Sunday, May 6, 2012

"What is to prevent me from being baptized?"

Text: Acts 8 26-40 (Philip baptizes an Ethiopian eunuch)

Four years ago in a class at Emmanuel College in Toronto, our professor asked us to share our favourite passage from Scripture. I can no longer remember which course it was, but I do remember one student's response to the question.

Cindy Bourgeois, who was settled two years ago as an ordained minister at Central United Church in Stratford Ontario, told us that for her the answer was easy. Cindy's favourite Scripture passage is our reading from Acts today, the one that tells the story of Philip and the Ethiopian eunuch.

Immediately, I understood why this might be the case for her; and I will return to that in a few minutes. But to start, I take a closer look at the passage. Like many stories in the Bible, this one has a lot of different things happening in it.

Philip is one of the Greek-speaking apostles chosen by Peter, John and other Hebrew leaders of the early church to help spread the goods news of Jesus to those Jews who spoke Greek instead of Aramaic or Hebrew. At that time, millions of Jews worshipped in synagogues around the Mediterranean and even outside of the Roman Empire. Most of them spoke Greek and used a Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible in worship.

When God's Spirit sends Philip to encounter the Ethiopian eunuch on a road leading away from Jerusalem, it has been several months since the death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus. The apostles have fled persecution in Jerusalem. They are now preaching outside of the capital city, and their numbers are growing.

The Ethiopian is an important person. He is in charge of the treasury of the Queen of Ethiopia. He has come to Jerusalem to worship at the Temple, which suggests that he is a devout Jew. He is wealthy enough to travel by chariot and to own his own copy of the Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures. He is highly educated person for he is reading aloud from Isaiah.

But despite being educated and devout, the Ethiopian asks Philip to help him understand Scripture. Phillip uses the passage from Isaiah to proclaim to him the good news about Jesus.  Perhaps Philip shows how the portrait of a Suffering Servant in Isaiah could point to the death and resurrection of Jesus.

Having heard this good news, the Ethiopian then asks to be baptized. Philip does so, at which point the Spirit of the Lord snatches Philip away and the eunuch goes on his way rejoicing.

For me, the most prominent feature of the story is that this convert to Christ is a eunuch. Though rich and powerful, he is also a man who was emasculated at a young age so that he would be incapable of fathering children and would be considered less of a threat to the Queen whom he serves.

The first readers of the book of Acts might have been shocked that God's Spirit sent Philip to baptize a eunuch. Eunuchs were never part of the royal court of Jerusalem, and most Jews considered men who had been emasculated in this way unfit for worship. The biblical books of Deuteronomy and Leviticus mandate discrimination against eunuchs.

However, this African eunuch is not reading from Deuteronomy or Leviticus. He is reading from the biblical book Isaiah; and Isaiah takes a different approach to eunuchs than Deuteronomy or Leviticus. In Isaiah 56, which is only a few chapters after the part of Isaiah 53 being read by the eunuch in our story, we find the following:

"This is what the LORD says: To the eunuchs who keep my Sabbaths, who choose what pleases me and hold fast to my covenant -- to them I will give within my temple and its walls a memorial and a name better than sons and daughters; I will give them an everlasting name that will endure forever."

The fact that Acts contains this story about a eunuch shows that the early church came down on the side of Isaiah instead of Deuteronomy or Leviticus in regards to sexual minorities. Just as Jesus shared meals with sinners and tax collectors and embraced every oppressed minority that he encountered, the early church embraced people from every background, including people like eunuchs whom others might despise.

This background adds poignancy, I think, to the question the eunuch asks Philip: "What is to prevent me from being baptized?" Perhaps he fears that his black skin might be a barrier to his acceptance by God. Perhaps he fears that his difficulties in understanding Scripture might be a barrier. But above all, he may fear that his despised status as an emasculated man might be a barrier to his baptism. Philip, however, sees none of this. Immediately, he baptizes the Ethiopian who then travels on rejoicing and becomes the first person to bring the good news of Christ to Africa.

This story shows us again that God's grace is available to everyone regardless of nationality, race, or sexual status. Although sexual minorities encounter disgust, fear, or hatred from many of us, God creates no such barriers to His Love.

All of which brings me back to four years ago, to my fellow student Cindy Bourgeois, and to her attachment to our reading from Acts today. Cindy was one year ahead of me at Emmanuel College in the Master of Divinity program. Although I didn't have many classes with Cindy and did not get to know her well, she made a big impression on me. Cindy is a trans woman; a person who was assigned to the male sex as a newborn but who had decided later in her life that her sex and gender identity were female.

Cindy is hard to ignore. She is about 6 feet tall, heavyset, and at the same time always feminine. She has long curled hair. She wears dresses and uses makeup. Unlike many trans people, it is difficult to meet Cindy and not notice that she is trans. She is clearly a woman, but is also clearly someone who was not always a woman.

I imagine that Cindy chose today's reading from Acts as her favourite because she found validation for her risky status as a trans woman in Philip's embrace of a  eunuch.

I hesitated to preach today on issues of sex, gender, sexuality in relation to our reading from Acts. But since this reading is assigned by the Lectionary only once every three years, since I always think of my friend Cindy when I read this passage, and since issues around sex and gender have been key battlegrounds in churches for the last 100 years, I decided to go ahead.

Two years ago, Cindy Bourgeois became the first trans person to be ordained as a minister by the United Church of Canada. You can read an interview with her about it in the March 2011 issue of the United Church Observer.

Our United Church has been at the forefront of struggles for justice and equality since our founding. We were the first Christian church to ordain women, starting with Rev. Lydia Gruchy, who was ordained in Moose Jaw in 1936. We were the first to allow married women to be ordained starting in the 1960s. We were the first to allow the ordination of openly gay and lesbian people beginning in 1988. And now we are probably the first church to ordain trans people. This history is part of our treasure even as it has also sometimes felt like a burden for the church.

People like me are pleased that the United Church consistently takes these stands on the grounds of hospitality, inclusion, and justice. But others may be dismayed by it, or perhaps are just tired of this aspect of our history.

I will always be reminded of Cindy when I read today's passage from Acts. But it could be that I am the only one here today who has personal experience with trans people. Perhaps I am also the only one of us who would use the contradictory passages about eunuchs in different books of the Bible as a window into the church's struggles around trans people. I can understand if some people would rather not deal with these issues.

This week, I read a column in the British newspaper the Guardian that urged liberal Anglicans to stop harping on the issue of equality for homosexuals. The author argued that "this focus has led straight young men to keep their distance [from church] . . . Most young heterosexual men are wary of a subculture that is highly exercised about gay rights."

He continues to write that "the relationship between Christianity and maleness has always been a bit tricky. This religion is pretty tough on the obvious male propensities: aggression, greed, cool scepticism, sexual pride. It encourages certain attitudes that contravene adult maleness: contrition, admission of vulnerability and weakness, empathy, and so on. Aren't these womanly qualities? Isn't this whole religion … a bit gay?"

His comments reminded me of something that Barack Obama wrote in his autobiography, "Dreams from My Father." In his 20s when Obama first lived in Chicago, he decided to become a Christian. He writes about a conversation he had with the minister of Trinity United Church of Christ, Rev. Jeremiah Wright. Wright, who later baptized Obama, said to him that "nothing is harder than reaching young brothers like yourself. They worry about looking soft. They worry about what their buddies are gonna say about them. They tell themselves church is a woman's thing -- that it's a sign of weakness for a man to admit that he's got spiritual needs." (Dreams from My Father, p. 282-3)

While I don't agree with the idea that liberal Christians should tone down our support for homosexuals or worry too much about the supposed femininity of church, I can see the points made by both Rev. Wright and the columnist in the Guardian. For many of us, changes in our culture during our lifetimes can sometimes feel like too much.

100 years ago, life was simpler in many ways. Virtually everyone was a farmer, which made choosing a career a non-issue. The best place to get news was at church on Sunday or at the train station when the mail arrived each week. There was no cable television, no Internet, no Twitter, no Facebook.

100 years ago, no one ever talked about homosexuality or about switching gender roles. Men had a standard script that led to masculinity and women had a standard script that led to femininity.

Today, some of that simplicity still applies for many of us. Some of us still get more of our news on coffee row than from Facebook. Some of us will never use a computer. For instance, my mother refuses to adopt the Internet no matter how much it would improve her ability to be in touch with her grandchildren. And I believe that all of that is OK.

It is the same thing with gender roles and sexual orientations. Like many people, I never question the places where I landed in those regards as an teenager. Probably the only time I will ever wear a dress is when I am preaching in an alb, as I am doing today!

And yet issues of sex, sexuality and gender keep landing on the agendas of our churches. Do all of us who worship in church have to continually deal with these issues? Well, I think the answer is "no." But at the same time, one never knows who is going to come through the church door.

When a trans person like Cindy asks a church if there are any barriers to her pursuing ordination, it has a decision to make. Almost all churches, I think, would have turned Cindy away at their door. They would have told her that she was a sinner and that the should repent lest she burn in hell for all of eternity.

But when the United Church of Canada was approached by Cindy Bourgeois, we chose the path shown to Philip by God's Spirit in the case of the Ethiopian eunuch. We embraced her as a child of God and realized that one's sexual status is not a barrier to being embraced by God's Love.

"What is to prevent me from being baptized or ordained?" Nothing. Nothing at all.

Thanks be to God.


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