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“To an Unknown God”– Acts 17:22-31– May 25, 2014


It was a very impressive gallery. The wood floor glistened. The lighting was subtle but targeted directly to bring out the shape and shimmer of the objects– a glistening Oscar statue from the Academy of Arts and Sciences; an Emmy, a Tony, an Obie, a Grammy–all the highest awards given to stars of stage and screen and concert hall and internet downloads. There was a Heisman trophy, a Stanley cup, an Olympic gold medal, a Wimbledon cup, a green Master’s jacket–prized honors to athletes at the top of their game. There were framed magazine covers– Time’s Man and Woman of the Year, the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue, People’s 50 Most Beautiful People, Forbes’ Richest Man, faces and bodies that represent the ideal human form and station in life. And then in one corner was a black and white photograph of a young woman with Afro-Eurasian features– a blend becoming more and more common. Her clothes hung off her body; her eyes were haunting. She was holding a young child in one arm and clutching a plastic garbage bag in the other, leaning wearily against a cement wall, on which had been spray-painted the words, “And the winner is….?”

It was not so unlike the marketplace through which the apostle Paul walked almost 2000 years ago in Athens. “Athenians,” he said, standing on the steps of the Areopagus, “I see how extremely religious you are in every way. 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.’”

Luke, the author of Acts, tells us that “all the Athenians and the foreigners living there would spend their time in nothing but telling or hearing something new.” The philosophers debated with one another, and welcomed Paul into their debate, saying “May we know what this new teaching is that you are presenting? It sounds rather strange to us, so we would like to know what it means.” This was a gathering of seekers, “engaged [as one commentator describes it] in intellectual conversation, searching questions, honest answers, lively debate, and real dialogue.” (Rev Anne Howard, The Beatitudes Society, 5/20/14)

In the midst of various altars and idols, with the sound of hawkers and sellers and philosophers and chanters, there stood that one altar with the inscription, “To an unknown god.” “Maybe it’s not enough,” the altar seemed to say for the Athenians, “maybe it’s not enough that we worship the sun over our heads and the ground beneath our feet… Maybe between the altar to the Goddess of the harvest and the God of the sea we’ve missed something…” [Howard, op cit.] “To an unknown god.”

That market place, that gallery I mentioned at the beginning, is what we walk through everyday. All around us, on airwaves and microwaves, in magazines and newspapers, on small screens and big screens, the altars of the gods our society worships are all around us. “I see how very religious you are,” we might say, even though most people would protest and say, “Oh, I’m not religious, but I’m spiritual.”

Paul’s speech–we might even call it a sermon– may be a good model for us as we try to engage in conversation with our “spiritual but not religious” friends and neighbors and family. Even though Luke tells us that Paul was “deeply distressed to see that the city was full of idols,” he still looks for common ground. “I see how extremely religious you are,” he says, ‘and I found among your idols and altars an altar with the inscription, ‘To an unknown god.’” Paul meets the Athenians where they are and, at least as he begins, he does so without judgment.

“I see that you are seeking.” Isn’t that a much better place for conversation than “You’ve got it all wrong” or “I know that I’m right”? “To an unknown god” is a much more honest ascription than a claim to The One and Only Truth, which, of course, Christians have done all too often. Too often we have taken Mystery out of that mysterious name for God–”I am”– and narrowed down the path that Jesus called “the way,” shrunk the shimmering wisdom of his “truth,” and cut off huge parts of “the life” he embodied–”I am the way, the truth, and the life.” “To an unknown God.” You must not speak the name of God, our Jewish forebears warned.

St. Augustine, who did quite a bit of seeking of his own in his youth, looking for love in all the wrong places, as they say, wrote, “Our hearts are restless until they find their rest in Thee.” Our strivings, our addictions, our obsessions, all the things that we make religions or gods of, are all, at their heart, at their deepest level, longings for God. Paul talked about this to the Athenians–

The God who made the world and everything in it, the one who is Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in shrines made by human hands, nor is that One served by human hands, as though needing anything, since God gives Godself to all mortals life and breath and all things. From one ancestor God made all nations to inhabit the whole earth, and allotted the times of their existence and the boundaries of the places where they would live, so that they would search for God and perhaps grope for God and find God–though indeed God is not far from each one of us. For [Paul said, quoting one of the Greek philosophers] in him we live and move and have our being’; as even some your own poets have said, ‘For we too are God’s offspring.’

This is the human condition, Paul is saying, this longing for something deep and true and beautiful within us, and in our own experience, we know that to be true. We “know” all sorts of things–we are constantly “telling or hearing something new,” like those who heard Paul–in biology, technology, psychology, geology, astronomy–so many discoveries and insights into the way we human beings, our world, our universe work, and yet, and yet… the more we know, many scientists will tell you, the more we discover what we don’t know. The Mystery continues to deepen.

And for all we “know,” those of us who may be spiritual and religious,”we still don’t quite know how to name God,[as one writer put it,] or how to name ourselves in relationship with God, not to mention Jesus.” And particularly for those of us who don’t want to appear dogmatic or pushy, maybe we have never even tried to figure out who God is or who we are in relationship to God–to figure that out for ourselves, let alone try to explain to somebody else. And so we kind of just settle, we let it go. “Let go and let God,” we may rationalize, but really, what do we do with that restlessness that Augustine talked about, that longing and hunger for Home? What do we do with those questions that we had as teenagers? What do we do with those questions about our purpose in life that plagued our young adult career choices? What about those unanswered questions of our midlife crises? Where do we leave those questions raised when we lose a loved one, or a job, or a dream? How do we understand the inevitable failings of our bodies? What about that big, final question, about death? This Memorial Day weekend we remember and we acknowledge our losses. Where can we find a place where it’s safe to keep on asking those questions? Where can we find companions in that search? If not here, we have no business staying in business.

To settle for that “unknown god” Paul says in essence, is to settle for ‘a polite little god who asks little of us.” (Howard, op cit.) For Paul that is not enough. God is knowable, he tells the Athenians, we have experienced the true God in the man whom God raised from the dead. This God is the God of all creation, indeed the One in whom we live and move and have our being. Like fish are in the sea, we are in God, and we cannot separate some people or parts of creation off from God. Have you tried doing that with the ocean? We know that this God whom we know in Christ Jesus is not the god of empires. Though he suffered and died, Jesus was raised from death by God to demonstrate that nothing–not even death–can separate us from this God, who is love and light and life, whose power paradoxically is manifest in weakness, who may indeed appear as a poor young Afro-Eurasian woman holding a child and a garbage bag.

The Way of Jesus, in whom we know this God, along with the truth and the life, appears less and less naive to me as I look at the world around us, at the problems of our community, our nation, and our world. It appears less and less naive and more and more wise. This Way must be presented in the marketplaces and galleries of ideas and actions in our 21st c. world. It can stand up to and alongside some of the more dominant ones. Look where the way of empire and domination have gotten us and the planet on which we live. Look where the way of celebrity and riches have gotten people like LA Clippers owner Ronald Sterling, or Lindsay Lohan, or any number of casualties of the star-making cult. Look at the poisoned rivers and decimated mountaintops and black lungs which greed has produced. Look at the hopelessness and shame that our economic system has generated in our young people.

This “unknown” God whom we know in Christ Jesus offers us life-saving wisdom for the world and for our lives. We have got to find ways of living and sharing that good news with folks, with generations, for whom the language and norms of the church hold little meaning. It doesn’t mean that all those folks “out there” don’t long for God, by whatever name we call God. In a Pew Research survey, it was discovered that Millenials–those people between the ages of 18 and 33–pray with as much regularity as their grandparents. Just because they are not affiliated with faith communities doesn’t mean they are not seeking. The House for Sinners and Saints in Denver CO where the 6 foot tall, tattooed 30-something Rev. Nadia Bolz-Weber is pastor, describes its norm as “low obligation/high commitment.” They meet on Sunday afternoons and have no pews or flags, but they share a longing for God and community in which to experience God, a place to come to know this “unknown” God.

“I will not leave you orphaned,” Jesus says to his disciples in our reading from John’s gospel. He was speaking to them before his death, before they would have to face the world without his physical presence, but he assured them that they would not face it alone. The God who was in Him would be with and in them. God’s Spirit would advocate for and empower them and their community. He was addressing that same longing that the Athenians and that all of us have–to know that we are not alone, and, more than that, that we are loved and worthy of love. This is not a polite little god who asks little of us. This great God of love and light asks of us everything–all that we have and all that we are–and at the same time, asks nothing at all– we are simply loved completely and forever.

May we seek and come to know this God and even, as the catechism says, to “enjoy God forever.” Amen, and amen.

Rev. Mary H. Lee-Clark

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