When I was in college, I went through an experimental phase, as college students are prone to do. I was out of the house, away from my parents, and ready to try something new.
Now don’t worry—this experimenting did not involve sex, drugs, or even rock-and-roll. No; in college, I experimented with different faith communities. The Methodist campus ministry was my mainstay, but I also attended Mass with the Catholics, prayed with Pentecostals, took classes on Judaism, and visited the Buddhist meditation group.
I learned a lot about other faith traditions and about my own in this time. Sometimes these learning experiences were profound; sometimes they were silly. One in particular left me shaking my head.
I decided to attempt a method of reading the Bible I had seen my charismatic/Pentecostal friends practice. They would open the Bible at random—but not really at random, because the Holy Spirit was leading them—and read whatever passage their eyes landed on first. They would tell these incredible stories of revelation that came to them when the Spirit opened the Bible to exactly the right page and the Scripture spoke into their lives.
I hadn’t had this particular experience before, so I gave it a shot. I took hold of my Bible, asked God to show me some great Scriptural wisdom, and opened it up. I placed my finger on the page and landed squarely on Deuteronomy 23:1.
“No one whose testicles are crushed or whose penis is cut off shall be admitted to the assembly of the Lord.”
Not exactly the divine wisdom I had hoped for. I promptly closed my Bible and decided that the good Lord had not graced me with the spiritual gift of opening to the exact right page.
I’ve never forgotten that commandment, including the chapter and verse number. This seems like it would be unfortunate, but it does make for a good story. What’s more, it makes me read our Scripture for tonight with a little more curiosity.
The man that Philip meets—the man, we must assume, that the angel of the Lord intended for him to meet—is described as “an Ethiopian eunuch.” This man was of African descent—a minority in Israel even as he attended to a queen—and a eunuch—a man who had been castrated for service to this woman’s court.
Our passage from Acts tells us that “He had come to Jerusalem to worship.” However, good old Deuteronomy 23:1 makes it very clear: a eunuch could not be admitted to the assembly of the Lord. He would not have been able to participate in worship, but he came anyway. Did he know he would not be let in? Was he turned away at the door? What shame did he have to bear upon being rejected?
The Ethiopian eunuch would not have been admitted to the assembly of the Lord, and yet he came to worship, and he poured over Scripture even when no one would interpret it to him. Perhaps the strangeness of Scripture resonated with his own experience of being strange.
When we read Scripture today, we encounter a God who comes to us in strange ways, even as a stranger. In Genesis 18, Abraham and Sarah entertain three strangers and find they are in the company of God; in Genesis 32, Jacob wrestles a man in the dark and later realizes he had seen God face to face; and much later, in Luke 24, Jesus’ own disciples do not recognize him when he appears to them after the resurrection.
More concretely, God became incarnate in the lowest and strangest of forms. Many expected that the coming Messiah would be born of royalty, a powerful military hero who would lead the Jews to victory over the Roman oppressors. Instead, Jesus was born to an unmarried teenage girl. God came to us as one lowly, unexpected, and strange.
This has made many preachers and theologians speculate—if Jesus came back today, what form would he take? Writer and speaker Glennon Doyle Melton was here at Centenary last spring, and she has one of my favorite answers to that question. She says this:
“…if past behavior is indicative of future behavior- His way of being and friends and every word He said would scandalize and challenge the religious folks of today… He would challenge and change all of our perceptions about who is in and who is out and He would ask us to fulfill the law, not by nitpicking isolated scriptures that have been translated by humans for centuries but by soaking in and understanding His entire message. …How would He hammer His LOVE GOD AND YOUR NEIGHBOR message into our heads today, in this time, in this culture, in this country? Who are God’s children in this day and age that might be considered the least of these, the oppressed, the disenfranchised, the people religious leaders are least likely to embrace? How would He turn the religious world upside down once again?”
I want to pause right here and repeat one of those questions: “Who are God’s children in this day and age that might be considered the least of these, the oppressed, the disenfranchised, the people religious leaders are least likely to embrace?” In other words, who are the eunuchs?
Glennon names her eunuch by saying, “I think Jesus would come back as a poor, black, gay teenage girl.”
God comes to us as a stranger; Jesus shows up in unexpected, lowly places. Benedictine monks know this, which is why their rule of life states that they must treat every visitor with the same hospitality and grace they would if he or she were Christ. It is sad to think that religious leaders and even the church more broadly has rejected the very people most likely to bear Christ to us, and yet that is no different from the way it was in Jesus’ own day.
This understanding of God’s strangeness not only changes how we treat the stranger, the outcast, and the eunuch—it also shows us that we can meet God in our own strangeness, in our own journeys. In the Bible, so much happens on the road. God’s prophets and even God himself are always on the streets, on the go, on the way.
We recently adopted a new vision statement for the church here at Centenary, and I like it. It centers around one word—“GO.” There’s that movement for you. The tagline is from the Gospel of Luke: “The kingdom of God is right at your doorstep.”
Here’s how that connects: the movement we see in Scripture and experience in our own lives is not movement for the sake of movement. We go in a particular direction. We go toward something. And that something is the kingdom of God.
Of course, the kingdom of God is not a place on a map. The kingdom of God is something that is already here in many ways, but it’s not yet fully realized. It is “already but not yet.” And so, much of the life and work of faith is in the reconciliation that brings about the fullness of God’s kingdom. We are made in God’s image and growing more into God’s likeness. The kingdom of God is among us but still coming to be.
Over the last few years, I’ve started learning about a truly remarkable woman named Pauli Murray. Pauli was an activist, lawyer, poet, and priest in the early to mid-20th century. Pauli was a black woman of mixed ancestry who experienced internal conflict not only over the slave and slave owner blood in her veins but also over her gender and sexual identity.
Although Pauli was a lifelong advocate for women’s rights, she went to doctors on more than one occasion asking whether she might actually be a man. She was on a few occasions treated for anxiety and depression that she connected to her struggles with understanding her gender and sexuality.
Pauli’s understanding of the kingdom of God gave her a spiritual context for the conflict and growth she experienced not only within herself but also in a world fighting for women’s rights and civil rights. Pauli believed that we experience the “already but not yet” of the kingdom in our own beings.
She said, “we are constantly becoming, as we experience the tension between the ‘now’ and the ‘not yet.’” Biographer Sarah Azaransky said that this “‘becoming’ indicated a dynamic process fueled by hope that reconciliation is possible.”
God’s kingdom is not static, and neither are we. Just as God’s kingdom is always coming into being, always being revealed, always groaning with birth pangs, so are we constantly being made and remade into the people God meant us to be.
And there is someone the religious leaders might be even less likely to embrace than a poor, black teenage girl, and that is a transgender person. Studies show that a staggering 41% of transgender or gender-nonconforming people have attempted suicide. That’s more than nine times the national average.
Persons who are transgender and gender-nonconforming often experience harassment, family rejection, homelessness, and violence. Often, they find themselves rejected by the lesbian and gay communities, making them a minority among minorities. All this because they do not conform with a gender assignment that is sometimes arbitrarily made at birth, an assignment that places people in social categories that have less to do with biology or theology than social acceptability.
Our second focus song tonight is one I absolutely love—I adore Dolly Parton, believe it or not. “Travelin’ Thru” was written for the 2005 film Transamerica. The movie tells the story of Bree, a trans woman on a journey to herself and to the son she didn’t know she had had while still living as a man.
Over the course of the film, Bree copes with discrimination and rejection from many people, including her own family. At one point, her son mocks her as a freak and questions whether she should even be in church. Bree responds with an emotional outburst: “Jesus made me this way so I could suffer and be reborn the way he wanted me!”
Every one of us will suffer and be reborn in this life, perhaps more than once. We are all on a journey. We are all on the way to becoming who we already are, who God made us to be.
I recently read an article about an acquaintance who is transgender. Adam says simply of his transition, “I am who I’ve always been. Everyone is constantly evolving and changing. Life is a transition; some people’s are more visible…”
My favorite lines in the Dolly Parton song we’ll hear in a minute are these:
God made me for a reason, and nothing is in vain
Redemption comes in many forms with many kinds of pain
We are all on the way to becoming who we truly are, who God made us to be. We will suffer and change as we face and overcome the obstacles blocking our path, obstacles put up by society, by the church, and by our own ideas of who we are supposed to be. But we will find peace along the road as we choose the truths so often already chosen for us.
So many things may prevent us from becoming who we know ourselves to be. But there is one thing that cannot be withheld from any child of God, and that is baptism. The Ethiopian eunuch said, “Look, here is water! What is to prevent me from being baptized?” The answer for him and for all of us, thank God, is absolutely nothing.
There is nothing to prevent any one of us from being baptized. Baptism means finding our true identity in Christ. It means that we bring our whole selves to God and becoming who God made us to be, however strange and painful the journey may be.
Oh sweet Jesus if you’re listening, keep me ever close to you
As I’m stumblin’, tumblin’, wonderin’, as I’m travelin’ thru