by Rev. Elizabeth Rawlings
Why does it seem as though some weeks in the RCL finding something to preach on seems impossible, and other weeks every reading gives us at least one juicy direction for preaching. This week, there’s just so much good stuff. I’ll give you a few possibilities and one way (I think) it can all get tied together, if you are into that sort of thing.
We continue our readings in Acts with the story of the Ethiopian eunuch. If ever there were a time to reach out to your congregations about loving our non-gender conforming siblings in Christ, dear preachers, this is it. Do not back down. Lives depend on it. Literally.
Eunuchs were in a weird position in the ancient world. They were considered highly trustworthy, often serving as guards of important things or officials over important matters. They were also prohibited from being fully a part of the community of the people of Israel, as is stated in Deuteronomy 23 1-2. After a lot of research, I found that this either means eunuchs weren’t allowed to marry Jewish women *or* weren’t allowed to be in the temple itself *or* weren’t allowed to be in leadership. Regardless of the exact kind of prohibition, there were limitations on how eunuchs were to be included in community and they were allowed high trust and also limited in their roles in society. This man would have been considered only partially a man by his contemporaries and, indeed, by many people today. Not considered fully male or female, this man would have lived in a gender and sexual limbo as far as society was concerned.
We are living in a time in which we are re-recognizing that gender is not binary (I say re-recognizing because Judaism had/had 6-8 genders depending on who you ask, and many other cultures throughout history have had space for more than two genders). For many this realization has led to a new found freedom and ability to be oneself. For many others, this reorientation around gender is scary and that fear all too often turns into anger, hate and violence. And for far too many people who find themselves outside of the gender binary, there is a space where this freedom and fear clash that ends up in depression, suicide, rape and murder. 45% of transgender people have attempted suicide. Forty Five percent. Transgender women are four times as likely to be victims of violence than cisgender women. Trans women have a one in twelve chance of being murdered; trans women of color have a 1 in 8 chance of being murdered.
I have trans and gender non binary friends who -- here in liberal Seattle -- are harassed on the daily. Friends who some days don’t feel like going outside at all. More than once I have found a transgender youth on the doorsteps of our ministry looking for help because they had been kicked out of their home.
It seems as though we do not have room for people in our society who do not fit into the gender binary western society at some point decided on as fact (science also disputes this “fact”). At best, we push them to the margins and do whatever we can to keep transgender and gender non conforming people out of the public sphere (like, for example, not letting them pee in public spaces or refusing to use the pronouns they request be used). At worst, their lives are taken through physical and/or emotional violence.
And yet here in Acts we have a story that tells us that God’s kingdom is big enough for those who do not fit into the gender binary. Philip does not tell the eunuch that he must change in order to be baptized. He shares the good news of Jesus Christ, the eunuch claims HIS right to baptism right then and there and Philip is like, “Let’s do this.”
The story of scripture is a story in which God’s love is continually opening to more and more people. Jesus consistently breaks boundaries and invites people into communion with him that were considered other by those around him. The apostles continue this work in their travels and with whom they share the message of Christ. Philip was instructed to do this. He was straight up told by God to go get in the cab with that dude who was a man but had no testicles, tell him about Jesus and get him baptized.
In a time when trans people are both more visible and more at risk than ever, this is an important word to preach. Be brave. You can totally tie this into the call in 1 John to love one another. Throw in a little bit of this: “20Those who say, “I love God,” and hate their brothers or sisters, are liars; for those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen. 21The commandment we have from him is this: those who love God must love their brothers and sisters also.”
An additional direction that I want to write about briefly is the idea of abiding in God. I have been thinking a lot lately about the difference between abiding and believing, particularly with the way some of us western Christians do belief. For far too many of us (and our parishoners) belief is an intellectual exercise, an assent to the existence of Jesus as God and agreement with (most) of the creeds. So long as we say the yes we’re good, right?
But the author of John, both in his gospel and letters, speaks of abiding in Christ. It is through abiding in Christ that we bear good fruit, according to today’s reading from John. What does it mean to abide in Christ? How does the world look if we see the world through Christ’s eyes, and love the world through Christ’s heart? How would we be different? Might we, perhaps, be able to see people as the beloved children of God they really are? To feel the pain of those we hurt and to love them more deeply? Would our fear and hate and suspicion melt away? How does this help us read the story about the Ethiopian eunuch? How does it help us view the world?
Be brave, preacher friends. There are quite literally lives at stake.
Definitions and more information on LGBTQIA+ issues: http://queergrace.com/encyclopedia/
References on gender in Judaism: https://www.sefaria.org/sheets/37225
Statistics on violence, depression and non-binary genders: