King Street UCC, Danbury, CT
May 29, 2011
May 29, 2011
From one ancestor he made all nations to inhabit the whole earth…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. For 'In him we live and move and have our being'.
Sermon Texts: Acts 17:22-31, John 14:15-21
If you drove up Clapboard Ridge road to get here this morning, or at anytime during this Memorial Day weekend, there’s a good chance that you noticed the display that the folks at Immanuel Lutheran have set up on their church lawn. 6,000 tiny American flags have been loving placed in the grass as a memorial to the Americans who have lost their lives in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
There are no names on the flags and the number 6,000 is only an approximation of how many American citizens have died in these wars.
But the point of the display is not to honor particular lives, but rather it is meant to serve as a memorial focal point for all the mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers, wives, husbands, and children, in this country, who have lost a loved one to war.
In 1916, during WWI, the Reverend David Railton, was serving in the British Army as a chaplain on the Western Front, when he came across a grave marked by a rough wooden cross. Written on the cross, in pencil, were the words, 'An Unknown British Soldier.'
This makeshift grave became the inspiration for Britain’s “Tomb of the Unknown Warrior” - a nationally recognized monument to the unknown war dead dedicated at Westminster Abbey in 1920. France unveiled its own monument at the Arc de Triomphe shortly afterward, and in 1921 the United States, installed the “Tomb of the Unknowns” in Arlington National Cemetery – a monument that has come to be known as the “Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.”
Forty other countries have since followed suit with their own tombs dedicated to the unknown casualties of war.
These tombs typically contain the remains of a soldier who is unidentified, and who is thought to be impossible to ever identify, so that he might serve as a symbol of the sacrifice made by all the unknown dead wherever they fell. As the inscription on the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier reads:
“Here lies in honored glory an American soldier known but to God."
Now, regardless of our political leanings or our viewpoints on the current wars or war in general, the need to have a monument to honor those who have lost their lives in war is rarely disputed.
We are a people who love statuary, memorials and monuments. We need something solid, concrete, and visible to which we can direct our praise, our joy, and our grief.
This is true in both secular and religious settings.
When Moses had his people wandering in the desert for far too long under the guidance of an invisible God, their instinct was to create a visible God – the people forged a golden calf because they needed something more than wind and fire to which to direct their adoration, desires, and cries of anguish. They needed something they could see, touch, and feel.
While some religious traditions eschew physical representations of God in any form, others fully embrace it. Islam generally believes that it is blasphemous to create an image of God or the prophet Mohammad, while Hinduism, which makes room for hundreds of gods, not only creates elaborate statuary to honor them, but believers treat those statues as if the gods themselves inhabit them, taking great care to feed them, bathe them, and dim the lights at night so they might sleep.
Christianity runs the gamut from the gilded icons of Eastern Orthodox churches and the revered statuary of Roman Catholicism, to bare walls Protestants who tossed all the statues out into the streets along with everything else but the Bible during the Protestant Reformation.
As you can see by the lack of statuary and icons in our own church, that the United Church of Christ, having a segment of its roots in Puritan Congregationalism, is not one to promote visible images of God, other than the illustrated images of Jesus that we might find in children’s bulletins and Sunday School curriculum.
Many of us prefer to see God in the beauty and power of nature, or in the diverse faces and compassionate acts of our fellow human beings, rather than in an image that can never come close to being representative of the real thing.
As Christians, we believe we are created in the image of God, and Creation itself reflects the love and wondrous imagination of God, so we don’t have to look far to find visible signs of God in our world.
But regardless of the beliefs we’ve inherited in our varying religious traditions, we as human beings all have a common predilection for Idolatry - for forging images of the divine and worshiping those images as if they are divine, for making Gods of things that are not God.
In our reading today from the Book of Acts, Paul is in the Greek city of Athens, where he encounters a monument inscribed “To an Unknown God.”
In Paul’s time, the city of Athens was overflowing with images of the many gods worshiped by those in the region. The inclusion of an altar meant for sacrifices to “an unknown God” was the result of the Greeks hedging their bets. Known for their love of intellectual pursuits the Greeks knew it was impossible for human beings to have an awareness of ALL gods, so they set up an altar for those Gods who had yet to make themselves known.
Paul saw this altar and seized upon the opportunity to tell the Greeks about his God, the God of Abraham and the Jews, the God who created the entire world in which all the lesser Pagan gods lived.
Monotheism - the understanding that there is only ONE God responsible for all of Creation – was still a fairly new idea in Paul’s time, and while the Jews had embraced it, the Greeks found it to be simply an intriguing point to fuel their intellectual discussions.
Now typically, whenever Paul entered a new city, the first place he sought out was the local synagogue where he would proclaim the resurrection of Christ to an audience of his fellow Jews. But the level of idolatry in Athens left Paul deeply disturbed, so he forced himself to step outside of his comfort zone of the synagogue and to instead bring his message to the open market place in Athens.
Here he argued with the Stoic and Epicurean philosophers, who called him a “babbler” and a “proclaimer of foreign” divinities.
They challenged him to tell them more about this “new” God and they invited him to address the gathering at the Areopagus.
The Areopagus - what we’ve come to know as Mars Hill - was a barren, rocky hill that served as the site of the high court for civil and criminal cases in Athens. The intellectual community in Athens regularly assembled there to discuss law, philosophy and religion. Mars Hill stood in the shadow of the Acropolis, the highest hill in Athens and home to the largest temples to the many gods of the region.
It is here that Paul told the Greeks about the God who does not live in shrines made by human hands; the God who gave life and breath to all things;
the God who created all the nations from one common ancestor;
the God in whom we all live and move and have our being.
This is the God for whom we are all searching – and while we sometimes feel as if we are groping in the dark to find this God, this God is never far from us.
For we are God’s offspring – and something that WE create out of gold, silver, or stone can not be OUR creator, our master, our care taker, the One who bestows upon us love, grace, mercy, and forgiveness.
But we know all this already, don’t we? We are not the Pagan idol worshipers of Athens. Look around, there is nothing here made of gold, silver or stone that we bestow Godly powers upon.
Our altar is adorned with a golden cross, but we recognize that this is just a symbol of Christ’s healing Resurrection; the cross is not something that we worship as if it were itself God.
But Idolatry is not just about worshiping a false God, it is also about placing one’s trust in something that does not warrant one’s trust, and giving “ultimate significance” to that which is not “ultimate” – for only God can fill these roles in our lives. Idolatry can also be defined as putting something other than God at the center of one’s life. It follows naturally that whatever we place at the center of our lives will have the most influence and control over our lives, for the center is the object of our focus.
Money. Careers. Power. Pleasure.
Craving the latest and greatest electronics, houses, and cars.
Climbing the corporate ladder or just staying afloat.
The attraction we have to the multitude of substances and behaviors that can be classified as addictive, and once we’re locked in the grasp of an addiction nothing in the world is as important as feeding it.
And then there is the amount of energy we expend fueling feelings of envy, pride, revenge, or hate.
In all these things we find new Gods.
Objects of worship to which we willingly dedicate all our time, energy, and attention.
And before we know it, there is no room for the one true God.
We tuck the God who created us into a corner of our lives that we only visit on Christmas and Easter….or we toss God out all together.
But as harsh as this indictment sounds, it is SO difficult for us not to fall into the trap of idolatry. Even without the pressures of our consumer based, “more is better” culture in which we live, this God that Paul talks about, this God that gave breath and life to all things, this God that we’re searching for ….This God is not visible to us, and thus is not easy to find.
In many ways we do feel as if we’re groping in the dark.
Propelling ourselves through life, from one day to the next, seeking the one thing that will satiate our desire for this God that we cannot find.
As Augustine said of the Divine presence:
“You have made us for yourself, and our heart is restless until it rests in you.”
“You have made us for yourself, and our heart is restless until it rests in you.”
As created beings we live with the tension of finding a safe haven in a God in whom we live, move and have our being, while at the same time we are lost in the constant cravings of a restless heart.
But our hearts are often restless because we are searching for a God that does not exist.
In this case, the idolatry we fall victim to is one of creating an image of God that cannot stand the test of time, growth, or adversity.
For many of us, our first images of God were formed in our childhood –
in Sunday School, in catechism classes, and in the bible stories heard at our parents knee. God was a doting Father who watched over us from above, -
as we lay ourselves down to sleep, we prayed the Lord our souls to keep.
Ideally, as we grew into adults we came to expand our childhood understanding of God as the ‘Great Protector in the Sky’ to include an image of God that is more ambiguous and complex. To accept a God who created a world in which bad things happen to good people.
To ask questions knowing that they can’t always be answered. To move from a black and white image of God to one that embraces the grays as well.
But too often, we ask the questions, and becoming dissatisfied with the answers, we leave God behind all together, rather than discard the image of God that we ourselves have created.
I have a friend who lost her faith after her brother was killed in a car accident. In her grief, she explained that she could no longer believe in a God who would allow such a tragic and painful event to happen. As crass as it may sound, what she really meant to say is that she couldn’t believe in a God who allowed such a tragic event to happen - to her.
We accept that there is pain and death in this world but when it happens to other people, in another city or on the other side of the world, we’re often content to go on believing in a loving and benevolent God.
But when tragedy strikes our own lives, we feel compelled to ask, “How could God allow this to happen? Is God punishing me for something that I did or didn’t do?”
These questions sound completely irrational because they are.
And then when our rational brains can’t find a reason why God would have brought this tragedy upon us, we begin to question what kind of ‘GOD’ God is.
We ask, “If God is compassionate and omnipotent, then why is there suffering in this world?”
And if our understanding of God no longer fits the image we’ve carried since childhood, we may let go of God entirely. We lose our faith.
In the aftermath of the 2004 Tsunami in Indonesia, in which 200,000 people were instantaneously wiped off the face of the earth, a group of refugees approached a Jesuit priest in one of the many camps that sprang up after the disaster. The refugees told the priest that they were interested in converting from Hinduism to Christianity.
“Our God has failed us,” they said. “Maybe yours will do better.”
If the God that we’ve clung to since childhood no longer holds true, or lets us down in times of trouble, it is not God we need to let go of, but rather our understanding of who God is.
The Reverend Barbra Brown Taylor puts it this way:
“When we become disillusioned we need to turn away from the God who was supposed to be in order to seek the God who is.Every letdown becomes a lesson and a lure.Did God fail to come when I called? Then perhaps God is not a minion.So who is God?Did God fail to punish my adversary? Then perhaps God is not a policeman.So who is God?Did God fail to make everything turn out all right? Then perhaps God is not a fixer.So who is God?Over and over, our disappointments draw us deeper into the mystery of God’s being and doing. Every time God declines to meet our expectations, another image is destroyed.Another curtain is drawn back so that we can see what we have propped up in God’s place – the image we create is not God, so who is God?It is the question of a lifetime, and the answers are never big enough or complete.God is greater than our imagination, wiser than our wisdom, as present as the air we breathe and utterly beyond our control.” (BBT-The Preaching Life, 9)
Last Saturday I graduated from seminary, and after three years of studying theology I was handed a diploma that said I am now a "Master of Divinity."
I’ve mastered God.
How ludicrous is that?
As if any one of us could say that we see through the glass any less darkly than any one else.
In reality, having gone through seminary my understanding of God has changed, because I’ve changed.
A classmate of mine likened the seminary experience to the transformative encounter that the prophet Jonah had when he was swallowed by a giant fish. After three years spent in the belly of the whale, I’ve finally been spit out onto the shore...and last week I got up, looked in the mirror, and I didn’t recognize the person looking back at me.
The experience has changed me to the point where I’m not the same person that I was when I started.
And I saw this same transformation happen to most of my classmates, regardless of their age. Last week I spoke with a woman who graduated from seminary at the age of 92, and she adamantly insisted that one is never too old to be introduced to new understandings of God.
Whether we’ve gone to seminary or not, like all those who take on the label “Christian” we begin our journey worshiping at the altar of an unknown God. And as our image of God begins to take shape we spend just as much time casting off the pieces that no longer fit as we do discovering and placing the new pieces that do fit.
And in the process of transforming our image of God, we end up transforming ourselves…and much of that transformation comes from letting go.
Letting go of our anger at a God who allowed suffering into our lives.
Letting go of our fear of a God who stands as an un-merciful judge.
Letting go of our frustration at a God who doesn’t always answer our prayers.
In casting off these images of God that no longer fit we move closer to finding the one true God that we are searching for.
The Unknown God becomes Known, and for a moment in time our hearts are at rest. But God is ever moving, ever changing, and so we must be ever moving, ever changing as well.
Our hearts will be at rest as long as they rest in God, but as God continues to transform us we must be prepared to transform our image of God.
In John’s Gospel, Jesus said to his disciples, “I will not leave you orphaned.”
The Spirit is with us.
God is with us.
The altar dedicated "To an Unknown God"