May 21, 2017 Sermon by The Rev. Dr. Rodney Kennedy
Paul stood in front of the Areopagus.[1] This was a prominent rock outcropping of the Acropolis where what amounts to the Greek senate held debates, and murder trials were conducted. Let’s not miss the connection between the Athenian “rock” and the Jerusalem “rock” of Golgotha, were Jesus was crucified. On the hill then St. Paul faced the collective array of Greek philosophers – the embedded wisdom of Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle.

What Paul faced in Athens is what we face in Peoria. There’s the secular culture; there’s the church. By all human standards the church faces overwhelming odds. We are a bigger underdog than the 1986 Mets or the 1969 Jets. Many think the church is finished and have already published our obituary, but not so fast.

The church can recover her authentic voice and I am convinced that Paul’s approach is our best shot. St. Paul offers us a way that we can proclaim God to a culture of many gods and many philosophies.[2] After all, we are the people of a book that is about God. We are a people who worship God and therefore we should be talking about God.

So what can St. Paul teach us?[3] Like any trained speaker, he attempts to identify with his audience. He establishes rapport. He searches for a connection between himself and his listeners. He compliments his audience: You are very religious. Paul says, “I toured your city and saw your collection of gods – quite impressive. You even have a statue to the unknown god.”  Speakers to a new city do this all the time. Every performer that comes to Peoria says, “It’s great to be in Peoria.”  Once-in-a-while, some road weary performer forgets what town he’s in and says, “It’s great to be in Chicago” when he’s at the Peoria Civic Center.

 

Look, Paul was on a missionary journey not a cruise of the Mediterranean. Paul did this every day.[4] In Corinth he says, “I preach Jesus and him crucified.” In Athens he tells the philosopher that God has raised Jesus from the dead. He invites people to believe in this one named Jesus. This is our calling to proclaim Jesus: the second person of the Trinity, the Son of God, and the savior of the world.

 

St. Paul faces an Athenian audience comfortable with talking about gods. Athens was crawling with gods. There were more gods in Athens than Mexican restaurants in Texas. Debates raged about the gods. Talk about “god” as a generic title that doesn’t commit us to much of anything is cheap. No wonder we prefer to talk about God.

 

But Paul puts his finger on the Achilles heel of the pagan notions of God. The Greeks shared a common human emotion of the time: fear of the arbitrary, capricious ways of the gods. Afraid of leaving out some god not yet encountered, the Greeks covered all their deity bases with a statue for the unknown god – the left out god.

 

Luke, the author of Acts, adds a side note here: “21Now all the Athenians and the foreigners living there would spend their time in nothing but telling or hearing something new.” Make no mistake. This is our world.

Paul tells the Athenians, “I went through your city and looked carefully at the objects of your worship.” I’m not sure I’d want someone with the spiritual wisdom of the Apostle Paul applying his spiritual insight to identifying the objects of our worship. Most of us would prefer to keep our “gods” in the closet. Yet this is a primary purpose of the church, especially her preachers: to apply the wisdom of Scripture to the ways of the world.

In the early 1960’s, when it was hazardous to a preacher’s health, the pastor of the First Baptist Church of Jonesboro, bravely confronted racism in his preaching. Someone asked him how he got away with it. “Well, one Sunday I blast racism with the backing of the Bible and make’em all madder than a wet hen. The next Sunday I shower down against whiskey drinking and win’em all back.” A good preacher must possess political skills even if he could never win an election for dogcatcher. And by political skills I mean winning the right to say what has to be said within the parameters of Scripture and tradition and reason even when the congregation is not happy. Only a politician can pull off that stunt. And then the preacher must possess a skin as tough as an armadillo rather than the soft, easily-insulted, and insecurity of many secular politicians.

Our gods are sneakier, harder to nail down because they are not all made of silver and gold. Our gods are ideologies, wealth, politics, sports, and the like. We probably are not capable of knowing that we worship other gods, but it is hard to leave the house without tripping over one. We even drag our rag tail gods inside the church like an Old Testament king unable to resist desecrating the house of God with foreign idols. In this stadium full of gods and talkers about god, St. Paul’s homiletical eye picked up the inscription, “to the unknown God.” The phrase shouts, “In case we left out some god, this one is for you.” In a brilliant rhetorical move, Paul says he will tell the Greek philosophers the true name of the unknown God. Do you see what he did there? St. Paul starts with a known part of the Athenian culture – “the Unknown God” and gives that God a name, a reality.

The unknown God is actually known. Paul met him on the road to Damascus. This personal experience is what the pagan world and the atheists are unable to account for with their insistence on empirical evidence.

 

Paul knew his Greek philosophy. With due respect to the technological world, there’s always something good to say when a school insists that students know something about philosophy and at least have a rudimentary knowledge of Plato and Aristotle. Paul begins with creation because the Athenians had debated creation for thousands of years. Homer, Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle all did business with creation.[5]

Paul has something new to say about creation, so new the Greeks are intrigued and they call him a babbler of a new religion. It’s high praise for a Christian preacher. Paul has a brand new message. HE PROCLAIMS GOD – as subject not object. This changes everything in a culture where the name of God is an object to be used to win elections, to promote ideology even hatred and violence. God as subject! Wow!

God “himself gives to all men life and breath and everything.”  “In him we live and move and have our being.”  God gives life and breath. God gives everything. Note that Paul quotes Greek poets but not the Bible. Oh, yes, he knew his stuff.

I think we have trouble understanding how much of a revolution St. Paul unleashes on the Athenians. David Bentley Hart,  in The Atheistic Delusions, calls “attention to the radical nature of the new faith: how enormous a transformation of thought, sensibility, culture, morality, and spiritual imagination Christianity constituted in the age of pagan Rome.”[6]

The idea of us confronting the pagan philosophers of our culture probably intimidates us. And we now inhabit a culture so determined to defiy science and put technology in the penthouse of vocations.[7] The “new atheists” have mostly succeeded in convincing the world that belief in God is irrational, and that intelligent people have no need for God. The secular prophets of godlessness have a grand story that teaches us that critical reason has triumphed over “irrational” faith, that the secular state is more “tolerant” than the church. Such claims fly in the face of the learned scholars that shepherded the church through all those early centuries with an accumulated stock of reason, argument, rationality, intelligence, and brilliance. Surely it has to be a black mark on the church that these brilliant scholars have been displaced by a bunch of garden-variety literalists, anti-intellectual assortment of preachers who disparage knowledge, wisdom, and critical study of Scripture. I am tempted to believe that finding the study of Scripture hard, these preachers decided to “dumb it down” and make it easy.

As Tom Hanks puts in A League of Their Own, “Of course it’s hard. If it wasn’t hard everyone would do it. The hard is what makes it great.” Or as James warns us in the New Testament: Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers and sisters,* for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness. 2For all of us make many mistakes.”

The new atheist philosophies are in a golden age for bold assaults on humanity’s slavery to “irrational dogma” and “creedal tribalism.” The atheists can’t fathom the kind of ignorance that passes for faith in our land and are fooled into believing that this is what Christianity has been like for all these centuries. But they are wrong about that.[8]

For all the hot air expended on the gaggle of gods, no one really believes in the gods of the New Age; they are deities to be collected like dolls or Santa Claus, and their only “divine” office is to give symbolic expression to the dreamier sides of their so-called followers’ personalities.

Perhaps the character Annie Savoy in Bull Durham is the patron saint of the New Age: “I believe in the Church of Baseball. I’ve tried all the major religions, and most of the minor ones. I’ve worshipped Buddha, Allah, Brahma, Vishnu, Siva, trees, mushrooms, and Isadora Duncan. I know things. For instance, there are 108 beads in a Catholic rosary and there are 108 stitches in a baseball. When I learned that, I gave Jesus a chance. But it just didn’t work out between us. The Lord laid too much guilt on me. I prefer metaphysics to theology. You see, there’s no guilt in baseball, and it’s never boring.”

America is a veritable shopping mall of gods. Some inhabit full-size anchor stores, others are small department stores and others are just a booth in the aisle. There’s even a Build-A-God store in the Mall of Gods. These secular gods shine and sizzle. And we must love our gods because the gods of the boutique hold uncontested sway in America. In the Mall of the Gods one may cultivate a private atmosphere of “spirituality” as undemanding and therapeutically comforting as one likes simply by purchasing a dream catcher, a few pretty crystals, some books on the goddess, a Tibetan prayer wheel, a volume of Joseph Campbell or Carl Jung or Robert Graves, an Adean flute until this mounting congeries of string, worthless quartz, cheap joss sticks, baked clay, kitsch, borrowed iconography, and fraudulent scholarship reaches that mysterious point of saturation at which religion has become indistinguishable from interior decorating.

Or you can cultivate the same kind of experience by purchasing a black, calfskin King James Bible, inerrant and infallible in its words, a set of Left Behind books, a volume of Jerry Falwell or James Dobson or Pat Robertson or Bishop Jakes, a prayer cloth from any television evangelist, a souvenir from the Creation Museum, an American flag from Wallbreakers (David Barton), a daily copy of the Rapture Index, and fraudulent scholarship from scientific creationism (aka intelligent design) until this mounting collection of books, worthless ideology, cheap theology, and fraudulent scholarship reaches that mysterious point of saturation at which religion becomes indistinguishable from superstition or speculation or just stuff that is as fake as the Rolex you can purchase for $25 on a street in Manhattan.

I can only point you to the one true God worshiped and proclaimed by Paul who insisted that it was time for the philosophers to change their minds and believe the good news of Jesus. And as Luke adds the ending to the story, we are aware that Paul didn’t get the results we have come to expect from a Billy Graham crusade, but “Some became believers, including Dionysius and a woman named Damaris, and others with them.” Not a bad day at the office I would say. So don’t let go of your faith easily or quickly. Hang on! Hang on!

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[1]Ares was supposed to have been tried here by the gods for the murder of Poseidon‘s son Alirrothios. It is a composite word made from two Greek words – Areios Pagos. Ares Rock. Pagos means big piece of rock.

[2]One way a preacher improves is by studying sermons, especially his own. Reviewing my sermons from the last few years, I realized that I have become somewhat of a scold. Thinking I was prophetic, I have urged you to become more socially active in causes of peace and justice. The impact of this has created a sense that it is somehow all up to us and that God has little or no role to play. I intend to correct this imbalance and this sermon is an attempt at that strategy. Conservatives among us should not rejoice that I have seen the light. That would be a misinterpretation. I still find evangelical conservative preaching to be incoherent in light of the gospel. I will attempt to make God the heart of our worship, God the subject of my preaching. I don’t wish to be a scold. Across the years, there have always been those self-appointed scolds who felt called to criticize me and scold me for not believing this way or acting that way without ever asking if I was doing all I could to remain faithful to my calling.  

[3] Whether this sermon is a rhetorical creation of Luke, or the words of St. Paul, the brilliance of this rhetorical gambit would make the rhetoricians from Aristotle to Kenneth Burke proud. This is public speaking under pressure and at its best. This is an extraordinary example of rhetorical brilliance.

[4] In Philippi he says, “I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection.” In Colossae he says, “He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; 16for in* him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers—all things have been created through him and for him. 17He himself is before all things, and in* him all things hold together.”

[5] Homer believed in the gods and their supernatural incursions into the world. Then in the 6th century B.C., there arose a philosophy that excluded the gods and gave entirely naturalistic explanations for everything. In the 4th century B.C. Plato returned the gods to his cosmology, but they never intervene. Then Aristotle, Plato’s most famous student, advocated for a supreme divinity – the “unmoved mover.” 

[6] Hart, The Atheistic Delusions. I fail to grasp the appeal of atheism of the sort that passes muster today. As Hart puts it, “Atheism consists entirely in vacuous arguments afloat on oceans of historical ignorance, made turbulent by storms of strident self-righteousness, is as contemptible as any other form of dreary fundamentalism.”

 

I think we fail to note “the liberation it offered from fatalism, cosmic despair, and the terror of occult agencies; the immense dignity it conferred upon the human person; its subversion of the cruelest aspects of pagan society; its ability to create moral community where none had existed before; and its elevation of active charity above all other virtues.”

 

The statements that come out of the mouths of atheists can make President Trump sound like the most reasonable man in America. Peter Watson, author of a book on the history of invention, was asked by the New York Times, to name humanity’s worst invention and his response: “Without question, ethical monotheism . . . . This has been responsible for most of the wars and bigotry in history.” This is utter nonsense and I hardly know where to start in rebuttal. But let’s begin with his assertion “Without question.” Oh, I have questions. Do I have questions. And I am aware that the vast majority of the wars have been fought in the service of many gods or driven by the pursuit of profits or conquest or power; or have been waged for territory, national or racial destiny, tribal supremacy, the empire, or the “greater good;” or waged by ideologies that have no use for any gods whatsoever (and these have been the most murderous wars of all). And yet Watson’s assertion has become the truth du jour in the conventional grammar of “enlightened” skepticism and thus allowed to skate freely across the frozen pond of secular wisdom as if it were the truth.

 

The atheists insist that every episode of violence or injustice is a natural consequence of Christianity’s basic tenets and this is obviously false. They also insist that Christianity’s twenty centuries of unmatched moral triumphs – its care of widows and orphans, its almshouses, hospitals, foundling homes, schools, shelters, relief organizations, soup kitchens, medical missions, charitable aid societies and so on – are simply expressions of normal human kindness, with no necessary connection to Christian convictions is even more obviously false.

 

The message atheists are spouting is deeply embedded in prejudice that defies imagination. They keep saying that all religious belief is baseless and that religion is a cause of violence, division, and oppression, and should be abandoned for the sake of peace and tolerance. Religious experience is ignored in this piece of reckless argument. Religious believers are accused of having no reasons for their faith. Dennett even claims that we really do not believe what we think we believe, or even understand what we think we believe. He insists that we only believe in the resurrection because someone has told us it is true. What an odd statement. Of course Christ’s resurrection – like any other historical event – is known only by way of the testimony of others. “Indeed, Christianity is the only major faith built entirely around a single historical claim.

 

If modern atheists insist on scientific investigation as the only avenue to truth, they should – purely in the interest of sound scientific method and empirical rigor – begin praying, and then continue doing so with some perseverance.

 

I find the rhetorical claims of atheists are less than morally compelling. Why would we abandon our faith because a man with no theological convictions of any kind emerged from the forest and told us in tones of stirring pomposity that Christianity is divisive and violent and should be forsaken in the interests of human harmony? Surely we would not be so feeble of intellect to abandon our faith in democratic institutions simply become someone of no discernible political philosophy or wisdom emerged from a pack of candidates to tell us in tones of stirring “reality television” rhetoric that politics is divisive and violent and therefore should be forsaken in the interests of this compelling spokesperson.

[7] A reading of Italian humanist, Ernesto Grassi, is informative here because Grassi offers a devastating critique of the dangers of technology.

[8] Daniel Dennett attempts to break what he labels the spell of the spiritual world on modern humans. Richard Dawkins attempts to rid us of what he names the god delusion. Christopher Hitchens gave us God Is Not Great but alas, it was not a great book. Sam Harris confidently announces the end of faith. And Philip Pullman takes atheist evangelism to children in his fantasy trilogy, His Dark Materials.