The Hospitable Mind

Pastor Seth

In the wake of Stephen’s stoning, Saul’s persecution spree, and the next leg of a preaching tour, a Spirit-led Philip finds himself on the wilderness road from Jerusalem to Gaza. Knees wobbly from exhaustion and throat parched from the desert heat, Philip hears the clopping of hooves and rattling of wood against metal signaling an approaching traveler. One hand holding the reins and the other a piece of parchment, we are introduced to the Ethiopian eunuch reading a scroll of Isaiah in between the bumps and jolts and clouds of dust along the beaten path. Inquiring what he is reading, Philip asks the eunuch if he understands the text. Instead of responding with defensiveness and the posturing of intellectual superiority, the eunuch invites Philip to take a seat and rest his legs beside him on the chariot, welcoming Philip’s words on the prophet.

An excerpt from Isaiah 53, the eunuch contemplates this “Servant Song” depicting a servant who is humiliated and treated unjustly. In gentile contexts, eunuchs were often considered the “perfect servant.” Without the ability to procreate, they held no familial ties, could not threaten royal lineages, and often were able to move across social boundaries and political lines due to transcending gendered binaries. They were considered to have special access to the spiritual and often held high ranks in office. This is likely how the eunuch would have been considered in his home community — not just accepted but revered. However, when it came time for him to worship God, this perfect servant would have been cast out, unwelcome and unaccepted in the temple by Jewish authority due to the nature of his identity.

Yet, the eunuch welcomes this Jewish man into his chariot, the two traveling together until his baptism on down the road after Philip teaches him about Christ. But the question I want to consider today is: what does the eunuch teach Philip?

Congregational Response

What does the eunuch teach Philip?

  • Curiosity and humility
  • Faith is participatory
  • Looking at familiar scripture in unfamiliar ways
  • The boundary-less-ness of God
  • Welcome and acceptance

Theological Reflection

In his seminal book, Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind, the late Zen Master, Shunryu Suzuki, opens with this enigmatic statement: “In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s there are few.” Credited with popularizing Zen in the west, Suzuki-roshi stresses the importance of shoshin to Zen practice, that is, the beginner’s mind: a mind unencumbered by preconception and assumption, free from expectations, judgments, and prejudice as if approaching something for the very first time. It is the mind of meditation, embracing the newness of what is presently rather than what was before or what might be later, trading certainty for openness.

The beginner’s mind is a hospitable mind, for while the expert already knows, the beginner experiences — engaging life from a posture of invitational awareness, a door swinging wide to welcome possibility. I wonder if this is part of what Jesus was trying to teach when he praises the example of children, child-like curiosity and a fascination with life and all it’s fresh unexpectedness the mark of the faithful. And I wonder, too, if learning this lesson is part of the reason why the Spirit led Philip along the wilderness road and into the presence of a hospitable traveler.

A Black African court official from ancient Nubia, the text reads that the eunuch was on his way home after journeying to Jerusalem to worship. Perhaps a part of a group known as “God Fearers,” a diverse class of Gentile sympathizers to Hellenistic Judaism, the eunuch worshipped the Jewish God but would not have been considered a full convert in the eyes of Jewish authority. In Deuteronomy 23, there is a list of individuals who are prohibited from admittance to the “assembly of the Lord,” and among the list are those whose genitals have been crushed or cut off. As a eunuch, someone who has been castrated, this Gentile traveler on the chariot would not have been permitted as an acceptable worshipper in the temple due to his gender and sexual minority status despite his obviously deep devotion to God. No stranger to exclusion, it is this stranger, however, who invites the road weary Philip to sit next him, welcoming his take on the prophet Isaiah.

“Do you understand what you are reading?” Philip asks.

“How can I, unless someone guides me?” The Eunuch replies — a response marked by the abundance of curiosity and an ego-less desire to be moved by the Spirit in new ways.

Philip accepts the ask for guidance and expounds upon the prophesy in Isaiah through a Christological lens, and the eunuch is overwhelmingly open to hearing these old verses with new ears. Philip does not teach by pointing to Deuteronomy or commenting on the eunuch’s identity before including him in God’s love. No, Philip teaches in a way that was overwhelmingly empowering to the religiously ostracized pilgrim — so much so that the eunuch wished to be baptized and left the waters in joy not in spite of who he was but because of who he was as a beloved child of God. Queer theologian and biblical scholar, Mona West, calls Philip the patron saint of the LGBTQ community — for he interpreted scripture in a way that left the eunuch, a member of a gender and sexual minority, rejoicing at his inclusion rather than lamenting over his exclusion. But all of this takes part, though, after the eunuch displays an openness to possibility and welcomes Philip into his chariot. It makes me curious if the eunuch’s hospitality (both physically and spiritually) is what inspired the hospitality of Philip’s teaching.

I wonder if the eunuch was so open to a fresh experience of scripture, so welcoming and generous in his offering of a seat next to him, so humble in his desire to learn and see his tradition anew, so eager in his beginner’s mind, that Philip could not help but be moved and inspired to adopt a similar posture of openness in his understanding of scripture. I wonder if the Spirit led Philip to the eunuch so that Philip might realize firsthand the true meaning of the Gospel before he continues to help build the church: that holy hospitality in mind, body, and soul will alway supersede humanity’s hoarding of truth, especially when it comes to who belongs.

There is something interesting about the passage of Isaiah that the eunuch is reading — particularly where it is located in the text. The passage comes from the Servant Song of Isaiah 53, but just three chapters later in Isaiah 56, we read of a prophesy concerning members of this religiously marginalized identity, and it is to a very different tune than Deuteronomy’s disregard. Isaiah 56:4-5 says, “For thus says the Lord: To the eunuch’s who keep my sabbaths, who choose the things that please me and hold fast my covenant, I will give, in my house and within my walls, a monument and a name better than sons and daughters; I will give them an everlasting name that shall not be cut off.” A far cry from no admittance. I have to believe that this passage in Isaiah 56 must have come to mind when Philip was explaining Isaiah 53. That this was perhaps a decisive moment for Philip, when it clicked for him just what this whole Christ thing is about: that belonging bears no race or ethnicity, no gender identity or sexual orientation, no social status or nationality, no degree or anatomy. All have always belonged in the eyes of God; we just choose not to ignore it.

We hold so tightly to our truths, clamping down on our claims so fiercely in the name of certainty that we make no room for the Spirit’s movement. We build our little empires of empirical facts, relishing in our perceived superiority and the illusion of contentment that comes from thinking “we” are right and “they” are wrong, that “we” are in and “they” are out. The “capital C”  Church, especially, has done an abysmal job of this: marketing the fallible truth of finite human beings with hidden agendas and projecting insecurities as THE truth all because a few verses in an ancient language from millennia old contexts were interpreted to suit our own comfort level. And so we decide to cherry pick our way through a library of books meant to be read as a whole, pasting our own prejudice on the Word and missing the point entirely. We approach faith and, consequentially, scripture, as if being included in God’s love is predicated on the exclusion of others, that faith is a competition and in order to win, someone must lose. But here comes the Ethiopian eunuch — disowned in Deuteronomy, yet enthroned in Isaiah.

Within the same Bible, we have texts that seemingly exclude a particular group and then texts that blatantly include that same group chapters, books, or testaments later. We cannot read exclusion without also reading inclusion, without looking at the broader stroke of scripture, which paints the picture of love and mercy, embrace and empowerment far more than it does hate and violence, exile and disregard. When it comes to scripture, there is a balance, and grace always weighs heavier than hate on the scale. However, it requires us to pay attention, to remain open to the newness of the Spirit working through the ink on a page. It requires a hospitable mind, a beginners mind, open to fresh expressions of the love of God revealed in a living Word — one that always privileges holy hospitality over humanity’s hoarding of truth.

When we dare to assert someone’s unwelcome, may we remember the eunuch’s openness and Philip’s allyship. May we remember that in the Word itself is everything we need to preach that everyone belongs.