When reading the New Testament it’s easy to think that most Christians lived in small quaint hamlets and villages, after all the gospels often talk about Jesus traveling from village to village across the Galilee. Yet when digging deeper we see that Jesus spent a lot of time in urban areas such as Jerusalem, Caesarea Philippi, and Caesarea Maritima. Jesus’ hometown village of Nazareth was just a stones throw away from the vast Roman city of Sepphoris, which was still undergoing construction when Jesus was preaching and teaching. Paul too preached and ministered in major cities and urban areas such as Corinth, Athens, Ephesus, and Damascus where he encountered people from diverse cultures, religions, languages, and backgrounds. Just read the Book of Acts and you will clearly see the urban nature of early Christianity.
We are reminded of the urban roots of Christianity in Sara Miles’ new book City of God: Faith in the Streets (NY: Jericho Books, 2014). City of God is literally a day in the life of her experience bringing ashes to her local community on Ash Wednesday 2012. Several years I recall reading an article about several Catholic and Episcopal parishes that decided to distribute ashes to people where they are rather than make them come to Church; some call it “ashes on the run” or “ashes to go.” People may think this is odd, but quite frankly the majority of our congregants spend a lot of time commuting to and from work, in carpool at school, or transporting their children to soccer practice or ballet lessons do not have time to stop in at their local parish and get ashes. Our lives and schedules do not often coincide with service times. Rather than turn their heads and shrub their shoulders, Sara and her friends at St. Gregory of Nyssa Episcopal Church in San Francisco, have literally gone to the streets to bring Christ’s healing hand to those who are broken, hurt, and who are in need of forgiveness. What a novel idea, rather than have people come to the parish, let the parish come to them!
This fast paced memoir can be read in one long sitting. Miles weaves her story like a natural story teller cycling back and forth between Ash Wednesday 2012 and the various chores and errands that had to be done that day, filling in her readers with background information about parish ministry, the people in her parish and neighborhood, as well as a bit of sociological and religious commentary. City of God reads very much like her other two books Jesus Freak and Take This Bread, which are also well written and inspiring. I have used several of her stories in my sermons and adult education classes.
Sara certainly has her finger on the pulse of her local parish as well as her surrounding community. She is concerned with both good liturgy and serving her neighbor. She discusses some of the crazies and crackpots in her life, not as people to be avoided, but as sources of grace and forgiveness. I found myself laughing at times, especially when she put on her cassock and asked herself, “Do I look ok? Is it too hot outside for this? What will people think?” Questions that have gone through my own head many times!
Toward the end of the book Sara confesses that the Church has left the building. I agree. This is not to say that we don’t need parish buildings anymore, because we do need places for regular worship. This of course begs the question whether or not we need multi-million dollar buildings when we could build simple and aesthetically pleasing buildings that are both functional and prayerful, but that is not her argument. When Sara says that the Church has left the building she means that when we look at the gospels we see Jesus literally leaving the religious communities, the synagogue, and literally traveling from place to place, preaching, teaching, healing, and raising the dead. While Jesus had a home base in Capernaum he was not bound by that place, he went around to where the people lived; in their homes like he did with Zachaeus the chief tax collector or Jairus whose daughter was dying, or in the streets like he did while healing the ten lepers or the blind man lying on the side of the road. Jesus was not bound by geography and neither should we. City of God reminds us that ministry takes place in a variety of places; home, school; work, on the metro and subway, over a cup of coffee in a café or in a bookstore. Looking back through my ministry I have probably heard more confessions in Starbucks than I have in Church that should tell us something! I laud Sara for writing a radically honest, and very funny book, but which has a serious strain throughout. I encourage you to take up and read City of God. Make it your Lenten reading this year. Make it your next read for your parish book club selection. You too, like Sara, might be inspired to take to the streets and bring the good news of Jesus with you!