Sunday, April 27, 2008

Gods Known and Unknown - A Sermon for the Sixth Sunday of Easter

This sermon was preached the day I announced my resignation to the dear people of my parish, effective May 31st. After a month off in June, I'll be moving to Canadian Forces Base Greenwood to begin my first posting as a full-time chaplain in the regular Canadian Forces. While I will continue to preach as part of the base chapel team ministry, it may not be the same as the privilege and burden of digging into the scripture and speaking about them to God's people Sunday by Sunday, one of the great joys of ordained ministry. MP

Preached at Grace Church, Ilderton and St. George’s, Middlesex Centre, 27 April, 2008

Acts 17:22-31, Psalm 66:7-18; 1 Peter 3:13-22; John 14:15-21

“What you therefore worship as unknown, I am going to proclaim to you.” (Acts 17:23)

I love the fact that we get to hear from the Book of Acts as our first lesson in these weeks after Easter. Acts is a quirky, powerful story of what God can do with ordinary people, and today’s story about Paul in Athens is one of my favourite bible stories. I like it because as I imagine Paul wandering around a foreign city, taking in the sights, I can’t resist seeing him as a tourist with a ball cap and a bright sports shirt. More importantly, I like it because in Paul’s challenge to the Athenians with its opening line -- “Athenians, I see how extremely religious you are in every way” (Acts 17:22) – and surely this is said with a twinkle in his eye – there is a challenge for us. Today’s lesson asks us, do we really know the God we worship?

The Athenians were the smart guys of the ancient world. The Romans had military strength and technology. The Jews had tradition and culture. The Athenians were the intellectuals. They had philosophy and democracy and culture. Earlier in Acts 17, we are told that the Athenians “spent their time doing nothing but talking about and listening to the latest ideas” (Acts 27:21). These are the guys you’d find at Western, staying up late in life debating the meaning of life (isn’t that what they do in frat houses?). Even so, these smart Athenians have a little shrine dedicated “to the unknown God”. It makes you wonder what they were thinking. Was this a spiritual insurance policy, a place to shoot off a quick prayer to whoever might be out there, to keep bad things from happening? And the ironic thing is that here’s Paul, a Jew from a culture that the Athenians would have seen as backwards and superstitious, challenging these smart guys with the question, “An unknown God? Do you guys have a clue what you’re worshipping?”

I have another vision of Paul, wondering around the city of London on a weekend. He sees the crowds pouring into the JLC for a sporting event on Saturday night. He sees the patios full of bodies and noise along Richmond Row. On Sunday he sees a lot of churches, but many of them are half-empty or worse. In the parks he sees people running and rollerblading and sunning themselves. He sees the big box stores full of people buying wide-screen TVs and clothes and barbecues. If he had a chance to gather all of us together, I wonder if he’d say something like this. “Londoners (and that includes Ildertonians), you folks seem pretty religious. It looks to me like you’re worshipping all sorts of things – sports, your bodies, your possessions. But do you really have a clue what you’re worshipping? Do you think that god is something that is made, or packaged, or watched on your big screen TV?”

My guess is that if Paul were with us today, he’d tell us the same thing that he told the Athenians. Paul would say that whenever we think we need to search for God, or for something that might give our lives meaning, then we run off in all directions and we end up not having a clue what we’re worshipping. He’d also tell us, as he told the Athenians, that God is real, God can be known, and in fact God is very close to us. If we let God close the gap and come to us and tell us who he is, then we will know the real God who creates us, who loves us, and who saves us.

Yesterday I finished teaching a theology course in the lay certificate program at Renison College in Waterloo. I’m very proud of my students because they’re not anyone special. They’re not super smart folks like the Athenians or the divinity students at Huron College. They’re just ordinary Christians who want to learn more about the God they love and serve, but I’m going to brag on them in just a minute. Like any theology course, we started with the basics. Can we see God? No. Can we prove the existence of God? No. Is God an object to be studied and mastered, like economics or agriculture? No.

Then we did what Christian theology courses always do. We asked, how can we know about God? Because God wants us to know him. God comes us to us just as he has come to his people throughout the ages. We know God because he is the God of Abraham and Isaac and Jacob. He is the God who rescued Israel from slavery in Egypt. He is the God who speaks through the words of scripture, through the prophets and through his Son, the Word made flesh, Jesus. Some of our talk about Jesus got a little abstract when we looked at the early church and its debates about how Jesus could be God and man at the same time. That kind of theology can make your eyes cross pretty quickly. But in their final project, when they I asked them to describe a time when theology had helped them understand their Christian lives, they had a razor-sharp idea of who the worshipped.

One student described her volunteer work in a community of people who are disabled, some quite severely. When she started there, she saw them as suffering, and wondered where God was in all this. God seemed very far away to her. Over six months, however, things changed for her. She stopped seeing these people as suffering. She begin to see “only a community of learners … caring … compassionate … eager and willing to learn”. She began to feel that these people were her community, her reason to get up each morning, and she found that she saw signs of God every day. God was much closer and much more real than she thought he was.

Another student wrote about being in a very dry business meeting, and discovering that the colleague beside him was writing something very intently in a little notepad, pausing to occasionally to erase and rewrite words. When he asked her what she was writing, she said it was a poem about her life and about her sadness. She was dealing with a husband who was fading away, an elderly mother who lived with them, and her own body as it began to go through menopause. She said “I am very sad and lonely and I feel that life is just passing me by” and that she was praying for guidance and support. The two let the meeting drone on around them and spoke about, as he put it, “faith, courage, commitment, ego, depression, loneliness and the fear of the night”. My student knows about these things first hand, because he is recovering from a severe stroke that still effects his mobility. After the meeting, he received an email from this woman who said “Thanks my friend. You are almost a stranger to me but God is in our hearts”. For this woman, God was much closer than she thought he was, in the form of this unlikely messenger of his presence.

In today’s gospel, Jesus says that we will know the Holy Spirit, because “because he abides with you, and he will be in you” (Jn 14:17). Much of theology, as my students have taught me, is really just opening ourselves to God’s presence within us and in the people around us. It’s only when we think that God is a mystery, a far off thing that we have to search for, that we get into trouble. In our first lesson, the Athenians felt that they had to search for God and grope to find him. Out of fear that they might not find this God, they worshipped an unknown God just to be sure. Many people today have given up on God altogether, and worship those things that give them pleasure or a sense of security. To the Athenians, and to our own time, Paul would say that God is much closer to us than we might think. I think given his escapade here last week, Ric would certainly attest to discovering God’s love all around him as God’s people ministered to him.

At the end of his first lesson, Paul says that God has given us “assurance … by raising [Christ] from the dead” (Acts 17:31). As I said at the beginning, in the weeks after Easter, we hear the book of Acts in place of our Old Testament lesson. We do this because the Book of Acts describes how the church was created by the resurrection of Jesus. Acts describes how a people who thought God died and went away learned that he was very much alive and with them. These people went out and brought hope to people who didn’t know the gods they worshipped. That story continues today. The church is where we meet Jesus as a real person and a real, knowable God. In church we here we hear his words, know him in the sacraments, and find strength in his community. The church is where we find freedom from sin and guilt through the forgiveness of God. While the world offers us many unknown Gods, the church reminds us that only the resurrection of Jesus gives us hope and love and freedom, and allows us to share these gifts with the people around us.

© Michael Peterson+ 2008

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Mad Padre

Mad Padre
Opinions expressed within are in no way the responsibility of anyone's employers or facilitating agencies and should by rights be taken as nothing more than one person's notional musings, attempted witticisms, and prayerful posturings.


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