Text: Acts 8:26-40 (Philip baptizes an Ethiopian Eunuch)
Hospitality is risky. The act of welcoming guests, visitors, and newcomers into our homes can get us in trouble. When we open our hearts to somebody new, we risk being changed by their perspectives. We risk altering the path of our life.
The University of Alberta is experiencing the risks of hospitality this spring. As it does every year, the University is giving honourary doctorates to esteemed Canadians at its convocation services.
This year, the hospitality it has extended to of one of its honourees, David Suzuki, has landed the university in hot water. At age 82, Suzuki is a famous scientist, public educator, human rights activist, and environmentalist. Because the University is honouring him, corporations and rich individuals have withdrawn funding. Professors have fired off angry tweets. Writers of letters to the editor have asked how this critic of the oil industry could be honoured by Alberta’s largest university and be given a platform to share his views with its graduates.
Perhaps the University thought it would be applauded for honouring one of its own – Suzuki briefly worked at the University in 1962 after earning a PhD in Zoology from the University of Chicago. Perhaps it thought it would be applauded for honouring an elder who turned his childhood experience as a victim of Canadian state racism – Suzuki and his Japanese-Canadian family were interned in the interior of British Columbia in 1942 when Suzuki was six-years old — into a lifetime of advocating for human rights.
Perhaps it thought it would be applauded for honouring Canada’s best-known science educator; for honouring someone who was voted the Fifth Greatest Canadian of All Time in a CBC television series in 2004; for honouring a voice who has argued for the needs of the environment and humanity’s sustainable place within it for decades; for honouring someone who 29 times before has been gifted with a doctorate by universities, including The University of Calgary.
Instead, the honour has led to a flood of abuse directed toward a Canadian icon. The doctorate has turned into an occasion to vent rage against Suzuki and the environmental movement of which he is a leader.
I think I understand some of the anger unleashed by the University’s act of hospitality to Suzuki. Edmonton’s post-War growth was kick-started by the discovery of oil in Leduc in 1947. Since then, hundreds of billions of dollars have been invested in oil, first in conventional wells and then, starting in 1967, in the Athabaska oil sands.
Before hydraulic fracking revolutionized the oil industry in the United States, all seemed upbeat. But with the drop in the price of oil, investment in the oil patch has slowed. And with continued difficulties in approving new pipelines, many Albertans fear that the oil sands may no longer drive economic growth here.
Now, if the Trans Mountain Pipeline had already been built; if oil were selling for $150 per barrel; if Alberta had recovered from the downturn of 2014-16; and if ten’s of billions of new dollars were pouring into Fort McMurray, then the anger directed to Suzuki might be muted. If oil were still king, perhaps more people would be willing to ponder the words of environmentalists like Suzuki who focus on the effect that the burning of several hundred billion barrels of oil over the past 150 years and the continued daily consumption of 95 million barrels more has had on the world’s atmosphere, oceans, and climate.
But the pipeline is mired in political wrangling; oil is closer to $70 per barrel than $150; Alberta has not yet fully recovered from the last recession; and new oil sands investments are not being announced. So today, many Albertans feel fragile and worried. This is the wrong time, they argue, to honour someone who argues against the extraction of heavy oil and the building of pipelines to transport bitumen to tidewater. This is not the time to be hospitable to a leader such as Suzuki.
But imagine if the outraged voices in Edmonton decided to join with the university to extend hospitality to Suzuki? What if those who disagree with his statement that the hard-to-extract oil in Athabaska must stay in the ground decided nevertheless to listen to him? What if they pondered if any of his ideas resonate with them? What if the economists who say there is no better way to organize society than expansion without limit spent time with Suzuki wondering how goods, services and social innovations might be produced and distributed in other ways?
Listening to his ideas might make us uncomfortable. It might make us feel bad about how the world is organized. It might make us fear for the future of our children and grandchildren in a world of destroyed habitats, mass extinctions, and climate chaos. And who wants that?
Suzuki will receive his honour in June. At that time, he may well speak about the consequences of burning fossil fuels. He may repeat his desire that humanity find a new sacred balance between economic activity and the health of the biosphere of which we are a part. But his words by themselves won’t shut down the oil industry. They won’t be the final nail in the coffin of the Trans Mountain Pipeline. They won’t bring about a new economic order in which competition is replaced by planetary cooperation and in which growth without limits is replaced by an accounting system that focuses on love, spiritual growth, and generational sustainability. Suzuki will speak, and the burning of fossil fuels will continue.
But I hope that the hospitality extended to Suzuki by the University of Alberta and the discussions it has sparked will expand our thinking and inspire our search for ways to live with abundance without also destroying the oceans and atmosphere.
Listening to contrary voices can be uncomfortable; and rage sometimes feels like a satisfying response. But rage doesn’t change the reality revealed by climate scientists nor does it do away with the environmental damage against which activists protest.
Instead of rage, I pray for hospitality. At home, at school, and at church, I hope that we will welcome new voices, listen to them, engage with each other respectfully, and give thanks when all parties are changed by the encounter.
In today’s reading from Acts, two very different people meet and extend hospitality to each other. Philip is an early follower of Christ who is spreading the good news of death and resurrection to other Jews. At the time, millions of Jews worshipped in synagogues around the Mediterranean.
When God’s Spirit sends Philip to meet an Ethiopian eunuch on a road leading away from Jerusalem, it has been several months since the death of Jesus. The apostles have fled persecution in Jerusalem. They are now preaching and healing outside of the city, and their numbers are growing.
The Ethiopian eunuch is in charge of the treasury of Queen Candace. He has come to Jerusalem to worship YHWH at the Temple, which suggests that he is a devout Jew. He is wealthy enough to travel by chariot and educated enough to be reading aloud from Isaiah.
But despite being educated and devout, the Ethiopian asks Philip to help him understand Scripture. Phillip uses the passage from Isaiah to talk about Jesus. He probably shows the Ethiopian how the portrait of a Suffering Servant in Isaiah could relate to the death and resurrection of Jesus.
Having heard this, the Ethiopian asks Philip to baptize him. Philip does so, at which point the Spirit of God snatches Philip away and the Ethiopian goes on his way rejoicing.
For me, the most striking feature of the story is that this convert to Christ is a eunuch. Though rich, powerful, and educated, he is also a man who was emasculated at a young age so that he would be incapable of fathering children and would be seen as less of a threat to the African Queen whom he serves.
The first readers of the book of Acts might have been shocked that God’s Spirit would send Philip to baptize a eunuch. Eunuchs were never part of the royal court of Jerusalem, and most Jews considered men who had been emasculated as unfit for worship. The biblical books of Deuteronomy and Leviticus call for discrimination against eunuchs.
However, this African eunuch is not reading from Deuteronomy or Leviticus. He is reading from Isaiah; and in Isaiah 56, we find the following:
“This is what YHWH says: To the eunuchs who keep my Sabbaths, who choose what pleases me and hold fast to my covenant — to them I will give within my Temple and its walls a memorial and a name better than sons and daughters; I will give them an everlasting name that will endure forever.”
The fact that Acts contains this story about a eunuch shows that the early church came down on the side of Isaiah instead of Deuteronomy and Leviticus in regard to sexual minorities. Just as Jesus shared meals with sinners and tax collectors and embraced every despised minority whom he encountered, so too the early church extended hospitality to everyone, including eunuchs whom others might shun.
This background adds poignancy to the question the eunuch asks Philip: “What is to prevent me from being baptized?” Perhaps he fears that his black skin or his difficulties in understanding Scripture might be a barrier. But above all, he may fear that his despised status as an emasculated man might be a barrier to his baptism. Happily, Philip sees none of this. He baptizes the Ethiopian who becomes the first person to bring the good news of Christ to Africa.
This story implies that Grace is available to everyone regardless of nationality, race, or sexual status. Although sexual minorities, then and now, encounter disgust and hatred from many people, God’s Love accepts us all.
The hospitality that Philip and the eunuch extend to each other is risky. The eunuch could have preserved his old understanding of God and rejected the news of the death and resurrection of Jesus. Philip could have clung to the prejudices of his childhood and refused to speak to a person many of his peers would despise.
But this is not what happened. Philip and the Ethiopian engaged respectfully with each other and were changed. The eunuch became the first Christian in Africa, and Philip learned that those whom ancient tradition says he should despise are instead children of God.
The story shows that any one — even a despised environmentalist, I would say — can become a fellow pilgrim on the Way of Jesus.
Hospitality is risky. It can expand our souls and enlarge our spirits in ways that lead us away from old certainties and closer to God’s realm of Love.
May it be so. Amen.