To An Unknown God
Acts 17:22-31; Psalm 68:8-20; 1 Peter 3:13.22 John 14:15-21
Bigfork Community United Methodist Church
May 17, 2020 –Sixth Sunday of Easter
There are silver linings we do not see, or maybe we do not benefit from, anyway. In claiming the blessings of a loving God…a God who was willing to sacrifice all – an only son – for a planet full of rebellious, willful sinners…in the kind of time we live in today…hard-pressed by something we cannot see and have trouble understanding – we exercise our faith in the One who had…the One who still has faith in us this day and this hour.
We find Paul in Athens this morning. He had been drawn to this place by a man who appeared to him in a dream while he and Barnabas were in Turkey. Their mission had been plagued by headwinds of one sort or another, and the Holy Spirit seemed to be keeping them from going where they tried to go.
Have you ever been wrestling with a problem and could not find a solution to? If you do one thing to solve it, then you will suffer another setback…but if you don’t anything, the problem will plague you forever.
This fairly describes the covid situation we find ourselves in today. If we don’t open up the economy, there will be businesses that cannot recover… and workers who will never see their jobs come back.
But if we do plunge back into the schools and the stores and the churches, the virus that is tyrannizing the whole world will surge back, making us ill, killing some…and putting everything back on hold…causing us to have to go back to Go and start over…like we did in mid-March.
Paul is in a similar predicament. He can’t go where he wants to go, but he has the Word of God to share with whoever he can find. And then one night a Macedonian…a Greek …comes i to him in his dream and begs him, “Come over to Macedonia and help us.”
Paul is a Jew…and a Greek…and a Roman…and he is comfortable with making this momentous move. The move was momentous because when he crosses from Turkey to Greece he also crosses from Asia to Europe, and this trip marks the first time the Good News is preached in Europe…God’s Word reaches beyond Galilee, Jerusalem, Israel, and Asia.
He comes to Athens and goes to the public square, the agora…a Greek word for ‘gathering place’…and contends with the pagan scholars there.
He stirs people up enough to be accused of teaching foreign religions. He is taken to the Areopagus. We don’t know if he is on trial or just moving up to a larger, more important audience.
If he argues that the gospel is consistent with Greek theology, he betrays Christ and loses credibility. If he argues that it is far different, he substantiates the claims that he is undermining the morals of Greek society and invites a harsh sentence.
To solve one problem is to aggravate the other. So how can he remain faithful without proclaiming himself an enemy of the country he is in?
He does not straddle the question. He builds a bridge across it. The pagans have built many places of worship in Athens. Paul recalls one of them that they have dedicated ‘to an unknown God’.
He begins with an opening sentence that would be worthy of a Charles Dickens novel. “What you worship as unknown, I now proclaim to you. God, who made the world and everything in it, is Lord of heaven and earth.”
That God is greater than any of your gods, he is telling them. God is greater than any nation – God draws whole nations to the divine purpose, in fact, and God is in all of us. In this one true God we live and move and have our being.
Then he quotes one of their own poets to prove his argument: We are all…you and I and everyone in the world…are all…the offspring of that one true God. We are brothers and sisters.
He has a new light to shed upon their understanding and that understanding is the salvation not only of Greece and Israel and Rome, but all the people in the world.
And his presence in that place at that time with that message, speaking boldly but lovingly as well, proves that his sincere desire is to bring the truth of this one true God to them.
Then he makes the message something they will take with them. One day, the message God sent into the world as Jesus Christ will come to judge the quick and the dead, and God has shown that Jesus was the one to be that judge by raising him from the dead.
As you might guess, some people who heard Paul speak that day sneered at the claim, but others wanted to hear more…and some became followers…and we are the followers of those followers.
One person at a time…one day at a time…one opportunity to reveal the gospel at a time…that’s how we get where we need to go and become who we need to be…inviting all open hearts and open minds to step through our open doors.
But our doors are not open yet and it is not clear…with the virus one the prowl…that anyone would come through them if they were. The churches who have had worship in our community so far have had single digit turnouts, and some of those who did come to last Sunday’s service were intimidated by those who wanted to give them a hug.
The Bigfork Pastors Association met on Wednesday. Only six of us showed up for the meeting and we socially distanced ourselves and heard stories of how awkward this moment is for all of us.
We serve a God that we cannot see with our eyes but who leaves evidence of a heavenly love for us all around us…dazzling us with natural beauty …lifting us up with winged words …and moving us forward in ways that are unbelievable, except that history records amazing things that have been accomplished by belief in a truth…and a love…beyond human understanding.
So how do we do two things at once: How do we assure our neighbors that they are safe coming out into the marketplace and get things moving again?
We respect all people we see… staying away from them a safe distance…wearing a face covering to show we mean them no harm… and quarantining ourselves when we return from distant lands.
I have heard from many people who have suddenly found themselves in close proximity to travelers from out of state. It makes them want to stay home, not come out. By inserting themselves into the marketplace and public areas without assurances to anyone that they are being safe, they keep anyone else from coming out to help them restart the economy. They push away what they want by disregarding their neighbors’ concerns.
This may be the most dangerous time of the year this year for Bigfork…it is when our summer friends begin to return. We want to see them and greet them, hear their news and share our news with them.
But we want to do it fourteen days from the date of their arrival…not when they are fresh off the plane. This is hard stuff to say and hard stuff to remember.
When the crew arrived Thursday morning to install our new Benning window I was so happy to see them that I reached out my hand to shake the foreman’s hand…then just as quickly took it back and pointed my elbow at him…and stepped back to reestablish six feet between us.
It was funny…but it was scary, too. It reminded all of us that we need to think in a new way to keep the virus numbers down…or we will all find ourselves back at Square One.
I heard about one person whose neighbor returned for the summer and called them up to invite them over for coffee. The person declined because they thought it might be too soon and the neighbor then said, “No problem. I’ll come over to your house then.”
No. That is not the answer. Vigilance is something we need to exercise more and more.
Your local pastors does not want to get sick with this stuff…for themselves …for their families…or their church families...or our community.
If I come into contact with someone who becomes symptomatic, I am out of commission for fourteen days…and there is just too much to do to let that happen.
If I become symptomatic and test positive, everyone I have seen for the last fourteen days needs to go into isolation. That sounds like a real bummer…because it is.
The first thing I noticed about this plague is that it is isolating us just at the time we need each other most …and began to realize how much we need to be with each other.
Take your pick: We get to choose which problem we have…economic and social…or viral…and I do not want to be the one that is responsible for anyone getting sick …or being quarantined…or dying …because every time something like that happens the road to recovery becomes longer and more winding for all of us…with more pot holes in it.
Amanda and Ollie have gone to Olympia, Washington to visit friends. At first Amanda asked if they could come and pick her up and they could all drive back together.
I said No, because it would mean I would have to be in quarantine for two weeks. She did not argue with that, understood it and appreciated it…but then she asked, “What happens when we come back?”
It was my turn to pause and understand the situation better then, and I said, “That’s when I go and stay at the church for two weeks.”
And so, this weekend, I will begin to quarter here at the church…not because I don’t want to see them, but because I don’t want to harm them…or for them to harm me…or for either of us to harm anyone else.
John Wesley’s three simple rules were: 1. Do no harm. 2. Do good. 3. Stay in love with God.
They have never applied more preciously to the affairs of the world than they do today. We are our brother’s keeper. We are our sister’s keeper. And we have the power to do no harm, do good and stay in love with God.
Some people do not believe that this virus is all that serious. Neither did the Bigfork Pastors Association members two months ago. They didn’t want to blow it out of proportion.
They do now, because they are supposed to be shepherds for their flock, not vectors for a virus. And the more we shame people for being too cautious, moving too slow to get back to the way things were, we scare dozens of people back into their houses, afraid to go to gatherings, unwilling to help get our economy and our social life started again.
We pray to a God who was felt…sensed…but unknown before Christ revealed his glory to the world. Jesus was a healer of people, not a carrier of a dangerous disease. He wanted to bring us together … not make us run from each other. And Jesus’ work remains our task today.
So let us love God with all our heart and mind and strength and soul. Let us honor the one who gave us life and life eternal…by passing it alone.
And let us love our neighbors as ourselves…by doing no harm…by calling them and talking to them… by sending them a note or an email …putting a meal on their doorstep …lifting up a prayer for them.
And let us assure our neighbors every way we can that we will do no harm…that together we can do good…and that we will stay in love with a God who is beyond all understanding…by seeking to follow in the footsteps of Jesus Christ.
O Lord, what is it that you want to do in the world through us… through me…this day? Amen.