Ready to Graduate?
a message by Dr. Bruce Havens
Arlington Congregational Church, U.C.C.
May 17, 2020
Acts 17:22-31 (NRSV)
22 Then Paul stood in front of the Areopagus and said, “Athenians, I see how extremely religious you are in every way. 23 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.’ What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you. 24 The God who made the world and everything in it, he who is Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in shrines made by human hands, 25 nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mortals life and breath and all things. 26 From one ancestor[a] he made all nations to inhabit the whole earth, and he allotted the times of their existence and the boundaries of the places where they would live, 27 so that they would search for God[b] and perhaps grope for him and find him—though indeed he is not far from each one of us. 28 For ‘In him we live and move and have our being’; as even some of your own poets have said,
‘For we too are his offspring.’
29 Since we are God’s offspring, we ought not to think that the deity is like gold, or silver, or stone, an image formed by the art and imagination of mortals. 30 While God has overlooked the times of human ignorance, now he commands all people everywhere to repent, 31 because he has fixed a day on which he will have the world judged in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed, and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead.”
This morning we recognized the graduates connected with our church – some from college, some from High School or other degree programs. It is a great accomplishments and worthy of our recognition. It is too bad that in these pandemic times they were not able to have all the “pomp and circumstance” they deserved, especially those memorable graduation speeches. So this morning I want to offer my own version of those graduation speeches.
I think virtually every commencement speaker says something that reminds the graduates that they do not know everything, that there is more to learn, and that in fact learning is a life-long task. But I have a question? Why do so many people forget this applies to what we know about God too? Nobody knows all there is to know about God and to claim we do is not only foolish, it is a slap in God’s face, a blasphemy really! We finite humans cannot possibly know everything about God.
I would venture to say that it is time for a lot of people to graduate to a new God. What I really mean is a new understanding of the one, real God. The fact is that there are just as many false gods, idols, and mini-gods today as there ever have been. We may not call them Baal, or Ashtarte, or some of those weird Biblical names, but they exist in the name of things like power, money, personal satisfaction to name a few.
Here is what I want to be sure we all understand about anything we say about God, including anything I say: no theology and no human words can fully describe God. In these times of a global pandemic the question of God can be a huge problem. Some want to say God is using it as a punishment. While there are ways the Bible suggests this kind of God, much more of the Bible proclaims God’s forgiving, steadfast love.
The question for many people is: “Why doesn’t God stop the pandemic, hundreds of thousands are dying?” This is a pretty common response to any natural or human-caused disaster. It is the question theologians call the “problem of theodicy.” Theodicy is a word coming from two Greek words meaning, “words about God: Theos, and the Greek word for justice: dikai.” To put it another way, it is classically asked, “If God is all – powerful and all – loving then why is there suffering?” While no answer is again sufficient, especially if you are the one suffering, the answer is, in part, that our definitions of power and love are usually too limited to fully describe God. Yes, it would be great if God did a miracle and stopped this disease. Yes, it would be super if God would do a lot of miracles and stop people from dying from it. If we had the power of God we would, wouldn’t we? The obvious answer is that either God does not have that kind of power or we are more loving than God.
The Apostle Paul points us in a different direction. He tells us about an “unknown God.” He had traveled to Athens, the center of knowledge, philosophy, and culture in his time. The people were also very religious. He observed that there were temples and statutes to every god imaginable including one apparently to “an unknown god.” I like to think the Greeks were smart enough to cover all their bases! Paul uses this to describe the God he knows to them.
The question we have to ask ourselves is, do we want the god we want or do we want the God that IS God? We can worship any god. We can imagine any deity and dedicate our lives to that. Paul describes the God he believes in, the God he knew as a practicing Jew, and the God he came to know through the revelation – the revealing of God – in Jesus Christ.
Who is this God? Paul’s description is pretty familiar stuff to most of us. Paul says this God is the Creator of the worlds and all the things in them, This God is the only Lord and Ruler of life. This God doesn’t live in human-made temples, and doesn’t depend on the offerings humans make. This God is not dependent on us as if this God were a beggar god. What this God does do is create a world that invites us to seek this God out, to “grope” for this God, in Paul’s words. And then Paul reassures us that though this God seems absent or distant, yet this God is not far from us at any time, ever.
Paul then says something very challenging. He says this God has called everyone to “repent.” I like to think that we can understand this as meaning “graduate.” To move from false and limited and hurtful beliefs about God to a true understanding of God, and who God is and what God is about. Paul says this God is one who seeks to judge. In Paul’s faith “judges” were those who led the people of Israel. Refer back to the Hebrew Bible and the “Book of Judges.” The Judges were God’s alternative to having “Kings” who God warned would abuse people and rule “unjustly.” Judges were not just those who held court and condemned or acquitted people of a crime. They were wise leaders who sought to help the people create a society that was guided by God’s principles and purposes.
Then Paul tells us that the raising of Jesus Christ is God’s assurance of God’s purpose for our world and our lives. It is a promise of the ultimate outcome of life and of history. Now this may not be a recent enough miracle for many. It’s a fair argument. What have you done for us recently God? Paul says the resurrection of Christ stands as God’s confirmation to us all that God is not far, God is not unloving, and God is not powerless. To rephrase what Paul is preaching: because of the resurrection we can trust that God intends to “judge”- that is lead or guide the world - in the way of “righteousness,” what is “just,” for all. This isn’t justice as in “law and order.” This is justice as in blessing for all people, in spite of what we do that is neither just or loving. God will lead us toward what is good and just and a blessing. To say it another way, God chooses to work through people to bring about the blessings God intends. Why? I cannot answer that. I can only point to the example of Jesus Christ. God came as a human to save humans. God came in human form and except for a few signs that pointed towards what God intends for all, Jesus basically used what human power he had to point towards what God intends for all of Creation and all of humanity. Even though in response, they crucified him. But remember, Paul’s argument is the resurrection of Christ is God’s assurance that God has the power to overcome every injustice, even death itself.
Now, we can settle for lesser gods. Many do. They choose to worship a god who is only on one side [ you can choose the issue. ]. Others choose a god who rules by the power of fear, who teaches and supports hate. Some choose a god who condemns everyone but them or those like them in some way they believe is ultimate. Some even choose to hate those who are doing their best to make things better, screaming that in so doing the rights and freedoms of those complaining are being trampled, rather than seeing that these are people doing their best to make things better for all sometimes requires sacrifice by all.
So in the face of this pandemic or any other tragedy we can complain that this God is not enough, but Paul points us toward Jesus Christ who invited us to embody the love he showed us in our lives. He invited us to realize the infinite power we have to bless others by loving others. To do less is to deny our power and choose to blame God for not using God’s power – when we are the sign of God’s power. We can let fear and hatred and condemnation be our idols, our false gods, or we can ask, how do I choose to show the power of God’s love in this situation. Because ultimately, in that equation about the question of suffering, the answer is that God’s love is God’s power, and God’s power is God’s love.
The power of this love becomes strongest when it is a work of everyone not just one. A lot of people have been using the phrase “we are all in this together” to remind us this is about more than individual freedoms and rights. And maybe you are tired of this as a kind of cliché, but it is the ultimate truth. If we deny it we are like those members of the crew whose ship sank, and now surviving in a lifeboat, some of them are insisting on drilling holes in the bottom so that they can exercise their rights and freedoms to fish. We will sink or survive together and the scary part is how the idolatries of this nation are mostly around worshiping ourselves and our individual rights and freedoms at the expense of the greater community.
The Psalm we read earlier is the best expression I know of by a people who understood suffering, tragedy, and disaster. The Hebrew people’s history is one of slavery, exile, foreign occupation, and persecution. Yet, the Psalm tells us their attitude about it:
1 Make a joyful noise to God, all the earth; 2 sing the glory of his name; give to him glorious praise. 3 Say to God, “How awesome are your deeds! Because of your great power, your enemies cringe before you. 4 All the earth worships you; they sing praises to you, sing praises to your name.”
5 Come and see what God has done: he is awesome in his deeds among mortals.”
The Psalm writer reminds them of God leading them through the Red Sea out of Egypt into the Promised Land. He urges them to “Bless the Lord, … let the sound of his praise be heard,” for God “tested us,” “tried us,” “laid burdens on our backs,” yet “brought us out to a spacious place.” What’s more, “truly God has listened; he has given heed to the words of my prayer. 20 Blessed be God, because he has not rejected my prayer or removed his steadfast love from me.”
The God Paul invites us to graduate to is the God of the Psalmist. It is the Creator God whose love is powerful enough to save us. It is a God who is near, even when we grope and cannot find him. It is a God who has given Jesus Christ and his resurrection as a sign – the miracle we need, even if it isn’t the miracle we want – as the assurance of God’s just and loving purpose and intention for us.
Some would say, that’s not enough, we can’t wait, what about now? Fair enough. But here’s the fact. You are in this boat. We are all in this boat. We can keep acting like first-graders insisting on our way or we can graduate and act like adults who care about the survival of all not just selfish desires and wishes. This will not go away just because we reopen, or just because we insist on going to the bars and restaurants we miss going to. It took time to complete our schooling. We did not go one day and graduate. We didn’t show up one day and demand our diploma. We worked, and we kept at it and we may not have known it but God was nearby. Our faith tells us God is still nearby. It tells us God’s power is made known in the work of people doing what we would call the work of love, of healing, or creating a new way, a new future. To me this is the way of Jesus Christ.
Paul invites us to graduate to a real God, a greater God. You may not understand all the doings and “not-doings” of this God but don’t feel too bad. No one ever has fully understood this God, except his Son, Jesus. Perhaps the best we can do is follow the example of the Psalmist – Praise God, and trust that God’s steadfast love is with us – and the example of Jesus Christ, love one another as he has loved us. AMEN.