May 16, 2009

My husband has lost two close relatives in the last few weeks – a brother in law and a cousin. A co-worker has had three young cousins and an elderly aunt die in the last month. The news media are keeping us all on edge with their tallies of flu deaths. There is death all around us, and I know that no part of the world is an exception.

I’ve just come back from the meeting of the Anglican Consultative Council in Jamaica, and there were reports in each day’s newspapers of violent deaths: a fire-bombing where an 85 year old woman was burned to death, a middle-aged business woman shot to death as she came home from work and tried to remove her grandson from the car; the body of a ten year old girl found in the brush behind her home a few days after she disappeared.

The Native communities of

Minnesota know death intimately, particularly premature and pointless death. All those deaths leave big holes in the web of life. Those lives have been stolen from the treasure of families and human communities.

Sometimes connections to that web of life are severed in other ways. There was news last week of two women, born in a hospital in Oregon on the same day in 1956. DNA tests have just proven that they were sent home with the wrong mothers. They’re beginning to realize that their lives and identities are based on error.

The fellow that Philip meets on the road to Gaza may seem hale and hearty, but his condition means that he, too, has been cut off from that web of life. In the ancient world, people counted their significance in offspring, children and relatives who would carry on their name and story for generations to come. The eunuch has quite literally been cut off from those generations, and from a place in the community that might have given him value and meaning. He is clearly an important official, trusted with the queen’s treasury, able to take expensive transport to Jerusalem and buy a very costly scroll, but his connection to that web of life was stolen from him as a child or a young man. Stolen from him, in much the same way that the culture and livelihood of Native peoples were stolen away from them; cut off from the web of life, the land that gave meaning, so that their lands might be used for somebody else’s purposes. In the ancient world, eunuchs were made so for somebody else’s purposes – to look after the royal harem (the word eunuch literally means something like ‘guardian of the bed’).

In the ancient world, eunuchs were also cut off from the religious community. Deuteronomy (23:1) says that they can’t join the worshipping assembly – though by the time this part of Isaiah is written, he insists that they are welcome: “To the eunuchs who keep my sabbaths… I will give [them] an everlasting name that shall not be cut off” (Isa 56:5). Such a person had few ties or links to the web of meaning and humanity and loving kindness. He was largely alone, and even though he was a valued and trusted officer, his social definition lies in his physical condition: eunuch. This story doesn’t even give him a name. And without a name or relatives or descendants in the ancient world, you were pretty invisible, and when you died, you simply disappeared, forgotten and without meaning, for there would be no one to remember you or tell your story.

This court official has been looking for other connections. He has heard of the God of Abraham and Isaac, and even though he’s an outsider, he’s gone to Jerusalem to worship. He might have been permitted in the outer courts of the Temple. He’s bought a scroll and he’s reading those life-giving assurances of Isaiah, and he’s sensed the connection between his own condition and the suffering servant, “Like a sheep he was led to the slaughter, and like a lamb silent before its shearer, so he does not open his mouth. In his humiliation justice was denied him. Who can describe his generation? For his life is taken away from the earth.” In the sight of the world, the eunuch’s life has also been taken away.

He asks Philip, “is Isaiah talking about himself or about somebody else – like, maybe, me?” So Philip begins to tell the story of another man without a traditional family; he tells him the good news about Jesus, whose family is not one defined by DNA or offspring, but consists of those who love God and each another. You have to wonder what Philip must have said to him. Maybe, that it’s possible to be reconnected to the web of life, immersed once again in the living stream, and that Jesus is the way that happens. From now on, he doesn’t have to be alone, isolated, without meaning or relationship. He can be part of a body that does not die, that will live forever. Mr. Royal Treasurer understands and says, “here’s some water, baptize me now! I want to be part of that ever flowing stream of relationships. I want to be part of a family that lives beyond this life, of connections that last for eternity.”

When they come up out of the water, the Treasurer goes on his way rejoicing. The royal treasurer has discovered the treasure now planted within him, a treasure to watch over and guard, but not to keep safely hidden away. He goes home and shares that treasure with his fellow Ethiopians, and that land still counts this baptism as the beginning of its church. When the first missionaries went to Sudan a couple of hundred years ago, they found evidence of the Treasurer’s work 17 or 18 centuries earlier. The Sudanese also count him as their first apostle. Truly, his name has lived on, and indeed he has many descendants in that place to this day.

Whose story do we tell? Whose child are we, whose sister or brother? How is our identity carried on? Our job is to give thanks for the gift of all our relatives – our sisters and brothers and mothers and fathers in Christ, in whom we discover life that endures even beyond the grave. We can give thanks for the lives of those who’ve been snatched away from the web of life in this place, and keep telling their stories. But that’s only the beginning.

Our common task is to challenge this body of Christ, this family of God’s, to reach out and connect those who are cut off, who believe themselves abandoned. That royal treasurer didn’t respond to his amputation with violence, but too many of our brothers and sisters do. The violence around us is a result of not seeing the treasure in our midst – the treasure of a family that can reach beyond bonds of blood to those of love.

The people around the royal treasurer, and many of the Jews with whom he would have rubbed elbows in Jerusalem, likely saw him as a problem, a man without family or a “normal” place in the world. The kinder ones may have felt sorry for him. Some may have envied his position, though not his state. His ultimate treasure was discovering the good news that God loved him, and that his relationship with Jesus gave him a new family, and ultimate meaning to his life. In Jesus, producing offspring to carry on your name is not the goal or meaning of life. Loving your neighbor, and recognizing them as your relations, is.

The Royal Treasurer has found a different treasure – not the pile of gold he’s been put in charge of for the Queen of Ethiopia. He’s found the treasure of God’s love, a love without price or end. And it’s a treasure that doesn’t have to be kept locked up or kept safe – it’s a treasure that grows as it’s shared.

Who will you share treasure with today? Will you reach out and touch those who are cut off from that treasure? Who do you know who feels isolated and alone? Who is abandoned, depressed, or lost? Who needs the treasure you have? Start there. Start there, and don’t stop.