Sixth Sunday of Easter, Year A
Plymouth Congregational Church, UCC
The Rev. Jane Anne Ferguson
I want to share some background with you about our story for today from the Book of Acts, chapter 17. The Acts of the Apostles tells of the movement and expansion of the good news of Jesus the Christ as well as the actions of the earliest followers of Jesus and their gatherings or churches after they receive the great anointing of the Holy Spirit during Jewish festival of Pentecost. Acts tells the story of the preaching and evangelism of the apostle, Peter, who knew Jesus so well and of the apostle, Paul, who never knew the man, Jesus. Paul received God’s good news of Jesus in a miraculous vision of the risen Christ as he was literally pursuing the persecution of Jesus’ Jewish followers after Pentecost.
Our story today centers on Paul. Paul was born in Tarsus, now in modern day Turkey. He was a Jew from his mother’s heritage and a Roman citizen from his father’s. As such he was educated not only in the Torah but also in Greek/Roman rhetoric. All of these elements go into the complex character of Paul whom we can learn so much from in theological dialogue, sometimes in theological conflict, as we read his letters to the earliest churches. In Acts the stories of Paul are told through the lens of the gospel writer of Luke and the Acts of the Apostles and was very likely writing some 20 or more years after the death of Paul. Not necessarily concerned with writing fact-checked details of Paul’s life, this writer wants to picture Paul’s audacity and passion in sharing his new faith in the revelation of God in the risen Christ.
At the beginning of chapter 17 in Acts, we find Paul traveling throughout Asia Minor from city to city with his companions, the older, Silas and the younger man, Timothy. They are fervently spreading the redeeming and powerful news of Jesus to Jews and any Gentiles who might listen as well throughout the region. We have to admire their tenacity as time and again they are thrown out of the synagogues by fellow Jews offended by their claims of Jesus as the Messiah. Their lives are threatened. They are beaten and jailed by the Romans for being subversive in preaching that the God of Jesus the Risen Christ is Lord rather than Caesar. Having been thrown out of the town of Thessalonica by the Jews, they are followed to the town of Beroea by these same irate men who are want to expel them from the whole region. Believers in Beroea find and shelter the three. They hide Silas and Timothy and secretly escort Paul to Athens in order to save their lives.
Our story begins in the middle of chapter 17. Paul is waiting for his missionary companions to join him in Athens. It ends with his sermon to the intellectual elite of Athens at a place of council and debate known as the Aereopagus or “Ares’ Hill” for the Greek god of war. During the Roman Empire it became known as Mars Hill for the Roman god. This was a hill outside the city center with a stone amphitheater. For centuries, even before the democracy of Greece was formed, the educated went to this hill to debate philosophy and make legal decisions. These men were often advisors of the king. Though Athens was part of the Roman empire in Paul’s time, Mars Hill and its council still functioned as a seat of authority in the city.
You will hear that Paul’s intent as he preaches to the intellectual elites is to open their minds to a new image of God, the ONE God revealed in Jesus the Christ. The information in his sermon may seem quite familiar to you. It is the salvation story of the Bible. To challenge what may be our overly familiar images of God, I have changed some of the pronouns that Paul uses for God from “he” to “she”. Hearing an unfamiliar pronoun takes our images out of their familiar God boxes that are culturally constructed to even speak of the God mystery. Now we know that the Holy cannot be contained in an intellectual box so perhaps, hearing new pronouns, the ears of our minds and hearts will open to bring us a new encounter with the Holy ONE. Perhaps we will hear the words of Paul with some shock and awe as the Athenians did so long ago and begin to seek God anew. Acts 17. 16-32
16While Paul waited for them in Athens, he was deeply distressed to find that the city was flooded with idols. 17He began to interact with the Jews and Gentile God-worshippers in the synagogue. He also addressed whoever happened to be in the marketplace each day. 18Certain Epicurean and Stoic philosophers engaged him in discussion too. Some said, "What an amateur! What's he trying to say?" Others remarked, "He seems to be a proclaimer of foreign gods." (They said this because he was preaching the good news about Jesus and the resurrection.) 19They took him into custody and brought him to the council on Mars Hill [The intellectuals on Mars Hill said to Paul,] "What is this new teaching? Can we learn what you are talking about? 20You've told us some strange things and we want to know what they mean." (21They said this because all Athenians as well as the foreigners who live in Athens used to spend their time doing nothing but talking about or listening to the newest thing.)
22Paul stood up in the middle of the council on Mars Hill and said, "People of Athens, I see that you are very religious in every way. 23As I was walking through town and carefully observing your objects of worship, I even found an altar with this inscription: 'To an unknown God.' What you worship as unknown, I now proclaim to you. 24God, who made the world and everything in it, is Lord of heaven and earth. He doesn't live in temples made with human hands. 25Nor is God served by human hands, as though [She] needed something, since [She] is the one who gives life, breath, and everything else. 26From one person God created every human nation to live on the whole earth, having determined their appointed times and the boundaries of their lands. 27God made the nations so they would seek [God], perhaps perhaps even reach out to [God/Him] and find [God/Her.] In fact, God isn't far away from any of us. 28In God we live, move, and exist, [have our being.] As some of your own poets said, 'We are [God’s] offspring.' 29"Therefore, as God's offspring, we have no need to imagine that the divine being is like a gold, silver, or stone image made by human skill and thought. 30God overlooks ignorance of these things in times past, but now directs everyone everywhere to change their hearts and lives. 31This is because God has set a day when [God/She] intends to judge the world justly by a man [God/He] has appointed. God has given proof of this to everyone by raising [this man] from the dead."
32When they heard about the resurrection from the dead, some began to ridicule Paul. However, others said, "We'll hear from you about this again."33At that, Paul left the council. 34Some people joined him and came to believe, including Dionysius, a member of the council on Mars Hill, a woman named Damaris, and several others. [Bible, Common English. CEB Common English Bible with Apocrypha - eBook [ePub] (Kindle Location 42947). Common English Bible. Kindle Edition.] For the word of God in scripture, for the word of God among us, for the word of God within us…. Thanks be to God.
“An unknown god”…. Mirabai Starr, world religions scholar, author, and translator of St. John of the Cross’ Dark Night of the Soul and Teresa of Avila’s The Interior Castle, writes of “an unknown god” in a 2014 Huffington Post Article:
“I have always been drawn to a God who eluded me. A God who transcends gender — transcends everything, actually. A God who rebels against all forms, annihilates conceptual constructs, blows my mind. In other words, a God I can’t believe in. Because beliefs are dangerous — dangerous to God, anyway. The minute we define Ultimate Reality we destroy it. God chokes and dies inside the boxes we make.”
Starr goes on in this article to write of the God she seeks to be in relationship with rather than intellectually construct. I think this was Paul’s intent as he introduces the unknown god to the Athenians as the God he knew as creator and redeemer of the world, the very Ground of Being. In Paul’s Jewish heritage, the God who names God’s self as “I AM” or “I Will Be Who I Will Be.” Paul begins with images of God from natural theology, as creator the cosmos and all of its beauty, then moves to an ever-present, seemingly beneficent God who is the parent of humankind. These would have been familiar images to the Athenians as he indicates. Finally, he brings in the shock and awe, announcing the God who has the unbelievable power to conquer death, to resurrect a man from the dead. No wonder some to the Athenians laughed at, ridiculed Paul, in one translation called him “babbler.” And yet others said, “We want to hear about this again!” And some believed and followed this God of Jesus the Christ on the way of faith.
This God that Paul preached to the Athenians rebuking their notions that God can be kept and worshiped in human-made idols – who is this God for us today? Is this a God that will turn us from the idols of our times? What are the idols that flood the cities of our lives? They are probably as numerous as the idols of the Athenians, though we may not make them out of gold or silver or stone. We may make them out of achievement in work, or in wealth, or in athletic endeavor, or in intellectual pursuits, or in following the best health practices. We can even make an idol of following religious practices in order to earn God’s notice. Are our works of social justice ever in danger of becoming idols? Our political views and actions? Our need to be right? Whatever we set before seeking, reaching out to God can become an idol. Trying not to have idols could become an idol.
Do you catch my drift here? God is the undefinable container in which all of the universe, all that we know, has its being. Each of us lives and moves and has our being in God, whether we acknowledge this or not. “Bidden or unbidden God is present with us.” This wisdom saying is usually attributed to Carl Jung, yet he found it in the ancient Latin writings of a Desiderius Erasmus who attributed it to an even older Spartan (Greek) proverb. Paul proclaims this unknown, yet ever-present God as not just a beneficent creator, but a fierce lover of humankind, so fierce that God defeated death itself in the risen Christ. Paul proclaims that this God, “I AM,” who raised the man, Jesus, from the dead, was Lord of all, not Caesar or the empire. This unknown God is not an inanimate idol made by human hands or human will, but a living presence.
Who is the God that we proclaim? Who is the ONE that we seek before any of the idols in our lives? Is it the God of relationship, ever-present, fiercely loving, and always seeking us, revealed in Jesus the Christ? Our biblical and theological heritage speaks of this God as “he”. Yet we know that God is neither male nor female, God is ALL, God is ONE. God answers to Father, to Mother, to Beloved, to Holy Mystery, to Gracious Bearer of Light, to Challenger of Our Lives, to Comforter of Our Souls’.
During our time, as we live and move and have our being in this God in the midst of pandemic, in the midst of intense political strife, in the midst of extreme economic uncertainty and divisive polarized rhetoric of our day, may we put aside the idols that tempt us when we are fearful, that distract us in our grief. May we turn our hearts, our ears, our minds, our full attention to the ONE who is ever-present, who grieves with us, who rejoices in our presence and in our joys. The ONE who has conquered the power of death and brings us gifts of grace, mercy, hope and forgiveness as we seek to be in relationship with one another and with God. May we take the time during these tumultuous times to still ourselves that we may know again and again the “unknown” living God in whom we live and move and have our being.
©The Reverend Jane Anne Ferguson, 2020 and beyond. May be reprinted with permission only.
Associate Minister Jane Anne Ferguson is a writer, storyteller, and contributor to Feasting on the Word, a popular biblical commentary. Learn more about Jane Anne here.
Psalms 42 & 43
The Rev. Hal Chorpenning,
Plymouth Congregational UCC
Fort Collins, Colorado
Blaise Pascal in the 17th c. wrote, “There was once in [us] a true happiness of which there now remains…only the mark and empty trace, which [we] in vain [try] to fill from all [our] surroundings…but these are all inadequate, because the infinite abyss can only be filled by an infinite and immutable object, that is to say, only by God Himself" [Pascal, Pensees, VII, 425, in The Great Books, vol. 33, p. 244].
How often have we, each of us, gone through a period in life feeling that something essential is missing and that there has to be something more to life. How often have we searched for that something more, only to try and fill up that God-shaped hole with something that is inadequate and not life-giving? The Psalmist was able to see what was really at stake here, saying that our hearts yearn for relationship with God in the same way that a thirsty deer longs for the cool, clear water of a rushing stream.
In one of his most recent books, UCC minister and biblical scholar Walter Brueggemann describes the countercultural nature of the Psalms. In fact, he goes beyond culture to describe what he calls the “Counter-World of the Psalms.” Brueggemann writes, “The psalms voice and mediate to us a counter-world that is at least in tension with our other, closely held world and in fact is often at direct odds with that closely held world. As a result, we yearn for a counter-world that is characterized by trust and assurance, because we know very often that our closely held world is not the best of all possible worlds. We are eager for a new, improved world that is occupied by the Good Shepherd, that yields help from the hills, and that attests a reliable refuge and strength. That is why we continually line out these particular cadences again and again. That is why we want to hear them at the hospital and at the graveside and in the many venues where our closely held world is known to be thin and inadequate. We want something more and something other than our closely held world can possibly yield" [Walter Brueggemann, From Whom No Secrets Are Hid, (Louisville: WJK, 2014) p. 9].
As we envision this counter-world, we hear the echoes of one who knew the psalms well, and we hear of his proclamation of a new realm, a new way of being, a new paradigm for how human life is organized and lived. We hear the strains of Jesus proclaiming the kingdom of God, which is what the world would be like if we lived in accordance with God’s intention.
Brueggemann sets up seven characteristics of “Our Closely Held World,” and I would ask you to remember that it is our closely held world. And I would ask you to consider these seven characteristics when you recall the political rhetoric you read in the news every day:
1) Anxiety rooted in scarcity: “We worry that if the goodies and power are shared more widely, there will not be as much for us" [Brueggemann, p. 10]. Anxiety leads people to want to build walls instead of bridges.
2) Greed: which “requires fatiguing overwork, endless 24/7 connection, and insatiable multitasking, all in an effort to get ahead or in an effort to stay even and not to fall hopelessly behind" [Brueggemann, p. 11].
3) Self-sufficiency: When Ezekiel quotes Pharaoh’s claim that “My Nile is my own: I made it for myself,” (Ezek. 29.3) or when we describe ourselves as “self-made men and women” we engage in the hubris of self-sufficiency.
4) Denial: We believe the promises of Madison Avenue, even though “our closely held world cannot keep its promises of safety, prosperity, and happiness" [Brueggemann, p. 12]. We are willing to say that the emperor has wonderful new clothes, even though we know better.
5) Despair: “Because we cannot fully master and sustain such denial and from time to time gasp before the truth that our world is not working, we end in despair.” Have you given in to despair in recent years?
6) Amnesia: We think, “It is all too much. And so, as a result, we are all too happy to press the delete button labeled amnesia” [Brueggemann, p. 13]. Whether we need to forget the images of Auschwitz or Hiroshima or Columbine or children in detention centers on our border…we hit the delete key.
7) A Normless World: “The outcome of our narcissistic amnesia is a normless world, because without God and without tradition and without common good, everything is possible” [Brueggemann, p. 14]. The dystopian world projected in George Orwell’s 1984 and in so many recent films is possible.
I know that Brueggemann paints a horrific picture: Our “closely held world” is a frightening reality that we see on the news every day. But it doesn’t have to stay that way. A world beyond the death-dealing dystopian future is possible, and it is echoed by the psalmist. We long for a different realm, one that affirms the goodness of life and of God’s creation. We long for the promised kingdom of God, what Brueggemann calls the Counter World of the Psalms:
1) Instead of anxiety, we can rely on God’s Trustful Fidelity: The psalmist cries out: “The Lord is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear? The Lord is the stronghold of my life; of whom shall I be afraid?” God’s fidelity, God’s covenant faithfulness, can “grant us courage for the facing of this hour.”
2) Instead of a greed, the psalmist proclaims a World of Abundance. “The ground for such an abundance that refuses greed is the glad doxological affirmation that God is the creator who has blessed and funded the earth so that it is a gift that keeps on giving. The doxological assumption is that when God’s creatures practice justice, God’s earth responds with new gifts" [Brueggemann, p. 17].
3) Instead of the delusion of being self-sufficient, we can acknowledge our Ultimate Dependence on God. We can see the miraculous nature of creation and life and know that we did nothing to create it, but that we are stewards responsible for preserving it.
4) Instead of denial, the psalmist embraces Abrasive Truth Telling. Whether “speaking the truth in love” or announcing an inconvenient truth, the psalmist calls out injustice and falsehood. “The entire genre of lament, complaint, and protest constitutes a refusal of denial” [Brueggemann, p. 20]. And truth-telling requires courage.
5) Despair – the hallmark of our times – can be overcome by A World of Hope. This is the world the poet portrays by repeating this refrain in Psalm 42 and Psalm 43: “Why are you cast down, O my soul, and why are you disquieted within me? Hope in God; for I shall again praise him, my help and my God.” (42.11 and 43.5) “Hope in God! Hope in God! Which is to say: ‘Do not hope in self. Do not hope in progress Do not hope for luck.’” [Brueggemann, p. 23]. Hope is the great refusal to accept the shadowy culture of despair.
6) Lively Remembering sets aside cultural amnesia about the goodness and presence of God. The refrain of Psalm 136 echoes back the history of all that God has done: “for his steadfast love endures forever.” If we don’t take time for awe, that is to reflect and remember what God has done in the glory of creation, we lapse into amnesia.
7) The psalmist’s antidote to a Normless World is Normed Fidelity – our faithfulness to God through Torah, not meaning simply “the Law,” but as Brueggemann claims, the entire legacy of norming that is elastic, dynamic, fluid, and summoning….It is the Torah that yields identity and perfect freedom. It is indeed a gift to come down where we ought to be" [Brueggemann, p. 25-26].
Some would have us feel as though we are powerless to change the world, to change the course of our nation’s history, and to change ourselves. This is not so. We don’t have to slip into war with Iran, to launch global trade wars, to round up productive members of society as if they were animals, to accept gun violence as normative. And it isn’t because we are brighter or wealthier or have more followers on Facebook. We aren’t that self-sufficient!
Another world is possible. The Counter-World of the Psalmist, the kingdom of God proclaimed by Jesus, the world of hope. Remember the words of Paul, dear friends of God, “I can do all things through him who strengthens me.” We can learn to fill the God-shaped hole not just in ourselves, but in the culture and fabric of this nation. Amen.
© 2019 Hal Chorpenning, all rights reserved. Please contact firstname.lastname@example.org for permission to reprint, which will typically be granted for non-profit uses.
The Rev. Hal Chorpenning has been Plymouth's senior minister since 2002. Before that, he was associate conference minister with the Connecticut Conference of the UCC. A grant from the Lilly Endowment enabled him to study Celtic Christianity in the UK and Ireland. Prior to ordained ministry, Hal had a business in corporate communications. Read more about Hal.
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