You’ve known Dennis and me now for 21 years and here’s something you never knew about us: one of our children, Al, is non-binary. That is, they identify neither as male nor female and prefer the pronoun “they.” This has been a very long process for them (and us) and a very difficult struggle – within and without. They are now to the point where they will be having surgery to make the outside of the body match what they know to be true in the inside. Al has felt all their life that they are an outlier, not fitting in anywhere because they knew at some level that the way others saw them was not the reality of who they are. Now that their outside presentation matches better the real Al, they find themselves an outlier for different reasons. People simply aren’t comfortable with their androgynous look. Once at a restaurant, we heard people nearby debating about Al’s gender – “Is that a boy or a girl?” Clearly, they were uncomfortable with Al and didn’t mind that Al or others around them knew it. I know this isn’t an unusual experience in Al’s life. They hear things like this, and even more disparaging comments besides, on a regular basis. The difference now is that who Al is presenting to the world is who they really are and they have much greater inner freedom and confidence. We’re very proud of our beloved child.
Al’s story came to mind as I’ve been pondering our reading today from Acts – Philip’s encounter with an Ethiopian eunuch. This unnamed person is Ethiopian which, in Greek, literally means “burnt face” and refers not to the country we know by that name, but to anyone with dark skin from a different place. We have a word in English that I won’t say but it carries the same connotation. At best it means an outlier.
This person is a eunuch, a man whose genitals are removed, either by choice or not, so they can serve in the Royal Court of their country. This practice was designed to make them “safe” to be around the royal women. So considered not male, nor female. An outlier.
We know this traveler is a Jew, or at least a Jewish inquirer, that is leaving Jerusalem after going there to worship. But because they are a eunuch, it probably means they were not able to participate in the same ways as typical Jewish men or women. This person fit nowhere yet still chose to make the trip. A faithful outlier.
Philip himself is a bit of an outlier, too. A few chapters before this he is chosen as one to serve at table rather than as a minister of the word. Yet he feels called by the Spirit to go to a deserted road, chase after the chariot and speak to whomever is inside. It’s not in his job description, but his deeper call is to serve the Gospel, so he follows his heart and his call not knowing if Peter and the others will support him in this or not; not knowing how open the traveler will be to what he has to share about Jesus. He is drawn by a force stronger than those concerns into something beyond what he could have imagined.
Philip’s conversation partner is a person of wealth and authority as a member of the court and educated as they are reading aloud from the prophet Isaiah. Yet they are humble enough to admit that they need some guidance in understanding fully the meaning of the passage. And they accept Philip as a guide. Why? I suggest it’s because they recognize in him passion, excitement and deep faith in Jesus and his way of life. They see Philip for who he is at his deepest level. Philip sees the traveler’s deep desire for Truth and understanding and speaks so eloquently and persuasively that the traveler is the one who says “What is to prevent my being baptized?” I hear it almost as a challenge from someone who has been excluded for so many reasons. Philip recognizes conversion when he sees it. He knows Jesus would never exclude this person for ANY reason and so jumps in the water and baptizes this newly minted follower of Jesus. One can only imagine Philip’s surprise as he is transported to a distant location to continue preaching the Gospel. How his ministry must have been transformed by this experience! And we’re told that the traveler continued on their way with great rejoicing. And why not?! Finally, they had experienced acceptance and inclusion. They belonged to Jesus and his way of life. Their life was forever transformed by the Truth shared by Philip.
The God who sent Jesus drew Philip to the chariot and drew the traveler to Isaiah, then to Philip, then to Jesus who tells us in today’s Gospel: “Everyone who listens to my Father and learns from him comes to me.” And “…whoever believes has eternal life.” And “I am the living bread that came down from heaven; whoever eats this bread will live forever.” EVERYONE. WHOEVER. NO EXCEPTIONS.
This has profound implications for us 21st century Christians as we live in a very divided, polarized world and find our church in the same state. Political candidates are claiming God as an endorser, and people of deep faith have differing opinions on nearly every issue. Christian denominations are finding themselves literally breaking in two over who can and cannot be ordained, and who can and cannot be married in their churches. Some Catholic bishops have weaponized the Eucharist by denying faithful members of the community the very Body of Christ because of what the bishops have judged as sinful opinions, and some clergy have used the pulpit to tell people who they must vote for if they are to be considered “good Catholics.”
We, as individuals, as followers of Jesus, faithful Catholics, and good Dominicans must, like Philip, hear a higher call. We are Jesus’ body – hands, feet, eyes, voice – and as such, our responsibility is to reach out and share the Living Bread in whatever small ways we can with EVERYONE, WHOEVER we meet, and especially those, like our Al, who are considered outliers for a whole host of nonsensical reasons. Somewhere, way down below all of our political, religious and personal differences, we are one. We are, each one of us – gay, straight, celibate, Republican, Democrat, Libertarian, black, white, Asian, Indigenous, Latinx, male, female or non-binary – we are all beloved children of God. And that’s the message that we are called to preach with our lives. There is no “them”, there is only “us”. No outliers, only family members. All are welcome here.