Feast Day of Philip the Deacon
“So he got up and went. 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 . . .” – Acts 8:27
I imagine the Ethiopian eunuch as a delightfully androgynous soul – dark of skin, flamboyant, dressed in bright silks, bejeweled, his lips colored and his eyes lined with kohl. He is sitting under a parasol in a large chariot, and around him are mounted soldiers and attendants. A wagon carries tents and food so that he can camp in luxury on the journey home.
Does Philip, devout Jew that he is, hesitate to climb up into the strange, little. traveling world of this foreign pilgrim and accept his hospitality? If he does, we don’t hear about it. Instead we hear how he opens scripture to his host. Then, successful in sharing the Good News, he baptizes this precious soul, welcoming him into the family of Christ.
This story soothes my heart in these deeply troubling times. From the very earliest days of the church comes a gesture of profound acceptance and heart-felt welcome to a gender-fluid person. One of our very first deacons is seized by the Holy Spirit and driven to the loving acceptance of this queer man, this eunuch, embracing him not as someone who must change, but just as he is.
It’s a lovely synchronicity that Philip’s Feast Day falls on National Coming Out Day, an annual observance established thirty years ago by The Human Rights Campaign. As LGBTQ people, we celebrate our coming out, whether it was decades ago or yesterday, because that personal act of courage changes hearts. Speaking uncomfortable truths leads to the challenge of assumptions and values, making it just that much more possible for all people to live in safety.
Tomorrow is another observance, the twentieth anniversary of Matthew Shepard’s death. He died right here in the hospital in Fort Collins after having been transported from his wilderness road outside Laramie where he hung on a buck rail fence for eighteen hours. He was murdered because the perpetrators thought he didn’t matter, that no one would care about a young gay man. The priest who was then rector of my parish was the man who administered the last rites to him and consoled his parents. My partner, Rosean, and I went to his funeral in Casper. Both Father Bacon and I, in separate journeys (I didn’t know him then), were inspired by Matthew’s death to be much more open about our sexual orientation.
Telling the difficult stories is a civic act of profound bravery. The Church plays a vital role when we insist that those who speak their truth are respected and safe. We must also examine our own views when hard truths are told, seeking beyond our comfort the wide, life-enhancing perspective that is inspired by God. This is our duty as followers of Christ, who is incarnate Love.
I am a lesbian woman who has been in a relationship with my partner for thirty one years. I am very proud of my church, the Episcopal Church in the United States, for its journey throughout those years on its own wilderness road. Assumptions were challenged, beliefs were altered, comfort gave way to discipleship, and God’s holy angels inspired us to offer an authentic welcome to the LGBTQ community.
It wasn’t easy, and it isn’t over. May God continue to be present to us on wilderness roads, inspiring us to do the work it takes to change our attitudes and perceptions so that we continue to grow as people of welcome, God’s church, a church of love.