Text: Acts 8:26-40
This is a story about pilgrimage.
A pilgrimage is different than a trip, or a vacation. It’s different than tourism or site seeing. The difference is mostly in how one approaches the journey.
TS Elliot wrote about pilgrimage toward the end of one of his long poems.
With the drawing of this Love (capital L) and the voice of this Calling (capital C)
We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time. (Little Gidding, V)
To say “we”, “We shall not cease from exploration,” is to make this a common thing. This is not the calling of a select few. Pilgrimage is not just for the spiritual athletes among us, or the overly religious.
In the Canterbury Tales it’s not just the Nun and the Monk making the pilgrimage from London to Canterbury. It’s also the Merchant and the Physician, the Knight and the Cook, the Wife of Bath.
This is a human thing. We’re explorers. And when we explore well, we arrive back where we started, and know the place for the first time. Which is to say that we know ourselves, we know God, in a deeper and truer way for having taken the journey.
This story in Acts chapter 8 is about one particular pilgrim, and an encounter he has along the way with Philip, one of the original 12 disciples of Jesus.
We find out what the author wants us to know about this person within the span of a single verse: “Now there was an Ethiopian eunuch, a court official of the Candace, queen of the Ethiopians, in charge of her entire treasury. He had come to Jerusalem to worship and was returning home” (Acts 8:27).
This is our pilgrim.
The label “Ethiopian” had a fairly broad scope. It referred to anyone with dark skin, especially people south of Egypt, a black African. Ancient writers from the Mediterranean world often wrote about these peoples favorably, known for their dignity and handsome appearance.
Contemporary African American theologians point back to this black man – who is eventually baptized by Philip – as an indication that Christianity is not merely the religion of white slave owners. Long before white Europeans colonized North America and enslaved Africans, many of whose descendants became Christian…long before this, Christianity was thriving as an African religion in Africa, partly through the message this African man carried back to his people. And so, they note, when enslaved persons claimed Jesus as their own, it was not a submission to the religion of their oppressors. It can be seen as a re-claiming of something which had, over the centuries, become indigenous to parts of the African continent.
To say this pilgrim is Ethiopian is also to say that he is from far, far away. We are told he served as a court official for the Candace, the queen, and we know where that capital city was, and we know it was about 1500 miles from Jerusalem – one way. From Columbus Ohio to Santa Fe, New Mexico. This is not a pilgrimage one would take on a whim or every spring or fall. It was perhaps a once in a lifetime pilgrimage. If Jerusalem is the center of your world, as it was for the New Testament writers, this pilgrim is from the far periphery.
To say that he was a “eunuch” is to say something about his sexuality. In various cultures of the ancient world males who served in courts were castrated. This prevented them from being sexual rivals with their male superiors. Eunuchs were highly valued as loyal and trustworthy servants, serving in some of the most intimate aspects of a ruler’s life – personal grooming, a bedchamber attendant.
This would have complicated matters for our pilgrim headed to the Jerusalem temple. The Torah had something to say about people like him. Deuteronomy 23:1 says, “No one whose testicles are crushed or whose penis is cut off shall be admitted to the assembly of the Lord.” Last week Eliza noted that Psalm 23 was one of those scriptures her Sunday school teacher had them memorize even if they didn’t know why at the time. I’m guessing very few Sunday school teachers put Deuteronomy 23 on the memorization list, although it might be one thing from church kids would indeed remember the rest of their lives.
But eunuch didn’t always mean castration or mutilation. With “man” as the standard for what it meant to be a vital human, eunuchs were often referred to as “unmanned” because they no longer, or perhaps never had, conformed to gender expectations. In some cases, one might also be deemed a eunuch if it was determined that one did not naturally respond sexually to women. Our names for this have been homosexual or gay or queer.
Jesus likely makes reference to this in Matthew 19:12 in the context of why a man might choose to not marry a woman. He says, “For there are eunuchs who have been so from birth – there are eunuchs who have been so from birth, and there are eunuchs who have been made eunuchs by others, and there are eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of God. Let anyone accept this who can.”
In these words about why someone might not enter traditional marriage, Jesus makes space for three very different kinds of “eunuchs.” In reverse order: There are people who choose eunuch-hood, celibacy, or singleness, for the sake of the kingdom of heaven, freed from the bonds of marriage in order to carry out the work of God they are called to do. There are eunuchs made that way by others, by castration or mutilation. And there are “baby I was born this way” eunuchs.
“Let anyone accept this who can,” Jesus says.
Just as black theologians have delved into this pilgrim’s blackness, so queer theologians have delved into the breadth of meaning of eunuch – this fluid term that can more broadly mean someone outside the gender and sexual norms of male heterosexuality.
And so it is that one of the earliest encounters a disciple of Jesus has after Jesus is gone is with a queer, black unmanned man who may just as much have converted Philip as been converted by him. Philip, too, was on a pilgrimage to discover how gloriously wide and wondrous is the creativity of God, the love of Christ.
Lest we think this Ethiopian eunuch pilgrim is a completely marginal person, geographically, and sexually, we are next told that he’s in charge of the entire treasury of the Candace, the queen of the Ethiopians. He is a person of great power and access to wealth. He would have had many others under his command, a full staff, surrounded by advisors to help inform his decisions. He’s traveling this great distance in a chariot, no doubt with a full entourage. He had charge of the entire treasury. He held the trust of his ruler and his people. Unlike most people of his day, he is well educated and versed in world literature. He can read. When Philip meets him he’s reading from the Hebrew prophet Isaiah. He had just put down his copy of TS Elliot:
With the drawing of this Love and the voice of this Calling
We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.
This traveler is not on a vacation, and not merely on a trip or site seeing. He is on a pilgrimage. He has removed himself from his usual surroundings in order to go on a great journey to the land of the Jewish Temple – even though he was barred from certain parts of it because of who he was. The draw was still to encounter the holy. To explore that which is beyond himself, and to know the expanse of it all the more.
He is one of hundreds, millions, now billions of pilgrims. And he is not easily classified as this kind of pilgrim or that kind of pilgrim. He is a person of privilege. He is a person from the margins. He has power in a hierarchy. He has been “unmanned” or was never oriented toward the narrow confines of traditional manliness. He has a clearly defined role in society. He is fluid and moves outside of strictly defined categories of gender and geography. He is an explorer. He is a swirl of identities, ultimately beyond categorization, not reducible to titles or roles. He is a human being, and a pilgrim.
If you ever want to do a fascinating study you can read Acts chapter 8 alongside chapter 17 of the Autobiography of Malcolm X titled “Mecca” – the pilgrimage of the Ethiopian eunuch treasury secretary to Jerusalem in the first century, and the pilgrimage of the black American Muslim leader to Mecca, Saudi Arabia, in the 20th century. I had a good chunk I wanted to say about that, but it started to feel like an entirely different sermon. Maybe when this passage roles around in the lectionary again in three years.
If you’ve ever been far from home for whatever reason you know the feeling of both openness and vulnerability we feel in these circumstances. We are removed from the routines of our familiar surroundings. The answers no longer live in the well worn pathways of our neurological circuitry. Because of this we can become more intensely aware, more curious, more disoriented.
One of my favorite family vacation memories from childhood is when we got lost in Harlem…driving in our large baby blue station wagon pulling a pop up camper. We did emerge, eventually, with an extremely clean windshield. Multiple times us kids watched in amazement as someone would come from the sidewalk toward our car, voluntarily wash our windshield while we were locked in traffic, behind a red light, then wait patiently by the window. Fortunately, my dad knew this meant they expected some payment, which he always did. It was disorienting, and wonderfully re-orienting to a world larger than rural Ohio. It turned at least that part of the vacation into a pilgrimage.
The grand archetypal pilgrimages point us toward the small pilgrimages that come much more frequently. For a pilgrimage to count as a pilgrimage it need not be to one of the historic holy sites – Jerusalem, Mecca, Canterbury. Pilgrimage is a way of going about life. The difference is in how one approaches the journey. On the pilgrimage one is especially open to the messages one encounters along the way. Usually these encounters weren’t on the itinerary. Philip comes alongside you to interpret the scripture and tell you good news. Fellow hajis to Mecca show you brotherhood and sisterhood in a way you never previously imagined possible. Strangers come and wash your windshield and help you see the world more clearly, even if you’re still lost.
Pilgrimage is for everyone, and if you don’t take it yourself, it may come and find you.
One of the surest things of life is that we will make many journeys into unknown places. The question is whether it will be merely a trip or whether it will be a pilgrimage.
One of the joys of congregational life is that we see these pilgrimages happening all around us, and we’re enriched by them.
To those who have made the pilgrimage of coming out to themselves and their family and friends and the world: we are honored to know you and grateful for how you have expanded our world.
To those in stages of life ahead of us, making pilgrimage through adulthood as a single or married person, the pilgrimage with infertility or into parenthood and the empty nest that follows, into retirement, caring for aging parents, and the loss of various personal abilities: your stories help us see that the road can be traveled with grace.
To those making pilgrimage through the dark valley of cancer, or through divorce – loss of a hoped for future, we sit with your grief and share the simple joys that become all the more precious.
To all of us making pilgrimage through a highly racialized society with deep and lingering injustices, may we travel with courage and determination.
The gift of pilgrimage is that is offers a baptism. Under the waters of this baptism all of our swirling identities find their rest and home in the ultimate identity of being a child of God. Beloved to the core. A bearer of the Divine image.
With the drawing of this Love and the voice of this Calling we arrive back where we started and know the place for the first time.