Sermon May 2 2021 Talking to Strangers (Philip and the Eunuch)   Rev. Betsy Hogan

You may not have noticed this – and we get that –

But if you've been listening very carefully in the last couple of weeks, you might have heard a little bit of wry and ironic chuckling, just quietly, from the corners in which we're lurking.

Those of us born roughly between 1965 and 1980, otherwise known as Generation X. Because this is our big moment. And we've been preparing for it all our lives. 

Yes. We'll take the Astra-Zeneca that the Boomers don't want. And bring it on. 

It's neither more nor less than we'd ever have imagined we'd get, but Generation X? We've been finely-honing our minimal expectations since we were kids.

I'm speaking ironically, of course, but only just. And there's no question it made us resilient, and we ARE enjoying our wry and ironic chuckling amongst ourselves, but there's a certain satisfaction too in knowing that the lessons necessary to meeting a particular moment? 

We absolutely definitely learned them. 

Which doesn’t always happen. And so when it does, it’s gratifying, it’s worth noticing, it’s good.

When we meet Philip the Apostle in the passage from Acts that we heard earlier, he’s been preaching in Samaria. It’s only a short while after Jesus’ death and resurrection, Philip’s been sent out by the disciples to preach the good news, and by all accounts he's been AWESOME at it. All through Samaria, people have been flocking to hear him speak, they've been moved by his words, and they've begun following in the Way of Jesus. 

Philip's been excellent -- he's obviously filled with the Spirit -- and so when the Spirit tells him to go to the Gaza road, the road between Gaza and Jerusalem, he goes. With no idea why or what's going to happen.

And then along comes this Ethiopian eunuch. In a fine carriage – he is, it transpires, a treasurer to the Queen of the Ethiopians. And since the men in service to a queen in those days would automatically be castrated, he's also been castrated. 

So he's a eunuch. And if we actually don’t know if he chose to be – which many did – or if it was visited upon him – which also happened, what we DO know is that in Israel at that time, as a eunuch, he would be shunned. He'd be avoided or even abused, and he certainly would not be allowed into the temple to pray.

Not by cultural tradition, but also not by scriptural dictate. Because there is a clear and unequivocal exclusionary rule about eunuchs in the book of Deuteronomy, and that certainly would have governed his treatment at the time.

Which presumably he finds immensely hurtful. Because in fact, he clearly feels drawn to the faith of Israel. In fact, that’s what’s brought him on this particular journey to Jerusalem all the way from Ethiopia in the first place. And in fact, he feels SO drawn to the faith of Israel that he’s even managed to get his hands on a scroll of the book of the Hebrew prophet Isaiah. And he’s been reading it. 

And probably wherever he's been on this very journey during which he meets Philip on the road, he's been spat upon and turned away from in disgust by those who consider him less than human and excludable based on the “rules” of that very same faith --

But nevertheless, there he is. He has his scroll of the prophet Isaiah in his fine carriage, he’s driving down the road from Jerusalem to Gaza, and what he's reading is drawing him in. He can't put it down, it's speaking to something in him, it's making him think, it's opening him up to something that’s making sense to him. About what’s out there, and how our living can be shaped well in response.

And then along comes Philip, urged along by the Spirit to go and speak to him. And so Philip does. He stops the carriage and hops up beside the Ethiopan Eunuch and sees that he’s got a scroll of Isaiah and sees that he’s reading it, and what does Philip say? 

"Do you understand what you're reading?" It’s actually kind of a funny line. And not a little condescending! I mean, we can give poor Philip a bit of a pass on this one, because he’s pretty much literally been dropped into this situation with no preparation, so it’s maybe not surprising that he sort of blurts out the first thing he thinks of.... 

But still. He could have been a little less condescending. Like, imagine yourself sitting out on a park bench reading something, and someone you’ve never met comes up and says to you, “Do you understand what you’re reading?”

I’m not sure I’d be nearly as gracious under those circumstances as the Ethiopian eunuch is! But he is! Because instead of rolling his eyes over at Philip and pointedly saying, “Uh ya I do, actually, but thanks for asking”….

He actually opts for an answer that isn’t just polite, but actually goes deeper. Past the technicalities of literal reading comprehension and into a place, in fact, that’s almost heartbreakingly honest.

Because yes, he technically understands what he’s reading – but the truth is, he doesn’t understand more deeply what he’s reading, not in the faithfulness-expanding sense. But that’s because because no one will guide him.

So “How can I understand,” he says to Philip, “When NO ONE will guide me?” When no one will allow me into the temple. When no one will stop spitting on me in digust long enough to see beyond the outside of my person, that they reject and despise, to who I am inside. How can I understand? How am I supposed to understand?

It’s an extraordinary breaking open in honesty. And like many breakings open in honesty, it’s extraordinarily risky. Because there’s no indication that Philip’s going to be any different from anyone else this Ethiopian eunuch’s encountered on the way – and maybe he’s going to be quite a bit worse.

Maybe, in fact, Philip will reject him even more soundly. And this path of faithfulness that’s the Ethiopian’s been feeling drawn toward, even to the extent of going to Jerusalem, even to the extent of purchasing a scroll of Isaiah, even to the extent of learning to read it – maybe this path of faithfulness he’s been feeling drawn toward is about to be closed to him even more completely.

But he breaks open in honesty. He takes the risk. He takes the risk of calling out his own exclusion, grieving it out loud, and laying it bare. As a challenge to Philip. Who, if he didn’t want an honest answer to his question about ‘do you understand what you’re reading’… maybe he shouldn’t have asked it.

But here’s where Philip actually rises to the occasion. And maybe even surprises himself.

Because Philip’s been brought up in, steeped in, since childhood, precisely that culture that’s so carefully and specifically excluded people like this Ethiopian. And even if the time spent with Jesus has changed Philip, which certainly it would have –  and even if the time spent with Jesus has filed down some of his more kneejerk prejudiced cultural instincts –

This is the moment of testing. The Holy Spirit has weirdly – and pretty much inexplicably – dropped Philip into this encounter with a foreigner and a eunuch. Who against all the odds, and despite all the prejudice he’s encountered still feels drawn to the idea of Godness and goodness that he reads in the Hebrew scriptures.

And who’s taken the opportunity to appeal to Philip – from a deep place of honesty and hurt and frustration that’s also pretty risky – for a welcome. For guidance. For a space in the community of faith as himself. As someone who doesn’t fit in any of the ‘usual’ boxes, and whose experience has pretty much been uniformly ‘rejection’. 

And how will Philip respond? Has he really been changed by what Jesus has taught him – that all are God’s people, even lepers or prostitutes or tax collectors or eunuchs? Has he actually learned the ‘best practices’ Jesus has trained him in, to see not the outside but the inside, and to recognize that a neighbour’s a neighbour?

He really has. It’s quite amazingly beautiful. And honestly, he might even have surprised himself. Because after they’ve driven along a bit, he and the Ethiopian eunuch, and he’s told the fellow about how Jesus was all of the God he already knows about, smushed into a person who lived in a certain way and followed a certain path that’s peace-building, and forgiving, and life-affirming, and open to anyone –

When the Ethiopian spots a bit of water and says “Is there anything preventing me from being baptized?”, Philip says “No!” And it’s like a revelation. Because there isn’t! The boxes and the walls and the exclusions are gone! “Now there is no male nor female,” as the Apostle Paul famously put it, “because we are all one in Christ Jesus.”

So no. There’s nothing preventing the Ethiopian eunuch from being baptized. And just like that, what we see on that road to Jerusalem is what it looks like when what Jesus taught, what Jesus teaches, actually gets learned.

For Philip, it’s not about feeling proud of himself. It's more like being strengthened by relief. That hey, I actually did learn that and it did what it was meant to!

There was this real and full-hearted welcome into the faith community that might once have been unheard of, but it happened because what Philip learned from Jesus did exactly what it was meant to. 

What a relief. And how strengthening. And how do we know that was how Philip felt?

Because this story got remembered. NOT just as a story about Philip baptizing someone, NOT EVEN as a story about an Ethiopian, a foreigner, welcomed and embraced – but as a story about an Ethiopian eunuch welcomed.

Just fully. No caveats. Just “is there anything preventing me from claiming my identity as a child of God?” And No. There simply isn’t. Not for the leper, the different, the disabled, not for the tax collector, not for the foreigner... and not for the trans or non-binary gendered. Period and full stop and that's part of what the love Jesus talked about was literally meant to do.

It was literally meant to inspire in those who were trying to follow his Way a straight-forward unencumbered welcome and making of space for those who identify themselves as outside of or between or a mixture of or transcending the physiological binary of gender expressions that we’ve made ourselves “used to” as “normative” – and it did.

It's good. When what we've learned has made us ready for what the moment demands. And yes, as Generation X we're enjoying the wry amusement of this being our big moment and bring on the Astra-Zeneca. But right now as Nova Scotians generally, it's also that what we've ALL learned in the past year has made us ready for what this moment demands. 

We know how to do this lockdown for each other. And we will absolutely do it, God being our helper. Amen.