Eunuchs, Goats, and Unfinished Stories

bekah anderson

This is the sermon preached by Bekah Anderson at First Church of Christ Simsbury on November 26, 2017 to mark Transgender Day of Remembrance. Bekah is an intern in the church’s Young Adult Service Community (YASC) ministry. YASC interns live in community in a house on the church premises, work in a social service agency for 32 hours a week, and are active in the life of the church for about 6 hours a week. Bekah is an intern at Our Piece of the Pie in Hartford.

Acts 8:26-33

Matthew 25:31-40

God, for all your beloved children, thanks be to you. For the Christ-being inside each of us, thanks. For all those who share in your suffering and your death and your power, honor forever. Amen.

For the past two weeks or so, I’ve been in mourning. Not constantly, you understand, but in preparation for Transgender Day of Remembrance, which was last Monday, and then for this service, I’ve been reading through the list of names of the people who died this year. This list is thirty-seven pages long, and it contains the name, location, and cause of death of transgender and gender-nonconforming people murdered this year around the world, for nothing more than the crime of being trans. I have read this list and cried, not just for the names on it, but for those left off. This list does not contain murders that were not reported. It does not contain victims who were trans, but were not identified as such by families or officials. And finally, it does not contain suicides, which claims huge numbers of trans people every year. This list is an unfinished story. It does not tell the full truth of the losses transgender communities around the world have faced, but perhaps more than that, it is a reminder that every life is a story, and all of these stories are forever cut short. Unfinished.

Some of you may perhaps have noticed that our scriptures this morning are also, in a sense, unfinished. They both end a little … abruptly. You might have heard this passage from Matthew before and remembered that Jesus talks not just to the sheep, but to the goats. I know you heard the story about the Ethiopian eunuch as recently as September, and you might remember that something kind of important happens to him after he talks with Phillip. But this morning, both of these stories are cut short, unfinished. There are several reasons for this, one of which, frankly, was a desire to not have us spend all morning reading scripture. But more importantly, I think there’s something important for us to ponder in these abrupt endings. Take, for instance, this passage from Isaiah that the Ethiopian eunuch is reading aloud: “Like a sheep he was led to the slaughter, and like a lamb silent before its 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.”

Now, a verse or two after I stopped reading, Phillip is going to tell the Ethiopian eunuch how these verses are really talking about Jesus. And that’s a reasonable interpretation. But reading these verses today, I can’t help but think of others whose lives are taken away from the Earth. Who, in their humiliation, are denied justice. And I can’t help but imagine how the Ethiopian eunuch might be reading these passages.

Eunuchs, if you don’t remember from Pastor George’s sermon on Rally Day, are biological males who have been castrated. In the ancient world, eunuchs occupied a gender category all their own, not exactly male or female, and many of them took on a feminine presentation. While we don’t know how these individuals would identify using our current terminology, it would not be a stretch to call them gender-nonconforming, and not inconceivable to call them transgender. And Ethiopian is Bible-speak for African. So our friend the Ethiopian eunuch is, potentially, a trans-feminine person of color. Which reminds me that most of the names on this list are trans women of color.

Of course, biblical time is not our time. Our friend the Ethiopian eunuch—let’s call them E—has a position of power and prestige: they are in charge of the queen’s entire treasury. On the other hand, eunuchs were still socially marginalized in many places, including the Jerusalem Temple, where they were considered ritually impure. Plus, E’s dark skin would have marked them out as different, at the very least. I sincerely hope that in biblical times, a black, trans-feminine foreigner was no more likely to meet trouble on the road than anyone else. But I think I know enough about how humans have historically perceived difference to guess that E’s life was far from smooth. They probably faced inappropriate questions or remarks about their body; snide comments behind their back or to their face; lost friends or opportunities. Even with all the power and prestige they seem to have, they are still not safe from the world’s view of their identity. And as they are riding along in their chariot, reading these words from Isaiah, perhaps they are remembering times when they were not physically safe. Perhaps they are wondering, “Am I really safe? Or could my life be taken away from the earth at any time?”

That is the kind of question this list makes me ask every time I think about it. How safe are my trans friends? I, and the various communities I have been a part of have worked hard to keep our trans siblings safe. We’ve given them a place to sleep when their family’s house wasn’t home; we’ve offered to walk them home, or to the bathroom, or anywhere else they feel unsafe; we’ve worked to educate ignorant family and friends; and above all, we’ve made sure that wherever we are is a safe place to be. But this list reminds me that even the best of allies cannot promise safety. Some of the people on this list never were safe; they were homeless, or in abusive relationships. But some of them were surrounded by loving communities, had jobs and other societal advantages that seem to promise safety. But in the end, they were fundamentally unsafe, because deep down, our society still considered trans and black lives disposable. One or several people embodying that mindset crossed their path, and they died.

And it could happen to my friends. That’s the pain beneath my pain these past two weeks. I’ve been sitting with the knowledge that, like the dead we are honoring today, my friends are fundamentally unsafe. It’s terrifying, and it’s not a truth I can, or should, focus on for most of the year. But this is a truth that I need to wrestle with, first of all because it is true, and second of all because I know that many of my trans friends can never forget it. They live every day with the knowledge that they are unsafe, that society does not recognize their gifts, their struggles, or even their deaths. If I cannot make them safe, the least I can do is share their pain.

Let’s return to E now, and I’ll tell you the piece of the story I didn’t include in the reading this morning.

E is reading this passage of Isaiah to themself, thinking their thoughts, when suddenly this random Jew runs up to them and says, “Do you understand what you’re reading?”

And E says, “How can I, unless someone guides me?”

There are several things that could be happening in this answer. E could be asserting that, as a Jew, Phillip is far more likely to know how to interpret Isaiah than they are. They could be inviting Phillip to interpret with them, knowing that in Jewish tradition true scriptural understanding comes through conversation. But I wonder, too, if part of their response comes from a need to find a new lens through which to see these verses. Let me not see death, they are begging Phillip. Let me stop remembering the times I’ve been demeaned, or assaulted. Let me see something other than my own death in this text.

And Phillip, God bless him, does give E something new. First, he does talk about death—the death of Jesus. Jesus, who was killed for being himself, for living his mission and his call. Jesus, whose death was unjust and cruel.

And then Phillip goes on to speak of resurrection. He explains that, though Jesus was killed, though his body and his life were rendered disposable, he defied everyone’s understanding of him and rose from the dead.

E listens to this in awe, not just because someone rising from the dead is unheard of, but because they see themself in Jesus. E, too, is being themself, living their mission and call to be themself, no matter what society thinks. And because of that, they fear dying a cruel death and receiving no justice. So the fact that Jesus can absorb all this pain, die, and return with a renewed message of peace and joy and love—that is deeply meaningful to E. E knows, of course, that if they die, it’s highly unlikely they’ll be resurrected. But for E, identifying with Jesus’ suffering means identifying with Jesus’ power. It means that whatever they may suffer, whatever Good Fridays and deaths of the spirit, they can return, stronger than ever, more themself than ever, and make the world a better place for it. Which is perhaps why they say to Phillip, “What is to prevent me from being baptized?”

Jesus is saying much the same thing in Matthew. “Just as you did it to the least of these, you did it to me.” “I am them,” Jesus is saying, “and they are me. We are one in our suffering and need.” The obvious reading of this text, of course, is that those of us with resources have the responsibility to care for those without. We must search for Jesus within one another, and treat each other the way we would treat Jesus. This of course, is extremely relevant to this list I still have before me. The people who murdered these individuals were not treating them like Jesus. Any friends or family who abandoned their loved one when they came out as trans were not treating them like Jesus. And the justice systems that are making little or no progress in finding the murderers in many of these cases, are not treating the dead like Jesus.

But again, to identify with Jesus’ suffering is to identify with Jesus’ power. Hidden within all the forms of suffering Jesus mentions—hunger, thirst, sickness, prison—is the possibility of resurrection, of new life, new hope, new justice. For trans and other marginalized folks, this means that there is light, even at the darkest of times. You have the power of Jesus within you, and you can use it to do great things.

And for allies, this means that we need to recognize not just the vulnerability, but the power of trans and marginalized people among us. We are called not only to nourish and sustain them, but to lift up and empower them.

On a day like Transgender Day of Remembrance, it can be easy to feel powerless. We read this list of names, and know that nothing can bring them back, and we feel hopeless, alone, and afraid. I know I do. But it’s natural to feel these things. Necessary, even. You have to go through Good Friday in order to get to Easter. But in that Easter spirit, I tell you that we are not powerless. We can find the power of Jesus in ourselves, and in others. We can sustain one another, lift each other up, and affirm that whether the world values the least of these or not, we do.

So I invite you to feel whatever it is you are feeling right now. If you need to grieve today, for these losses, and for the ones we will likely suffer next year, I grieve with you. If you need to be in fear today, for yourself or your loved ones, I am in fear with you. If you have found hope or courage in these words or others, I am in hope and courage with you. And if you have found awe in looking around at your siblings here today and seeing the power of Jesus, I am in awe with you, and of you. Let those who are in hope and awe comfort those in mourning and fear. And let us all honor our own power, and use it well, so that we may one day have a year where there is not a single name on this list.

God, for all your beloved children, thanks be to you. For the Christ-being inside each of us, thanks. For all those who share in your suffering and your death and your power, honor forever. Amen.

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Beloved Child, Magnificent Creation

This is the sermon I preached at First Church Simsbury on Rally Sunday, September 10, 2017.

Acts 8:26-39

Preaching on Rally Sunday always presents an interesting challenge.

Rally Sunday marks the beginning of the church year. Beloved ministries like our choirs and Sunday schools start back up after a summer hiatus, and new ministries like our Young Adult Service Community and church-wide book study are introduced. This Sunday is meant to communicate a certain excitement; in the past I have likened it to a big pep rally.

But here’s the challenge. There is no Rally Sunday in the Bible. I can’t tell a familiar story of the time Jesus gathered his disciples or a crowd of his followers for Rally Sunday. But luckily, references to God’s participation in new beginnings are plentiful in our tradition, right? We’ve got Christmas, the story of Jesus’ birth. How about a good Christmas story on Rally Sunday? And what speaks to new beginnings better than Easter! Maybe a resurrection story is what we need. Or Pentecost. In fact, maybe Pentecost really was the first Rally Sunday, the Holy Spirit descending upon thousands of pilgrims in Jerusalem, marking the birth of the church.

But this morning we had the pleasure of baptizing little Natalie so what better to mark this fresh start with God than a couple Bible passages about baptism!

The first will be familiar to many. John the Baptist stands in the river Jordan, calling all the people of Jerusalem to be washed in the water, ceremonially cleansed of their sins, making a fresh start. All the people of Jerusalem and the Judean countryside respond to John’s appeal. Then, along comes John’s cousin Jesus who, though identified as more powerful than John, submits himself to be baptized. As John lifts Jesus out of the water, the heavens part, the Holy Spirit descends upon him, and God’s voice declares, “You are my precious child, chosen and marked by my love, pride of my life.”

Here baptism represents the beginning of the Good News of Jesus’ ministry.

The other story, less well known, takes place following Jesus’ death, resurrection and ascension to heaven. The apostles set out around the Mediterranean to share this great news about God’s love and welcome as made known through Jesus. They preach, teach and heal, then invite those who want to become part of this loving family of God to be baptized. Baptism affirms for these new followers of Jesus that the Holy Spirit welcomes them, that they too are “God’s precious children, chosen and marked by God’s love, pride of God’s life.” In these first months following Jesus’ death the apostles baptize thousands.

This morning’s story chronicles the story of the Apostle Phillip’s encounter with an Ethiopian eunuch. Just those two words, Ethiopian eunuch, are packed with meaning. This Ethiopian was not a Jew. This story says the Ethiopian had come to Jerusalem to worship which may indicate he was what is known in the New Testament as a God-fearer, a non-Jew who sought to follow Jewish law. Nonetheless, the Ethiopian was not a Jew and so considered to be beyond God’s promise of love and excluded from the community of God’s people. Second, he was an Ethiopian. Ethiopia is in Africa; his is African, of a different race than the Semitic apostles. Then, as now, he would have been referred to as black. And then, as now, these racial distinctions carried meaning including judgment and rejection. And third, he is a eunuch! Just to be clear, that means he has been castrated.

When I was in seminary I wrote a paper on eunuchs in biblical times. First century Jewish historian Philo writes:

Certainly you may see these hybrids of man and woman continually strutting about through the thick of the market, heading the processions at the feasts, appointed to serve as unholy ministers of holy things, leading the mysteries and initiations and celebrating the rites of Demeter. Those of them who by way of heightening still further their youthful beauty have desired to be completely changed into women and gone on to mutilate their genital organs…

And contemporary scholar J. David Hester writes:

The eunuch as a figure perceived to be neither celibate nor morally chaste, but was an extraordinary gender formation whose ability to navigate within and take on the properties of both male/masculine and female/feminine worlds (physically, sexually, socially, culturally, even politically) was the source of their ambivalent social status.

In short, eunuchs were what we could call today, transgendered, understood to be neither male nor female. Likewise, they had relations with both men and women. Just as it is today, this meant that society judged them harshly and Judaism specifically excluded them from God’s community of care.

So while we have to be careful not to conflate the biblical context with our own, it is absolutely true that the Ethiopian eunuch is someone who because of his religion, his race, his gender identity, and who he had relations with was excluded from the Jewish community and the promise of God’s love and protection.

So, when the Ethiopian eunuch asks Phillip, “What is to prevent me from being baptized?” Phillip could have, according to Jewish law should have, responded with a whole laundry list of reasons. Instead, the two step down from the chariot, enter some water, and Phillip baptizes him right then and there, affirming for him that the Holy Spirit includes him, that he too is “God’s precious child, chosen and marked by God’s love, pride of God’s life.”

So these two stories affirm that both Jesus and the Ethiopian eunuch are God’s precious children. And we have affirmed this morning, that dear, little Natalie is a precious child of God.

There would have been a temptation then, as now, to rank these as to whom we presume to be God’s favorites. Some would certainly insist that Jesus must be God’s favorite, baby Natalie a close second, and the black, pagan, gender non-conforming, bisexual Ethiopian eunuch a way-back, distant last. By this way of thinking, all of the rest of us would be somewhere between Natalie and the Ethiopian eunuch on this imagined chart of God’s favorites. That would be the temptation. To think that way.

But that would be wrong. Because that is not what is communicated through baptism. Baptism doesn’t rank us. Through baptism, everyone hears the same word of God without qualifications or rankings, “You are God’s precious child, chosen and marked by God’s love, pride of God’s life.” Period.

In the novel, The Shack, the God character, Papa, a large black woman, tells the main Character, Mack Phillips, “You may not know this, but I am especially fond of you.” This, of course, makes him feel, special, “God is especially fond of me.” But in time he realizes that Papa says this to everyone…and means it. Baptism is God’s, “I am especially fond of you,” and God communicates this to each and all of us. So, it is true that God is especially fond of Natalie. And, God is especially fond of the Ethiopian eunuch. And God is especially fond of you, and you, and you, and you, and you…

So what makes this a Rally Sunday message?

First, it is right that we begin the church year by reaffirming that we are each a beloved child of God, a magnificent creation of the divine, precious in God’s sight. The ministries of this church, from Sunday morning worship, to our choirs, to baptisms, to children’s Sunday school, to Bible studies, to our visitation and card making ministries, to memorial services, remind each of us that we are chosen and marked by God, pride of God’s life.

Second, we enter into the church year reminded of our mission, to bring this good news of a loving, inclusive God to a divided and hurting world.

These are two essential aspects to our faith. We are accepted, and we are then called to communicate this radical acceptance to all God’s children.

In the course of this church year we will introduce a number of new ministries that bring this message to members of the church and community alike.

The all church book study of Rob Bell’s book, “What is the Bible?” asserts this message, that God’s love, as revealed in the Bible, includes everyone. And the time we spend together over five weeks in small groups will reinforce the good news of our acceptance.

On Sunday, October 22nd we will celebrate the fifth anniversary of becoming an Open and Affirming church with a special worship service and other programs. And, as part of the ongoing process of becoming Open and Affirming we will begin hosting monthly meetings of PFLAG, Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays. Support groups will be offered both for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender youth, and their parents.

We will soon welcome our Young Adult Service Community interns and, through their work with Our Piece of the Pie and the Christian Activities Council, will deepen our relationships with people “over the mountain” in Hartford.

Part of this work will involve exploring an inter-faith community organizing initiative with over forty churches, synagogues, and mosques in the Greater Hartford area.

And we will be offering opportunities for racial justice training.

Finally, a group is gathering to get the word out about all this good news here at First Church by updating our website and developing a marketing plan.

This is a day of new beginnings!

“You are God’s precious children, chosen and marked by God’s love, pride of God’s life.”

Pass it on!

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