Br. Robert Sevensky, OHC
RCL - Easter 5 B - Sunday 10 May 2009
Acts 8: 26-40
1 John 4: 7-21
John 15: 1-8
Today is the Fifth Sunday of Easter. But if you’ve been around parishes or churches, large and small, of whatever stripe, you’ll know that the real liturgical observance today is Mother’s Day. Indeed, a Methodist friend of mine once suggested that their whole spring calendar was ordered around this feast: the Sunday next before Mother’s Day, Mother’s Day itself, the week within the octave of Mother’s Day.
Certainly in my growing up days there was a whole series of tasks and obligations and observances: cards and gifts, hand made or purchased, long distance phone calls, breakfast in bed prepared by children or husbands, Mother and Daughter Communion luncheons, special trips to IHOP or reservations for brunch made long in advance at your fanciest local eatery (with sittings at 9, 11 and 1), family reunions, and, if you lived in a Catholic milieu, May Crownings or even living rosaries!
I’m sure some of this has changed over years…but not too much.
The idea of honoring mothers with a special day, though a 19th century invention, still retains resonance and power. Sentimentality is its hallmark, of course. But there are also the not-so-hidden themes of sensuality, fertility, birthing, nurturing, nursing, teaching, protecting, comforting, loving…qualities or roles that each one of us needed—and continues to need—in order to survive, to flourish, to grow, to mature. These lie very close to the surface today. And whether our biological mother or some else filled these roles for us, they must be acknowledged and honored. They are primordial and archetypal, at once biological and psychological and social, and deeply human. And to the extent that any of us fills one or another of these roles, whether physically or in some more abstract or extended sense, we too feel part of the great wheel of existence and claim our role in the great dance of life.
This is thus a great festival of fertility, of fecundity, of fruitfulness, of generativity, of spring, of veriditas, as the mystic Hildegaard of Bingen called it referring to God’s greening power.
How strange it is, then, that we should begin our worship today with a reading (Acts 8: 26-40) about a eunuch, that quintessentially infertile, non-generative, weak, strange, defective human person. What shall we make of that?
Earlier this week I was speaking with my sister and mentioned this strange contradiction. She thought for a few seconds and said: “Well, he had a mother too.” How true! And what a key to compassion. For every one of us here today had a mother. Indeed every human being had a mother. This is the great fact that in some way makes us all brothers and sisters. We all came into the world in the same way, just as we all exit in the same way, as the author of the Book of the Wisdom reminds us.
But nevertheless, what a contrast: mother & eunuch. It is image and counter image, type and anti-type.
Let’s spend a few minutes looking at this passage.
Chapter 8 of the Book of the Acts of the Apostles recounts two stories about the apostle Philip. And both have to do with religious outsiders, those who are ritually and culturally suspect or marginal. The first story takes place in Samaria, among our old friends the Samaritans, and has to do with healing power, a certain sad magician named Simon, and the spread of the Christian gospel there. Samaritans, as we all know by now, were considered defective members of the ancient household of faith. Yet Jesus seemed to have a special outreach to them, and so many powerful lessons about the universality of the Good News are made through the tensions and contradictions of their status. We need only mention the Parable of the Good Samaritan and Jesus’ encounter with the Samaritan woman at the Well.
Eunuchs were in an analogous position. They were defective in important ways, not intact, and therefore excluded from full participation in the covenant community of Israel. The Torah is quite explicit about this: “No one whose testicles are crushed or whose penis is cut off shall be admitted to the assembly of the Lord.” (Deut. 23:1) [I’d wager this is the first time you ever heard that passage of Scripture read publicly in a church!] Eunuchs could perhaps associate themselves with the People of God, but they could not worship in the Temple itself or offer sacrifice. They could never be fully included. They could never count.
Further, this unnamed eunuch riding in his chariot is from Ethiopia, and is thus presumably a person of color, and therefore, at least on the face of it, not a member of the majority household of Israel. Double exclusion!
Yet here he is—wonderful paradox—a devout believer who, like those Roman centurions and righteous Gentiles spoken of elsewhere in the New Testament, has found in the ethical monotheism of Israel a deep and liberating truth that has grasped his heart and set him free, in spite his outcast status.
And what is reading as he travels in his chariot on the long journey back from Jerusalem to Africa? The Prophet Isaiah. According to Acts, he is reading one of the Suffering Servant passages, prophetic words that Christians almost immediately saw as referring to Jesus and offering them a key in making sense of his life and death. The passage offered Philip his opportunity to witness and explain and journey with the eunuch and ultimately to baptize him into relationship with Jesus.
But just a few columns further along in this very scroll of the prophet Isaiah, are these very surprising words:
Do not let the foreigner joined to the Lord say,Maybe it was no accident that this man, this euncuh, was reading Isaiah that day. He needed a word of hope, a sympathetic author, an invitation to and a promise of a future. And maybe it’s no accident that we hear this passage today, on this Mother’s Day, we who likewise need a word of hope, a sympathetic author and an invitation and a promise of a future.
‘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.
It is very easy to fall into the trap of believing that we know what motherhood or parenthood or fruitfulness or fertility or generativity is. We think we know what productivity or success or status consists in. We are all too ready to measure it in others and in ourselves. And if you are like me, when you do this you inevitably come up lacking, you fall short of your own measure. But Isaiah tells that eunuch and he tells us: God has other plans, God has other measures. And of them we may know little or nothing right now. But they are more real and transformative than we can imagine.
Do eunuchs have children? Of course not.
Can eunuchs be faithful? Can eunuchs love? You betcha!
Do you or I have children? Maybe. Maybe not.
Can we each be faithful? Can we each be fruitful? Can we each love? Oh, yes!
Are there any eunuchs here this morning? You don’t have to identify yourselves. You know who you are. Maybe you are feeling dried up. Maybe you feel that your life has not been productive. Maybe you are facing infertility in one form or another. Or think yourself fruitless, deprived, or less than. Maybe you know yourself to be marginal or partial or barren or crushed or cut off. Do you ever feel that way? To you and to me, God says,
Happy Mother’s Day!
Because if you abide in God and God abides in you, you will be fruitful, fertile, green. You will have an inheritance and a progeny and an offspring that will astonish you.
Happy Mothers Day!
To you who have children and to you who don’t. To you who feel yourselves successful and you who count your life a failure in one department or many.
Happy Mother’s Day!
God is doing something great in you right now. God is inviting you and equipping you and preparing you to be exceedingly fruitful. And God can do this. It’s his job description. God is doing this, in you and me, right now, though we may know little or nothing of it nor even begin to imagine the shape of the outcome.
Happy Mother’s Day to any who hope in God’s greening, quickening power. And Happy Mother’s Day to us who for the moment have lost that hope.
Happy Mother’s Day, you who have made yourselves parents and partners, and Happy Mother’s Day you who have made yourselves eunuchs for the sake of the Kingdom of Heaven, you spiritual eunuchs.
Happy Mother’s Day!
Don’t forget to call home.