Monday, April 30, 2012

The Real Issues of Faith
Posted on 4.30.2012

From William Stringfellow's book Free in Obedience:

[T]he people and the things which an ordinary Christian comes into contact from day to day are the primary and most profound issues of his faith and practice...For me, the day to day issues are like these:

--a young, unmarried, pregnant girl--who says she is afraid to confide in either her parents or her minister--comes to see me to find out how her unborn child can be adopted.

--a convict writes to ask if a job might be found for him so that he can be paroled from prison.

--a college student, unable to find summer work, borrows twenty dollars.

--a woman, who has found another man, wants a divorce from her alcoholic husband.

--a Negro is arrested because he protested discrimination in the city.

--a seminarian is discouraged and disillusioned about the churches and thinks he cannot and should not be ordained.

--an addict want to get out of the city to try again to kick his habit.

--a family is about to be dispossessed from their tenement.

--somebody is lonely and just wants to talk.

These represent, in my life, the real issues of faith, just as the daily happenings in your life, whatever they may be, are the real issues of faith for you. The real issues of faith for the Church have to do not so much with the nature and structure of the ecclesiastical institutions as with illegitimate childbirth, or imprisonment, or with the problems of those who are unemployed, broke, estranged, persecuted, possessed, or harassed by the premonition of death. The real issues of faith have to do with the everyday needs of [people] in the world and with the care for and service of those needs, whatever they may be, for which the Church exists.

The Church Year and the Lectionary Commentary - The 5th Sunday of Easter (Day 1)

Acts 8:26-40
26 An angel from the Lord spoke to Philip, “At noon, take the road that leads from Jerusalem to Gaza.” (This is a desert road.) 27 So he did. Meanwhile, an Ethiopian man was on his way home from Jerusalem, where he had come to worship. He was a eunuch and an official responsible for the entire treasury of Candace. (Candace is the title given to the Ethiopian queen.) 28 He was reading the prophet Isaiah while sitting in his carriage. 29 The Spirit told Philip, “Approach this carriage and stay with it.”
30 Running up to the carriage, Philip heard the man reading the prophet Isaiah. He asked, “Do you really understand what you are reading?”
31 The man replied, “Without someone to guide me, how could I?” Then he invited Philip to climb up and sit with him. 32 This was the passage of scripture he was reading:
Like a sheep he was led to the slaughter
    and like a lamb before its shearer is silent
    so he didn’t open his mouth.
33 In his humiliation justice was taken away from him.
    Who can tell the story of his descendants
        because his life was taken from the earth?
34 The eunuch asked Philip, “Tell me, about whom does the prophet say this? Is he talking about himself or someone else?” 35 Starting with that passage, Philip proclaimed the good news about Jesus to him. 36 As they went down the road, they came to some water.
The eunuch said, “Look! Water! What would keep me from being baptized?” 38 He ordered that the carriage halt. Both Philip and the eunuch went down to the water, where Philip baptized him. 39 When they came up out of the water, the Lord’s Spirit suddenly took Philip away. The eunuch never saw him again but went on his way rejoicing. 40 Philip found himself in Azotus. He traveled through that area, preaching the good news in all the cities until he reached Caesarea.

The Word goes where it will
(Paul Bellan-Boyer,
Notes on Acts 8:26-40 for the fifth Sunday in Easter.

Everything about this story is incredible. Did you really expect to see an Ethiopian eunuch, a man at once powerful and marginalized? Add to this the fact he is either a very marginal Jew, or a God-fearer who has found in the God of Israel something that speaks to him. And speaks strongly enough for him to acquire and study the holy writings of Israel. Have you ever tried to read a Hebrew scroll while bouncing along a wilderness road? The appearance of the water itself is a surprising thing in the desert – but perhaps not as exalted or lush as painters have imagined it. We picture an oasis, but it might just as easily be a humble waterhole.

The eunuch asks: “What is to prevent me from being baptized”?

Well, almost everything. The eunuch is missing the sign of the covenant (circumcision) for Jewish males. And, missing his testicles, he would not have been permitted in the Temple to worship. He could never be a “full member.” Philip, who is not an apostle, is not clearly authorized to go out on his mission, or to baptize. (Note how in 8:1 the dispersion from Jerusalem is the result of persecution, not an apostle-planned mission strategy, and how in 8:44 the Jerusalem apostles follow Philip to Samaria to ensure that he is doing things right, especially regarding baptism.)

But the book of Acts is misleadingly titled. Its traditional name, “Acts of the Apostles,” is true enough – except the apostles are not the ones driving the action. One sees the apostles busy organizing a reform movement and new, communitarian institutions based in Jerusalem. But the book instead shows the Holy Spirit continually calling into action the people who make up this new assembly, blowing the breath of God into new and distant places and bringing new, boundary-pushing people into fellowship with Jesus. The Spirit, not bound by human constraints ("we've never done it that way before"), is continually pushing the limits of who God welcomes and where this good news is to be proclaimed.

It is interesting to note that the interaction between Philip and the eunuch is driven by questions:
+ Do you understand what you are reading?
+ How can I, unless someone guides me?
+ Who is the prophet speaking of?
+ What is to prevent me from being baptized?

One easily imagines that the eunuch is seeing in Isaiah and hearing in the Jesus story something of himself (echoes of the Samaritan woman in John 4), for his powerful position comes at a price, and he is cut off from the earth, in that he will die childless.

Yet what is impossible with humans is possible with God. This is a theme with Luke (see Luke 18:27, 1:37, Acts 2:24), but one might even more regard it as a canonical theme of the scriptures. Everything about the journey of faith that began with Abraham has been about God making space for divine transformation in the narrow places of human life.

It happened with Abraham and Sarah, laughing at the prospect of children, much less a nation flowing from their journey and remembering their stories. It happened with a young at-risk girl in the Judean hills who said "Yes" to an angel, to God, and to the new life that she would carry. In the background of this Acts 8 story, this holy reorienting is happening to a zealous persecutor (Paul) who would fall off his high horse and into a heaven which shocked him, and to an energetic apostle (Peter) who would be driven further into the unclean world of the gospel. And it happened to a eunuch on the road to Gaza, a sexual minority who is today revered as the father of the Ethiopian church.

There are unlikely apostles everywhere.

Listen. Listen to the Spirit telling you to go to that unlikely place. Listen to the questions and the stories of the people around you. Pay attention to the interaction between the words of scripture and words of peoples' lives, of your life. Share the goodness of God as you have experienced it. The Holy Spirit is still blowing, especially in the edgiest places of life. With the Spirit at work, what is impossible for humans becomes not only possible, but immediate, compelling, and real. Places and situations that might seem God-forsaken become the sites of revelation and blessing.

We might wonder where in our churches and in our communities the Spirit is blowing right now? Perhaps, for a hint, with the eunuch and Philip we might read again the words of the prophet - "In his humiliation, justice was denied him" - and go to the places where human humiliation becomes the opening point for divine glory. And that is a good place to ask a few questions.

Sunday, April 29, 2012

The Anti-Eucharist – Al Stewart’s “Electric Los Angeles Sunset”

Al Stewart, Scottish folk balladeer, is one of my all-time favorite musicians.  I’ve been listening to his song “Electric Los Angeles Sunset” (off his album “Zero She Flies,” 1969) recently.  And it has struck me that in Stewart’s description of this scene, presumably symbolic for him of the Los Angeles of that time, we have an “Anti-Eucharist” (surely unintended) which artfully and powerfully captures the tragic urban ethos of own time and the sacrifices necessary to sustain it.   

Shots split the night, a bullet lodged in his brain
He must have died instantly, he felt no pain
A crowd quickly gathered to the feast of the gun
Waiting for the ambulance and cops to come
Hm mmm mmm mmm mmm mmm mmm
Sirens wail in the concrete
Hm mmm mmm mmm mmm mmm mmm
Electric Los Angeles sunset, the sunset, the sunset, oh-o-oh

          The imagery here is fascinating.   The “feast of the gun” is what suggested “Anti-Eucharist” to me.  This death seems almost sacrificial.  The crowds (congregation) assemble, the “ambulance” and “cops” (officiants) process in, the ambulance provides the service music.  The setting of “sunset” (the loss of light) casts a pall of darkness over this Anti-Eucharist.

Headlight lit the faces by the tabernacle door
Gazing at the bloodstains on the damp sidewalk
As the crowd turned to go, a man was heard to say
"He must have had it comin' to him anyway"
Hm mmm mmm mmm mmm mmm mmm
Blood wagon rolls through the dragnet
Hm mmm mmm mmm mmm mmm mmm
Electric Los Angeles sunset, the sunset, the sunset, oh-o-oh

“Tabernacle” furthers the sacrificial, Eucharistic imagery as does the congregations “gazing” (adoration) on the bloodstains.  There is proclamation, or rather, “anti-proclamation” as well in the “counter-Eucharist” announcement that this death was deserved ("He must have had it comin' to him anyway").  The egress of ambulance (“blood wagon”) concludes this Anti-Eucharistic service and provides a transition to the general cultural reflection in the remainder of the song.

Mega-cities with their urban jungles are necessities of late-modern consumer capitalism.  Grim deaths, deserved or not, are inevitable in this situation, pervaded and oppressed by economic disparity, ecological destruction, corrupt religion, underclasses, and dissolute culture.  Stewart captures all this “anti-culture” wonderfully in the last verse.

Cadillacs roll through the smoggy perfume
The buildings are choking on oxygen fumes
Evangelists praying in rented rooms, in the afternoon
Which way do the signposts read
African eyes in the sunrise
The gates of the city are rusted over and mouldering
The violence of the evening decays into the night
While shadows press like moths against the neon light
Movie queues diffuse into the Cinerama haze
While libertines read pornozines in street cafes
Hm mmm mmm mmm mmm mmm mmm
The madman swings in the pulpit
Hm mmm mmm mmm mmm mmm mmm
Electric Los Angeles sunset, the sunset, the sunset, oh-o-oh

This Anti-Eucharist contrasts with the Christian feast and the vision of new creation it evokes in every way imaginable.  The Eucharist is a feast of light and life.  The first disciples awake to a new day in every sense that first Easter.  Eucharist means the dawn of light not its setting into darkness.  The sacrifice we celebrate is not the grim tragic death of an unwilling victim but a fate willingly embraced as an act of love by an innocent dying for the guilty for their salvation.

The culture created by a Eucharist community stands also in stark contrast to what Stewart’s song describes.  Jesus’ death creates a community of justice – economic, ecological, and social. A community that faces reality rather than being immersed in “the Cinerama haze,” that channels its desires and energies in constructive and life-affirming ways (“libertines read pornozines in street cafes”), and that announces and lives the genuine good news of the new freedom to love God and one another through Christ’s death and resurrection.

This song from long ago, “Electric Los Angeles Sunset,” has taken on new life for me as I have re-listened to it in recent months.  Interesting how works of art have the capacity to continually generate new meanings and picture new creation beyond the interests or ideas of their originators.  Maybe as you read the lyrics and perhaps listen to the song itself, other meanings and insight may flow from it as well. 

What is Preaching?

          All kinds of “preaching” takes place from pulpits everywhere.  But do we know what we are doing when we preach?

          Are we “teaching the Bible”? 

          Are we “saving souls”?

          Are we “imparting life skills”?

          Are we “preaching the right way/ethical way to live”?

          Are we “proclaiming justice and peacemaking”?

          These (and doubtless other things as well) are what happens in various traditions and from different theological perspectives all around the world.  But is this preaching?

          I don’t for a moment doubt that in all these efforts at preaching God is active, using them to establish and nurture people in faith.  Yet are all these things actually “preaching”?  How should we understand the act of proclamation?

          I offer for reflection a description of preaching from the Dutch Old Testament scholar Kornelis H. Miskotte from his wonderful book When the Gods are Silent.  This is essentially an Old Testament theology written from the 1950’s and translated into English a decade or so later.  Gods richly repays a careful reading even today.  Miskotte provides the best brief description of preaching I am aware of.

“. . . preaching is neither rationalistic, nor ethical, nor mystical in orientation; it is prophecy, that is, an envisaging, a making–present of the holy events, repetition of the great narrative which never passes away, application of the history, the story of God, which has gathered up into itself the history of men, and for their good assures its days and its meaning.” (304)

What think ye?