Sunday, May 21, 2017

The Unknown God

Scripture: Acts 17:22-31   (NRSV)

22 Then Paul stood in front of the Areopagus and said, “Athenians, I see how extremely religious you are in every way. 23 For as I went through the city and looked carefully at the objects of your worship, I found among them an altar with the inscription, ‘To an unknown god.’ What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you. 24 The God who made the world and everything in it, he who is Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in shrines made by human hands, 25 nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mortals life and breath and all things. 26 From one ancestor he made all nations to inhabit the whole earth, and he allotted the times of their existence and the boundaries of the places where they would live, 27 so that they would search for God and perhaps grope for him and find him—though indeed he is not far from each one of us. 28 For ‘In him we live and move and have our being’; as even some of your own poets have said,
‘For we too are his offspring.’

29 Since we are God’s offspring, we ought not to think that the deity is like gold, or silver, or stone, an image formed by the art and imagination of mortals. 30 While God has overlooked the times of human ignorance, now he commands all people everywhere to repent, 31 because he has fixed a day on which he will have the world judged in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed, and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead.”
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We’re a pretty well educated bunch of folks here at First Christian Church.  I imagine most of you are familiar with the Greek Gods.  Or maybe you have watched some of the Disney movies, or 90s TV shows like Zena Warrior Princess and Hercules, and learned something about the Greek gods that way.   For those who don’t know much about them, it’s important to know that there were a lot of them!  There were major gods, like Zeus and Hera; minor gods like Pan and Mercury;  even demi-gods, like Hercules, who father was Zeus and mother was a human.  Each god had his or her particular areas of expertise and control.  Each had his or her own temples and priests and particular followers, although everyone paid at least some attention to all of them, because no one wanted to give any of them a reason to be angry.  They could be helpful to their favorites, but they were, quite frankly, not to be trusted.  They were easily insulted and affronted.  They got jealous if they thought some other god was getting more attention than they were.  They started wars out of jealousy, destroyed individuals and families, raped human women . . . They had great power, and abused it.  They seemed to embody all of humanity’s bad qualities, and very few of the good ones.  

Paul would have been very familiar with this panoply of gods,  having come from the city of Tarsus where Greek culture was prevalent.   In Athens, a city named for and dedicated to Athena, goddess of wisdom and useful arts, among all of the temples and altars to the familiar gods, he noticed one dedicated to “the unknown god.”  There isn’t much known about these altars, although a few have been found in ancient Greek cities.  But it is known that Greeks would often swear by “The Unknown God” - a wise choice, one would think, since picking one god to swear by could seriously irritate another one.  And irritating a god was never a good idea!   Paul said to the people of Athens, “That unknown god of  yours?  I know who that is!  Your unknown god isn’t unknown at all!  He is the one who created the world and everything in it!  Let me teach you about Him!” 

The God Paul was talking about was certainly unknown to me.  Most of you are aware that I was raised in a church where I learned about a punishing God, a jealous God, a God who was more concerned about watching to see what I did wrong than guiding me into the ways to do right.  In fact, that God I was raised with seemed a lot more like the Greek gods than the God I know today.  Most of you know that I left that church when I was 18 and stayed away from every kind of church for 25 years.  I spent most of that time doing drugs and getting drunk and dong other socially unacceptable stuff.  It wasn’t until I got clean and started going to 12 Step meetings that I started learning about a different kind of God, a loving and forgiving God, a God whose most earnest desire was for good things and good people to come into my life.  I was taught to consider carefully what attributes God really has.  Not what I had learned before, but all the good things.    We talked about the God of our understanding, but one of my friends used to talk about the God he would never be able to understand, because, you know, God.  Way too much for any human to understand.  Way too big for any box we want to confine God to.  Way too big to be confined to any one place, or any one theology, or any one denomination.  

After a few years of learning about God in this new way, I found a church.  A church a lot like this one.  A Disciples congregation where everyone is considered a minister.   Where all of us are required to think, and learn, and not just believe whatever is said from up front on Sunday mornings.  Where every single person who walks through the door is welcome, because this isn’t our house, it’s God’s house.  And we are all God’s children. And God loves all of God’s children.    

Paul told the people of Athens that God had created all people, all of the nations, and set them where God chose, and then allowed them to look around themselves, searching for God, groping to find him, and perhaps that way they would find him, although indeed He is not far from each one of us.  “For in him we live and move and have our being . . . for we too are his offspring.”  He told them that God cannot be confined to one place, or made of gold or silver or stone.  God’s image cannot be contained like that, in our art and our imaginations.  Because, God.  Way too big and great and powerful for even the most imaginative, the most creative, the most inward seeking, the most ingenious person who ever lived or ever would live to capture.   

This was hard to hear for people whose city made the bulk of its income from the sale of figures of Athena and donations to the temples.  Religion was big business.  People came from all over to experience the grandeur of Athena’s temple, the Parthenon.  People still do, for that matter, almost 2,000 years after Paul’s sermon there.  The Greeks had been worshipping these gods for a long time.  They had a pretty good idea how to keep them happy.  Most of the time, if they made a good enough donation to the temple, or did specific tasks that were sown to please one or another of the gods, things would go pretty much ok.  Most of the time, unless one of the gods woke up on the wrong side of the bed (or was caught in the wrong one, which happened to Zeus fairly often.)Then all bets were off while the gods sulked or stormed, punishing each other and humanity as well. 

The God Paul was telling them about, the God of our understanding, doesn’t do that.  Our God isn’t modeled after humanity, like the Greek gods were.  Rather, humanity is a very weak imitation of God.  If we want to please God, we will do our best to imitate Jesus, who was fully human, who understood pain and joy, who had known sickness and good health, who had experienced love and rejection.  If we want to please God, we will seek within ourselves for the best part of ourselves, the best qualities that God has given us, and use those qualities in our interactions with others.  If we want to please God, we will do our best to serve God’s people, the ones who cannot care for themselves as well as we can, those whose lives are more difficult, for whatever reason.  If we want to please God, we don’t have to cook God dinner, but we do have to feed those who are hungry.  We don’t have to bring cloth of gold to lay at the foot of the altar, but we do have to clothe those who are naked.  We do have to find homes for the homeless, bring healing love to the sick, and comfort the prisoner.  If we want to please God, we have to help people begin to understand God, just a little bit.  We have to teach those whose image of God is that punishing, judgmental, angry, and jealous God that I grew up with about Paul’s version of God, about the version of God that Jesus talked about, the one who cares for each and every one of God’s children.  Who sees the sparrow fall from the sky and knows how many hairs are on our head.   Who knows what gifts and talents you have, and places you where you can best use them.  Whose love pours out upon the world in a constant stream, like the precious oil that was poured out upon Jesus by the woman with the alabaster jar.  And those lessons are better taught by actions than by words.  


Sadly, my brothers and sisters, our God is known to us, but still Unknown to way too many.   We may not know everything there is to know about God - and we will never know everything there is to know about God - but we do know that the closer we follow Jesus, the better we will get to know God, the easier it will be for us to find God, to see him in the people and situations in our lives.  The Good News is that God is not far from any of us.  The Good News is that when we seek God in others, and in situations in our lives, we always find God.  The Good News is that when we look for the good in any person or any situation, we can nearly always find it.  Let each of us open our eyes and our ears and hearts, looking for God in all places and in all people, so that we might demonstrate that God who is still unknown to way too many people in our world today - the God we know, the merciful and compassionate God, who pours forgiveness and love upon all of His creatures.   

Sunday, May 14, 2017

At the end, a beginning

Scripture:   Acts 7:55-60

55 But filled with the Holy Spirit, he gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God and Jesus standing at the right hand of God. 56 “Look,” he said, “I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God!” 57 But they covered their ears, and with a loud shout all rushed together against him. 58 Then they dragged him out of the city and began to stone him; and the witnesses laid their coats at the feet of a young man named Saul. 59 While they were stoning Stephen, he prayed, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” 60 Then he knelt down and cried out in a loud voice, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” When he had said this, he died.

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It’s Mother’s Day.  A day that strikes fear into the hearts of preachers everywhere, even more than Easter, if that’s possible. This is considered by some to be the 2nd most important Sunday of the church year - the day when many women in the congregation are proudly accompanied by children and grandchildren and even great grandchildren, secretly hoping that the preacher will say the exact right words to bring those kids back to this church again next Sunday.   And here I am, preaching on the stoning of Stephen.  Not exactly typical Mother’s Day fare.  You know, I really don’t try to be contrary.  It just sort of works out that way.  But bear with me, and it may all become clear.

First, let’s talk about Stephen.  Poor Stephen.  He really does get neglected.  Most of the time when this passage comes around, we use it as an opportunity to talk about Paul, because Paul’s journey to being arguably the most influential of all the early evangelists begins when “the witnesses laid their coats at the feet of a young man named Saul.”  No one really talks much about Stephen at all.  It’s like a bride being upstaged at her wedding.  But Stephen himself is an important person. His story needs to be more than a backdrop to Saul’s conversion.

We first hear about Stephen in the 6th chapter of Acts, when he is the first of a group of seven men selected to oversee the distribution of food to the widows, so that both Greek and Hebrew women are served equally.  We are told that Stephen is full of faith and the Holy Spirit, and grace and power, a persuasive speaker, someone who always bested opponents in debate because of his great wisdom.  False witnesses, bribed by men who were tired of being beaten by Stephen’s rhetoric and Spirit, told the Temple council that he had blasphemed against the law of Moses and spoken against the Temple.  When they called him to defend himself, they looked and “saw that his face was like the face of an angel”.  When he began to speak, he reminded them of the covenant God made with Abraham. He told them how the people had rebelled against Moses and rejected the Word of God.  He told them that God decreed a tent for God’s dwelling place, and that the Temple was the work of man, not God. He told them they had rejected God’s covenant in their hearts and minds, murdering those who prophesied the Righteous One, and killing the Christ.  He said, “You are the ones who received the law as ordained by angels, and yet you have not kept it!”  And then, “54 When they heard these things, they became enraged and ground their teeth at Stephen.[j] 55 But filled with the Holy Spirit, he gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God and Jesus standing at the right hand of God. 56 “Look,” he said, “I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God!” 57 But they covered their ears, and with a loud shout all rushed together against him. 58 Then they dragged him out of the city and began to stone him.”  And when he was about to die, Stephen, like Jesus before him, asked God to forgive them.

Stephen’s martyrdom is, indeed, the beginning of Saul’s journey to Christ, but it is so much more than that.   It is the end of the Temple leadership’s fear of the crowds.  Up to this point, in the book of Acts, the leaders of the Temple have been afraid to take strong measures against these Jesus followers because they feared the crowds would turn on them.  Peter and others preached with such fire and strength that even when chastising the Temple leadership in the strongest of terms, they felt powerless to stop them.   That ends here.  From this point forward, the gloves come off.  Imprisonment and execution for blasphemy are about to become reality for Jesus followers.   Some will continue to preach openly, courting martyrdom.  And like Stephen, they will face their martyrdom with courage and faith.  His example will guide them.  But many believers will go underground or flee the city for their safety.  

So it is a beginning.  Fleeing from Jerusalem, members of the early church will spread out to other cities, joining those believers who had gone back to their homes after their conversion on Pentecost, starting house churches, speaking to other Jews about Jesus the Messiah.  The Word of God through Christ will begin to spread throughout the communities of Jews in all of the cities of Asia, even as far away as Rome.  (Mind you, it will remain within the Jewish community until Paul shows up.  It is Paul who will carry the Word to the non-Jews, the Gentiles.)   Stephen’s courageous death sets an example for all of them, even the ones who leave Jerusalem, because from this time forward, faithful followers of Christ will proudly admit to their beliefs even if it means their imprisonment or death.  They will follow his lead and his example, forgiving those who persecute them.  The company of believers is about to become the Church Universal, for real.  

I had no idea how much my life was going to change after the baby was born.”   Yesterday at the Christian Women’s Fellowship meeting we talked about mothers.  Dawn told us that she had once heard a woman say that, and of course we all laughed.  Life is never the same after the baby is born.  Your life is no longer your own, after the baby is born.  Every moment belongs to that child, even when she isn’t living at home anymore.  Even when he is grown up wth children of his own.   We told stories of things we had learned from our mothers, and how those things had influenced our lives.  Mothers taught us to read, and we are lovers of reading.  Mothers taught us to relax about the small stuff, and not worry if there are Legos all over the living room floor when company arrives.  Mothers taught us to embrace our role, whatever it may be, and we are empowered to do things we didn’t think we could.  Even those of us with difficult relationships with our mothers, still learned from them, still gained insight and knowledge from them.  The things we learned early on from our mothers are things that will guide our lives.  We may find ourselves being more like our mothers than we ever expected.  I mean, how many times have you heard someone say, “OMG!  I have become my mother!” or maybe even said it yourself?  Usually it is in some child-rearing situation.  Maybe you say to your teenaged child something you swore, as a teenager, you would never say to your child.  Of course, every mother - even step and foster mothers -  quickly develops an extra set of eyes in the back of her head, as well as an almost spooky sense of when that child is doing exactly what she shouldn’t be doing, and we realize that we are doing what our own mothers did with and for us.  We realize that what we have learned from our mothers is guiding us along our own life’s journey.  

Just as that young mother had no idea how much her life would change after the baby was born, the followers of Jesus had no idea that everything would change after that day.   Stephen’s stoning didn’t end the movement, or even slow it down.  Rather, it accelerated and empowered it.  Stephen’s martyrdom proved that God’s Word cannot be stopped.  Even death cannot stop it.  For just as the pain of child birth ushers a new child into our lives, so Stephen’s martyrdom mothered the new church into the next stage in its growth.  His death, his end, is a new beginning. Just as the example of our own mothers guides our lives in the way we grow, so Stephen’s example will guide the infant church into its next phase.  Stephen’s death is the spark that spread the Light out into the world, sending believers out from Jerusalem into Samaria and Greece and everywhere Jews could be found.  The apostles had been told to begin their ministry in Jerusalem, but now they will spread out.  Believers and preachers of the Word of God will soon cover the entire earth, proudly proclaiming the Good News of God’s love and forgiveness.   

My sisters and brothers, the Good News is that nothing can stop the Word of God.  Even Stephen’s death couldn’t slow down the movement of the Holy Spirit  that had its beginning in Christ’s death and resurrection.  That spark that ignited the fire of the Holy Spirit, throughout the world, that spark that lit up the whole world through the power of  God’s love, is now passed to us.  When we go from this place, let us take that spark and pass it on, to everyone we encounter.  


Sunday, May 7, 2017

In the midst of life....

Scripture: Psalm 23   (NRSV)
1 The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.
2  He makes me lie down in green pastures;
he leads me beside still waters;
3  he restores my soul.
He leads me in right paths
    for his name’s sake.
4 Even though I walk through the darkest valley,
    I fear no evil;
for you are with me;
    your rod and your staff—
    they comfort me.
5  You prepare a table before me
    in the presence of my enemies;
you anoint my head with oil;
    my cup overflows.
6  Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me
    all the days of my life,
and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord
    my whole life long.
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 It is still Easter!  The sanctuary is still draped in white for celebration.  We are still singing Easter Hymns and crying out “He is Risen! . . .  Alleluia!”  And we just heard the 23rd Psalm.  We usually only hear the 23rd Psalm at funerals and memorial services.  In fact, we hear it at those times so often that I have heard people say, “Oh please, do not use the 23rd Psalm.  Everyone uses that.”  So how is that we hear this reading today, during Easter?  He is Risen!  Alleluia?  
Alleluia.  
It’s raining.  Fewer people come out to celebrate when it’s raining.  And stuff happens, even during Easter. 

The week after Easter I was still riding an emotional high from Easter - from the service, from the music, from the celebration of the resurrection, from lots of good news I received during that week, suddenly, on Friday, I crashed.  I was fine one minute and the next I was exhausted and depressed.   Just as I was coming back from that, and getting over having been with way too many people for a couple of days at the Annual Gathering, my beautiful one-eyed, crippled rescue kitty Samwise began to die.  She mostly just sleeps now.  Every time I look at her, I am surprised to see she is still breathing.  Maybe she’ll be gone when I get home today.  How do I celebrate, now?

Students are frantically writing last papers, preparing for final exams, trying to get through the last few days or weeks of school.  For some, it is the last time to do these things - Selma High’s prom and graduation are just around the corner.  Fresno State’s commencement is on May 20th.   There is something both exhilarating and depressing about doing things for the last time, to seeing something come to an end.  Never mind that you have been working toward this end for years.  Celebrations are bitter sweet as you face an unknown future.  

In this congregation we have had other things happen to make shouts of Alleluia ring a little hollow.  Three young men from Kingsburg were killed in a tragic accident.  The lone survivor is a part of our family.  Another young man connected with our church family has been in rehab after telling a friend he wanted to kill himself.  

Around the nation, thousands, possibly millions, of people are worrying about what will happen to their health insurance if the bill that just passed Congress also gets through the Senate.  I’ve seen long, detailed lists of pre-existing conditions that we will “lose”, but as I don’t know what “lose” means in this context, I don’t really know what that means.  What I do know is that a lot of people are frightened, that they won’t be covered any more, that their insurance premiums will skyrocket because of a pre-existing condition.  It is hard to celebrate even the risen Christ when you are frightened and upset.  Or, as Psalm 137 says, “How can we sing songs of the Lord in a foreign land?”   We may not be exiled from our homes the way the writer of that psalm was, but we understand the foreign-ness of sorrow, worry, and depression in the midst of a time of great celebration.

It is for times like these that Psalm 23 was written.  
The Lord is my shepherd.  I shall not want. I have everything I need.
The Lord keeps me safe, and gives me a place to rest when it all gets to be too much.  He restores my soul.  
No matter how worried I am, God holds me close, comforts me, and helps my heart be easy.
God’s rod, an instrument of punishment, and staff, the symbol of his shepherding care, comfort us, for in them we recognize God’s justice and mercy for all the world.
Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I shall fear no evil.
No matter what is going on in my life - stress, illness, injury, danger, loss of a loved one - no matter what, I will be ok, because God is with me.


I love this picture, of a cat walking serenely past a row of dogs.  Cats are consummate actors, of course.  Who hasn’t seen a cat fall off of something and then get that, “I meant to do that” look on her face?   This cat may have been used as a K-9 training test before, or not, but she is certainly projecting catitude as she strolls along.  It is as if she knows that some higher power is protecting her.  Might some of them break and go for her?  It could happen.  But she looks  confident that she will be ok, no matter what.  

Julian of Norwich was a 14th century Christian mystic.  A book she wrote in 1395, “Revelations of Divine Love,”  describing a series of visions she had of Jesus, is the first English language book known to be written by a woman.  If you have not heard her name before, you have surely heard some of her words, because from this book comes the phrase, “all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.”  In it she also wrote, ”If there is anywhere on earth a lover of God who is always kept safe, I know nothing of it, for it was not shown to me.  But this was shown: that in falling and rising again we are always kept in that same precious love."   She was convinced that all things will ultimately be put right by Christ, that, in fact, everything will ultimately be ok, because of God’s love made manifest in Jesus. 

It is surely true that none of us are promised a safe and easy life.  No one is promised uninterrupted happiness.  Into every life will come sorrow and suffering of some kind.  We are, however, always promised love.  No matter what happens, God loves us.  No matter what happens, God is there for us.  No matter what we have done, we will be forgiven.  Everything around us may fall apart, but we are not alone, not ever, for God is with us always.  

God, speaking through the prophet Jeremiah, and seeing the suffering of the people, asked “Is there no no balm in Gilead? Is there no physician there? Why then has the health of my poor people not been restored?”  (Jeremiah 8:22)  We might even ask that question ourselves, when we are suffering in the midst of celebration, when in the midst of life we seem surrounded by death and difficulty. It is at those times that we turn to the comfort of Psalm 23.   We turn to the knowledge that no matter what, God is with us.  “Fear not,” God said, “for I am with you.”

The Good News is still that Christ is Risen!  Christ is the balm in Gilead, the one sent by God to heal us, to reconcile each individual, each nation, all of creation to one another and to God, to restore the world to wholeness in God’s name.  

The Good News is still that Christ is Risen!  That no matter what happens, we will be OK, for he is our Living God.  

The Good News is still that Christ is Risen!  For in his name, all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.  


My brothers and sisters, Christ is Risen! 
He is risen, indeed.