An Untraditional Family
By Rev. Tracey Leslie
Scripture: Acts 8: 26-40
I’m going to start this morning by saying some words and asking you to shout back to me what comes to mind as the word’s opposite. Alright? So, here we go:
This morning’s scripture from Acts is a story involving liminality. It is a story about an Ethiopian eunuch. Eunuchs are those devoid of masculine – well, shall I say – parts. They are neither man nor woman when strictly evaluated by their genitalia. They occupy liminal space – a space that can feel vulnerable since it cannot be easily categorized.
Eunuchs, according to the 23rd chapter of Deuteronomy, were not permitted in the temple to worship. And yet, oddly enough, we read that this morning's eunuch was on his way home from worshipping in Jerusalem. So, how could he worship at the Jerusalem Temple if he was a eunuch? Well, I can point out this interesting fact: after the Babylonian exile, "eunuch" was sometimes used as a designation not for a physical condition; but rather, as a professional title. After the Babylonian exile, certain court officials were referred to as eunuchs, whether they had been physically castrated or not. And we know from this morning's story that this man was a court official – he functioned as treasurer for the Queen of Ethiopia, which made him a pretty important guy. Now, here's probably the primary key to understanding what was going on with this guy. Court officials, traditionally, did not have biological children. Whether by virtue of an accident, physical castration or chosen celibacy, court officials having their own biological heirs was not a cool thing. Why? Well, because it might jeopardize their loyalty to the royalty. After all, most of us would not put anything ahead of the safety and security of our own nuclear families. Once, when my sister Vicki was little, she and our brother Dan had such a fight, my sister had to climb to the top of a tree because she was afraid my brother would beat her up. He was so mad he tried to follow her. But, since he was 6 years older and, probably, 50 pounds heavier, the tree limb broke. And, when he hit the ground, his arm broke. My sister was so scared she stayed in the tree and yelled for help until my mother came out of the house. Yet, even so, if anyone ever tried to lay a finger on my sister or me, my brother would clean their clock. No one had better ever threaten our families, right?
But this Ethiopian had no family. After all, the Queen couldn't risk that this guy might dip into her treasury for his son's rehab expense or his daughter's college tuition. You get the picture. Don't you? So, it shouldn't surprise us that this Ethiopian is reading the scroll of the prophet Isaiah which tells of one who was "cut off" from the land of the living – devoid of justice, AND devoid of posterity, of descendents. And yet, one, curiously enough, who will see offspring. The Ethiopian man wants to know who this is that is being spoken of... because this is someone with whom he can relate.
And so, beginning with the Isaiah passage – and expanding from there – Philip begins to share with this man the good news about Jesus Christ.
Now, here’s another curious part of this story. Why is Philip preaching and baptizing? We’re first introduced to Philip in chapter 6 of the book of Acts. We read there that, as the Church has expanded to include Gentiles or Greeks, some inequities – or at least perceived inequities – are cropping up. The perception of the Christian widows of Greek ethnicity is that the Jewish Christian widows are being better cared for, particularly in terms of food. It’s a problem that needs to be addressed; but the apostles decide to delegate the work. They say, “It is not right that we should neglect the word of God in order to wait on tables…” They encourage the selection of seven Greek men who have demonstrated spiritual integrity whom, they say, “we may appoint to this task, while we, for our part, will devote ourselves to prayer and to serving the word.” So, Philip wasn’t “ordained” to be a preacher or missionary. He was commissioned to deliver meals to hungry widows. It seemed as if the original apostles wanted to keep very clear boundaries between preaching and mission work. But, in no time at all, those boundaries have been transgressed and Philip is now proclaiming and interpreting the word of God and even performing the sacrament of baptism.
Friends, we are currently in the season of Easter – and on these Sundays between Easter morning and Pentecost – the Church often reads scripture from the Book of Acts… which tells the story of how the Church began. It’s important for us to focus on what it is that makes the Church the Church. What was and is distinctive about the Church?
Well, first of all, the Book of Acts reveals that it is the Holy Spirit who calls the Church into existence. The Holy Spirit makes and shapes the Church. And this morning's story is a prime example. It is the Spirit who clearly directs the movements and actions of Philip throughout this story.
Who knows if Philip would have ever sought out this eunuch on his own without the Spirit’s prompting? But Philip did know what it felt like to occupy liminal space. He wasn’t a Jew; yet he’d devoted his life to a Jewish rabbi named Jesus. He wasn’t a preacher; yet here he was interpreting the scripture and proclaiming the Word of God. Over and over, the early Church found itself in uncharted waters, defying categories, moving into liminal space, breaking through boundaries. Imagine how uncomfortable that often was. What a curious and diverse collection of people God had joined together.
I once attended a church where a small group leader gave a testimony during worship. In his testimony, he confessed that he was still struggling to wrap his head around the divinity of Jesus, that Jesus was fully God and fully human. I admit; I felt a little uncomfortable with his bold honesty. But as the day wore on, I began to think what a lovely thing it had been that he was able to be that honest and vulnerable about his faith journey and struggles; that he didn’t feel as if he had to feign certainty and pretend that he had it all figured out. The senior pastor, however, didn’t share my admiration. No one, in his estimation, occupying such liminal theological space had a right to church leadership.
But, you know, I have to wonder just how much that Ethiopian eunuch had nailed down theologically that day. I mean; Philip proclaimed the gospel to him, but how much could he have grasped in just one sitting? Still, he was eager to dip his toes in the water… literally and figuratively. As the chariot approaches some water, the eunuch asks Philip what is to prevent him from being baptized. To us, it might seem like an abrupt question; kind of out of left field. But, here’s the thing: in the early Church and still today, baptism not only signifies our being joined to Christ. It also signifies membership in a family – God’s family, the Church. What a hook for a man who had no family of his own. In fact, one might even say that, right in that moment, the man’s longing to not be “cut off” but to produce heirs of his own; well, that dream immediately came true because the early Church functioned as a family; a diverse, heterogeneous, boundary breaking, liminal-living family that drew in all kinds of folks who stepped into all kinds of roles and responsibilities.
Friends: there is more to family than genetics or surnames. If our parents are deceased, if we have never given birth, if we grew up bearing the label "only child," we are not as “alone” as society would have us to believe; for we are part of a larger family, the Church; a place where we can go when we have nowhere else to go; a place where we can be cared for when it seems the world "out there" just doesn't care; a place where blood is not thicker than water. Rather, the waters of baptism are thicker and mightier than our blood and DNA.
Today is Mother’s Day. Perhaps after worship, you will celebrate with mom. Or, perhaps, you will mourn that she is no longer here for you… or perhaps, she never was. Today is Mother’s Day. Perhaps you look forward to spending the day with your children. Or perhaps, you ache because you could not conceive. Or perhaps, you feel judged that your biological clock never really seemed to kick in; that you felt perfectly fulfilled “mothering” dogs or cats or nieces and nephews. Today is Mother’s Day. Maybe you’re off to a special brunch. Or, perhaps, you’re on your own for lunch… which is totally fine. But remember: the choice is yours to make because you’re not alone. Look around and you should see a sanctuary full of elders and offspring to whom you belong and who belong to you. Some might seem as odd as the proverbial “crazy uncle.” Some might be annoying at times, or needy, or painfully shy, or talk a blue streak. Some might be making some dubious choices with their lives right now. But, we’d better learn to deal with it and navigate it because we’re family: an inclusive, diverse family; all offspring of the same heavenly parent; and all given birth by the same Holy Spirit. Thanks be to God!
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