Monday, May 07, 2012

A Eunuch's Baptism

A Eunuch's Baptism
The Rev Pam Shier
Friend and Colleague in the Diocese of West Virginia

All across the Anglican communion, not to mention all the churches using the RCL, preachers this Sunday are trying to figure out what to do with a story about a eunuch. A WHAT? A eunuch. Try explaining that one to the Sunday schoolers in your congregation. 

But it’s a great story! You see, there is this eunuch from Ethiopia who walks into a temple in Jerusalem. No, this is NOT a joke. The problem is, he had to walk right back out. If you were missing those “parts” you could not be a part of the temple worship, you couldn’t convert to Judaism which requires you get your other “parts” snipped off. Sort of the same parts but different. (What do you call an uncircumcised Jew? A woman! Thank God we don’t have to deal with this stuff.) Right from the start, Christianity is talking about all this icky sex stuff! Too graphic for me!

The Ethiopian is on his way home by way of the Gaza and then into Egypt and down to Ethiopia where he works for the Queen’s government. He’s a high ranking, high finance guy. Rich, literate, even in Hebrew. We can only imagine how disappointed he was to be excluded because he was transgendered. And that’s what he was. Not by his own volition, probably, but he had been surgically reassigned. According to Judaism he was no longer a man. And he could not be a part of the Jewish community. Could not take part in Temple worship or even fellowship with other observant Jews. Not only gut-wrenchingly disappointing but humiliating. 

So on his way home he’s reading Isaiah aloud as scripture was and is meant to be read. The part where the Messiah is humiliated and separated from the community. Robbed of a voice in society. And Philip hears the eunuch - I wish we knew his name, it’s so awkward calling him “the eunuch” - and enters into dialogue with him. The eunuch is a humble man - maybe from all those years of being sexually ambiguous in a culture that prizes masculinity - and he asks Philip for guidance with the scriptures. He and Philip search the scriptures and study together and they come to a brilliant conclusion - why can’t the Ethiopian eunuch be baptized? 

This really is one of those pivotal moments in the Early Church. Philip probably should have said, “Wait a minute, I’m gonna have to go back to Jerusalem and talk with the guys about this. Maybe call a church convention and hash this idea out. Should we baptize eunuchs? Do we admit transgendered people into the Body of Christ?” But he didn’t. Together they found a pool of water and Philip baptized the eunuch. 

He brought him into the full stature of Christ. Even if he wasn’t perfect. Even if he was missing some parts. Even if Judaism, of which Christianity at that time was still very much a part, wouldn’t accept him as part of the community. Philip went ahead and baptized him into full inclusion. Maybe because Philip is an ethnically Greek Jew and knew discrimination. Gives ME goosebumps.

There were other battles to come. Peter and Paul fought over circumcision of the new converts and the Jewish dietary laws. But the Early Church repeatedly decided on radical inclusion into the Body of Christ. There were to be no outsiders, even if they were Gentiles - read immoral and automatically sinful - or even if they were sexually “abnormal” like the eunuch. It’s not like these people could promise never to “sin” again - they could now eat whatever they liked and nobody was going to sexually reassign the eunuch - they were included as they were and as they always would be. Can we get a sense of how absolutely revolutionary this is? 

This week the United Methodist Church met in convention with delegates from all over the world. Forty percent of the delegates were from countries other than the US. They made two disappointing - to me - decisions. They decided not to divest in certain companies that actively engage in war against Palestinians. And they decided that homosexuality is incompatible with Christianity. But that’s wasn’t the disappointing part. The disappointing part is that they made the pronouncement that any other Christian who disagrees with them is wrong. No dialogue, no common ground. They are right and everybody who doesn’t agree with them is wrong. And that disappoints me. And it breaks the hearts of most of my United Methodist friends. Not to mention their gay clergy, quietly serving and hoping for inclusion and acceptance, who heard themselves described as “animals” by one delegate from an African nation. We are not at our best when we are not radically inclusive, like the early church. We are not at our best when we are right and the whole world, even the whole Christian world, can be dismissed with a wave of the hand if they don’t agree with us. 

We are at our best when we minister to those whom society has rejected. And sometimes this comes at a terrible price. This past Thursday evening, Mother Marguerite-Mary Kohn, an Episcopal priest, and her administrative assistant, Brenda Brewington, were killed in the church offices of St. Peter’s, Ellicott, MD, by a man who later committed suicide. The police say that his man was homeless, mentally unstable and had been frequenting the church’s food pantry. The social media - Episcopal websites! - has had any number of people saying that that’s what you get when you deal with the homeless, the mentally ill, and have something so dangerous as a food pantry in your church. Many others have suggested that these women should have been armed. The Bishop, dear Eugene Sutton, wonders how a homeless man could have obtained a hand gun. Evidently it was all too easy and all too tragic. But something the co-rector said about Marguerite-Mary stayed with me. He had been the rector until about three years ago and she the associate when it became financially clear that the church couldn’t afford two priests. So he - and she - went half-time each. They shared one salary and found part-time jobs elsewhere. They became co-rectors. He valued her ministry so much he sacrificed his position as rector so that she could be included. That says a lot about both of them. Tonight we pray for Marguerite-Mary and her companion in ministry and in death, Brenda.

The Gospel of John talks about us abiding in Christ. "Abide with Me" is a hymn by Scottish Anglican Henry Francis Lyte,  who wrote the poem in 1847 and set it to music while he lay dying from tuberculosis; he survived only a further three weeks after its completion. The hymn is a favorite in the Church of England. Here are the words as we listen to Libera sing Abide with Me.    

Abide with me; fast falls the eventide; 
The darkness deepens; Lord with me abide.
When other helpers fail and comforts flee,Help of the helpless, O abide with me.
Swift to its close ebbs out life's little day;
Earth's joys grow dim; its glories pass away;
Change and decay in all around I see;
O Thou who changest not, abide with me.
Not a brief glance I beg, a passing word,
But as Thou dwell'st with Thy disciples, Lord,
Familiar, condescending, patient, free.
Come not to sojourn, but abide with me.
Come not in terrors, as the King of kings,
But kind and good, with healing in Thy wings;
Tears for all woes, a heart for every plea.
Come, Friend of sinners, thus abide with me.
Thou on my head in early youth didst smile,
And though rebellious and perverse meanwhile,
Thou hast not left me, oft as I left Thee.
On to the close, O Lord, abide with me.
I need Thy presence every passing hour.
What but Thy grace can foil the tempter's power?
Who, like Thyself, my guide and stay can be?
Through cloud and sunshine, Lord, abide with me.
I fear no foe, with Thee at hand to bless;
Ills have no weight, and tears no bitterness.
Where is death's sting? Where, grave, thy victory?
I triumph still, if Thou abide with me.
Hold Thou Thy cross before my closing eyes;
Shine through the gloom and point me to the skies.
Heaven's morning breaks, and earth's vain shadows flee;
In life, in death, O Lord, abide with me.

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