In late March and early April, in the first serious days of Pandemic, there were folks who would go out and take pictures of Time Square, the Highways in Los Angeles, city center in Chicago, and show us how empty the streets and sidewalks and buildings were. They would say it looks like the apocalypse out there. This is movie apocalypse, the dystopian future we see in movies and or read about in novels. Apocalypse was a theological word before it became commonly used to describe the end of things. Here’s a thing, the apocalypse means “unveil” it is the unveiling of what was and is and what was to come. When John wrote the Book of Revelation, he was unveiling the evil, the warmongering, the oppression, of the Roman Empire. And he was speaking the hope of God into that situation. In that way, those pictures were not of the apocalypse, but the pandemic certainly is one. Unveiling our world’s disparities.
No, we didn’t read the wrong scripture today, we are still in Acts. Paul in our reading gives his sermon at, what we could translate into Mars Hill. This sermon has gone down in the story of Paul as super significant, resulting in churches choosing Mars Hill to be the name of their church. Here’s what he did:
Paul spent significant time in Athens. He could have preached at the Temple but instead, he went out to preach on the streets to the gentiles, the Greeks. He walked their streets, he saw their buildings. Paul was educated: he knew their stories, and their teachers. So when the leaders asked him to teach in a specific time and place, on Mars Hill, he used their world to explain the God of Israel and the incarnate Jesus.
He said: I’ve seen these statues to your gods, who you ask so much from. I see the statue to the unknown God–this is the God I know and I can tell you about. And so he did. But he started with their idols.
First, as a good Jewish person, Paul wouldn’t have images of God, there was an understanding that the image of the God or the name of God would give someone a control over that God. It was found in the Commandments to not make an idol, an image of God.
Second, each of the gods serves a purpose but are limited in their capabilities and powers. You have a god of war and another of love, god of storms and another of the hearth. They were limited.
Third, the world of the Greeks had an interesting Relationship to their gods. They worship the gods that gave them something, that allowed them the ability to win wars or to receive an abundant harvest. The gods were worthy of worship most often because they were useful. What can this god do for me? How can this god serve the city? How is this god useful? Which makes a lot of sense, but is also not the call Paul is proclaiming from the teachings of the incarnate Christ. This is completely different.
When Paul started teaching he tells the story of the God who knows no bounds, who created the world and who is active in the world, the God who made our lives and sustains our living. He quotes their teachers to say that the God he is speaking of is the God in whom we all live and move and have our being. This is the God of all things.
And it took a turn when he called them to repent, to turn their ways, and to begin a new way of living. The Greeks who hear him preach, all but 2 abandoned him. This was not his most successful preaching opportunity if the goal was bringing the hearers to the baptism waters.
He called them out for their idols. It’s not a word that we use very often. Or maybe we use it all the time. Every few years, American Idol makes a return to try and reclaim the glory of its first years. Billy Idol lives on, still has his signature hair. We have idols who are people–so let’s start there. The role of American Idol is to create a person who the general public will, essentially, commit to, every week, to follow, to focus on. It sounds in some way what we’re asking to think about our lives in relation to God and to following Jesus.
But maybe that’s a reach, someone might call Kelly Clarkson a goddess but I don’t’ think anyone really worships her.
But we do set up ideas on altars. We commit to them, we consider them, we follow them, we believe in them and what they can give us.
We have an idol of self help. Don’t get me wrong, I absolutely believe in taking care of our mental health and our pasts with professionals. But there is this idol of self help–if I could just be better at this one thing, if I could just succeed here, if i could organize my life like Marie Kondo, if I could save money like Dave Ramsey, I could lose weight like that friend from high school, then I’d be ok. And it’s often a lie.
1: That any band aid we put over a situation to make us seem better or more isn’t going to solve all the crap and insecurities we have in our lives, isn’t going to relieve us of our personal and past baggage,
2: We don’t do anything on our own.
Which is the whole problem! We have idols of independence. I don’t need you. I don’t need anyone. I don’t need support, I don’t need help, I don’t need anyone. There’s an adult extension of the child saying, “I can do it myself!” Sometimes it means we put ourselves at risk because we don’t ask for help. Sometimes it’s our emotional wellbeing at risk because humans are not meant to live life outside of community. Children who are neglected fail to thrive, often until they are shown love and compassion.
How does this play out… we’re in the middle of this pandemic, we’re staying separated, we’re missing each other, we’re losing touch. Because it’s harder than we expected, and somehow our days get filled even if we don’t intend them too.
The idol of independence, means not believing that we are interconnected, that what you and I do, say, buy effects others in the world. That there isn’t something that binds us together. That I am in this life on my own. It’s saying, I don’t like a mask, I don’t need a mask, I won’t wear a mask. Because the idol of independence has made living and mask wearing all about me.
Of course, there are idols of patriarchy, power, capitalism, heteronormativity, racial and religious privilege. And to be honest, we’re handed these, these are the idols of the world that we are swimming in and most of the time we don’t even realize. Most of the time we just keep swimming in the world as we have come to know it, past these altars to other gods that we follow. That we count on serving us, until they don’t, and we see them for all that they are. Powers shift, markets crash, and corrupt, privilege might fade but we also might recognize that holding privilege is often at another’s expense.
And that is not who we are called to be. We are called to be connected to the God in whom we live and move and have our being. We are called to follow Jesus who transparently and counter-culturally welcomed people back into community. That what his healings did, that what forgiveness did–it welcome the lost and marginalized back into community.
It’s one of the first things I learned and noticed about you, Emmanuel. We do care about each other, you are welcoming, and connections and relationships are often what keep you here. We are called to be connected, to recognize that we are connected, that we are one because we are lives are God breathed. And all of creation is longing to be brought together and brought into something larger than itself–from particles bond to become atoms, atoms bond to make molecules, molecules bond to make cells, cells bond to make the world around us, and us, each teaming with energy that draws them into relationship and into connection, the very building blocks of creation are longing for connection.
Which makes these easily forgotten because their so prevalent idols, dare I say sins. I will stand firmly that, while it’s a word we find scary? Filled with trauma? Too theological? Sin really is just anything that divides, that breaks connection, that damages community with God, with each other, and with ourselves. It was Martin Luther who said that we are all simultaneously saints and sinners–we are all striving for connection and failing to pick up the phone to reach out to a friend, or write that letter, or be fully present with another, but we are forgiven and trying again. We are longing to be part of something larger than ourselves-something that is greater than us, that connects the creation, and we are failing to attend another meeting, or protest, or sometimes Sunday mornings are hard to get up. So we get up, And we pick up our masks try again.
We are knocking down the idols our culture gives us and standing them back up before we even realize what is happening. We are imperfect, we are filled with the divine spark, we are called into community.
And to be honest, I don’t think we’re talking about sin is a compelling conversation for most people who aren’t at church on a Sunday morning–but connection, community, something larger than themselves–that was built into the core of creation by the one in who we live and breathe and have our being. That is the compelling story that Paul was telling of the God who came to earth, lived among humanity and called them to live their fully humanity in full relationship with God, each other, and themselves.
So church, sometime today, this week, take a moment, breath in deep and feel your connection to the world around you. Look into the eyes of a stranger and see another child of God looking back and pray for those you would normally judge, to remind yourself they too are made in the image of God.
And then, share it. Live it, bring and call creation and humanity into community. Invite others into your life and into the places where you have found belonging. To serve God by serving each other, to love God by loving each other, that we might live into the original hopes of the United Church of Christ–that we might all be one.
O God, in you we live and move and have our being! May we live out this profound truth, mindful of the beauty, the hope, and the calling of living in you. Amen.