This morning’s Gospel circles back to one of Scripture’s most powerful preoccupations: the power of tribe.
…Of which, Scripture understands, there can be any number of versions – good ones, bad ones, and many more for which it isn’t so clear what word…what proper descriptor…you’re supposed to supply.
Those are the ones that probably come closest to most of the tribes we know.
In our context, “tribalism” is a way of talking about insularity, and when we talk about tribes, we are almost always being metaphorical.
In other contexts and other periods of history, people talking about tribe tend to mean it far more directly.
But the metaphor is no less powerful for all that.
Because belonging and not belonging are so close to the bone for us.
We were not made to be independent operators and can’t really function as such for very long,…or anyway, most of us can’t.
Maybe you read this week about the man who’s been the hermit caretaker of a small island off of Sardinia since 1984, supervising the safety of a beautiful place that nobody is apparently supposed to go but which somebody owns, anyway, and cares about…sort of.
It’s not entirely clear how it all originally came together, but apparently the hermit had started out from Sardinia in a little boat back in 1984, with a plan to sail solo around the world.
But it didn’t turn out to be much of a plan, I guess, because he didn’t get that far and hadn’t planned for a lot of contingencies, which I would think would be an important part of sailing around the world, but there you go…
So he had some sort of boat issue a couple of days out and made it to this island, which is where he had stayed.
And the original owner hadn’t apparently thought about the liability of having people wash up on his island, so he decided to let this guy stay in order to make sure anyone else who might turn up would beat it.
This has suited the hermit just fine.
Any aspirations he might have had to seeing the world apparently evaporated as soon as he arrived on the island.
Except that now the island has been sold, and the new owner has apparently decided that the hermit is getting a little long in the tooth, which from the hermit’s point of view was part of the point, but in any case…now the owner is working to evict him.
The hermit was..is…prepared to be philosophical about this.
But apparently, others are not.
The Sardinian Internet has gone wild.
There are Facebook groups.
There are crazy comments sections at the tail of every story in the paper.
There are those emails circulating where everyone over 40 hits “reply all,” and you know you shouldn’t, but you get sucked in anyway.
It’s big news.
People are seriously rooting for the hermit and his freedom to go do his own thing, whatever that is.
Even a hermit can turn out to have a tribe.
More poignantly, there are people who feel like hermits, I think, except without the beautiful island or any sort of decision to stay there.
People who feel marooned where they are or marooned in who they are – people for whom any sense of family or tribe, any notion that others can know what they’re going through or care, just seems impossible to imagine.
It seems to me that the Ethopian eunuch in today’s Scripture might have been one of those.
If you dig a little deeper into the story, it seems clear that he was a curious combination of insider and outsider.
There were any number of tribes to which the eunuch seemed to sort of belong, but none in which they squarely did.
That’s where the Gospel comes in.
But just to get a sense of how the story sets this up, let’s start with this idea of an “Ethiopian eunuch.”
A lot of people hear that and go, “Ok, Ethopia…I know where that is” or maybe “I can look up where that is, again.”
Most people hear “eunuch” and are like, “Ok, I know what that is…”
But it turns out that back in the day, these were more general terms.
“Ethiopia” often meant any number of countries in sub-Saharan Africa.
And a “eunuch” could mean something as simple as an unmarried adult man, someone not attracted to women, or what have you.
It was a social and cultural category even more than it was a physiological descriptor.
In any case, what we are told is that this eunuch has done well – they serve as the Treasurer for Queen Candace.
And yet, even with that high position in the court and all that comes with it, the Eunuch is outside.
Somehow, they have understood themselves to be Jewish, which most everyone around them at the court would not have been.
And I hear in that a kind of longing.
I hear in that a way of finding solace in a God who isn’t from where you’re from, perhaps because for all your success, you don’t consider yourself to be quite from where you are from, either.
The biggest office in the world…the most bespoke tailoring in the world…having Elon Musk on speed dial…whatever that might have looked like for the Eunuch…it wasn’t really all that much.
The Eunuch felt marooned.
And so imagine what it would have meant to have decided to step into a chariot and travel to the Temple.
To pack up your suitcase and call Citibank to make sure it doesn’t decline a whole series of out of town purchases. To tell the charioteer to plan the route.
To go to the queen…the queen…and tell her, “Your majesty, I’m sorry, but there is just this thing I have to do.”
What is that thing, exactly?
In the Jewish tradition, the final toast of the Passover table is to say “Next year in Jerusalem!”
It is a dream of return.
And the Eunuch seems to know something of that dream.
A dream of belonging.
The ancient hymn book of Israel, the Book of Psalms, has particular songs to sing as you travel upwards toward Jerusalem – some of the most joyous of the psalms, known as the “songs of ascent.”
And you can just imagine the Eunuch’s heart soaring as the chariot ascended toward this place of which they had dreamed, toward which they had prayed for so long.
Except that there was one thing that the Eunuch seems not to have known.
Because eunuchs were not permitted in the Jerusalem Temple.
It didn’t matter to have come all that way.
It didn’t matter to have newly minted money to spread around, to grease the wheels.
It didn’t matter to have wanted it…to have needed it so much.
It didn’t even matter to be one of the faithful.
There was not room in the tribe for someone like that.
And so our Scripture takes up the story when the Eunuch is sadly rolling home..sadly looking for consolation in a Bible that seems suddenly unable to speak to them much at all.
What seemed so clear turns out to be not so.
But, you know, this is the moment when God acts.
This is the moment when God’s hand comes down.
The stories of when Jesus was baptized describe a moment when the heavens opened, and a voice was heard, and a dove – the symbol of healing and wholeness and peace – the symbol of God’s shalom, descends.
For me, that’s what happens for the Eunuch when Philip appears and runs alongside the chariot and manages, somehow, to talk his way right up onto the platform.
God’s hand comes down. Shalom descends.
Somewhere in this conversation with Philip, the Eunuch hears that voice that Jesus heard—that voice that says, “You are my beloved child. In you, I am well pleased.”
And the Eunuch knows that they didn’t find their tribe.
It’s that, at last, after all this time…after all this journey…at the wit’s end of their longing, finally, finally…their tribe has found them.
Their God has found them.
Church, we all know what it is to be lost.
To feel lost.
To feel marooned.
Maybe even to be a hermit against our will.
But the voice of the Gospel is that voice that tells us that somewhere out there, God is looking for us.
Somewhere out there, the tribe of God’s people is looking for us.
For all the ways that people tell us we don’t fit, or the ways in which we know in our hearts that where we are is not where we belong, there is the Spirit that says, “I’ve got you. You’re mine. You belong with me. And our people are on the way.”
“Just hang in.”
“Just hang on.”
Because in the world that Jesus teaches us to look for, even a hermit can have a tribe…even a sinner can have a savior.
Everything the Eunuch had gone out hoping and searching for came to be found, though in the most unexpected and wonderful of ways.
Because in God’s world, there’s no sheep so lost that they can’t be found.
God is out on the roads, and God’s people are out on the roads, looking…
…Making it so that everyone knows they are a beloved child of God, with a claim on God’s attention and a place in God’s heart.
…Making sure everyone knows they have place in God’s world…
This is the good news that we are called by that same God to hear for ourselves, as a message to us.
And as we move out along the road in the days after Easter, as God’s people, it is the good news that we are called to share with a world waiting to be found.