Magnetic Mercy

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. Continue reading “Magnetic Mercy”

Six Word Witness

Sermon for Sunday, May 25, 2014 || Easter 6A || Acts 17:22-31; 1 Peter 3:13-22; John 14:15-21

6wordwitnessI couldn’t help but notice the readings selected for today all have some flavor of courtroom drama. We have the Apostle Paul sightseeing around Athens and discovering an out of the way shrine dedicated “to an unknown god.” When he stands up to debate at the Areopagus (the Athenian equivalent of the Supreme Court), he proclaims to the Athenians that this unknown god is the God who created all that is, the God of Abraham and his descendants, the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. At the end of his speech, some scoff at him and leave; others are intrigued and join Paul on his journey.

Continuing the courtroom theme, in the letter of Peter, the writer urges the reader to “always be ready to make your defense to anyone who demands from you an accounting for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and reverence.”

And finally, on the night before he dies, Jesus makes a promise to his disciples: “I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate, to be with you forever. This is the Spirit of truth.” You can think of this “Advocate” as the one who would stand up for you in court, one that would counsel you and speak on your behalf.

The courtroom drama of these three passages makes sense when we hop in our TARDIS and go back in time to first century Asia Minor. In the early days of the movement that would become Christianity, those spreading the word about Jesus were met with many reactions: anger, curiosity, rejection, embrace, incredulity, joy. Last week, we read the tragic story of the stoning of Stephen, the first person to die for faith in Jesus. Two weeks ago, we read about three thousand people being baptized after hearing Peter preach. Notice here that reactions to the proclamation of the Gospel at that time – at least the ones recorded in the book of Acts – were never tepid.

Now hop back in the TARDIS (that’s Dr. Who’s time machine, by the way), and come back to the present. We’ve all heard the news and seen the statistics. The church in the United States is in decline. More people than ever before marked the “none” box on the religion question of the 2010 census – note that’s none N-O-N-E, not nun N-U-N. The reasons for this are many and varied, and they are way beyond the scope of this sermon. Well, all but one is. You see, one reason for the downward trend is that over the last several decades the church has lost the ability to tell our story – the story of the God made known in the witness of the Bible and in Jesus Christ.

For too long, the church relied on its primacy in American society, a society steeped in the language and tradition of the Biblical story. When that primacy began to erode, the church didn’t realize how much it was relying on society as a whole to carry its message. And ever since that primacy evaporated entirely, the church hasn’t come to grips with how to proclaim this wonderful and life-giving story from its new position as underdog.

People nowadays – even many faithful churchgoers – just don’t know the story, both the Biblical story itself and how we fit into the story’s narrative trajectory. At the same time, we’ve entered into that underdog role. This might not sound like good news (and in many respects, it’s not, to be sure), but in one honest-to-goodness way, this news is good. This is the first time in history since the earliest centuries of Christianity that the church is not the dominant force in Western society. Back then people didn’t know the story either, or they didn’t know the version the apostles were telling.

What I’m trying to say is that we have reached a new apostolic moment. We have a story to share with a world that’s unfamiliar with this life-changing narrative. And I guarantee you there are people hungry to hear it.

Case in point: I’m a gamer. I love games. Video games are okay, but board games are my true love. When I lived in Massachusetts I frequented a local game store, the kind of store that sold games and had tables set up for people just to come in and play. The clientele of the store – think characters from The Big Bang Theory – were mostly those who would have checked “none” on the census form. But over the couple of years I played games there, an interesting thing happened. As people got to know me and found out what I do for a living, they started asking me questions – deep questions about faith and morality and how to know God. They were hungry for something beyond their own physical ken, for something deeper than today’s reality, for something…more.

This seeking happened occasionally, but often enough that I started thinking of myself as the chaplain of the game store. And I’m glad and feel so blessed to have been someone who could bear witness to my faith and to let them in on the story we all share.

I know this kind of witness and sharing can be so daunting. When we feel like the underdog or when we feel like we’re on trial, speaking up can be hard. But remember the promise Jesus gave the disciples: the Father “will send you another Advocate” to help you speak, to walk along side you as you share your part of the greatest story every told. Paul felt that Spirit when he spoke out in Athens, but you don’t need to be a Christian rock star like Paul to do it. All you need is six words.

You might be familiar with the Six-Word Memoir Project started by SMITH Magazine in 2006. Based on a legend that Ernest Hemingway was challenged to write a story in only six words (he succeeded, by the way),* SMITH Magazine invited people to share their life stories in only six words. Such an extreme restriction bred abundant creativity, and people continue to share six word stories today on blogs and Twitter.

This week, I invite you to write your own six-word witness to how you fit into the story of God’s creative and redemptive work among us. I’ll be honest: this is quite a challenge. I’ve been working on mine since Thursday and I’m nowhere close to happy with it. But the act of trying to distill my witness to God’s movement in my life down to six words has me currently wrestling with what parts of God’s story are truly the most important for me and which parts I fit into. And when I find those words, I’ll have something to say when someone inevitably asks me why I’m a follower of Christ.

I went through scripture looking for six-word stories to get us started. I’ll end this sermon with a few. Consider these some of the ways the Spirit of truth, the Advocate that Christ promises us, is still speaking to us.

Here’s a story from Genesis: God said, “Go.” So Abram went.

Here’s one from the psalm we studied two weeks ago: God’s my shepherd. I lack nothing.

Here are a few from Jesus himself: I am the resurrection and life.

The wind blows where it chooses.

And my favorite: Remember, I’ll be with you. Always.

Perhaps your six-word witness will spring from your favorite Bible story like one of these. Or maybe from your favorite hymn. How’s this one: Amazing grace will lead me home.

When we tell our story – even just six words at a time – we actively participate in it, and we invite others to join it, as well. We can trust our Advocate the Holy Spirit to help us bear witness to God’s constant and creative movement. This is our new apostolic moment, when the world is hungry and…

We have good news to share.

* Hemingway’s (tragic) six word story read: “For sale: Baby shoes, never worn.”
Art: detail from “Jesus walks on water,” by Ivan Aivazovsky (1888).

To an Unknown God

(Sermon for Sunday, May 29, 2011 || Easter 6A || Acts 17:22-31)

I wonder what Paul was thinking as he walked the streets of Athens. I’m sure that the many-columned Parthenon was looking down on him from atop the Acropolis, as this temple of Athena had for nearly five hundred years. But no matter the goddess Athena’s appeal, down every street, Paul sees another crumbling monument to one deity or another. He studies them carefully. I imagine he finds statues of all the Greek gods and perhaps other ones from far off places, considering Athens’ booming tourism trade.

At one point on his walk, however, Paul comes across something he doesn’t expect. He stumbles upon an altar with an odd inscription: “To an unknown god.” Now, Paul is no stranger to being run out of town, but he is also never one to sit quietly in a corner and listen. So, after seeing the inscription, Paul stands up at a gathering of the local scholarly elite and proclaims to them just who this unknown God is.

God, he says, is not like the gods of these gold, silver, and stone monuments. God is Lord of heaven and earth. God isn’t bound to set roles like your local gods. God breathes life into all things. God doesn’t live in a special house somewhere. God is not far from each one of us everywhere. And yet, while Paul’s sermon is full of stirring and magnificent images of God, I can’t help but wonder if the phrase “unknown God” still applies more than any other.

Now, I’m going to warn you that we are about to wade into particularly deep and boggy theological waters. I confused myself thoroughly trying to write all of this down, so if your brain starts to hurt, you’re not alone. However, I have confidence that with some help from our friend C.S. Lewis and a stiff breeze from the Holy Spirit, whom Jesus talked about in today’s Gospel, we will all come out on the other side of the bog with our minds intact. Are you with me? Good.

The Mythbusters try to pull apart two interlocked phonebooks

So two extremes play tug-of-war with this concept of our “knowledge of God.” In the case of the first extreme, I claim to have captured God, strapped the Divine to the operating table, and figured out what makes God tick. When I’m done with the exploratory surgery, I stuff and mount God on the wall just like a prize twelve-point buck. With my experimentation complete, I know just what button to push to make God act in my favor, and oddly enough, God disagrees with all the same people I do. This is the extreme where I have God pegged. Now, you might have spotted the flaw in this point of view. (Remember – we’re talking about extremes, so flaws are more common out here.) The flaw here is, of course, the delusion that God is small or mundane enough for me to figure out what makes God tick.

The other extreme is, naturally, the complete opposite of the first. In the case of the second extreme, I claim to have absolutely no ability to comprehend a God who exists for eternity in infinity. When I try to get a handle on God, I am at a complete loss for words and I must conclude that God is so unsearchably unknowable that I might as well give up. I’m an amoeba trying to read Shakespeare. But I make peace with my teeny-tinyness, and I go about my day trying not to have delusions of grandeur, in which I might rise to a level of intelligence that allows me to comprehend even a shred of what God is about. Of course, there’s a flaw here, too. The flaw in this extreme is the faulty thinking that God is too big and majestic to bother with an amoeba like me, no matter the evidence that God has been surprising humanity for millennia by encounters with the Divine, including one in which God sent his only Son to be an amoeba like me.

Now, each of us exists somewhere along the spectrum between these two extremes. When I really need something to happen – to get a job or pass a test or receive successful treatment – I might trend toward the first extreme, in which God comes at my beck and call. When something really terrible happens in the world – a huge earthquake or massive flooding or a category five tornado – I might trend toward the second extreme, in which God may exist in the ether of eternity but surely can’t be bothered with things here on lil’ ol’ Earth.

Do you see what’s happening here? My experience of God changes depending on my needs in the moment. I slide along the spectrum between the two extremes. The unique mixture of my appetites, yearnings, successes, failures, doubt, and faith paints a picture of the God to whom I address my prayers. And whatever else that painting may be, there is one thing that the picture surely is not. And that is an accurate portrait of God. This is why I wonder if the phrase “unknown God” still applies more than any other.

Now, as I tried to wade out of my confusion while writing this sermon, two questions struck me after that whole bit about the extremes. They might be on your mind right now, as well. First, if the God I’m worshiping isn’t really God, but rather my conception of God, then what’s the good of praying? And second, if I’m not really worshiping God, doesn’t that make me an idolater? This is when we need to call in one of the heavyweights.

C.S. Lewis wrote an incredible poem called “A footnote to all prayers.” He begins:

He whom I bow to only knows to whom I bow
When I attempt the ineffable name, murmuring thou,
And dream of Pheidian fancies and embrace in heart
Symbols (I know) which cannot be the thing thou art.

These Pheidian fancies are works of the Greek sculptor Phidas, the very statues of gods and goddesses that Paul saw in Athens. Lewis knows that, even when he tries to call upon God, the best he can do is some symbol that could never do God justice. He continues:

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…

Lewis poetically describes the same predicament we were in a minute ago: in prayer, we address the gods of our own “unquiet” thoughts and thus we blaspheme. But the poem is only half over, for Lewis continues: [we blaspheme]

Thou in magnetic mercy to thyself divert
Our arrows, aimed unskillfully…

Even someone of C.S. Lewis’ verbal skill aims his prayer-arrows unskillfully, always at some conception of an “unknown” god than at the one, true God. But, in the end, our story isn’t really about you and me. Our story is always and forever about God working in, around, and through us, no matter how unknown God may be to us. And God’s story is all about God’s “magnetic mercy,” by which God pulls our prayers to God, even though we shoot them far wide of the target. Lewis concludes:

Take not, oh Lord, our literal sense. Lord, in thy great,
Unbroken speech our limping metaphor translate.

As we slide along the spectrum between the two faulty extremes of our conception of God, we can only speak in “limping metaphor.” But the true God, according to Lewis, speaks in “great, unbroken speech.” This is the speech that voiced light in the beginning and continues to sustain creation. This is the speech that speaks each one of us into being everyday, no matter the degree to which the speaker is unknown to us.

To tell you the truth, this unknown quality of God will be with us until God takes us fully into God’s glorious presence. Indeed, the unknown quality will keep us searching and reaching out and finding God in even the unlikeliest of places. And I believe that God redeems our lack of knowledge through God’s magnetic mercy. God translates our limping metaphor into the leaping speech of abundant life (even the words I’m speaking right now). Here’s the good news. In the end, our knowledge of God places a far distant second to God’s knowledge of us. As Paul says to the church in Corinth: someday “I will know fully, even as I have been fully known.”