Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Sermon from April 29, 2011; Acts 17:22-34

Rev. George Miller
Acts 17:22-34
“Searching for God”
May 29, 2011

The other day I was going through my files and came across this joke: What are three proofs that Jesus was a Mexican?

First, his name was Jesus. Second, he did things in large groups. Third, he was always being harassed by the authorities.

On the other hand, what are three proofs that Jesus was black? First, he had Sssooouuulll. Second, he called everyone “brother.” Third, he couldn’t get a fair trial.

But perhaps most compelling is this: what are three proofs that Jesus was a woman?

First, he had to feed a crowd at a moment’s notice when there was no food.

Second, he kept trying to get the message across to a bunch of men Who. Just. Didn’t. Get. It.

Third, even when he was dead, he had to get up because there was more work to do…

Yes indeed, in my office I have files upon files filled with stories, e-mails, poems.

Some of them try to solve the great questions of faith.

Ya’ll know the type: they use witty acronyms or reduce each book of the Bible to a one sentence explanation or tell you what to do to create a desired affect.

Want to know how to pray: do this.

Have stronger faith? Do that.

Get to know God? Follow steps a, b, c.

Ensure your salvation? Embrace 1, 2, 3.

But you know what? That all leaves me non-plussed. I’ve stopped believing there are certain steps to guarantee a desired spiritual result.

Now I’m like “I don’t know.” And I don’t mean it in a condescending, dismissive way.

I mean “I don’t know” as in “So much of faith is about mystery and I’m not afraid to embrace it.”

I mean “I don’t know” as in “The more I learn, the more I discover, and the more I discover the more I realize I have yet to learn.”

I mean “I don’t know” as in “I may not know about the past, but I know who’s been present since the very beginning.

“I may feel like I’m stumbling through the present, but I know I’m not stumbling through it alone.

“And I may not know about the future, but I know who holds it.”

Which reminds me of another joke:

There was a Sunday School teacher who believed that memorization was the key to her students’ salvation. So she decided to have her class memorize Psalm 23.

There was one boy, Ricky, who was so excited about the task. But try as he might he just could not memorize it. After much practice he could barely get through the first line.

On the day when the children were scheduled to recite Psalm 23 in front of the congregation, Ricky was so nervous.

When it was his turn, Ricky stood up to the microphone, took off his baseball cap, and proudly said “The Lord is my shepherd, and that’s all I need to know.”

The Lord is my shepherd and that’s all I need to know. Amen and amen!

I admire folk like Little Ricky. I admire anyone who has the courage to say things like “That’s all I need to know” or “I don’t know” or “Can you help me understand?”

There is a beauty in people who are on a spiritual journey, who feel like they don’t know anything, but know that they want to know.

Those are the people, who when I talk to them, make me feel like God is right there; their seeking uncertainty seems to make God so real, so present.

Even when talking with supposed atheists, I feel the presence of God. It may just be me, but it seems like every atheist I’ve met has an amazing knowledge of religion.

They seem to bring up the topic of God and the Bible more then so-called believers.

Which makes me wonder, “If this person really believed God didn’t exist, then why waste their breath and read so many religious books and articles?”

Former British Prime Minister Tony Blair wrote about a time when his father suffered a stroke. Tony was 10 and in school.

His teacher, sensing something was wrong, suggested that they pray for his father’s recovery. Tony whispered to him “I’m afraid my father doesn’t believe in God.”

The teacher replied “That doesn’t matter. God believes in him. (God) loves him without demanding or needing love in return.”

This made a lasting impression, teaching Tony that faith matters because it can inspire and raise people’s sights beyond themselves.

The Lord is my shepherd and that’s all I need to know.

This is a simplified boiling down of what Paul is trying to teach in today’s reading.

In chapter 17 Paul has been the cause of two religious riots. So the church sends Paul to Athens thinking there’ll be no problem there.

But Paul looks around and sees all these shrines and altars and statutes devoted to all these other gods.

This distresses Paul, so Paul being Paul, speaks up once again. Except this crowd is different from the others he has encountered.

He’s is a college town, the Harvard of its day, made up of scholars, professors and privileged folk.
So Paul has to think fast, and come up with a way to appeal to the crowd.

“People of Athens,” he says, “I can tell how very spiritual you are. I can see that you worship many gods, even if you don’t know who they are. But let me shed some light:

“The God who started it all is Lord of everything, everyone, and everywhere. Because of this, God does not live in buildings or man-made things.

“After all God made us all from one, giving us boundaries of space and time. And why these boundaries?

“So that we can seek, so that we can question. So that we can grab, grasp, and grope.

“So that when we search, we will find God and discover that God is never, ever, far away from us.”

I admire the technique Paul uses. I appreciate his use of words.

He says that we grope for God, a word that demands a reaction, if not a chuckle.

To grope is an action, it’s not about being passive or waiting for something to happen.

When we think of the word grope we may think of a teenager on his or her first date.

It’s a word that speaks of desire coupled with desperation, purposefulness coupled with a sense of naïve fumbling, of hopeful excitement coupled with fear and awe.

In speaking to this particular group of people, Paul is using his gifts to say “You don’t know it all, but you’re off to a good start. So let’s go on this journey together.”

The result? Some of the people laughed at him. Some said “We may not agree with you but we’re willing to listen to you again.”

Some of them joined Paul and continued their search for God as revealed through Jesus Christ.

As do we. As do I.

I continue to wonder who God is. Just what Jesus is about. What to fully make about the Holy Spirit.

I question what is real, what is made-up, what is a metaphor, what is a mistranslation.

Sometimes I wonder if we got the story wrong; I wonder how the story will really end.

But I don’t worry so much about who the author and main character is.

And I know that as long as I, as long as you, as long as we, continue to search, we will find, and we will be found, and we will discover how God is indeed not far away from us at all.

In conclusion, let me tell you one more joke.

One day a priest, a pastor, and a guru were arguing about the best way to pray, while a telephone repairman was working nearby.

The priest spoke first, with great certainty, “Kneeling is definitely the best way to pray.”

“No,” said the pastor, “I get the best results standing with my hands outstretched to Heaven like this.”

“You’re both wrong,” said the guru. “The most effective way to pray is laying down on the floor.”

“Pardon me,” the telephone repairman said, “I may not much know much ‘bout nuthin’, but the best praying I ever did was when I was hanging upside down from a telephone pole.”

Faith is a mystery. We don’t have to be so caught up in steps a, b, c, or embracing 1, 2, 3.

Nor should we be afraid of searching, or groping, as clumsy as it may seem.

What we can know is that somehow, someway, we will make a discovery that God is real, that God has never been too far away and that God believes in us.

For the Lord is our Shepherd, and perhaps sometimes that is all we need to know.

Blessing be to the mystery that is the Holy Spirit, the Way that is Jesus Christ and the known unknown who is God.

Amen and amen.

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