When you’re learning to preach, you get advised not to talk about things you don’t know about. If you were at church with me last Sunday you got to hear about how little I actually know about sheep, despite being from a country where the sheep outnumber the humans 5:1 and despite having had a pet sheep (called Timothy, after the dog in the Famous Five). I think the favourite thing I learned about sheep last week was that they are smarter than marmosets, but not as smart as rhesus monkeys!
This week the lectionary sets out a Gospel passage about vines and vinegrowing. My Mum and Stepdad lived in wine country for several years but to be honest I don’t really know much about vines and my one elective unit of horticulture in High School doesn’t really equip me to give much insight into how vines grow (I can make a cutting from a kalanchoe though, and my crop of strawberries were pretty nice as I remember!).
So this week I’m going to preach about an Ethiopian Eunuch.
Now you might ask how I could possible think I know more about Ethiopian Eunuchs than about vines. I could point you to the fact that Beijing is home to the world’s only Museum of Eunuchs (links may not be suitable for the squeamish!). However, I did not make a visit in preparation for preaching (and it wasn’t the prospect of the 8kuai entrance ticket that put me off).
I’ve been thinking about what a eunuch might have to say to a congregation of expats. About being both powerful (he was in charge of the Ethiopian Queen’s treasury) and marginal (couldn’t enter the temple, couldn’t be part of a traditional family, no offspring to remember him). About being “cut off”. I guess with the internet and telephone and even with flights most of us are not literally “cut off” from our families and/or friends. But at times of difficulty, of crisis, of sadness, of grief the distances feel huge and the inability to be physically present to one another comes into sharp focus. There are many hours of flying time (10, 12, 14, 18) and often large sums of money between loved ones. Times of rejoicing can also intensify feelings of being “cut off”.
Lately I’ve been reflecting on how being childless is different here than it was in New Zealand. In New Zealand there were relationships that made us important adults in children’s lives: Andrew and I are not parents but we are aunt and uncle and also godparents. Those relationships feel much more tenuous here, more difficult to sustain. It is hard to guestimate t-shirt sizes, let along keep up with interests and personalities. We are so grateful for the annual trip home, for skype and facebook, for photos and emails. But sometimes we feel a long way away.
Earlier today I was reading someone commenting on the ideal of two parents and children as the archetypical family. Family is both idealised and idolised in so many ways. There is much that can be good and healthy and life-giving about families. But families can also be places of wounding and disappointment and grief.
I’m going to preach about an Ethiopian Eunuch because in his boundary-transgressing baptism he became family to all of us who find life in Christ. And that family is family for everyone: those of us whose bodies and desires and fertility look like a traditional heterosexual family and those of us whose bodies and sexuality and family doesn’t. That’s how big God’s grace and love and life are, transgressing boundaries of tradition and categories. In Christ even the boundary between life and death was transgressed.
I belong to the same family as the Eunuch. His baptism in the desert and mine in a wooden church in small-town New Zealand are the same. We are family – as all humans are family but also in the particularity of the kinship we experience as we seek to walk in the Way of Christ. I’m going to preach about my brother the Ethiopian Eunuch because his story speaks Life to me (and I hope to the people I love and pray for and preach to too)