Celebrating the Ethiopian Eunuch: Black Trans Lives Matter

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Kyla Sisson live in community in Minneapolis, and is currently spending time at Sandhill CSA. She delivered the following message to the Community of St. Martin in Minneapolis on May 4, 2015. She is a welcome guest at Sandhill, and a welcome minister of the word by Gospel of the Absurd.

Happy May Day! And Happy Easter! It's Day 29 in the season of Easter, a whole season of celebrating. During Easter, we celebrate good news, from the power of God's liberation over death-dealing structures of oppression, to the presence of fiery spirit breathed into ordinary beings, God revealing her movements around us and through us at Pentecost. After 40 days wandering in the hard winter wilderness of Lent, lamenting the brokenness in us and our world, the Easter season gives us 50 days to practice rejoicing. Somebody knew we would need those 10 extra days to recover our celebration skills!

I know mine need work. After a long Minnesota winter, celebrating seems a bit unfamiliar. More than that, it's difficult for me to stay awake to the injustice in our world without becoming overwhelmed and discouraged. Grieving over how bad things really are is a necessary practice – it's what keeps us human. But we balance our practice of lament and confession with the practice of celebration, the practice of Easter: choosing to believe in, notice, lift up, participate in, and celebrate the work of the Spirit for liberation. It is our chance to say “Yes!” enthusiastically to God's heart for justice and vision of a beloved community.

The Spirit has been working on this vision for a long time. We are reminded of this today in the lectionary verses: John 15:1-8, Jesus' wisdom in the vineyard, and Acts 8:26-40, the story of the Ethiopian eunuch, which takes place in the beginnings of the Christian church.

Before we talk about the story, let's back up: What is a eunuch? When I was growing up, we didn't talk about eunuchs in Sunday school, and as I became older, I just assumed it meant anyone who had chosen to become celibate, who was then given special status: like a monk or a nun. It wasn't until I started reading and listening to queer theologians like Lewis Reay and Peterson Toscano that I learned about the actual lives of eunuchs. The Greek word literally means “bed-keeper,” someone responsible for taking care of a monarch's many wives. They were trusted with this position because of their inability to procreate, either because they were born intersex, or were slaves who were intentionally castrated. Peterson Toscano, a Quaker theater performance activist and Bible scholar, writes:

“In the ancient world a eunuch was a non-procreative male, usually castrated, and often castrated before puberty. This means they typically did not experience puberty with the rush of testosterone bringing about the lowering of the voice, the development of body hair, facial hair, muscles, and over time, a prominent brow. They looked and sounded different from the men and women around them.... In some places of the ancient world others considered them, and perhaps they considered themselves, another sex or a third gender. In the olden times there were men, women, and eunuchs, not a simple binary. In scripture eunuchs pop up throughout the Hebrew Bible and make brief but important appearances in the Christian Bible.

"Most people in the ancient world likely did not willingly choose to become a eunuch, even if being one meant service in a royal court with access to powerful people and information. This is likely true for many of the eunuchs in Bible stories. Perhaps because of painful experiences in life, they empathize with “the other” alongside them in the text; they relate to the vulnerable. Jeremiah is rescued by Ebed Melech, an Ethiopian eunuch (Jeremiah 38.) Daniel, like Esther, is parented and trained by a royal eunuch, Ashpenaz. Some scholars say there is evidence that Daniel and his friends serve as eunuchs in the Babylonian court. These are a handful of the dozens of eunuchs in the Bible.”

In Matthew 19, Jesus expands the definition of eunuch to include those who choose to become eunuchs for the sake of heaven. For more on the possibility that in this passage Jesus and his disciples take on the identity of eunuch, see Lewis Reay's essay "Queerying the Eunuchs."

Although eunuchs often had high status as officials within their royal courts, they were reviled by many and barred from the Jewish faith. Leslie Feinberg maintains that this is not an issue with Judaism, it's an issue of patriarchy: the rise of patriarchy in ancient societies began to solidify an unequal class system based property ownership passed down through family lines. As this system was codified into laws, those who did not meet the patriarchal standards of procreation were rejected: In Deuteronomy 23:1, we find the law that excludes eunuchs from this society: “No one whose testicles are cut off or whose penis is cut off shall be admitted to the assembly of the Lord.”

Yet the Ethiopian eunuch seeks God anyway, traveling to Jerusalem to worship. It is likely that he recognizes himself in the passage he is reading in Isaiah.

Enter Phillip, an early church deacon traveling the region to spread the gospel. Called by an angel, another Biblical figure transcending the boundaries of gender, Phillip meets up with the Ethiopian eunuch. What happens next is often told from the evangelizing perspective: Phillip wins a soul for the church. But is Phillip converting the Ethiopian eunuch, or does the Ethiopian eunuch convert Phillip? This is not your run-of-the-mill baptism, because the Ethiopian eunuch was an outsider, regionally and religiously. Early Christians were still arguing about who was welcome to join in Christ's new covenant, and many would have rejected this eunuch. So perhaps the angel was also whispering in the eunuch's ear, leading him to invite Phillip into his chariot and engage him in gentle questions, a strategy we see Jesus use to soften hearts throughout the gospels. By the time the eunuch asks if anything can stop him from being baptized, Phillip's heart is open to the spirit of God, which leads him to understand that the beloved community includes ALL. Abiding with the heart of God, Phillip steps away from the powerful position of gatekeeper and flings open the door to his community to all people. And abiding with the heart of God, the first black, transgender member of the church hears and accepts God's message that his life, too, is sacred and honored, stepping into the fullness of God's welcome.

They both listen to the Spirit's call and abide with the vine.

What does this story mean for us today? Modern western society is worlds away from first century Jewish and Greco-Roman culture. But our black, gender-variant siblings continue to be reviled. Standing at the intersections of sexism, homophobia, transhopia, and racism, trans women of color in our society are despised and valued so little that even using the bathroom or walking down the street is a risk to their lives. If you attended today's May Day parade, you may have noticed a sign bearing a quote from Lavern Cox, the black transgender actress in Orange is the New Black: "It is revolutionary for any trans person to choose to be seen and visible in a world that tells us we should not exist."

The reality is that our world would not honor the Ethiopian eunuch. Black, trans lives are not seen as sacred. In the first 7 weeks of this year, 7 trans women of color were killed. This reality calls for our response of deep mourning, righteous outrage, and faithful action.

The good news is that we spring from the vine of a God who breathes sacred fire into all life. Today, we have the opportunity to celebrate God's plan for justice, which has been in the workings for centuries. We celebrate our opportunity to participating in what God is doing, as branches growing from the vine of Christ. We rejoice in the gardener, who challenges us to grow in new directions. By abiding with Jesus, the Vine, by saying “yes” to what God wants to do in our reality, we are able to bear the fruit of justice and liberation.

Where is Jesus calling us to participate? What might it look like to abide in the vine this summer? I believe it means listening to and centering voices that lift up the sacredness of blackness. Hearing the poetry of Andrea Jenkins, local black transwomen, or eating the food prepared by Roxanne Andersen at Cafe Southside on Chicago Ave. To abide means standing up for the humanity of our siblings. To abide means preventing further attacks on local trans women of color like Cece Mcdonald: Dismantling systems of oppressive violence that continues to crucify bodies that do not look like ours, but are part of the body of Christ. To abide means unwriting laws in our city that were written to specifically criminalize the regular behaviors of poor people and people of color. To abide means building a city where people are not stopped while simply walking down the sidewalk, where people do not live in constant fear of being killed. To abide means standing with the Baltimore uprising: we can give financially, post about our support on social media, and talk to our friends and families. (UPDATE: Or to respond to the burning of black churches: see this resource for white faith leaders. ). We can speak about how Jesus turned over tables in anger at injustice, how he was seen as a rioter by Jewish authorities. To abide means showing up with our skills, our resources, and our bodies to surround the young leaders emerging to make change. To abide means staying awake and staying connected, witnessing the pain while remaining rooted in hope.

Anne Lamott has famously said, “Hope begins in the dark, the stubborn hope that if you just show up and try to do the right thing, the dawn will come. You wait and watch and work: you don’t give up.”

Celebrate hope! Affirm and honor the voices of the black, gender-divergent creators and prophets among us. And abide, abide, abide.

With thanks to:

Lewis Reay: “Queerying the Eunuchs” from the anthology Trans/formations

Peterson Toscano: “Eunuch-Inclusive-Esther – Queer Theology 101”

https://petersontoscano.com/eunuch-inclusive-esther-queer-theology-101/

For more, check out his play Transfigurations: Transgressing Gender in the Bible

Nadia Bolz-Weber, pastor of House for All Saints and Sinners in Denver, CO

“Sermon on Phillip and the Ethiopian Eunuch”

https://queermergent.wordpress.com/2009/06/08/sermon-on-phillip-and-the-ethiopian-eunuch/

Note: Nadia has seen Peterson's play Transfigurations. :)

To hear from black trans artists, see:

Josephine, spoken word piece by J Mase III (inspired by Peterson's play)

Andrea Jenkins - poet

Roxanne Anderson's KFAI radio hour, hosting the voices of queer artists of color

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