Sermon for Sunday, May 21, 2017 || Easter 6A || Acts 17:22-31
I’m going to start today’s sermon with a statement, which I hope is confusing enough to make sure you want to stay with me for the next ten minutes while I unpack it. Are you ready? The statement is this: None of us has ever actually worshiped God. That’s the statement – none of us has ever actually worshiped or prayed to or talked about God.
Are you sufficiently confused? Good! I was so confused when I started working on this sermon that I spent a good hour trying to figure out what to say first. In the end I decided to invite you into my confusion and see if together we can find our way out. We have the Apostle Paul to blame. In our passage from the book of Acts this morning, Paul finds himself in Athens, Greece. He strolls the boulevards looking at the statuary dedicated to various gods of Greece and other nations. And then he comes across one altar with the inscription: “To an unknown god.” Paul decides this unknown god is the God of of his ancestors and the Father of his Lord Jesus Christ. So Paul stands up at a gathering of the local scholarly elite and proclaims to them just who he thinks this unknown god is.
Paul’s sermon stirs the Athenians’ hearts with a brief and beautiful account of God’s movement in creation. And yet at the end of it, I wonder if the phrase “unknown god” is still not the most appropriate term. I wonder this because there are so many conceptions of God out there and they disagree. Even within Christianity, there are many conceptions of God. Even within the Episcopal Church. Even here at St. Mark’s. Even here at this service. Even here inside my own heart and mind there are many conceptions of God and they often disagree. Hence my confusion when I realize I’ve never actually worshiped God; I’ve only ever worshiped my faulty understand of God.
Here’s what I mean. On the spectrum of knowing God, there are two extremes. First, there’s knowing God totally and completely. Second, there’s not knowing God at all. Zilch. Zero. Nada. We exist somewhere between these two ends of the spectrum, but to clarify the confusion, it can be helpful to start with the extremes.
In the first case, we know God totally and completely. We have strapped God to the operating table and figured out exactly what makes God tick. When we’re done, we stuff and mount God on the wall like a hunting trophy. This taxidermied version of God is under our control: we can take the trophy down to show it off; we know what to expect of God; we know what buttons to push in order to make God act in our favor. And coincidentally enough, God disagrees with the same people we do. Of course, this is a flawed understanding of God. We’re talking extremes, so flaws are more common out here. The flaw here is the delusion that God is small and mundane enough for us to figure out what makes God tick.
The second extreme is naturally the complete opposite of the first. In the second case, there’s no hope of knowing God at all. Words fail us because none of them measures up. So we wind up using words like “ineffable,” which is just a fancy way of saying “unknowable and unsearchable.” God is so far beyond human comprehension that there’s no point in trying to comprehend. We’re like amoebas trying to read Shakespeare. Of course, this is also a flawed understanding of God. The flaw at this extreme is that God is too big and majestic to bother with amoebas like us, despite the evidence that God has been surprising humanity through encounters with the Divine for several millennia.
These two extremes represent the flawed ends of the spectrum which tracks our capacity to know God. As with all spectra, we exist somewhere in between the two extremes, and our existence is fluid. When we really need something to happen – to get a job or pass a test or receive successful treatment – we might trend toward the first extreme, in which God comes at our beck and call. When something really terrible happens – a huge earthquake or terrorist attack or we lose someone we love suddenly – we might trend toward the second extreme, in which God’s “beyond-ness” explains the apparent lack of intervention.
Do you see what’s happening here? Our knowledge and experience of God changes depending on our needs in the moment. We slide along the spectrum between the two extremes. The unique mixtures of our appetites, yearnings, successes, failures, doubts, and faith paint pictures of the God we worship. And whatever else those paintings may be, there is one thing they are not. They are not accurate portraits of God. This is why I wonder if the term “unknown god” is the best moniker. This is why I sometimes question why I even stand up here to preach with you. This is why I am confused today.
Are you still with me? Good, because C.S. Lewis will help us climb out of our confusion. In a wonderful poem, Lewis acknowledges our faulty understanding of God. He admits that in prayer we “address the coinage of [our] own unquiet thoughts.” He imagines prayer to God as “arrows aimed unskillfully.” Then in a moment of profound faith, Lewis praises God’s “magnetic mercy,” which diverts those poorly aimed arrows so they strike their intended target.*
I am totally on board with C.S. Lewis in this metaphorical imagining. While we worship our own faulty understandings of God, God’s magnetic mercy reorients us. The first extreme falls away because we could never understand or categorize such mercy, such grace. But understanding God is not a prerequisite for belief. The second extreme falls away because God chooses to offer us the gift of revelation, so we might discover and celebrate such mercy and grace.
The only one who truly knows and understands God…is God. Our faulty understandings cannot diminish the truth of God, the truth of the foundation of all being. But such faulty understandings can diminish our participation in God’s mission and our witness to God in the world. If we mistakenly think we can control God, like the graven images of old, we will never step out of our comfort zones to grow into new areas where God is calling us. If we mistakenly think God is completely unknowable, we will never seek God out, will never find God’s presence in the other or in ourselves. But the true God calls to us from within our desire to understand, however faultily. And God’s magnetic mercy aligns us closer to the truth, like a compass spinning to true north.
Of course, faulty understandings of God harm more than just our own discipleship and apostleship. I can’t even begin to catalog how much damage has been done down through the ages in the name of bad understandings of God. When we see and cringe at other people’s faulty understandings of God, which they use to justify all sorts of things, from the well-intentioned to the heinous, know that such understandings do not accurately paint the true God. Such faulty understandings are Lewis’s “coinage of their unquiet thoughts.” Pray for them as you pray for yourselves and each other. And believe that God’s magnetic mercy is working in their lives, just as in ours, to bring all of us to better clarity, better vision, better knowledge of God’s dream for the world.
Paul saw an altar to an unknown god. Ultimately God is unknown, for we filter God through our own perceptions and expectations. But the good news is this: while we may never know God perfectly in this life, there is more than just this life. As Paul says during his great hymn to love: “Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known.”
*C.S Lewis, “A Footnote to All Prayers”
He whom I bow to only knows to whom I bow
When I attempt the ineffable Name, muttering Thou,
And dream of Pheidian fancies and embrace in heart
Symbols (I know) which cannot be the thing Thou art.
Thus always, taken at their word, all prayers blaspheme
Worshipping with frail images a folk-lore dream,
And all men in their praying, self-deceived, address
The coinage of their own unquiet thoughts, unless
Thou in magnetic mercy to Thyself divert
Our arrows, aimed unskillfully, beyond desert;
And all men are idolators, crying unheard
To a deaf idol, if Thou take them at their word.
Take not, oh Lord, our literal sense. Lord, in Thy great,
Unbroken speech our limping metaphor translate.