The following sermon was preached by Society Convener, Mother Erika Takacs, at the closing mass of the Fifth Annual Conference of the Society of Catholic Priests. It is a fitting inaugural post for the new SCP Blog: Tracts for These Times.
It was hot in the chariot, I imagine. Stuffy and still and hot. They had stopped on the side of the road, something to do with an axel that the eunuch didn’t understand, and so he sat, baking in the desert in his glorious, gilded oven. The high wooden doors trapped the heat, and the sun beating down on his uncovered head made the air shimmer before his eyes. The plush pillows had all been thrown to the floor an hour ago, but still the cloth beneath his legs felt uncomfortably wooly and warm. It was hot in the chariot, close and dusty, and the eunuch felt entirely trapped. Trapped in the still air of this chariot, trapped on this bleak wilderness road, and not least, trapped in this snarl of a biblical text. He glanced again at the scroll draped over his knees like an unwelcome blanket. The passage he had thought might distract him while he was trapped in this infernal box now only made him feel more claustrophobic. What in the world was Isaiah going on about? A man, some man, a slave who would suffer and bleed and yet utter not a sound, who would be humiliated and tortured, who would lose his life, silently, humbly, obediently. The eunuch had heard the text in Jerusalem, and now, days later, he found the prophecy about this servant still singing in his head, echoing with question after question after question. Who was this man? Was he a real man at all, because really, what kind of man would allow this? Even a eunuch would not; even a eunuch would at some point stand up for himself. So who was this man? Had these events already happened or were they still to come? Had the eunuch missed it already, or should he still be looking, and if he should still be looking, well, then where? In Jerusalem, back in Ethiopia, on this stupid, solitary road? Who, when, where…the questions spun around in the hot air of the chariot, dancing before his eyes like dust motes in the light. He glanced down again at the text; he knew there was some truth there, some truth beyond his own questions, but he couldn’t untangle himself enough to actually touch it.
By the time Philip arrived as his chariot door, the eunuch was sweating his way again through the text, sputtering and spitting out words that were only getting him more and more tangled up in his confusion and frustration. When he heard Philip’s voice, gentle and easy, “Do you understand what you are reading?” he was entirely too exhausted to be shocked by the directness of the question. No, of course, I do not. Do you not see how tied up I am in my questions? How can I unravel all of this myself, how can I understand this when there is no one to guide me? Yes, yes, of course I want you to explain it to me. Come in, sit beside me, tell me who, tell me when and where, tell me why.
And so they are off. They read aloud, together, and the questions begin. Is this a real man? Oh, yes, Philip replies. Who? Is it Isaiah? It is Jesus of Nazareth. Jesus of Nazareth – I heard talk of him in Jerusalem – is that where this happened? Yes it is. Yes, the eunuch echoes, and he feels the tightness of his bonds begin to slacken. The chariot begins to move, they pass through a shadow of clouds, a spot of cool in the heat of the day. The eunuch looks out across the desert, feels the beginnings of a breeze on his brow. He takes a breath and continues. Jesus of Nazareth in Jerusalem, yes. But why, he asks. Why did he allow this? Why did he give himself over to this? Love, Philip replies. Love? Love for whom? Why, love, Philip says, for you.*
They continue to talk. There are questions, answers. Philip tells stories, some ancient, some new. The eunuch argues, shrugs, argues some more. But as they talk, the eunuch feels bond after bond loosen and fall away. Soon, he and Philip are laughing, stumbling over each other’s sentences with exclamations of wonder and surprise. The eunuch feels his heart leap in his chest, he is overjoyed, giddy, impulsive, and when he hears the sound of water bubbling along by the roadside, he suddenly calls out to his driver to stop. He turns to Philip, eyes clear, and asks one, final, dazzling question – What is to prevent me from being baptized?
And there is only a resounding silence, only a holy silence, filled with joy and pregnant with possibility. And in that silence the eunuch hears the answer to his own question ring out in the depths of his being. And the answer is NOTHING. What is to prevent me from being baptized? NOTHING. And with that answer, he feels the last of his bonds fall away completely, and he is free, finally free to open the door of the chariot and step out into a new understanding, a new way of being, a new community, an entirely new life in Christ.
In the past few days, we have all heard about, talked about, worried about ways in which we can feel trapped by the world, by the incomprehensible woundedness of our cities, the frustrating challenges of the church, the baffling brokenness of our own selves. We all know what it is like to feel stuck and stifled, to feel as if we have nothing but questions that tangle us in knots. Who are we? Where have we come from? Where are we going, who will show us how to get there, and who will join us along the way? But this holy word of scripture assures us that if we are bold enough to ask “What is there to prevent us,” we will hear the very same answer – NOTHING.
There is only nothing – nothing to prevent us from that mystery, that wonder, that sacrament, that challenge to which God calls us. There is nothing to prevent us. Why? Because in his life, death, and resurrection, Christ, that suffering servant, has made it so. He has promised to be with us always, to step into the chariot with us again and again and again, to walk miles into the wilderness of our lives to find us and untangle us from the whatever thicket we have lost ourselves in. Christ has called us to be bold enough to ask that question – what is to prevent us?
What is to prevent us from being fully open to the mystery we worship? Nothing. What is to prevent us from reaching out our hands to the poor and reaching the heights of heaven? Nothing. What is to prevent us from proclaiming the fundamental relevance of the Gospel? Nothing. What is to prevent us, all of us, laity and clergy, from living out the fullness of our baptismal covenant? Nothing. What is to prevent us from doing authentic, transformational ministry for and with young adults, and old adults, and not-quite adults, and everyone in between? Nothing. What is to prevent us from living the truth that the world is our parish? Nothing. What is to prevent us from just starting to do mission? Nothing. What is to prevent us from bridging the achievement gap in our own cities and towns, across the entire nation and the world? Nothing. What is to prevent us, in this society, from starting a new movement, a new Anglo-Catholicism to transform the church, to transform the world? Nothing. What is to prevent us from intentionally inviting more of our women colleagues to join this society so that our membership and our national conferences reflect more accurately the fullness of our life together? Nothing. What is to prevent us from claiming in our rule of life that we not only center our lives on the Eucharist but also on our mission to the poor? Nothing. What is to prevent us from growing strong bonds between all of the provinces of the Society of Catholic Priests around the world, bonds forged in love, in word and deed, in holy food and drink? Nothing. What is to prevent us from being entirely flame and setting the world alight with the blazing truth of our salvation in our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ? Nothing.
What is there to prevent us? NOTHING. For Christ goes before and behind, beside, above and below, with us, always to the end of the age. Christ goes before us, now and forever, to the end of the age. What is there to prevent us?
Feast of Saint Philip, 11 October 2013, Conference of the Society of Catholic Priests
*I am indebted to the writing of Yann Martel, author of The Life of Pi, for the feel of these last few sentences.
Mother Erika Takacs is a founding member of the society in North America, currently serving as Society Convener. She also serves the associate rector at Saint Mark’s Church, Philadelphia. Outside of her work, her two great loves are reading and baseball. She is a member of the Holy Cross Chapter of the Society.