Sunday, September 22, 2013

Church Musings: Acts 8: 26-40

Today's scripture was:  Acts 8: 26-40.  The New Revised Standard Version at
26  Then an angel of the Lord said to Philip, ‘Get up and go towards the south to the road that goes down from Jerusalem to Gaza.’ (This is a wilderness road.) 27 So he got up and went. Now there was an Ethiopian eunuch, a court official of the Candace, queen of the Ethiopians, in charge of her entire treasury. He had come to Jerusalem to worship 28 and was returning home; seated in his chariot, he was reading the prophet Isaiah. 29 Then the Spirit said to Philip, ‘Go over to this chariot and join it.’ 30 So Philip ran up to it and heard him reading the prophet Isaiah. He asked, ‘Do you understand what you are reading?’ 31 He replied, ‘How can I, unless someone guides me?’ And he invited Philip to get in and sit beside him. 32 Now the passage of the scripture that he was reading was this:
‘Like a sheep he was led to the slaughter,
   and like a lamb silent before its shearer,
     so he does not open his mouth.
33 In his humiliation justice was denied him.
   Who can describe his generation?
     For his life is taken away from the earth.’
34 The eunuch asked Philip, ‘About whom, may I ask you, does the prophet say this, about himself or about someone else?’ 35 Then Philip began to speak, and starting with this scripture, he proclaimed to him the good news about Jesus. 36 As they were going along the road, they came to some water; and the eunuch said, ‘Look, here is water! What is to prevent me from being baptized?’  38 He commanded the chariot to stop, and both of them, Philip and the eunuch, went down into the water, and Philip baptized him. 39 When they came up out of the water, the Spirit of the Lord snatched Philip away; the eunuch saw him no more, and went on his way rejoicing. 40 But Philip found himself at Azotus, and as he was passing through the region, he proclaimed the good news to all the towns until he came to Caesarea.

While King James says it this way:

26 And the angel of the Lord spake unto Philip, saying, Arise, and go toward the south unto the way that goeth down from Jerusalem unto Gaza, which is desert. 27 And he arose and went: and, behold, a man of Ethiopia, an eunuch of great authority under Candace queen of the Ethiopians, who had the charge of all her treasure, and had come to Jerusalem for to worship, 28 Was returning, and sitting in his chariot read Esaias the prophet. 29 Then the Spirit said unto Philip, Go near, and join thyself to this chariot. 30 And Philip ran thither to him, and heard him read the prophet Esaias, and said, Understandest thou what thou readest? 31 And he said, How can I, except some man should guide me? And he desired Philip that he would come up and sit with him. 32 The place of the scripture which he read was this,
He was led as a sheep to the slaughter; and like a lamb dumb before his shearer, so opened he not his mouth: 33 In his humiliation his judgment was taken away: and who shall declare his generation? for his life is taken from the earth.
34 And the eunuch answered Philip, and said, I pray thee, of whom speaketh the prophet this? of himself, or of some other man? 35 Then Philip opened his mouth, and began at the same scripture, and preached unto him Jesus. 36 And as they went on their way, they came unto a certain water: and the eunuch said, See, here is water; what doth hinder me to be baptized? 37 And Philip said, If thou believest with all thine heart, thou mayest. And he answered and said, I believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God. 38 And he commanded the chariot to stand still: and they went down both into the water, both Philip and the eunuch; and he baptized him. 39 And when they were come up out of the water, the Spirit of the Lord caught away Philip, that the eunuch saw him no more: and he went on his way rejoicing. 40 But Philip was found at Azotus: and passing through he preached in all the cities, till he came to Caesarea.

Today's sermon was all about Philip, who I really knew nothing about.  I had never heard this story from the Bible before.  That may be because it deals with something sort of unpleasant, which is an eunuch.  Although the word was read today in the scripture, no one really talked about the nameless Ethiopian eunuch, who he was, why he was in Jerusalem, and what happened to him later.  He was the the most intriguing part of this scripture to me this morning.  Eunuchs have served as court officials in various empires since the dawn of time.  Just off the top of my head, without any further research (or wikipedia-ing), they probably were made eunuchs for two reasons:  they could serve in a harem or for a female ruler or female consort without fear of impregnating her and they couldn't ever really have families of their own, so they were devoted to the government and ruler.  They were radically different from other men.  Because they were emasculated, they were considered less than a man.  They looked differently and spoke differently.  Although not outcasts in the sense of an untouchable, they would have been other than the norm.

The Eunuch is reading a passage from Isaiah when Philip shows up, and asks him to explain it.  It's a telling passage.    Obviously, the passage is about Jesus being a sacrificial lamb.  But I wondered about why the Eunuch was looking at that passage to begin with and came to this conclusion, which is probably wrong, but oh well: wasn't the eunuch also like a lamb led to the slaughter as well?  Maybe he was sitting pondering that passage from Isaiah, musing about his own personal humiliation.  Eunuchs were usually castrated before puberty set in, which is a technical and dispassionate way of saying they were little boys when it happened.  They did not have a choice.  The eunuchs were too, "like lambs dumb before the shearer."  They could not reproduce, so too their lives "were taken from the earth."  Their line would go no further.  This must have been both sad and humiliating for them.  

Eunuchs were not allowed to worship in the Temple; Deuteronomy specifically forbids their being able to enter the assembly of the Lord.  But Philip didn't care.  He talked with him about Jesus and ended up baptizing him. The Eunuch was Ethiopian, which probably means he was black.  In fact, in the tradition he's given a name, Simeon the Niger (Black), and is mentioned later in Acts.  So if we project this story into modern times, Philip seems to be asking Christians to accept people into the faith regardless of skin color.  And quite frankly, it doesn't take much to compare the Eunuch, a despised sexual minority, to gays and lesbians. That was almost my first thought today, and Biblical scholars are arguing about this (I wikipedia-ed).   There is this theologian named John J. McNeill who called the Eunuch "the first baptized Gay Christian" and this other theologian, Jack Rogers, writes that "the fact that the first Gentile convert to Christianity is from a sexual minority and a different race, ethnicity and nationality together" calls Christians to be radically inclusive and welcoming."  I'm going to have to look up more about these theologians.

After today's scripture, I have a new hero in the Bible:  The Ethiopian Eunuch.  You go girrrl!

By the way, Philip wasn't given a choice in any of this - the Holy Spirit moved him to do it.  I loved the last line too - "snatched Philip away."  The Bible is sure like a fantasy novel sometimes.  J.K. Rowling couldn't have written it better.

Candace, or kandake, is actually an honorific, a title for the queens of Kush.  They were known as warrior queens.

Azotus still exists; today it's known as Ashdod and is the fifth largest city in Israel.  It is one of the oldest cities in the world - seventeenth century B.C.  It's also a sister-city with Los Angeles!  And Tampa.  Weird.

A few other musings from church today.

Our speaker today talked about some of the things we should be doing to be more like Philip.  This included reading and studying the scripture (trying to do this), prayer and silent listening (not so good at this), become comfortable with everybody (always trying to do this, but with varying degrees of success), share what we know about Jesus (mmmm....), follow Jesus everywhere he goes (double mmmm.... but worth thinking about....), use our talents and gifts for others (trying to do this daily, with varying degrees of success).

John Wesley wanted Methodists to be a singing church, and instructed us to "sing lustily and with courage."  I am trying to do that!

Music today included:

Ich Liebe Dich (I Love Thee) by Edvard Grieg.  Originally an art song, from a grouping of four called Melodies of the Heart, from one of my favorite composers, with lyrics by Hans Christian Andersen!  Written in 1864-65, the three other pieces are "Two Brown Eyes," "The Poet's Heart," and "My Mind Is Like a Mountain Sheep."

Our introit today was How Excellent Is They Name by Eugene Butler. We sang some Butler last week.  This one was written around 1967.  I am not a fan of this piece, one reason being, it's the worst I've personally ever done while singing.  I've made some clinkers before, but never anything so noticeable.  UGH.  I hate sticking out like that.  I was so embarrassed.  So now I hate this piece.  Plus, it has sprechgesang, which I hate.  I just told the conductor that sprechgesang was Hitler's favorite kind of music and I don't think we should be doing it anymore, but he wasn't buying it and gave me the fish eye.

Blessed Assurance, words by Fanny Crosby, music by Phoebe P. Knapp.  This song was written in 1873.  Fanny Crosby was blind; she was the "mother of modern congregational singing" with many hymns to her name.  Her husband was blind too, which has this whole Little House on the Prairie Mary and Adam sort of vibe.  She was a life long Methodist.  Her musical partner was Phoebe Knapp, who married to one of the founders of Metropolitan Life Insurance; he was described as one of the richest men in New York City.    This was the Gilded Age too, so imagine Phoebe  and her husband lived quite well.  Both she and Fanny attended St. John Methodist Episcopal Church.  Phoebe wrote over 500 hymn tunes but Blessed Assurance was probably her most famous one.  Legend has it that Mrs. Knapp was touring Fanny's school for the blind where she taught, played the tune on a piano, and Fanny instantly wrote the words for it.

My Eternal King by Jane Marshall.  Our anthem today was one of the most beautiful songs we've ever sung.  The neat story behind this was for the century anniversary of the Methodist church in Anaheim, a 100 voice choir sang this song at an honor, 35 years ago.  This anthem was written in 1954; the words are based on a 17th century Latin text.  According to what I can find out about her, Jane Marshall is a Methodist.

Our second hymn was Ye Servants of God by Charles Wesley; music attributed to William Croft; the tune name is called Hanover.  Written in 1744, from Hymns For Times of Trouble and Persecution. Charles Wesley wrote over 6,000 hymns.  The hymn tune, Hanover, is named for King George III, of the House of Hanover.

Our offertory today was Impromptu by William Stickles.  I can't find a thing about William Stickles online.

Our last hymn was I Sing A Song of the Saints of God, words by Lesbia Scott; music by John H. Hopkins, Jr., hymn tune Grand Isle.  The song was first published in 1929, and is an Episcopal hymn.  It's from a collection called Everyday Hymns for Little Children. "Each hymn was devised for a different occasion, and one of them, Saints' Days, found its way to the United States and was set to a new tune ('Grand Isle') composed especially for it by retired Episcopal priest John Henry Hopkins, Jr."  What's funny about this last line, which I lifted from Wikipedia, is that John Henry Hopkins, Jr. died in 1898 - well before Lesbia Scott wrote this song.  If you follow the link for John Henry Hopkins, Jr. he's the composer of the famous Christmas Carol (actually Epiphany Carol!) We Three Kings of Orient Are.  Here is what I found with a little research:

"Music: John Henry Hopkins, the composer of Grand Isle, can easily be mistaken for other members of his illustrious family. He was the son of the Rev. Theodore Austin Hopkins; grandson of the first bishop of Vermont, also named John Henry Hopkins; and nephew of John Henry Hopkins, Jr., author and composer of "We three kings of Orient are"... Grand Isle was written in 1940 specifically for use with the irregular metre text "I sing a song of the saints of God" by Lesbia Scott. The tune was first published in the Layman's Magazine of the Living Church, 1, io (November, 1940), page 39, and named for the community on the island of the same name in Lake Champlain in Vermont where Hopkins lived in his retirement."

Our postlude was Trumpet the Glad Tidings by James Mansfield.  As of 2011, Mansfield had self published a book for sale on called Lavender.

1 comment:

  1. I guess up until now I thought your interest in Christianity was more academic. Things are coming full circle. I didn't know you were so musical, either.


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