“Living, Moving, Being”
Acts of the Apostles 17.22-31
The Rev. Hal Chorpenning, Plymouth Congregational UCC
Fort Collins, Colorado
14 May 2023
I don’t know if you read the New York Times, but on Wednesday morning there was a fascinating article by Jennifer Grose called, “Christianity Has a Branding Problem.” I know what she means. When you hear “Christian” in the news, it probably isn’t in a positive context. Try to think of a positive story you’ve read or seen in the news in the past month. We have a really large part of three generations who don’t affiliate at all with any religious tradition, even though many of them claim to believe in God.
We’ll come back to 21st century America in a few moments, but let’s transport ourselves back to the first century and the apostle Paul, who is a Greek-speaking Jew from Tarsus in what is now Turkey. He has experienced a radical conversion from someone who persecuted Christians to becoming the nascent movement’s most effective spokesperson. That is a lot of what the Acts of the Apostles is about: Paul as the apostle, convincing Gentiles that this new brand of Judaism is fundamentally true and that they are welcome to join, whether they are Jew or Greek, slave or free, male or female. Paul found something in this faith so amazing, so delightful, so deep that he changed everything about his life and work in response. And it ultimately cost him his life at the hands of Empire.
So, he finds himself speaking with poets and philosophers in Athens. Just before today’s text opens, they are scoffing at Paul calling him literally a seed-picker, which the NRSV translates as “amateur.” Yet they become curious, because there are some new twists on Judaism that are intriguing to them, so they bring him up to the hill of Mars, the Areopagus, so that he can explain further. He begins by saying, “Athenians, 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.’”
An altar, in this context and in that of many religions is the place where sacrifice is made…sometimes animal, sometimes grain, sometimes people. (That is why we call this object a “communion table,” and not an altar. In the Catholic mass, a priest reenacts Jesus’ death as the “once and forever sacrifice,” and that isn’t our theology in the UCC, which is a story for another day.) But even when we worship, we bring our offerings, our financial sacrifices, forward and leave them on something that functions a bit like an altar. At every service, we offer a prayer of dedication to these offerings (sometimes combined with a prayer of thanksgiving for the sacrament of communion). And at our 11:00 service, we even sing the collected offerings forward. From a religious studies point of view, it’s a central function in our worship.
So, back to Paul and the altar to an unknown God. Paul infers that he knows the identity of this God, and it is the one true deity “in whom we live and move and have our being.” He has presented a case to the Greeks using philosophical terms that might have ben seen as a bit abstract to Jews in the homeland. Think of the contrast between the Yahweh of the patriarchs, the God who speaks with Moses from the burning bush, who shows the people a new land that they will inherit, who is later thought to reside in the Temple in Jerusalem. That is a visceral, active, sometimes vindictive, anthropomorphic, tribal God. True, no one has ever seen God (except when Moses catches a glimpse), but in other ways he isn’t entirely dissimilar from Zeus. In fact, a lot of European Renaissance images of Yahweh bear a startling resemblance to Zeus, an old man with a long, white beard.
Is that a God you believe in? One of the issues for some people today who claim not to believe in God is that they have outdated or stereotypical attitudes about the God we worship. Do you see the parallel between Paul explaining God as the “ground of all being” to the Athenians and the branding challenge we Christians have today? We need to explain what being a Christian can mean in our lives and in the context of our society.
One of the best questions to ask folks who tell you that they don’t believe in God is that ask them about the God they don’t believe in. Chances are good that YOU don’t believe in that God either.
I’m going to turn the tables on you today and ask you to help me finishing this sermon. Think for a moment about the aspects and attributes of the God that some people may assume. Let’s write down some of the things about the God they don’t believe in.
The God they don’t believe in is condemning, male, violent, controls everything, homophobic, racist, out of date, mythical, frightening, omnipotent, unjust, vindictive, ______
Now, I have a question for you that might be more challenging to answer: Tell me some of the qualities of the God you DO believe in: Unconditionally loving; has no gender or body; everywhere; deep inside each of us; loves queer and straight folks; loves Republicans, Democrats Socialists, and independents, invites us into deeper knowing and to have deeper spiritual lives, desires justice, encourages us to be part of the struggle for peace and justice, _____
So, let’s assume that some of these folks who have no religious background or affiliation might believe in the same kind of God we do…a positive power in the universe that undergirds everything. In other words, is the power “in whom we live and move and have our being.” We still run up against the problem of the church’s branding problem. I understand this personally. As a teen, when I saw all of the televangelist stuff on TV, I found it utterly repugnant. And the prosperity gospel being preached by some today and even Joel Osteen’s hairdo…if that is what the church is about, deal me out of this hand!
So, tell me about the church you don’t want to belong to, because it’s hypocritical, homophobic, conservative, anti-woman, anti-intellectual, patriarchal, sexist, heterosexist, exclusive, filled with child-molesting clergy, only for old people, takes advantage of vulnerable people, stuck in the 19th century, anti-science, anti-Darwin, oppressive to women, queer folk, and their latest target: transgender people, pro-Trump and pro-gun, violent, tool of capitalism and imperialism.
Well, I guess that the church does have a branding problem.
So, now tell me about the church that you would want to belong to, that you think the God you actually believe in is calling us to create: progressive, Open and Affirming, intellectually stimulating and rigorous, intergenerational community, works in wider community, non-sexist, immigrant-welcoming, justice oriented, science-appreciating, anti-imperial, builds bridges rather than walls, non-stratified, racially diverse, welcoming and friendly, not too stuffy, not to emotional, deeply rooted in tradition but not afraid to try new things.
I wonder if we have a lot of younger folks who have a yearning to find a place to explore their spiritual journeys and, perhaps, they have come across and experience that tells them that there is more to life than learning, earning, and dying. Perhaps when they look at the church in this country, all they see is televangelists, White Evangelicals, prosperity gospelers, and shut-down church buildings. Maybe some of them don’t like the God that others believe in and maybe some of them have no idea a church like this one exists, because we have a branding problem. I wonder if some of them have come across the 21st century version of an altar to an unknown god in their search for meaning. And if there isn’t someone like Paul to help them understand, they are likely to walk right on by.
There are plenty of folks out there that you know at work, in hiking groups, in book groups, in school, at your senior residence, who have given up on the God we don’t believe in and the church that you and I would avoid like the plague. They don’t know we are here. They are waiting for you to invite them into a community that has gifts to offer. A sense of belonging. Meaning-making. Intergenerational community. Unity in the struggle for justice. A radical welcome for all. Grounded in God’s grace. Who do you know that might be searching? Who do you know that needs the gift of Plymouth?
When you see them at the altar to an unknown god, may you have the love and the courage to invite them to share in the treasure we’ve found. May it be so.
© 2023 Hal Chorpenning, all rights reserved. Please contact email@example.com for permission to reprint, which will typically be granted for non-profit uses.