Let us pray. All of our fears like Jericho walls gotta come down, come down, Oh Lord: rebuild us from the ground up. All of our fears like Jericho walls gotta come down. Our prisons turn to ruin when your love moves in. All our fears like Jericho walls gotta come down, come down, come down. (based on the song Jericho Walls by Andrew Ripp)
That the scripture appointed for our Annual Meeting 2021 is set on a wilderness road sounds about right—this year it’s familiar territory for most of us. But Philip and the man he encounters in the book of Acts are on their way home… they get through. And so will we.
He is not given a name, but he was the secretary of the treasury for Candace, Queen of Ethiopia, and he had been to Jerusalem on a religious pilgrimage. If he is like other eunuchs of the near and far east, he was castrated against his will, just prior to puberty, in order to serve the queen in her innermost circle. His home is called Africa in some translations, which suggests that he was brought to the queen’s court in Ethiopia from an even more foreign place, and the ritual sexual mutilation he undergoes is to insure his loyalty to her. Literally and figuratively, he is cut off from his country, his family, the children he will never father, and even from God. Because religions at the time were quite focused on fertility, and squeamish about any body that wasn’t perfectly formed, a eunuch was considered damaged goods and often shunned.
Because he has been to Jerusalem and is reading Isaiah, the eunuch is probably what was called a “God-fearer,” invited to stand in the narthex, but behind a screen, welcome to listen to the services, but excluded from the ritual life of the Temple, and so, the social life of its people. He is a curious outsider that “proper folks” are trained not to see or hear or engage with in any way, as they push past him to get to where they are going. He is the other that societies tolerate when their members are feeling safe, perhaps, or the stranger that we turn on when the world feels chaotic and when we are looking for someone to blame.
So he is a test, if you will, of anyone who says that he follows Jesus (the one who is the embodiment of love that heals every human separation). What I mean is, if we say that we believe in the one who has broken down walls that exclude… if we say that we are followers of the one who has confronted systems which privilege a few and diminish so many others, then this story asks “How will you be a part of that movement?” Now that we have a taste of being healed ourselves, the text wonders, how will we be healers ourselves? Let’s look at Philip:
The eunuch is riding is a chariot, going over the scripture out loud, when Philip happened to overhear him and asked if he understood what the words were all about. The eunuch said he could use some help on one passage in particular:
“Like a sheep he was led to the slaughter, and like a lamb silent before his 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.” Who is the prophet writing about, the eunuch asks? Is he describing his own situation or someone else’s calamity?
The eunuch doesn’t have to say who he is. There is no mistaking the trappings of a royal servant—able to read, sumptuously dressed, but still bound inside his golden cage. His high voice, softened features, and access to the queen communicate without words that he is a person on a threshold, neither fully in nor totally cast out, kept in his place if you will, relegated to the suspicious margins of that culture. No wonder he is drawn to the prophet’s words about a lamb without a voice who is cut off from his generations, humiliated by sacrifice, and denied justice. No wonder he wants to know who the prophet is writing about. I imagine he also wonders if the prophet could care for a person like him who has been warped by the system? Is there room in the family for his kind of wound?
Philip gets it, and the miracle is that he sees the eunuch, and stops to hear him, gets in the eunuch’s chariot and sits beside him the way peers do or friends do, and shares the story of his life and his conversion. “Isaiah is writing about a Suffering Servant,” Philip might have told the man, “a glimpse of the holy one who is broken and vulnerable like we are, and who shows us that God is present with us even in our poverty and our agony, and that the wounded one that we are likely to reject is the very child of God. And I have met this child of God,” Philip’s actions say, “the son of Mary and Joseph, and he has seen God in me—in all of us—and when I follow in this way, of embracing the God in you and the God in me, the God who makes dust of every wall of separation we build, then salvation comes. Living this way repairs the world, and it heals me in the bargain.” So no wonder Philip’s companion wants to be baptized, to put down an old way of being and put on a whole new mind.
And then even more social and religious lines are crossed. In those days converts would be baptized naked, so the royal figure must have taken off all of his finery and the symbols of his office, exposing his physical mutilation in the process, not to mention his black skin and, following, Philip’s brown skin, and apparently both he and Philip are fine with that. They go down into the water together, stripped and vulnerable and wet with living water, both being born again through this action w. And that intimate, embodied conversation is the gift of this story, and an image for each of us to carry. This is the call of any who would follow Jesus, it says—unlikely partners brought together, willing to open up to each other, both healing, able to see God in themselves and in each other, across seemingly unbridgeable divides of race and class and sexuality and country of origin (maybe even political party!), through the work of mutual respect fostered by taking the time to listen deeply. That’s what goes on in this story: they listen deeply to each other. They share their stories with each other. There’s no shortcut to knowing each other. That’s how we’re healed. That’s how systems are changed. That’s how the world is repaired.
Karyn Wiseman tells this story: About 10 years ago, my son and I were at a local park playing on the swings when a group of boys started taunting a small child with a disfigured arm about 50 yards away from us. They were calling her ugly names and throwing small rocks and sticks in her direction. We had seen this little girl playing happily, running around, and laughing with delight. And now she was terrified.
I heard the taunts and began moving in that direction to intercede, but my son outran me. Only six-years-old at the time, he yelled at the boys, “Leave her alone. She’s just like us.” The boys saw and heard my son and likely saw the adult close on his heals. They abandoned their harassment and ran away.
The young girl, Mandy, was crying and scared. I wanted to thrash the boys for scaring and taunting her, but my son knew better. He knew that what Mandy needed was (some company)… He touched her disfigured arm and said, “You want to come play?” And off they ran, holding hands and giggling wildly.
The young girl’s mother showed up after the episode occurred and I relayed the story to her. She lowered her head and said, “This happens (all the time). How do I protect my child from people who fear her differences?” (Sojourner’s magazine)
I’m not sure I have an easy answer for that mother and her pain, but it occurs to me that the boy and the two men in the scripture this morning are doing the same thing. They stopped and listened and saw the other person as someone worth their time, even though the rules of the playground would say to shun her or ignore him.
There is always the possibility that we will circle the wagons and cut ourselves off from whomever is beyond some imagined line or accustomed wall. There will always be an “other” if we let ourselves think that way.
Or we can go down into the water together, stripped of categories and pretense, open to possibility, sure of this good news: in Christ we are one great fellowship of love… no longer slave or free, Jew or Greek, male or female. In Christ there is no east or west, in him no south or north—I’m talking to you Baltimore… no longer strangers or enemies, but brothers and sisters, partners and friends. One family, one city, one world under God. Whatever the wilderness, however rough the road, if we are together, we are on our way home.