May 17, 2020

Acts 17:22-31


Okay, don’t worry if you are a little lost after listening to Dot read the scripture.  It’s a confounding one, that’s for sure.  Maybe you recognize the line, “In God we live and breathe and have our being,” but other than that, not much stuck.  I was the same first time I read through these words of Paul.  Paul’s always confounding me.  But I dug in, and Paul is showing us a way to be in this world – Yes, our world right now, with everyone that’s going on.


This is Paul’s third, maybe fourth try at this – He got thrown out of Thessalonia and Berea, and now here he is in Athens:  The Princeton NJ or Cambridge Massachusettes of Greece, home town of Plato and Aristotle.  These are smart people here; some real deep thinkers. 


And his approach to the Athenians is so relevant to us today, in this season of – Gosh, I don’t know even what words to use.  This year of a presidential election AND a pandemic AND multiple approaches to how to keep us safe and economically viable, AND an incredibly unpredictable future.  When nothing is sure, our communication gets fueled by the worst in us, and turn into off-the-cuff remarks & jabs, criticizing, maybe some name calling.  No one has much patience right now; everyone is a bit jittery.   


I read this one article in the Washington Post featuring 75 year old Gloria Jackson’s experience so far.  She’s fed up with everyone, and she finds herself spending too much time on facebook, “writing comments … for hours: ‘To hell with you, then.’  ‘You idiot.’  ‘How dumb can you be?’  ‘Moron.’  ‘Racist.’  ‘Selfish pig.’  ‘Idiot.’”  Not that she likes this about herself, not that she recognizes herself right now, She says, “I don’t like feeling this way.” And she knows she’s not alone – Maybe you hold back from telling people what you REALLY think, but maybe some of those thoughts sneak out on occasion. 


Gloria Jackson says, “And what are we now?  We’re mean, we’re selfish, we’re stubborn, and sometimes even incompetent.” 

What does this have to do with Paul talking with religious leaders in Athens about the resurrection of Jesus?  Well, Paul knows his goal, and he’s meeting them non-judgmentally right where they are. 


So often, I don’t think we’re clear about what we’re trying to accomplish when we’re communicating with each other.  We aren’t clear with ourselves what we are hoping for out of our interactions.  Paul missed the boat at least twice, so he’s figured out whatever he was doing before wasn’t working.  He tries something new here with the highly educated, thoughtful, intelligent Athenians.


He starts with what he’s already observed:  Statues, objects of worship, altars, temples, art – All in honor of or to worship something sacred and divine.  He sees all of that and knows it represents a deep longing for the holy.  A deep longing of their hearts and spirits for the divine.


He doesn’t tell them how wrong they are, how lost, how stupid and ignorant and stubborn, misguided they are.  He doesn’t start out calling them names or condescending to them.


 He starts out by letting them know he sees all this as evidence of a commitment to the sacred, and a deep longing for the divine.  He sees what’s behind all those altars and temples and statues. 


In this modern-day context, it would be like he reads all the facebook comments and posts and jabs and name-calling and labelling, and instead of lamenting how awful everyone is – The way Gloria Jackson does in the Washington Post article, he hears how angry people are, how anxious and scared and hurting people are.  How frustrated they are.  How much they long for something that will help.  And he knows everyone needs some compassion, some care, some good news, some love. 


Unless your goal is to show the world how right you are, what’s going on with us when we spout off?  What’s our goal?  I’m guessing what we’re doing so far isn’t working


It can be irresistible – I know.  An itch we just have to scratch. 


CAN”T                HOLD                 BACK                  ANY             LONGER!


MUST                          RESPOND                            RIGHT                NOW


Paul probably came charging out of the gates like a racehorse hearing the bell back in Thessalonia and Berea – Like “This is good news folks!  It’s so clear!  I’ve got the answers!  It’s right and true and inarguable!”  Then got thrown out on his keister.  Because that is not how connection, and interaction, and holy faithful love of neighbor and self show up.  That’s not what Jesus did.


But it’s what we do – All the time.  The truth is so obvious to us, and it’s so frustrating to us when others keep insisting the sky is green, in spite of all the times we show them our blue shirt, ask them what color our shirt is, and when they say, “Blue” we point to the sky, which is the EXACT SAME COLOR as our shirt, and they say, “The sky is green.”  And we go through it all over again, thinking “This time, they’ll get it!”


The apostle Paul sees the deep longing behind the altars and statues.  He recognizes it, because he knows it himself.  Those people insisting the sky is green?  They aren’t all that different from those people insisting the sky is blue.  Everyone’s hearts are longing, longing, longing for something, and we assume that longing will go away if we’re reassured:  – We’re right.  There are answers out there.  Someone knows the right way ahead.  Someone knows how this will all turn out, knows the future.  We will be okay.  Our loved ones will be okay.  We won’t die because we touched our nose.  We won’t kill someone because we visited them.


But those reassurances don’t appease that longing.  Sure, you can try again and again, and we do, but it doesn’t work, at least not for long.  Instead, what if we took that energy and focused on what is needed right now, and what we have to offer right now?  What does our call to love God in neighbor and self look like?  Because being RIGHT, and lamenting everyone who is WRONG robs us of our faithful energy.


We know better.  No argument was ever won on facebook.  Or in a tweet.  Probably not even in an email.  Chances are, few hearts are swayed by facts.  And that is a frustrating fact. 


Which is why I find Paul’s method here so compelling.  Instead of being frustrated at all the gods, the Athenians worship, Paul wonders about what’s behind that.  Maybe Paul is inviting us to stop being reactive, and start wondering what is behind all the turmoil we’re seeing on line, on facebook, on the news, in our emails? 


That’s when, we get into the heart of it, the hearts of one another.  We are all scared.  We are all uncertain.  In times like these, we’re given an invitation:  Instead of spending our passion and our energy trying to set others straight using logic and reason, what if we see our common human longing for reassurance, and safety, and acceptance, and love?


What if we remember our goal, our call, our invitation, is to love one another?  Yes, that means resisting that itchiness to set someone straight.  Not responding is hard.  It takes practice.   The need to discharge the anxiety that builds up when I see someone SAYING THE WRONG THING, saying the dangerous thing, insisting the sky is PINK, is overwhelming.  But giving in to it takes me away from my faith in the God of love who calls me to respond with love.  Ugh.  It’s so hard to let God’s saving love be in charge of me! 


But that itchiness passes, and then we see our shared humanity.  Then we see what we all are longing for, what we all need:  Compassion and love.   I know what some of you are thinking, especially you scientists – And I agree.  Yes, we need science.  But science communicated without love doesn’t do much but rile people up. 


Paul, he doesn’t lecture anyone on truth.  He says instead:  I see your yearning.  I see all the ways you are trying to appease your hearts.  How’s that working for you, all those deities you’re trying to appease?  Because if it’s not working so well, and you’re tired of it and wondering how else to be in the world, maybe try this instead.  Maybe consider there is the God of saving love in Christ, which is the only power that will save you, in this life and the next.  Save you from fear, anxiety, anger, frustration, disappointment, despair.  Well, okay, faith in that God won’t make all the bad feelings disappear, but that love will carry you through all of that. 


Yes, it’s cliché.  Yes, we’re sick of hearing it.  But, I’ll say it again, because as Christians we’ve known for thousands of years how true it is:  We are in this together.  One day, we hope to be together in person.  We’re called to love and forgive friend and enemy alike.  Let’s love and forgive the scared kid who sometimes outshouts the still small voice and guidance of the God of love.  That way, when we can meet again, we will want to meet again, We are all brothers and sisters in Christ, it’s the same God in whom we all live and breathe and have our being, regardless of what color we insist our sky.