tells him: good news! This book is all about all our lives in the here and now. And what’s even more important, it’s all about Jesus, who turns no one away who comes to him. Thus says the Lord Jesus: you, eunuch, are part of the human family, and you are loved.
The eunuch responds with joy. “I want to be part of this!” he says. “What is to prevent me from having full membership in the company of God’s people?” The answer is: Nothing at all, and so at the first tepid pool of stagnant water they come across he has the chariot slam on the brakes, and he and Philip pile out and dive in like it’s the last day of school and the beginning of a long and glorious summer. Which, in a way, it is for that eunuch.
As a church and as individual believers we are called to love the unlovely. Like Ian Brown who discovered the depths and mysteries of love through life with his severely disabled son; like Jean Vanier who discerned the deep longings of the human heart through his work with handicapped adults; like Philip who found out that God’s love is also and especially for the ones deemed deviant, sinful, or just plain queer by the world – so we are called to love our neighbour to discover in turn the heights and depths and riches of God’s love also for us.
For another reflection on the story of Philip and the Ethiopian eunuch, see Debie Thomas, “When All are Welcome” - https://www.journeywithjesus.net/lectionary-essays/current-essay?id=2995