Coming and Going in the Wilderness (Queer Theology Synchroblog)

Sam says: this is a guest post, part of the ‘Queer Theology Synchroblog’ – this year’s theme is “Coming/Going”. To find out more, go here.

The Rev. Elizabeth M. Edman writes: there are a lot of biblical stories about people entering the wilderness alone, or in big groups, where they have to figure out who they are. This is one of the most pivotal stories in Christianity, and it involves two people who go into the wilderness separately, meet up there unexpectedly, and come out with a different and stronger sense of themselves than they had before they entered.

This is a sermon that I preached a couple of years ago, when I was struggling in my own deep and painful wilderness. Unbeknownst to me, I was at the time having an encounter with the people to whom I was preaching that was very like the experience in this story. I don’t know whether I was Philip, or the Eunuch. All I know is that I entered this place scared, and left it more fully aware of myself than I ever had been. That is what my faith tradition can do for people, at its best. And I also know that my queerness provided the lens for me both to understand what is going on in both of these encounters – Philip’s and the Eunuch’s, and mine and this church.

Acts 8.26-40

This story from Acts, about an encounter in a chariot on a wilderness road, is one of my favorites. It tells the story of the first Gentile – that is, the first non-Jew – who consciously chooses to follow the risen Christ. This is a pivotal moment in the life of the church, because it is the moment when the apostles realize that the new life offered by Jesus is offered not just to Jews, but to the whole world. This marks the beginning of something new and hugely important, not just in Christianity, but in human experience: the moment when religious identity becomes self-determining, not tied to bloodlines, to ethnicity, to national allegiance. It is the moment when Christianity becomes consciously, deliberately transgressive: violating conventional boundaries of human society in the search for meaning, for connection, for God.

It’s an extraordinary story, and it focuses with laser-like intensity on an interaction that takes place between two men: Philip, one of Jesus’ apostles; and an African man, a top advisor to the Queen of Ethiopia. We never learn this man’s name. In the bible this always a sign that we should pay very close attention to what we do know about him. What we know is a lot: He is one of the Queen’s most trusted advisors: he is in charge of her entire treasury. He is living in the lap of luxury. He’s sitting in a chariot that’s like a limo, with room for two or more. We know that he can read. We know that he is heading home from Jerusalem, where he has been worshipping. He is religiously observant. He is also spiritually inquisitive. Probably while he was in Jerusalem he picked up a scroll with the writings of Isaiah, and he is reading it aloud, trying to make sense of it. He is open-minded; he is looking for something new.

The text tells us something else about him: he is a eunuch. His sexual status is how he is identified throughout the narrative. “The eunuch did this; then the eunuch said that…” I told a good friend that I was preaching on this story, and her comment was: “kind of sucks to go down in history as ‘the eunuch.’ ‘People, I’m Fred. FRED. Is that so hard to write down?! Do you have to keep referring to me as the guy that got castrated?’”

We don’t know a lot about what being a eunuch in the court of Ethiopia might have signified. It may have meant that he was castrated at an early age to be cultivated as a particular kind of servant to the Queen. The fact that the text uses the term “eunuch” in lieu of his name suggests that ancient audiences would have known exactly what it meant. But take note: the author of Acts thinks that for the purposes this story his status as eunuch is more important than anything else about him, including his access to wealth, his political power, his nationality, his ethnic heritage, or his religious affiliation.

In this pivotal, transgressive moment, when Christianity is shattering barriers of tribe and language and people and nation, the focus is on a man who embodies both strength and vulnerability. He would have been recognized by the people of his day as someone who had been intentionally, sexually, set apart from the mainstream and lifted up into a position of privilege. He is someone, in other words, whose very life is the essence of liminality. He exists on the borders of human experience. That makes him kind of like a priest, actually. And in this story, the Holy Spirit plunges toward that border to accomplish something that has never been done before.

The story begins with an angel of the Lord telling Philip to “’Get up and go towards the road that leads from Jerusalem to Gaza.’” The text tells us that this is a wilderness road. The wilderness is a place of chaos, and vulnerability, and discernment. It is the place where God sends the wandering children of Israel after the Exodus, and where God sends Jesus right after his baptism, both for the same reason: the wilderness is where people come to understand who they are, and what they are supposed to be. God sends Philip there for the same reason: to learn what this brand new spiritual movement is, to learn about its identity and the mission that God intends for it.

Philip gladly, voluntarily enters this place of radical unknowing, trusting that the Holy Spirit will stay with him and guide him. As we arrive with Philip on this wilderness road, our gaze is immediately directed to this man, this eunuch, in all his pomp and power, sitting and reading in his chariot. The Spirit tells Philip to join him. Philip runs up to the chariot. At this point, the story emphasizes the disparity in their circumstances. The eunuch is riding in comfort and splendor, probably dressed in regal finery. Philip is on foot, running, perhaps vaguely aware of the worn out strap on his sandal that he can’t afford to replace, hoping it won’t pick this moment to snap. The eunuch is reading Isaiah, and Philip asks him if he understands what he is reading. The eunuch is frustrated. He doesn’t understand, and he doesn’t know who to ask.

This is a rich moment of opportunity. The Book of Acts was written by the same person who wrote the Gospel of Luke, and we know that Luke was writing to a Gentile audience that wasn’t familiar with Hebrew scripture. The people Luke is trying to reach are just like the eunuch, eager to understand the Jewish traditions that have given birth to this new Christian movement. Luke encourages his Gentile listeners to identify with the eunuch, and to do just what the eunuch does: invite Philip in to explain what all this means.

And the eunuch does invite him in. It is a mutual invitation. The eunuch, a man of privilege and power, invites this peasant to sit beside him in his royal chariot. And Philip, a Jew, a member of God’s chosen people, set on fire by the Holy Spirit, invites this religious alien, this Ethiopian, this sexual deviant to become part of the world-altering mission he is on.

Together, they read from Isaiah. Words that Philip has heard his entire life suddenly are filled with new meaning for him. Using Isaiah as a starting point, he explains all that he has lived, learned, experienced in his encounter with Jesus. He really must be on fire with the Holy Spirit, because his words slam into the eunuch and take root. Right there, in the middle of the wilderness, the eunuch knows that what Philip has just told him is going to change his life forever. Miraculously, there in the desert, the road leads them to water. Maybe the eunuch has been particularly mesmerized by the stories of baptism. He says, “’Look, here is water! What is to prevent me from being baptized?’” “Prevent,” koluo in Greek, is a word that appears in the Bible when walls are coming down. Once upon a time Jesus said, “Don’t stop – don’t koluo – the little children from coming to me.” The chariot stops. Philip and the eunuch get out, and together they are immersed in the water of a new life, of a new reality. They are in this together, and the mutual respect they show each other is stunning. Philip accepts this man, whose status as a member of a sexual minority is plain for all the world to see. Philip doesn’t shame him. He doesn’t tell the eunuch to “go and sin no more.” He doesn’t tell him to go find some ex-eunuch ministry before he can be baptized. And in turn, the eunuch doesn’t ask Philip to tone down his proclamation of the radical gospel he is preaching. They know that they are part of something that is so much bigger than either of them, and yet so utterly dependent on both of them.

And they know something more: they know that this new life they are entering will be an identity marker for them. Whatever this movement is – this “Christian” thing, this call to tear down barriers between us and build up a better world – this is now a part of who they are. It is right up there with being a eunuch, or a Jew, or an Ethiopian, or a Palestinian. It is something they are both caught up in. It is in a way, something beyond their control. And yet it is something that they will choose for themselves – not just a system of belief, not just a lovely faith community to be part of, and much more than a vocation: this is now part of their identities. It is part of who they are.

This is the moment when the notion of Christian identity is formed. The eunuch and Philip have been invited to perceive this together, to understand it for themselves. You and I are invited to get up in that chariot with them. In that liminal space, we are invited to engage the transgressive power of authentic Christian faith. We are invited to understand it, to choose it, and to claim it as an identity marker — something that we know as deeply as we know any other part of ourselves. Amen.

Originally preached at All Saints Episcopal Church, Hoboken, NJ, May 6, 2012

4 thoughts on “Coming and Going in the Wilderness (Queer Theology Synchroblog)

  1. Small clarification: from the 3rd para (2nd in italics) that starts “This is a sermon that I preached a couple of years ago …” all the words are hers or yours ?

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