Not One Thing: A Homily on the Ethiopian Eunuch and Being Both Comfortable and Afflicted

At first glance, he had it all. 

But none of it made sense upon closer inspection.

It was like someone had put a puzzle together with their eyes closed.

The first thing Philip noticed was the fine chariot, driven by a servant and pulled by regal horses fit for an emperor. It certainly made a statement, a statement of not only wealth but importance and power. It was the kind of entourage meant to be seen and to impress. But, out here, in this desolate stretch of desert between Jerusalem and Gaza, at noon when the sun was at its most brutal, on a lonesome road, there was no one to impress because there was no one as far as the eye could see.

But this was indeed something to see because the second thing Philip noticed about that open-air chariot was there, sitting beside the driver, was the most well-dressed elegant person he’d ever seen. The person had the finest clothes imaginable and was bedecked in jewelry that glittered in the Palestinian sun. 

And he was trying to read a scroll as he went. 

Which was difficult, of course. 

Because the horses weren’t exactly trotting along at leisurely parade pace. 

And Philip had to sprint to catch up with them. 

He would have laughed at the sight of this stranger trying to read a massive scroll in a moving chariot while dressed in finery, except God unexpectedly and without warning had brought him to this place, for this person, for only God knew why.

When he finally caught up to them and the charioteer drew the horses to a stop, Philip was shocked to discover yet the scroll he was reading was written in Hebrew and he immediately recognized it as the words of the prophet Isaiah.

Now that was just about the last thing he had expected to find this person reading. 

Because it was clear this person wasn’t a local Jew. His skin, much darker than Philip’s, placed him as hailing from much farther south, perhaps in Ethiopia or the Sudan, in the realm of Kush, a curious country where it was said women, not men, ruled the land and inherited the monarchy. But to his surprise, the foreigner spoke to him in his local language. So that meant this stranger knew at least three languages—Hebrew to read the scroll, Aramaic to speak to Philip, and the Merotic language where this odd soul was from.

And he was likely just as intelligent when it came to politics and finances because, as Philip soon learned, this person was none other than the chief treasury official of the Kandake herself, the queen who ruled over the realm of the Kush.

This official was wealthy and powerful beyond comprehension and beyond all Philip’s experience.

At first glance, he had it all. But all the puzzle pieces didn’t quite fit.

Why in the world was this wealthy, powerful, intelligent foreigner riding in a chariot in this forsaken and desolate stretch of the desert during the hottest part of the day when anyone with any sense would be out of the sun? 

Why was this wealthy official poring over an Isaiah text not about power and glory, wealth and success, but all about shame and humiliation, about being despised and rejected, being cut off from the land of the living, being shorn and naked like a sheep before its shearers?

Anyone could see he was wealthy, powerful, prestigious, intelligent, privileged in almost every way imaginable. 

But that’s not all he was. 

He was also a eunuch.

And that meant he was either a servant, a slave, or perhaps born somehow different from the other boys. 

Beneath the layers of identity marking him as important, put-together, and someone of note was an outsider that nothing could ever fully change.

Maybe that’s why he had made the long pilgrimage from the Kush capital to Jerusalem, a 1,600 mile journey in an open-air chariot. Perhaps he was a Jew in exile making a pilgrimage, or a convert, or a God-fearer, someone who followed the Torah but never fully converted. We don’t really know a lot about him for sure, but we can piece some of the puzzle together.

What we do know is that in this section of Isaiah, eunuchs like him were promised entrance to the Temple as well as wholeness, restoration, and a heritage far greater than children.

What we do know is that he journeyed a very long way to worship in that Temple, but was likely barred from entering because he was a eunuch, because he was damaged goods, blemished, not a real man. It was like that everywhere for a eunuch.

Imagine the humiliation, traveling as a foreign dignitary in great wealth, as the treasury official of the Kandake, as the person for whom doors were opened, being turned away from the one thing you hoped to do, worship at the Temple in Jerusalem where eunuchs, you thought, according to Isaiah, would be welcomed. He had journeyed all this way, for the one thing all his wealth and status couldn’t buy him.

And then it suddenly dawned on him, perhaps, that no matter how powerful, no matter how wealthy, no matter how intelligent, he would never be enough.

Maybe that’s why he’s speeding away from Jerusalem down a road in the desert in the heat of the day where no one can see his shame, his humiliation, his rejection. Maybe that’s why he’s drawn to this passage in Isaiah about a suffering servant of God who is humiliated like him, who is broken and broken-hearted like him. 

Maybe. We can’t say for certain. But I can say this story reminds me of why one particular popular saying rings so hollow the older I get. It’s frequently quoted in reference to religion, to Christianity, to preaching, and, sometimes, is wrongly attributed to Scripture itself 

That we are to afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted.

I can’t tell you how troubling that sentiment is, especially when applied to the faith. 

How arrogant can we get to assume we know who exactly is comfortable and who exactly is afflicted.

At first glance, it’d be easy to assume the Ethiopian Eunuch would be among the comfortable, but deep down, he’s also among the afflicted. 

He’s both. At the same time.

Because he is not just one thing. He’s not a single story. And neither are we. 

It’s something I hope we remember, as individuals and as a parish. We live in a world that tries to reduce us to a single story, a stereotype. It makes us easier to pigeon hole and easier to market things to us. But this year especially, there is a danger of reducing one another to a single story. 

Because in the midst of an election season, we are already saturated in a narrative that marks us as one thing or another—a Republican or a Democrat, a liberal or a conservative, red or blue—by the way you dress, what kind of car you drive, food you eat, sport you enjoy, TV show you watch, news source you trust. 

It can be so tempting to reduce the complexity of the world and of each other to something as simple as good or bad, worthy or unworthy. That kind of absolutist dualism is powerful because it provides an easier answer to really difficult problems that require we work together, to compromise, or at least try to understand each other, to, as we promise in our baptismal covenant, to respect the dignity of every human being and seek to serve Christ in all persons.

Maybe one way we begin to love each other in this season, especially those who are different from us, is to remember we are not one story and that like the Ethiopian eunuch, there is a tender part of all us that is hurting, beneath the many layers of protective identity we have put on over the years. 

Maybe it was religion that did the wounding, or a parent, or a brother, or a sister. Maybe it was an institution, a colleague, or a mentor you trusted. Perhaps it was a loss, of a job, of a dream, of a child, of a hope. 

Like the Ethiopian eunuch and all it takes is one rejection, one denial, one loss, one trigger and the whole thing comes crashing down and we go off into the desert wilderness in a frantic search of a Savior. 

And God save us if we try to find that savior in anything other than Christ himself. 

What saves the Ethiopian eunuch is an encounter not with the mighty God who destroys the opposition with a flick of his wrist but an encounter with the suffering God, broken for us, humiliated for us, shorn for us, the God who enters into our pain and hidden woundedness, a God who can see and love in us even what we hide or despise. 

That is such good news; it’s like cold, refreshing water in the dry, scorching desert. 

And indeed, that’s how this story ends. 

With an unoccupied body of water, an oasis, miraculously materializing in the desolate desert at just the right moment.

You can almost hear the chariot wheels screeching to a halt, the thundering of horse’s hooves falling off into silence. You can almost hear the sound of the Ethiopian eunuch and Philip splashing in the water, immersed in God’s love and welcome. Like children who have finally arrived at the oceanside after a long car ride, they can’t get to the water fast enough. 

My friends, in this season, my prayer is that St. James will be just this sort of oasis in the desert, a place where we really do welcome all, love all, and serve all—all Republicans and all Democrats, all conservatives and all liberals, all gay, straight, or transgender folks, all rich people or all poor people, all housed or unhoused, all immigrants or all citizens, all black folks or white folks, all Latino, Asian or Pacific Islander folks, all our infants or all our elders, all our teenagers and all our parents.

Each week, as we gather, at first glance,all those diverse stories, all those markers of identity we or the world use to define us or divide us are readily apparent, easy to see, but also just as easy to see through. They are such a paper thin, flattened ways to describe the beauty and complexity I see every time I stand in the pulpit or at the altar.

We see more than that in each other. We see people we love and pray for, people who are celebrating or who are grieving, people who are beloved children of God, people who bear the image of God. 

When I stand here and see all of us together in our diversity and in our sameness, all those puzzle pieces fit, and I see nothing so much as the very body of Christ, wounded like Christ, but full of healing and wholeness for a hurting world.

This sermon was preached by the Rev. David Henson on the Fifth Sunday of Easter 2024 at St. James Episcopal Church.

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