Sermon for the Fifth Sunday of Easter

+In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Those of you who heard my Maundy Thursday sermon will know that I have a love-hate relationship with The New Yorker; its editorial assumptions about religion frequently irritate me, but like Jack Twist in Brokeback Mountain, I might as well say to the New Yorker “I wish I knew how to quit you.” Nota bene: while most people know that line from the film adaptation, “Brokeback Mountain” was originally an Annie Proulx short story published in … wait for it … the New Yorker!

Anyway, an essay in last week’s edition irked me a bit. The piece was written by the U.C., Davis anthropologist Manvir Singh, whose point seemed to be that those who believe in conspiracy theories and “fake news” by-and-large only believe these things in a “symbolic sense.” Basically, those who die in rocket ships trying to prove that the earth is flat or who raid purportedly pederastic pizza parlors do exist, but are a tiny minority compared to those who claim to believe such things. Where Singh makes a distinction between factual and symbolic beliefs, I’d argue that the more likely explanation is that there is no such distinction (or at least it’s not widespread), and the majority just lack the courage of their convictions–probably a good thing when said convictions are silly at best and malign at worst.

What got me a bit bent out of shape, though, is that he argues that this is how most people hold religious claims. While merely positing this to be the case with regard to beliefs he thinks are logically inconsistent (including the doctrine of the Trinity), he is only able to provide one piece of hard evidence, and that about a rather obscure belief held by a very small group of Christians–namely the Dorze people of southern Ethiopia, who number fewer than 30,000.

Like the majority of Ethiopians, the Dorze are Oriental Orthodox Christians, but they appear to have a belief unique to their small tribe–namely, that leopards are Christian animals and thus do not eat on church designated fasting days. Singh, quoting a report by the French philosopher and cognitive scientist Dan Sperber, then notes that the Dorze do still guard their livestock on fasting days. Singh claims that this is because the claims “leopards are Christians” and “leopards are always dangerous” are believed simultaneously on different levels–the symbolic and the factual. What seems not to have occurred to either Singh or Sperber, is that other species of predatory cats, wild dogs, and poachers are just as if not more common in Southern Ethiopia than are spotted leopards, and perhaps this is the reason they guard their livestock on fasting days. Maybe the best approach here is to believe people when they tell you what they believe until there is very good evidence to the contrary.

Now, I’m not here to try to convince anybody that leopards are Christian animals. I’m more interested in why such a belief might have been propagated, and I have a hunch. In the thirteenth chapter of Jeremiah, the prophet, railing against his people’s wickedness and predicting the punishment of destruction and exile, writes the following:

Can the Ethiopian change his skin

or the leopard his spots?

Then also can you do good

who are accustomed to do evil?

In addition to striking the modern ear as borderline racist, it should strike anybody as rather fatalistic. Much later in the book, the prophet expresses hope of a restored Israel and a new covenant, but for those found wicked before the Babylonians conquered Jerusalem, there seems to be no hope for repentance and salvation here. A leopard cannot change its spots.

But this is precisely the sort of fatalism which Christ overturns, and which would have been the best news that the Ethiopian eunuch in our lesson from Acts (and no doubt those Ethiopian Christians who were among the first, historically, to embrace Christianity as a nation) could have possibly heard. Indeed, a leopard could change its spots, just as a people could embrace the good news of salvation.

The man at the center of this great event, whose name the Bible doesn’t give us, but whom tradition identifies as Simeon Bachos, is, for all his wealth and responsibility, doubly marginal from the point of view of the Old Covenant. He was a foreigner, whom the Law certainly demanded be treated mercifully, but whose race would always make him something other than a Jew by the reckoning of the time. What’s more, being a eunuch he would forever be seen as ineligible for participation in the fullness of Temple worship. Even so, he is drawn (no doubt by the Holy Spirit) to worship in what ways he would have been allowed, within the so-called “court of the Gentiles”, the area set aside for those termed “God fearers”–non-Jews who nonetheless recognized the supremacy of the God of Israel.

I was trying to come up with a good analogy for this. It is equivalent, perhaps, to the experience of a Protestant on pilgrimage to Rome, though even if he or she were denied the Sacrament, that pilgrim would still be permitted into St. Peter’s Basilica. Maybe it would be more like an Orthodox woman who finds Mount Athos to be the highest expression of Christian devotion, and decides to travel to its border only to look across. The fact that a developed European country in the 21st Century still has an autonomous region the size of some small countries which functions as a theocratic state in which no women are permitted to set foot, would likely offend you or me, as I think it should. But for Simeon Bachos, if “getting close” was the best he could manage, that’s what he’d do.

Now, the Good News which Philip preaches to Simeon in helping him understand the Prophet Isaiah is first and foremost that of Christ’s universal sacrifice for the forgiveness of sins. I don’t want to be understood to say that he’s giving a lecture about identity politics, here. However, the necessary implication of this Good News, which Simeon no doubt grasped, was that the fullness of this Gospel must apply to all, and full participation in the life of Christ’s Church is equally available to all, regardless of the accidents of race or gender or class or background. This ought, I hope to strike us as obvious, but the church has had a spotty record in living this out, to say the least.

If it helps one understand this overarching message, it’s no skin off my teeth if you want to believe that the leopard is a Christian animal who observes the fast. Maybe it’s even true; I doubt it, but I’m not prepared to argue against it by positing a metaphysically complicated, multivalent definition of the word “truth.” I think it is both more charitable and more evangelically tactical to respond to a genuine desire to be united to Christ to simply respond by saying, “here (at this font) there is water. What is to prevent it.”

+In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.