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Last week, as part of my work as regional dean, I visited a woman in North Van who has connections to St Martin’s. St Martin’s is an Anglican Church in the North Lonsdale neighbourhood. The congregation there merged with St John’s in South Lonsdale about three years ago now. While a good number of folks went with the merger to St John’s, some landed at St Agnes in Grand Boulevard, some at St Catherine’s in Edgemont, and some here at St Clement’s in Lynn Valley. 

A while back, I had delivered a plaque to this woman that was dedicated to her great grandparents who had been long time members of St Martin’s. When I delivered the plaque, she was telling me about this dogwood tree in her front garden, how magnificent the blooms were in the springtime. She told me that she’d phone me when it was in bloom so I could come back and see it. 

Last week, I got a call from her and I rode my bike over. It was spectacular, of course! We have some of the most incredible blossoms in Vancouver, don’t we? As we were chatting, this woman tells me that she planted it 52 years ago as a cutting from its ‘mother tree’ at St Martin’s. Five decades later here was this piece of St Martin’s history right smack in the middle of her front yard. 

As I mentioned, when the St Martin’s congregation closed three years ago, members of that church spread out across the North Shore with several members joining St Clement’s. Visiting this dogwood tree last week was an illustration for me of our gospel passage this morning about the vine and the branches. In particular, it was an invitation to hear the part about the branches which are cut off from the vine and thrown into the fire a little differently than I’ve heard it in the past.

Sure, we can read this text as many Christians have as a warning to those who stray from the faith—that if you fail to “believe in Jesus” you will be cut off from the vine and thrown into the fire of eternal damnation. Recently, I’ve been listening to a series on YouTube called “Welcome to Hell.” It was recommended to me by Joanne. Thanks, Joanne! It’s by a retired New Testament professor, Dr Bill Yarchin. He talks about how interpretations of passages like this one that Christians have used to illustrate, or threaten eternal damnation, are actually quite niche. The idea of hell as a place where people go when they die if they fail to subscribe to a particular version of Christianity, this is a theology held only by a fraction of the church in the grand scope of Christian history. This notion of being cut off and thrown into the fire as a doctrinal statement of hell is one particular branch, if you will, of Christian thought from one particular branch of time. 

I stumbled upon an interpretation of this passage recently from our time and place, one that I find particularly compelling, from Wes Howard-Brook and Sue Ferguson Johnson of the Wild Lectionary blog that encourages preachers to read the Bible through the lens of wilderness theology. They ask if the branches that are cut off could be seen as kindling for fire that brings warmth and light? They point out that the cutting of the “fruitless” branches from the vine is actually an entirely normal part of vine growing—that the cutting away of branches that at one time bore much fruit, but have come to the end of their life cycle, that this allows more fruit to grow and blossom elsewhere. Surely, the good fruit, the gifts that the former members of St Martin’s (and Mount Olivet, for that matter) have brought to the various churches on the North Shore is evidence of the merit of this interpretation.

This leads me to our reading from the Acts of the Apostles for today: a well-known story about Philip the Ethiopian eunuch who meets one of Jesus’ disciples, Philip, on the road from Jerusalem to Gaza. We’re told that this is a wilderness road, a.k.a. a place where prophecies are told—where visions are cast of a more peaceful and hopeful world. Here, we meet this person, who, because of their inability to reproduce (to have children), or because of what today we would call their sexual and gender orientation, is categorized in the ancient world as a “eunuch.”  They have a foot in both worlds—what being on the road between Jerusalem and Gaza and all. 

On the one hand, they are separated from society because of their gender; on the other hand, they are “a court official of the Candace, queen of the Ethiopians, in charge of her entire treasury.” They’re making serious bank! This is often the case for gender and sexual minorities, yeah? You have a foot in both worlds—the world where you are who you truly are and the world where you mask up, do what you have to do to make a living. 

And, the story goes that this eunuch is baptized by Philip in some water on the side of the road, on the way from Jerusalem to Gaza. And, it’s the eunuch, by the way, who points out to Philip, “Hey, here is some water, what is to prevent me from being baptized? What is to prevent me from being grafted into this vine, included in this Jesus-believing community of yours?”

As an aside, this story is where I draw my theology of baptism from. A colleague of mine likes to say that he’s “promiscuous” when it comes to baptism. I think I’m the same way. The church has a set of guidelines for baptism—good guidelines—when it is appropriate to be baptised, what might be a good occasion for baptism, et cetera. And, I’ve learned over the years that more often than not, the reason I say yes to holding a baptism is because the person seeking it has come and said, “Hey, here’s some water; what is to prevent me from being baptized?”

Whether or not their reasons align perfectly with my interpretation of the guidelines, whether or not this person has ever darkened the door of a church or ever will again, is kind of irrelevant at that point. It’s the branches that have been cut off from the tree that show us where new life, where new fruit is blossoming. 

Beth sent an article to me over the weekend. Thanks Beth! The author made a really interesting point about the Ethiopian eunuch and the fact that they had been reading from the prophet Isaiah when they met Philip. The author surmises that, after the eunuch had been baptized and Philip whisked away by the Holy Spirit, the eunuch would have continued on their journey, the pages of the prophet Isaiah still open before them. Maybe the eunuch would have continued reading? Maybe they would have come upon this passage from Isaiah chapter 56?

Do not let the foreigner joined to the Lord say, The Lord will surely separate me from his people,' and do not let the eunuch say, 'I am just a dry tree.' For thus says the Lord: To the eunuchs 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.

“For someone who [had been] shunned from the sacred assembly” the author writes, “it must have come as a surprise [and a total joy, I would add] to read that God had something special in store for [them]. What an amazing thing, to discover that in God’s eyes, [they were] welcome and accepted.” 

What an amazing thing to discover that in God’s eyes we are never just a dry tree ready to be cast into the fire to be burned, but a monument and a name that will never be cut off from the everlasting name. What an amazing thing to discover that on the road from Jerusalem to Gaza, there is opportunity for God to dwell profoundly amongst people who might otherwise pass each other by. What an amazing thing to discover that it’s the people we’d least expect, the people we sometimes count as outsiders who show us the way.


Works referenced:

Wes Howard-Brook and Sue Ferguson Johnson, “Easter 5, Year B: Entwined in the Lifegiving Vine” in Wild Lectionary (19 April 2024). Accessed online

Brynn Craffey, “Face to face with the other” in Wild Lectionary (23 April 2024). Accessed online.

Gregory T. Smith, “The Ethiopian Eunuch and Transgender, Intersex, & Asexual Folks” in Breathing Space (19 June 2023). Accessed online.

Bill Yarchin, “Welcome to hell” (St James, Newport: 11 February 2024). Accessed online