The Conversion of Phillip by a Gender Transgressive Foreigner

3 years ago I preached a sermon on Phillip and the Ethiopian Eunuch that became seminal to the identity of House for All Sinners and Saints.  This text came up in the lectionary again this week and I was asked to preach it again.  What follows is my adaptation.  The audio is not available due to a technical glitch.

Acts 8:26-40

The 1980s pop star Tiffany has a hermaphrodite[1] stalker who helped me write this sermon 3 years ago. Kelli, the stalker in question, doesn’t know that she helped me.  All she did was walk into St Mark’s coffee shop where I was struggling to write a sermon about Phillip and the Ethiopian Eunuch.  This shocked me because there is a documentary called I think We’re Alone Now – about her and another Tiffany obsessed fan, and I had literally watched it just 2 days before. And then she walked in weird, right?  But I was ashamed that, before I could stop myself, I felt disgust or something close to is, at how both male and female she seemed, not androgynous like David Bowie or Annie Lenox; Kelli had long hair like a woman and a face that seemed both female and male, and breasts and a man’s midsection and thick legs. I’ve been around gay men and queer gals and drag queens and transgender folks most my life and yet I felt disgust the day I saw an intersex woman in a Denver coffee shop.

And that didn’t feel good since I had just written the first draft of a pretty self-congratulatory sermon on inclusion in which I take a couple pot-shots at Christians who aren’t as “open and affirming” of the GLBTQ community as we are at House for All Sinners and Saints.

My denomination had been fighting about the issue of human sexuality for years at this point.  The argument was over the ordination of GLBTQ folks and if Lutheran pastors would be allowed to preside at same-gender unions.

And the argument my denomination was having about inclusion “The Gays” mirrored the argument 40 years earlier around the ordination of women which mirrored the argument in the early church around inclusion of Gentiles. Which means that disagreements over “inclusion” happened approximately 20 minutes after Christianity started.

See, much like the early church who were convinced that Gentiles could only become Christians if they changed into being Jews first (which, for the record, involved a rather unpleasant process for the fellas), well, like that, a segment of the church today thinks that if we extend the roof of the tent to include “the gays” then the whole thing will come crashing down around us. For them, the tent of the church must be protected from being stretched too thin and collapsing in on itself. Some Protectors Of The Tent suggest that we must “evangelize” the gays – ie. change them into us before they will fit. Several organizations exist to help queer folks “pray away the gay” (which, for the record, involves a rather unpleasant process for everyone and oh, by the way… doesn’t work) Meanwhile the other side of the church, the liberal side, is all about “inclusion”;  we are the Extenders of the Tent and must stretch the tent to include the marginalized, the less fortunate, the minorities. Our job is to extend the tent until everyone fits because we believe in inclusion. And this was the point of the mediocre and self-congratulatory sermon I wrote about the Ethiopian Eunuch.

But there I was, the pastor of a GLBTQ “inclusive” congregation and I feel revulsion at seeing an intersex person.  It was humbling.  And it made me face in a very real way, the limitations of “inclusion”.  If my salvation is in my ability to be more inclusive than the next pastor, then there are several problems with this.  One, I will always, always encounter someone: intersex people, Republicans, criminals, Ann Coulter etc who I don’t want in the tent with me.  Two, inclusion cannot save me.  Because sometimes while I am writing a sermon about how wonderfully inclusive we are of sexual minorities a intersex celebrity stalker walks into the coffee shop and I react with something far from a gracious desire to include them and well,  then I have to re-write a perfectly bad sermon.

So instead I wrote about how a few weeks earlier, our dear Stuart had shown up to liturgy wearing slacks and button down shirt rather than his normal ironic Grease Monkey jacket and jeans.  Earlier that day he had stood as Godfather and baptismal sponsor for the child of a straight couple, Charlie and Duffy (who now are part of this church) who had known Stuart for a number of years.  Apparently after the baptism there was a little reception back at Charlie and Duffy’s house.  To Stuart’s surprise they got all of their guests attention so they could say a few words about why they had 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’.  I heard that story as his friends saying to him you, Stuart convert us again and again to this faith.

Growing up I always heard the Phillip and the Eunuch story called the Conversion Of The Ethiopian Eunuch. I was always told that the message of this text was that we should tell everyone we meet about Jesus because in doing so we might save them.  We might convert them.  We might change them into being us. But after thinking about what Charlie and Duffy said about Stuart I began wanting to call this story from Acts not the Conversion of the Ethiopian Eunuch, but the conversion of Phillip.

Because in the story the Eunuch was riding along the desert road in his chariot reading Isaiah, returning from Jerusalem having gone there to worship. But If he was reading Isaiah surely he was also familiar with Deuteronomy, specifically 23:1 which says No one whose testicles are cut off or whose penis is cut off shall be admitted to the assembly of the Lord.  (hands up if you had that one as a memory verse growing up)

The point is that this law strictly forbids a Eunuch from entering the temple.  Their transgression of gender binaries and the inability to fit in proper categories made them profane by nature.  They do not fit in the tent.  But the Eunuch went to Jerusalem to worship despite the fact that in all likelihood he would be turned away by the religious establishment.  The Eunuch sought God anyway despite the fact that he had heard there is no love for you here.

So, when the Spirit guided Phillip to that road in the desert I wonder if she guided him to his own conversion. When Phillip joined this person who sought to worship God despite his exclusion from the tent, maybe it was Phillip himself who was converted to the faith.  It was perhaps even a mutual conversion.  Maybe because Phillip and the Eunuch only asked each other questions.  If you go back and read it you’ll see that the only commands came from God and the command was go and join.  Go and join the other.  What we don’t know is if the Spirit also gave the Eunuch a command to invite.  Invite this nice Jewish boy – representative of all that clings to the law and rejects you from God’s house.  Invite him to sit by you.  Go…join…invite…ask questions. Perhaps Phillip in his encounter with this gender transgressive foreigner learned what seeking the Lord looks like.

I started to think that maybe I can’t actually know what this Jesus following thing is about unless I too have the stranger show me.  Or maybe even an intersex person.  I regret not meeting Kelli, not having her join me at my table, not asking her questions. And this is far more than “inclusion”. Inclusion isn’t the right word at all because it sounds like in our niceness and virtue we are allowing “them” to join us – like we are judging another group of people to be worthy to be included in the tent.  “inclusion” seems like a small thing.  A charity.  A mercy. But the truth is that I need the equivalent of my Ethiopian Eunuch to show me the faith.  We continually 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 the eunuch from being baptized? or me the queer or me the intersex, or me the illiterate or me the founder of Focus on the Family.  Until we face the difficulty of that question and come up as Phillip did with no answer…until then we just look at the seemingly limited space under the tent and either think it’s our job to change people so they fit or its our job to extend the roof so that they fit.  Either way, it’s misguided because …it’s not our tent.  It’s God’s tent. The wideness of the tent of the Lord should concern me only insofar as it points to the gracious nature of a loving God who became flesh and entered into our humanity.  The wideness of the tent should only concern me insofar as it  points to the great mercy and love of a God who welcomes us all as friends.

So maybe here in this story of the conversion of Phillip and the Eunuch is some hope for the church and maybe society itself.  That under God’s really big tent we might ask questions, invite those who represent the establishment to come and sit by us, to stay in the scriptures, to be converted anew by the strange and the stranger, to see where there is water in the desert, to enter fully into the waters of God’s mercy with foreigners, with the “not us”. And to go on our way rejoicing having converted each other to this beautiful, dangerous expansive life of faith.

 

 


[1] The term “hermaphrodite” is generally considered offensive but it more known and understood  (however imperfectly) than the more appropriate term “interest” the term which is then used throughout the sermon.  I chose to start with the familiar term and switch to the appropriate one rather than starting with a language lesson. In no way am I intending offense, rather I am confessing my unfortunate reaction.

 

About Nadia Bolz Weber

I am the founding Pastor at House for All Sinners and Saints in Denver, Colorado. We are an urban liturgical community with a progressive yet deeply rooted theological imagination. Learn more at www.houseforall.org

  • http://brainatthedoor.blogspot.com Hugh

    Thank you, we all need reminding that it is God’s tent and not ours from time to time.

  • Keli

    Stopped me dead in my tracks, “It’s God’s tent” did! Thank you, Nadia.

  • Janet L. Bohren

    Nadia,
    Such a good sermon…wish all churches could hear it preached. Remembering we are in God’s tent, not our tent is so important. By the way, I think you meant “intersex” not “interest” in your note (1).
    Wishing you many blessings in your ministry and time to be with your family,
    Janet
    Janet Bohren, Lebanon, OH

  • Sandra Orrick

    Just marvelous. I don’t see how anyone could refute words so lucid & logical.

  • http://stjohns-online.org Gary Roth

    Great message! The Good News is always all about God and what God is doing – and always is a challenge to us! Thanks!

  • Pingback: church of the not-fitting-in-people « ein neues kellion

  • http://registeredrunaways.wordpress.com RunawayChristian

    Understandably, this is one of my favorite Bible stories. The first one that I felt so intimately connected to. Here’s my little post on it:http://registeredrunaways.wordpress.com/2012/08/29/best-bible-story-ever/

    I loved yours!


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