Easter 5B Sermon (2006)

5th Sunday of Easter
Texts: John 15:1-8;
Acts 8:26-40; 1 John 4:7-21

EVEN EUNUCHS — A MOTHER’S DAY REFLECTION ON FAMILY

If you like evangelism, you’ll love Philip’s story. A spirit-led meeting with a court official, who happens to be reading Isaiah 53 and asking the right questions. I love the part where Philip runs alongside the chariot until he’s invited in. There is time to converse at leisure; there is water for baptism when required and requested.

The Ethiopian eunuch was a gentile God-fearer. But according to Jewish law, he couldn’t have been a proselyte; as a eunuch he was disqualified, and since many eunuchs were partially dismembered as well as castrated he couldn’t be circumcised. You probably didn’t want to know that; but you won’t understand the story without it.

This black African man (there was, by the way, remarkably little color prejudice in the ancient world) had been to Jerusalem to worship Israel’s God, and he wouldn’t have been allowed to celebrate the festival. Physically unfit, ritually excluded; all that way and no entrance ticket when he arrived. He could have prayed at a distance, but that was it. And yet Israel’s God still so captivates him that he’s reading Isaiah on the way home. Was there something in chapter 53, the song in Isaiah about the so-called Suffering Servant, that caught his eye? ‘In his humiliation, justice was denied him.’ I wonder.

There were two traditions of reading Isaiah 53 at the time. One saw the servant as the Messiah, but the sufferings were what he inflicted on the pagans. The other saw the servant as the righteous martyrs, but not as a Messiah. The picture of suffering simply didn’t go with being a Messiah. At least, not until Jesus of Nazareth came along and was raised as Lord on that first Easter. Philip, along with all the early Christians, puts the two traditional Jewish readings together. God’s Messiah did suffer and die so that the promise to Abraham and Sarah might be fulfilled, that they might be a blessing to all the families of the earth. (1)

The Da Vinci Code tries to bring even Jesus in line with our typical picture of family. It has him getting married and having children. But I think our First Lesson this morning challenges us to think in more expansive ways about family. Does our view of family even include a eunuch, someone who can’t have a conventional family? This Ethiopian eunuch was reading Isaiah 53 when Philip happened upon him. Had he also read Isaiah 56:3-5? Listen:

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.

“A name better than sons and daughters.” For eunuchs! Isn’t that amazing? Jesus’ calling out of motley individuals to form God’s people says that with God as our Father we are truly one family as beloved children of God, and that is to be the sole claim on family allegiance. (2)

As far as our culture is concerned, that is CRAZY. That’s bad. Does this story report the behavior of a good son, by conventional reckonings?

A crowd was sitting around him: and they said to him, “Your mother and your brothers and sisters are outside, asking for you.” And he replied, “Who are my mother and my brothers?” And looking at those who sat around him, he said, “Here are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother” (Mark 3:32-35)

It reminds me of the game improvisational comedy troupes play called “World’s Worst,” in which comics are given a category of “the world’s worst …” and have to supply entries for it. I’d enter this one in the category of “World’s Worst Message for a Mother’s Day Card.”

God’s way of family in Jesus Christ is just not our culture’s way of reckoning things. We appreciate our mothers, and I do think that we tend not to appreciate them anywhere near enough. But every Mother’s Day, I think also of all my friends, acquaintances, and fellow or former parishioners who feel judged as a failure by everyone around them because they don’t have our culture’s ideal: a lawfully married spouse (or at least a life partner) and kids, preferably living in a well-kept house the adults own. The floral-industrial complex — and far too many Mother’s Day sermons — leave them out entirely.

And then I think about some other mothers who won’t be getting flowers, breakfast in bed, or ice cream cakes this Sunday. I think about mothers in Darfur, Sudan facing agonizing decisions about which of their children to feed. I think about a mother in Zimbabwe I read about recently in the newspaper who wonders who will care for her children once the meningitis she’s suffering from — a treatable condition, but she can’t afford the treatment — takes her from them. I think of Hilton’s and Terry’s mother, our adopted sons from Liberia who still pray for their Mama Annie across the ocean. What has it been like for her to give up her children in such a situation of war-torn destruction and poverty. I have come to see her as loving the love of Jesus that our lessons talk about this morning. Mama Annie has loved her children for their own sake, in giving them up. She would rather have suffered their absence for the possibility of them flourishing elsewhere than to have enjoyed their presence to see them languish in such a desperate situation. For a lover, it is more blessed to give than to receive, even when giving pierces the lover’s heart. My image of birth mothers has changed: “She who does not care quite enough” has become “she who selflessly gives.” (3)

And as much as I want to love and appreciate and honor the women in our community who give of themselves to love and nurture the children I see playing in the aisles here this morning, I want to pose the question that seems unthinkable in our culture, and especially on this Sunday:

What if we saw every mama as our own mother or sister? What if we welcomed and nourished and stood up for every child as if each one was our very own flesh? Jesus’ love — the love we have received, and therefore are equipped to live out and pass along to our world — is such that he said, “I will not leave you orphaned”; instead, he gave us an Advocate, the Holy Spirit of truth. And this week particularly, my heart breaks for all of those children who will be orphaned today, and tomorrow, and the next day.

This is a situation that is within our power to change. Clean water, a mosquito net, a phone call made or a vote cast to stop subsidizing violence — a critical mass of small, simple things like that could give life to so many mothers and their children. So this Sunday, by all means give flowers, and ice cream cakes, and breakfasts in bed. Give all the love you’ve got to give to the women in your life. And because love — especially God’s love, Jesus’ love — is not a limited good, a finite pie, give a moment of your time, a second of your imagination, to other children’s mothers, and to orphaned children. Pray for the capacity to receive God’s love the way Jesus did, the way that overflows for the world. And please take a moment after ordering the flowers and signing the cards, to imagine what one person, one family, who dwell in Jesus’s love can do to help create a world in which every mother can see each of her children get clean water, good food, an education — a chance. Amen

Paul J. Nuechterlein
Delivered at St. Paul’s Lutheran,
Milwaukee, WI, May 14, 2006

Notes

1. The first four paragraphs have been an edited version of reflections by N. T. Wright, Twelve Months of Sundays: Reflections on Bible Readings — Year B (London: SPCK, 2002), 62-63.

2. Beginning with this sentence, most of the rest of this sermon is an edited version of reflections by Sarah Dylan Breuer at “Dylan’s Lectionary Blog” for the “Fifth Sunday of Easter, Year B.”

3. This expression of understanding and compassion for Hilton’s and Terry’s mother owes much to a similar sharing by Miroslav Volf in his book Free of Charge: Giving and Forgiving in a Culture Stripped of Grace (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2005), 11-12.

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