The following sermon was preached at saint benedict’s table on Sunday April 29, 2018.  You can also listen to the live recording or subscribe to our podcast. Just click here.


May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts be acceptable and pleasing in your sight O Lord, for you are our rock and our redeemer. Amen.

Before we dive in I have some recommendations for further reflection. While I certainly don’t remember every sermon I have ever heard, I remember the sermon Jamie preached here three years ago on tonight’s passage from Acts.  I remember what I was doing when I heard first heard it on our podcast – chopping vegetables, I must have missed church that week. I remember saying out loud, “Wait, what?” and I remember that my tears had nothing to do with onions. Check it out.

And then while you’re at it, check out Austen Hartke’s new book “Transforming.” It provides the basis for a lot of what I am going to say tonight.

“I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing.” (John 15:5)

In John’s gospel, Jesus creates this metaphor where he is a vine, we are the branches and God is the master gardener carefully tending to the plant and pruning each branch so that we produce more fruit.  Elsewhere we are told that the fruit we are to produce is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. (Galatians 5:22-23) Good stuff.

What is our role in this process? We are to abide. We are to remain connected to the vine.

My spiritual director recently retired, and I miss her because she is a no-nonsense type of person who managed to make it clear that I was safe and loved, while going straight for my weak spots.

Every single month she would ask these two questions, “How have you wasted time with God this month?” and “How’s the sitting still going?”

Two pointed ways of asking me roughly the same thing, “Are you abiding in the vine?”

She knew that if she asked me how was I being active in my spiritual life, how was the action going I’d have more than enough to talk about.

She also knew that the honest answer to her question would regularly be, “not well,” or something similar to what I tell the dental hygienist about flossing my teeth: “the two days before I see you and the two days after are great.”

It is hard to abide.

In this gospel passage, Jesus is sharing an important truth with us, he is the vine, we are the branches, and God is the master gardener, but how does a person get to become a branch in the first place? Do you have to be born onto the vine? Can new branches be grafted on? If new branches can be added, what would the selection process be for those new branches? What sort of pruning is required to keep the plant healthy and producing good fruit?

These are the questions that the early Christians were wrestling with in the book of Acts.

And in Acts it rapidly becomes clear that the answer to the question, “Can new branches be grafted on,” is “yes!”   3000 new branches were grafted on in one day in one instance and 5000 in an afternoon in another. (Acts 2:41, 4:4)

The selection process for new branches is a bit more confusing. It’ll take them awhile to sort that one out and they, like us, will mess up time and time again as they keep assuming that they, and not God, are in charge of creating the criteria for inclusion.

And the pruning? Well, it turns out circumcision will not be required for these new branches.  And neither will traditional Jewish dietary restrictions. And there will be gentile branches, and Samaritan branches and all kinds of other unexpected branches.

What this early Jesus movement is learning, over and over again, is that God doesn’t care about the same categories that they care about, that we care about.

But we’re not there yet. The stories that lead those early followers to reach most of those conclusions occur after tonight’s story. When Philip responds to the angel’s call to go into the wilderness things like circumcision and who can be included are still very much up for debate.

But the hints of where this whole Jesus adventure is going to take them are becoming clearer – it’s going to take them into new and unusual territory.

Shonda Rhimes is the creative force behind shows like Grey’s Anatomy and Scandal. If you watch TV on a Thursday night, the odds are good that you are watching something she created. Odds are, I’m watching too. In her book, “Year of Yes,” she talks about the experience of being an F.O.D. :

I am what I have come to call an F.O.D. – First. Only. Different. We are a very select club, but there are more of us out there than you’d think. We know one another on sight.  We all have the same weary look in our eyes… (138)

It takes a lot of work to be an F.O.D. You’re constantly scanning the horizon for danger, constantly asking the question “Am I welcome here?” “Will I be safe here?”  In many settings, you’re also constantly, whether you want to or not, teaching other people how to treat F.O.D.s – which pronouns to use, what considerations need to be taken into account when designing events or public spaces, what kinds of questions are, or are not, appropriate to ask.  Being an F.O.D. can be exhausting.

Many of us in this room have had the experience of being an F.O.D.  It could be for a host of reasons from your skin colour to your sexuality to the fact that you’re the first person in your family to go to university. Whatever your thing is, you know that in certain situations if people were to sing that Sesame Street song, “One of these things is not like the others,” you’re that thing.

In many ways, the book of Acts tells the story of a First. Only. Different. religious movement trying to figure out how they relate not only to the world around them, but to people who also happen to be F.O.D.s who want to join them.

Tonight’s passage from Acts begins with the word “then.” This story takes place after a story in which Philip has been spending time in Samaria inviting people who were previously unwelcome into the new community.  That’s an F.O.D. experience.

The old boundaries are falling away.  A good Jewish boy would avoid Samaritans, and now Philip is worshipping alongside them.

And then, an angel of the Lord tells Philip to go and travel south on a wilderness road between Jerusalem and Gaza, and he does and as he is walking, he sees a eunuch from Ethiopia coming toward him.

My knowledge of eunuchs is limited to Bible stories and episodes of Game of Thrones, so I did a little more research this week.

Although the practice was forbidden in Jewish culture, it was fairly common for their neighbours in what became Assyria, Babylon, and Persia to use castration to punish criminals, to identify someone as a slave, or to create people who could safely transgress gender norms. Eunuchs were considered to be neither male nor female and as such they could move easily between gendered spaces.  A eunuch could spend their days guarding a King’s harem or work in close contact with a Queen without raising anyone’s eyebrows.

This is probably what happened to the eunuch in today’s story. As a child he may have been identified as a person with “potential,” as someone whose intelligence and demeanor would be of benefit to the royal household so he was made into a eunuch. “He” became a “they.”

And whether or not this was something they would have chosen for themselves, they did indeed have potential. Not only does this eunuch work for the Queen, they are her chief finance minister – a high position indeed.

When Philip sees the eunuch from Ethiopia approaching, the Spirit tells him to join them and Philip starts running. I love that detail. Philip doesn’t walk, he runs.

Hearing that the eunuch is reading from Isaiah, Philips asks “Do you understand what you are reading?” and the eunuch responds, “How can I, unless someone guides me?”

And so Philip and the eunuch dive into an impromptu study of a passage from Isaiah that we commonly call the Suffering Servant song. (Isaiah 53:7-8)

Only two verses are quoted, but I like to think that perhaps they read on a bit further than this as well. And if they didn’t, I think it’s fair to assume that Philip was familiar with the next couple of chapters. So let’s wade in some speculative territory for a few minutes. Three chapters after the section quoted in Acts, we read this in Isaiah:

Do not let the foreigner joined to the Lord say, “The Lord will surely separate me from his people”; and do not let the eunuch say, “I am just a dry tree.” For thus says the Lord: To the eunuchs who keep my sabbaths, who choose the things that please me and hold fast my covenant, I will give, in my house and within my walls, a monument and a name better than sons and daughters; I will give them an everlasting name that shall not be cut off.  (Isaiah 56:3-5)

This seems to be a pretty unequivocal call for eunuch inclusion, but it was never put into practice.  The Jewish community grabbed the pruning shears out of God’s hands and made a few cuts. So, when the Eunuch travelled to Jerusalem they would not have been allowed to convert to Judaism or participate fully in temple worship.  Their gender transgressive identity ensured they would never be included.

So now on the trip home, it makes sense to me that the eunuch is searching the scriptures. It makes sense to me that the eunuch has a few questions.

And Philip may have had to explain the interesting case of the Jewish eunuchs.

As I mentioned earlier, around the time that Isaiah was being written, Israel’s neighbours had a habit of castrating slaves and the Israelites had a habit of becoming those slaves.

And as castration is not reversible, but slavery can be, when they are no longer enslaved and in exile, the Israelites had to figure out what to do with the eunuchs in their community.  They also needed to figure out what to do with people of mixed race or in mixed marriages, another by-product of their time in exile. Their clean categories were being challenged by their lived experience.

It is in this context that God says  “Do not let the foreigner joined to the Lord say, “The Lord will surely separate me from his people”; and do not let the eunuch say, “I am just a dry tree.” For thus says the Lord: To the eunuchs who keep my sabbaths, who choose the things that please me and hold fast my covenant, I will give, in my house and within my walls, a monument and a name better than sons and daughters; I will give them an everlasting name that shall not be cut off.  (Isaiah 56:3-5)

God, the master gardener, seems pretty determined to graft foreigners and eunuchs onto the vine.  But what about the Jewish people? It seems they were less eager, and this injunction was never implemented – and less we get a superior feeling, our track record in this area has been pretty awful as well.

So the eunuch may actually be asking two questions when they say, “Is there anything preventing me from being baptized?”  Anything God’s says? Anything the church says? Anything you Philip will say?

It is not enough to know that God will include them, I suspect the eunuch was very aware of our human tendency to want to grab the pruning shears and put God the gardener out of a job.

And in the context of a human community, it’s not enough to know that God’s welcomes you, you need to know that the people welcome you too.

Look, the eunuch says, there is water here and I want to be baptized.

Is there anything that prevents me from being baptized? Does my race prevent me? Does being a eunuch prevent me? Does anything about me prevent me from being baptized?

Philip’s answer is to baptize the eunuch.

After baptizing the eunuch, Phillip is “snatched away” by the Spirit of the Lord – another great little detail that is never fully explained – and the eunuch from Ethiopia, who never sees Philip again, goes on their way “rejoicing.”

This week I had a conversation with a member of this community that I’m going to take some artistic license with. It went something like this:

“If I live fully into my identity as an F.O.D., will you excommunicate me?”

They were fully aware that I do not have the power to excommunicate anyone, and the question was asked at least in part as a joke, but it’s still a question I want to take seriously.

Remember our gospel passage? I am not the gardener, and neither are you. God decides who gets grafted onto Jesus the vine, I don’t. And you don’t either.

So when someone asks the same question as the eunuch in our story, “What is there to prevent me from being baptized, from being included?” I want to respond just like Jesus does, just like Philip does, and just like the church in Acts will increasingly do by saying that the thing or things that makes you the First. Or the Only. Or the Different.  Whatever those things are, they are not valid reasons to exclude you.

You are welcome here. All of you is welcome here.  So bring all of who you are to this space, to this community, and, in a few minutes, to this table.

Being baptized, being included, causes the eunuch to rejoice, and church tradition tells us that their joy was so contagious that it became the seed of the church in Ethiopia. That’s some pretty impressive fruit.

Just imagine what kind of beautiful fruit we could produce if we were to follow their example.