Sermon preached by The Rev. Dr. Richard Burden
Below is a DRAFT text of the homily. It may vary considerably from the recorded version. Please excuse typos and grammatical errors, and do not cite without permission.
The resurrection continues its reclamation project today.
From the ground of fear and amazement in front of the empty tomb…with that driving question: will we flee or will we follow? Will we follow across all the lines that God transcends and includes with the resurrection, or are there lines we still refuse to cross.
Thomas and the rest of the apostles crossed a line when they reached out and touched the wounds…
Last week Peter crossed a line by healing someone on the sabbath…
Today we encounter other lines farther from Jerusalem…farther from the center…we’re heading to the margins…to the lines on the wilderness, Gaza road.
How many lines do Phillip and the Ethiopian eunuch cross—no, transcend—in their encounter today? Lines of race? Possibly—(although we have to be careful not to read modern racist tropes back into history). The fact that one is likely darker complected than the other is perhaps one line of demarcation…but probably not the most significant…more significant are the lines of social status and foreign status…and physical condition.
The Ethiopian is from the court of Candace which is a Latinized version of Kandake, a title held by Nubian queens from the kingdom of Kush in what is currently Sudan and Egypt. This particular Kandake was probably named Amanitaraqide—the MFA has an ornate golden bracelet from her reign that you can view online, and looking at it you can imagine the wealth that must pour off this Ethiopian—the person in charge of the Kandake’s treasury…The chariot, and the scroll of Isaiah they are reading attests to the high status of this person…to quote Barbara Brown Taylor, this is someone “wealthy enough to ride in a chariot, educated enough to read Greek, devout enough to study the prophet Isaiah…” These are not the people Jesus and his followers tended to preach to or reach out to… and another thing makes this foreign courtier different, they are “humble enough to know that” understanding scripture requires help, and hospitable enough to invite this pedestrian into the chariot. Says, Brown Taylor, “imagine Washington diplomat inviting a street preacher into his late model Lexus for a little bible study and you get the idea…The inclusion [and the transcending of boundaries] in this story runs both ways.” [Barbara Brown Taylor, Feasting on the Word, Year B, Vol 2., 457]
Phillip is transcending the lines of his own calling…Remember he is one of the first deacons, one of the seven Greek-speaking Jewish Christians who were appointed by the twelve apostles to serve at table, and tend the needs of (primarily) the widows of the Greek-speaking Christian community. But suddenly he’s out on a wilderness road chasing a foreigner in a chariot.
But of course the biggest marker of difference is the fact that the Ethiopian is a eunuch.
A eunuch who has been in Jerusalem worshipping at the temple. Which is really interesting. Is the Ethiopian Jewish? Maybe. The text doesn’t say, but if so they would not have been admitted into the temple, because Deut 23:2 prohibits any male with physical damage to the genitals from entering the temple…and also because eunuchs often worked for foreign queens and kings they would have been suspect for being loyal to a foreign power.
Of course, the eunuch might have been a God-fearer…Gentiles who believed in God, and followed (as best they could) Jewish practices, but as a Gentile they would have only been admitted to the court of the Gentiles, and not into the Temple proper.
Either way, in coming to Jerusalem to worship at the temple the Ethiopian eunuch encountered numerous barriers. How many barriers? How many lines? As one commentator puts it: the eunuch belonged “to the wrong nation, held the wrong job, and possessed the wrong [physicality],” [Thomas Long, Feasting on the Word, Year B, Vol. 2 p. 458] to be fully accepted at the temple. This is someone who is an insider in the Kandake’s court, but very much an outsider in Jerusalem.
And then there is the text they are reading. Being devout enough to travel all the way to Jerusalem, means it’s unlikely that the eunuch didn’t know the passages in Deuteronomy that draw clear lines around people with certain genitalia. In fact, we could understand it if the eunuch even got the idea that people who looked this way, served in this way, had these physical markers were not at all welcome in God’s courts…
But the text they read is not Deuteronomy, it is Isaiah. You know…the prophet Jesus loves to quote…the one we love to read at Christmas… “a shoot shall grow out of the stump of Jesse…he shall not judge by what his eyes behold, nor decide by what he ears perceive…” and do you know what it says right after that? It says, “In that day, my Lord will apply His hand again to redeeming the other part of His people from Assyria—[…] from Egypt, and, Nubia…” (that’s Kush). (Isaiah 11:1, 3, 11 NJB)—redemption for the people of Kandake’s court. And then later on it says and “as for the eunuchs who keep my sabbaths, who have chosen what I desire and hold fast to my covenant—I will give them, in My House and within My walls, a monument and a name better than sons or daughters. I will give them an everlasting name which shall not perish.” (Isaiah 56:4-5, Jewish Study Bible). Redemption and inclusion for Nubia and for eunuchs…So which is it? Deuteronomy or Isaiah?
And this particular Isaiah passage: about one who is shorn and remains silent before the shearer…can we imagine that this passage in particular might have spoken in a very resonant way to eunuch who might know a great deal about humiliation and justice denied…and wonder what that might look like in their contemporary context?
And so, we have all these potential boundaries…all these lines that are drawn in the Gaza sand…and yet, when the time comes and the question is posed “what is to prevent me from being baptized?” The faithful answer that Phillip gives is “absolutely nothing.” There is nothing that prevents this…There are no roadblocks…there are no lines…there are no boundaries to God’s grace.
There are lines that God draws and there are lines that we draw. And we should be careful not to confuse the two. Barbara Brown Taylor says, “If God is the Law-maker, then God is also the Law-bender, or at least the Law-transcender, who both places limits on the faithful and inspires them to challenge those limits when right relationships with God and neighbor are at stake…” [Ibid.]
The resurrection reclamation project continues…even to today, as we are tasked with listening to and learning from others…and being inspired to transcend all the lines that we have wrongfully imposed.
As we continue to ask, will we flee or will we follow, I pray that we may continue to be graced with the humility and the hospitality of both Phillip and the Ethiopian eunuch and to see in them what we need to see in one another…that we are one in the Spirit and that nothing separates us from each other or from God’s love.