Finding the Unknown God

(Preached at Ripley-Bervie/Kinloss Pastoral Charge, May 21, 2017)

The 17th chapter of Acts starts with Paul in the city of Thessalonica. For three sabbath days in a row, he goes to the synagogue to argue with the Jews and explain the scriptures in light of Jesus the Messiah.

Some of those who heard were receptive, and became believers.

Some of them became incensed. They went to the house where Paul and Silas were staying. When they didn’t find the two men, they dragged their host Jason and some other believers before the city officials, accusing them of “turning the world upside down” and of proclaiming a king other than the Emperor.

Paul went on to Beroea, where more Jews and devout Greeks listened and receive the Word, but the jealous Jews followed them and incited the crowds against them.

Paul fled again, this time to Athens. He was deeply disturbed to find a city full of idols, and spent his time arguing with anyone who would listen—in the synagogues, in the marketplace, wherever he happened to be.

Athens at that time was noted as a cosmopolitan city where the inhabitants were entranced by the new and improved, but Paul seemed to confuse them. Was he proclaiming a new religion or a new god? Was he drunk? What on earth was he trying to say?

So they grabbed him and brought him to the Areopagus, which could have been either the council of the Areopagus, or the hill itself. Either way, they asked him to explain himself.

He starts off by complimenting his audience. Those idols which so distressed him are evidence of a deeply religious people who are searching. But the altar with an inscription reading “To an unknown god” indicates to him that they’re not really certain what they’re searching for.

Paul then goes on to explain to the Athenians that the God they were searching for was God who created the universe. He explains that the Creator is separate from the creation, and does not need to be served by it. God is not made of gold or silver, God does not live in a temple. All human beings are from one ancestor, and are one people, created in God’s own image and that we are born searching for God.

And Jesus, in the Gospel of John, tells us that God, through the Spirit, is with us always, and simply waits to be recognized.

What a powerful pair of readings for today’s world!

It seems that the entire world has become one big Athens—everything has to be new and improved.

Line up at midnight to get the latest iPhone before everyone else does, because the one you bought six months ago is already obsolete!

Listen to the talk show doctors, who advocate a different weight loss strategy every week.

Throw out last year’s clothes and buy new ones—styles have changed since last Spring, don’t you know?

And of course we’re all waiting anxiously for the next season of America’s Got Talent, because who knows what crazy thing the contestants will do to get noticed?

And yet our society is more religious than ever.

We can pick and choose not only which God to worship, but how to worship that God. Sacrifice or incense? Meditation or dance? Traditional worship service or snake handling and speaking in tongues? Do we throw coloured pigments, or smear foreheads with ashes?

Even the atheists have a form of religious expression, sermonizing against the evils of religious expression.

And many of us are babblers, which my bible helpfully describes as someone who pick up scraps of learning here and there and welds them together into a less-than-coherent whole.

Everywhere, there are the lost, searching for the God they do not know.

I believe the desperate search for the novel, the addiction to the “new and improved” is a symptom of an illness that can have tragic results. Don’t get me wrong. I am all for well-thought-out and -researched change. I enjoy new products, new activities, learning new things.

But I do that all from a base of knowing who and what I am, and knowing in whose image I am made.

When the base isn’t there, that deep down knowledge that we are loved, that we are created in the image of God, that we are only a part of a whole that is much larger than our own selves, the pain and suffering can be deadly.

Today’s world is not the world in which our ancestors lived. In times past, children grew up knowing to which class they belonged, what their employment and income would likely be, what kind of person they would marry. Most people lived and died within a very short radius of where they were born. They followed the religion and traditions of their parents and grandparents and great-grandparents.

Mobility did happen, but not quickly, and not to many people.

Athens in Paul’s time was more like a modern city than like a village of its own time. People came from everywhere, and they didn’t necessarily follow the paths laid out at their birth. To paraphrase the musical Hamilton, “In Athens you can be a new man,” or woman. Choice was possible, but with choice comes a severing from the roots.

And with the severing from the roots comes a time of fear and dislocation. You wonder how you’re going to survive. You wonder if maybe you should go back to what you were, and when you find that isn’t possible, fear takes hold.

Sometimes the fear wins.

Suicide rates are high amongst those who face changes that they can’t navigate. Seniors faced with the end of their productive years, and unsure of what is to follow, but sure they won’t like it. Queer young people who come out to friends and family, only to find themselves abandoned to a world that views difference with loathing. College students, away from home for the first time in their young lives, caught between the pressure not to waste all that money partying, and the need to kick up their heels and let loose. Aboriginal peoples, longing for a way of life that was stolen from them, and unable to find a place for themselves in a country that still views them as alcoholic, uncouth savages.

There are people everywhere searching for they don’t know what.

So they worship idols. They give thanks to “whoever might be up there,” for the things that go well, and cry for deliverance to whoever is handy when trouble arises.

We live in interesting times.

On the one hand, when the whole order of creation seems to be in flux, some people, like the Jews in Thessalonica and the terrorists and hate-mongers of today, react with jealousy and anger.

But when everything is shifting, then too, we have a chance. Into the cracks of certainty, we can insert the message: There is a God, who is bigger than any evil that can happen. We are all one family, haters and lovers alike, and we are all made in the image of that God. As God loves us, so we are called to love one another. We are not alone.

Like Paul, we will find, if we take that message to the streets, that many will not listen. Some will hate us and persecute us. And some…

Some will listen. Some will find Jesus. Some will come home.

So go, and tell the Good News that God is out there, waiting to be found.

Do not be afraid, for two thousand years have shown us that the message is true and will endure.

You are not alone. You are never alone.

Thanks be to God! Amen.

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Backwards Christianity

(Preached at Melville United Church and Alma United Church, November 20, 2016)

In the gymnasium of a real but nameless church in a real but nameless city there hangs a banner, doubtless made by the women of the church. It’s bright blue, with the picture of a world on it, and in large letters, the phrase “The World for Christ.”

The first time I looked at that banner, I thought to myself, “It’s backwards.”

Then I realized that perhaps, at many times in the past and present, we in the Christian Church have gotten this whole Christianity thing backwards.

Because to my way of thinking, the phrase should more properly read, “Christ for the World.”

Today is what is called, “Reign of Christ” Sunday, or sometimes “Christ the King” Sunday. And the words and the imagery that often go along with this particular Sunday are difficult for me to reconcile with the faith that I’ve developed.

Like many of you here, I grew up with the old blue “Hymnary.” It’s got some wonderful hymns in it—some we still sing today, some, because of space considerations or because of outdated language, have been left out of our newer hymn books.

But there are some that have been left out because, quite frankly, they make some people cringe.

“Onward Christian soldiers, marching as to war, with the Cross of Jesus, going on before!”

I know without asking that there are probably some of you here who miss that hymn. It’s rousing, uplifting, and truly wonderful—as long as we don’t think about the words we’re actually singing.

Or this one:

Stand up, stand up for Jesus, Ye soldiers of the cross!
Lift high his royal banner, it must not suffer loss.
From victory unto victory, His army He shall lead,
‘till every foe is vanquished and Christ is Lord indeed!

If you take the words metaphorically, and see the foes as incorporeal things like injustice, greed, lust, hatred, prejudice, poverty, etc., then those hymns, and others like them, can still be meaningful.

The problem is that words have power, and the words we use define our thoughts.

We all know what an army is. We’ve seen war documentaries on television, or videos on the news, or a few among us may have the unwelcome experience of actually being in an army and marching off to war.

Armies are made up of human beings who are armed with weapons that are designed to kill other human beings. Foes are other human beings who have been designated, for one reason or another, as being the “enemy,” and they are to be fought and conquered.

And a victory is when we have beaten the other guy.

These are the images our minds tend to supply when we sing these hymns.

From the time of the Roman Emperor Constantine, when Christianity was officially declared the religion of the state, to the present time, Christians have all too often seen non-Christians, or even other Christians, as foes to be vanquished, more often than not by force.

Christ is the King, therefore all on earth should bow down to Him, and if they do not do so willingly, they will do so by force, or perish. Not only that, but they shall profess whatever form of Christianity is currently in vogue or at the top of the pyramid, or perish.

I grew up in the sixties and seventies, when bombings in Ireland were in the daily news. And both sides called themselves “Christian,” and justified the killings in the name of the “One True Faith.”

Before that and after that, there were the Crusades, the Inquisition, the Residential Schools, the rape and subjugation of the entire continent of Africa… I could go on here, but I’m sure you get the point.

Our insistence that the world is not just for Christ but for our version of Christ has led to a lot of misery on earth.

And that vision of Christ’s Kingdom on Earth is not borne out by scripture, least of all the one that we read today.

Jesus the King, hung up on a cross to die. He’s not the only one up there—Luke tells us that he was hung between two other common criminals, one on his right, one on his left. What Luke doesn’t tell us is what archaeologists have discovered—there was not one cross, not three crosses, but hundreds and hundreds of crosses.

Jesus was one of a multitude who perished in agony on a cross. He wasn’t unusual. He wasn’t special. He was one of many victims of an empire that chose to assert it’s power ruthlessly.

What kind of a king is that?

He was never rich. He never wore fine robes. While we’re told he sometimes dined with the rich and famous, his closest friends were common labourers, most likely illiterate, certainly poor.

What kind of a king is that?

And his preaching—let me tell you what he said.

“Blessed are you poor! Woe to you who are rich!”

“If someone strikes you on one cheek, turn the other towards him so he can hit you again. If someone asks you to carry his pack for a mile, carry it for two. If someone asks you for your coat, give her your cloak also.”

“Put away your sword, Peter!”

This really doesn’t sound like someone who’s going to lead an army of followers to conquer and convert or subjugate or kill all who stand against Him!

What kind of a king is that?

And more to the point, since those are the words and actions and life history of the one we confess as Christ, our King and God, how do we follow such a king?

What I read in scripture is a call to humility and service.

As Christ humbled himself, first as a baby born to a homeless mother who soon was forced to flee the country due to persecution, then as a healer and preacher who was both lauded and reviled, and finally as an outcast who was condemned to death, so we are called to humility, before both God and our fellow human beings.

Christ served, healing whoever asked it of him, feeding the multitudes even when his disciples thought there wasn’t enough food to go around, comforting those in distress and mourning, and so we are called to serve, without counting the cost, without stinting.

That is the image of Christ the King I believe we should keep in mind. The humble servant, giving comfort to those who ask it of him, even in his agony as he hangs on a cross in the hot desert sun.

This is not a Christ who demands that the world be for Him.

This is a Christ who has given himself for the world. As the Body of Christ, we too, should be for the world, giving, healing, feeding, comforting.

Because the Reign of Christ is not about golden thrones and waving banners and marching bands and shouting crowds. The Reign of Christ is Shalom—peace and wholeness and justice for all.

Amen.