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.”

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.   

1 comment: