Updated: May 2, 2018
Kathryn Schulz has spent several years exploring the experience of being wrong. In her TEDtalk, she asks people what it feels like to be wrong. What does it feel like to be wrong? [Answers.] People responded with answers just like yours, and then Schulz tells them they answered a different question. They answered the question, “What does it feel like to realize you’re wrong?” Actually, she says, being wrong feels exactly like being right. It’s only when we look down like the coyote in “The Coyote and the Roadrunner” cartoons after he’s run off a cliff, and we see our mistake, that we feel dread or embarrassment. Until then, we just think we’re right. But, she says, that’s what our whole lives look like. She noticed all the stories on the radio show, “This American Life,” have the same theme: “I thought this one thing was going to happen, and then this other thing happened.” And that’s because that’s what life looks like. Life turns around and astonishes us.
In this morning’s passage from Acts, the Apostle Philip thought this one thing was going to happen, and then this other thing happened. God, by way of an angel, has been sending Philip all over the place to convert folks. Here, he’s sent into the wilderness, and on the road, he encounters the treasurer to the queen of Ethiopia. The man is a eunuch, surgically castrated. In many ancient cultures, eunuchs held sensitive positions in the court, positions requiring exceptional loyalty such as manager of the king’s harem, taster of the king’s food, and overseer of the treasury, as here. He’s important, and he’s wealthy. This is the only place in the New Testament where someone rides in a chariot.
Luke, who wrote Acts, tells us that the man is returning from a trip to Jerusalem to worship. As an Ethiopian, a person of color, he was obviously not Jewish. He may have been what the Bible refers to as a “God-fearer,” which meant he believed in God and perhaps observed Jewish rituals even though he wasn’t a Jew. Sadly, however, in all likelihood the religious establishment had turned him away from the Temple. While there was a “court of the Gentiles” where non-Jews could worship at a distance, the fact that he was a eunuch would have put him outside the worshiping community entirely. Eunuchs didn’t fit into the strict category of male, or of female, and this made them unclean, and unacceptable according to the law. But the Ethiopian Eunuch went to Jerusalem to worship in spite of all this. He sought God anyway.
Maybe that’s why he’s studying this particular passage in Isaiah. The verses quoted come from a section of Isaiah known as the Suffering Servant, often read by Christians as a prophecy about Jesus. The Ethiopian Eunuch wouldn’t have read it through that lens; he’d never even heard of Jesus. Maybe he’s eager for guidance about what it means because he so strongly identifies with the character Isaiah is describing. He too has experienced humiliation. He too has been denied justice, as someone invited by God to the Temple but barred by human gatekeepers. Perhaps he’s asking: Is this passage about people like him? If it is, does he have a place in the community that he so desperately wants to be a part of?
Philip doesn’t pause to consider. He jumps into the chariot and shares the good news of the Kingdom of God, the message proclaimed by Jesus and shaped by the Jewish narratives of creation, liberation and reconciliation. It’s the message embodied in Jesus – a man who was publicly humiliated, despised, denied justice, and misunderstood, as well.
Maybe Philip just figured he’d tell the man the good news, and somehow, eventually, the Ethiopian Eunuch would become a little more like something that Philip was comfortable with. For his whole lifetime, after all, Philip had been taught to be prejudiced against eunuchs and other sexually “abnormal” people. His parents taught him this; his teachers taught him this. We are to have nothing to do with eunuchs; we are not to talk with them or walk with them or eat with them or meet with them.
The Ethiopian Eunuch obviously feels this good news relates powerfully to him personally, and so he points out the water by the road. “What is to prevent me from being baptized?” her asks. In traditional evangelism terms, this is a conversion - a "win" for Philip. But several things occur to me in reading this story.
This story is part of a larger thread in Acts. Earlier in this same chapter, Philip converts Samaritans, who were also despised and rejected. Other disciples in Acts bring the good news to Gentiles – also outsiders. Some twenty years later, Philip’s daughters are described in Acts as prophets and preachers. Women – women are described as prophets and preachers. So the first thing that occurs to me with this story of the Ethiopian Eunuch and this ever widening circle of inclusion, is, “Why did it take centuries, even millennia, for any part of the church to welcome LGBTQ folks and why is it that many churches still don’t?” How can you read this, and think the Church of Jesus Christ would exclude anybody who is sexually different? This is on top of the fact that we have many examples of Jesus crossing boundaries to include outcasts and sinners and not a single example of Jesus crossing his arms and refusing to do so. Following Jesus’ lead, the early church just kept widening the circle. Why would anyone think the circle was supposed to grow only just so big, and then stop?
But the story itself offers the answer. When you think about it, who was converted, here? Sure, Philip did the evangelizing. But who was changed? Philip thought one thing was going to happen, and then this other thing happened. He thought he was going to convert he Ethiopian Eunuch, and he, himself was converted. Think about all the walls that existed for Philip: the wall between Jews and Samaritans, the wall between sexually “normal” people and sexually “abnormal” people, the wall between men and women. Philip had grown up with these walls firmly in place. But he changed. The encounter with the Ethiopian Eunuch changed him. It turns out that the Book of Acts is as much about the ongoing conversion of believers as it is about the conversion of unbelievers.
Nadia Bolz-Weber tells a story about a member of her church, Stuart, a gay man, who was invited to stand as godparent at the baptism of the child of some friends. There was a little party at the parents’ home afterwards, and to Stuart’s surprise, his friends called everybody’s attention to explain why they’d chosen Stuart as their child’s godparent. “We chose you, Stuart,” they said, “because for most of your life you have pursued Christ and Christ’s church even though as a Gay Man all you’ve heard from the church is that ‘there is no love for you here.’” In other words, Stuart showed them what it means to be faithful, what it looks like to believe. He helped them believe again and again in the wideness of God’s mercy and in the love of Christ, and he helped them to see what God’s church is meant to be.
Bolz-Weber writes, “All [that] many of you have heard is that the tent is simply not big enough unless you change to fit in it. Change your sexuality, your personality, your doubting. Change your addictive patterns, your story, your brokenness. And if you can’t, then just pretend. Yet here you are. Converting me once again to this faith. … Because how can I know what it means to follow Christ unless I learn it from someone who has done so despite every obstacle possible?”
We need this story of the Eunuch, and we need all the strangers, all the “others,” people of different races, genders, sexuality, economic backgrounds, education levels, and degrees of doubt. We need the marginalized voices and the voices of those who have been hurt by religion. What I’m talking about is is far more than inclusion. Inclusion is a good thing, but that makes it sound as though it’s about our big-heartedness; that we’re allowing “them” to join us, as though it’s an act of charity on our part. When the truth is that we need the equivalent of the Ethiopian Eunuch to show us faith. “We need the stranger, the foreigner, the ‘other’ to show us water in the desert. We need to hear, ‘Here is water in the desert, so what is to keep me from being baptized?’” Otherwise, we might start thinking there’s limited space under the tent, or that it’s our job to make the tent bigger, when the thing is, it isn’t our tent. It’s God’s tent. And we are the ones who need to be converted, again and again.
The movie “The Greatest Showman” is inspired by the rags-to-riches life and imagination of P. T. Barnum, and what it lacks in historical accuracy, it makes up in exuberance. The performers Barnum gathers for his show are people who have never fit in, people who have been shoved to the margins for their differences: people too tall or too small, too fat, too hairy or too tattooed, and at least in the movie, too sexually ambiguous to be “normal.” Barnum makes money off these performers and seems to appreciate them. But at an elegant party where he’s desperate to be accepted by the elites of society, he closes the door on them. The performers respond with the song, “This Is Me,” a powerful and rousing anthem for all those pushed to the edges or excluded because they don’t fit the traditional categories. If we had our video up and running I’d show it to you. The bearded lady begins the song, singing:
I am not a stranger to the dark
Hide away, they say
‘Cause we don’t want your broken parts
I’ve learned to be ashamed of all my scars
Run away, they say
No one’ll love you as you are
But I won’t let them break me down to dust
I know that there’s a place for us
For we are glorious …
“For we are glorious.” It’s an interesting choice of words. “Glorious.” It has a spiritual ring to it, doesn’t it? It sounds Godly; it sounds holy, and it is: Barnum’s performers claim their God-given worthiness. The well-dressed party guests don’t hand it to them. The performers point to the water: What is to keep us from being included? Barnum needs to hear these voices, and here’s the thing. One of the reasons we all need to hear these voices is because “This Is Me” is everybody’s song. We might be better able to fit in but there isn’t one of us who is perfect or without scars. On behalf of the trans community, Austen Hartke, a trans man and pastor, writes, “When a church is trans-affirming, transgender Christians can show up as themselves, unapologetically. By doing that, they show everybody else in the congregation that it’s all right to bring their whole selves into the community, that nobody has to ‘fake it ‘til you make it’ as a perfect Christian. This kind of authenticity is especially important to younger people, who often see the church as hypocritical, and believe that being a churchgoing Christian means that you put on your fake smile alongside our Sunday suit. But once we tell our stories and let ourselves be seen – flaws and all, sins and all, full of beauty and sadness and fear and courage and joy – then we can be Christians who ask for forgiveness, who walk humbly with God, and who love our neighbors as ourselves.”
“But once we tell our stories and let ourselves be seen – flaws and all, sins and all, full of beauty and sadness and fear and courage and joy – then we can be Christians who ask for forgiveness, who walk humbly with God, and who love our neighbors as ourselves.”
Here is the water. Here is the water, for each and for all.
May it be so for you, and for me. Amen.
© Joanne Whitt 2018 all rights reserved.
 Karen Schulz, “On Being Wrong,” 2011, https://www.ted.com/talks/kathryn_schulz_on_being_wrong?language=en#t-1052370.
 Austen Hartke, Transforming (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2018), 115.
 See Deuteronomy 23:1: “No one whose testicles are crushed or whose penis is cut off shall be admitted to the assembly of the Lord.”
 Hartke, 122-123. Episcopal priest Broderick Greer writes, “The eunuch was pouring over Scripture and teasing out answers because he had to in order to survive as a gender-nonconforming, racially marginalized, royally subjugated person outside the bounds of the faith he sought to join.”
 Brian D. McLaren, A New Kind of Christianity (New York: HarperOne, 2010), 179.
 “This Is Me,” written and composed by songwriters Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, and performed by Keala Settle on “The Greatest Showman” soundtrack, released October 26, 2017, Atlantic Records. You can see the film clip here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CjxugyZCfuw
 Hartke, 109-110.
 Hartke, 109-110.