Sunday, February 15, 2015

This Week's Sermon: "We are His Offspring"

Acts 17:22-34

22 Paul stood up in the middle of the council on Mars Hill and said, “People of Athens, I see that you are very religious in every way. 23 As I was walking through town and carefully observing your objects of worship, I even found an altar with this inscription: ‘To an unknown God.’ What you worship as unknown, I now proclaim to you. 24 God, who made the world and everything in it, is Lord of heaven and earth. He doesn’t live in temples made with human hands. 25 Nor is God served by human hands, as though he needed something, since he is the one who gives life, breath, and everything else. 26 From one person God created every human nation to live on the whole earth, having determined their appointed times and the boundaries of their lands. 27 God made the nations so they would seek him, perhaps even reach out to him and find him. In fact, God isn’t far away from any of us. 28 In God we live, move, and exist. As some of your own poets said, ‘We are his offspring.’ 

 29 “Therefore, as God’s offspring, we have no need to imagine that the divine being is like a gold, silver, or stone image made by human skill and thought. 30 God overlooks ignorance of these things in times past, but now directs everyone everywhere to change their hearts and lives. 31 This is because God has set a day when he intends to judge the world justly by a man he has appointed. God has given proof of this to everyone by raising him from the dead.” 

32 When they heard about the resurrection from the dead, some began to ridicule Paul. However, others said, “We’ll hear from you about this again.” 33 At that, Paul left the council. 34 Some people joined him and came to believe, including Dionysius, a member of the council on Mars Hill, a woman named Damaris, and several others. (Common English Bible)

“As One Having Authority: Sermons that Changed the World,” Week Five

I grew up on the Sound of Music.  It didn’t matter that the movie came out a full twenty years before I was born, every year on New Year’s Eve, my family would sit down to watch it together, partly because the film is really long and it got us young’uns to pass the time as we tried valiantly to stay awake until midnight, but mostly because Anderson Cooper and Kathy Griffin on CNN hadn’t become a thing yet.

So the story of the von Trapps, the Austrian family portrayed in the film, was a BFD to me as a kid.  I may have been too young to have quite grasped the scope and depth just yet of Nazi Germany’s evil specter in Europe during the 1930s and 40s, but I could understand evil men coming to conscript a family’s patriarch and consigning his children to a terrible life without their home country.  Along with singing.

But that is why it meant much more than just a little bit to me to learn recently that just down in Portland, there is a singing quartet made up of four of Georg Johannes von Trapp’s great-grandchildren: Sofia, Amanda, Melanie, and August von Trapp.  They’re the grandchildren of Werner von Trapp (aka Kurt in the film), and they began performing together by singing the Austrian folk songs as kids that their grandfather had grown up with.

Now, singing together, touring together as their grandfather and siblings once did, they are carrying on a family tradition, much I suppose as we would with, say, a family recipe or cherished vacation destination.  It really is quite a profound tendency of ours to do, carrying on the traditions of our parents, and a lot of it I think has to do with what Paul is saying here, in Acts 17, to the Areopagus in Athens…not about his own parents, but about his ultimate parent, his parent in heaven.  And of that divine lineage, he argues, we are all His offspring.  We are all His offspring.

This is a sermon series that we are wrapping up, now that it is almost Lent (Ash Wednesday is finally almost here!), but we launched it to go along with the new year, and it has taken us up to this point we are at now.  For a while now, I have wanted to talk to all of you about the meaning and significance of preaching, and this series allows me to do exactly that.  The title for this series comes from the assembled crowd’s reaction to Jesus’s Sermon on the Mount, where Matthew says that they were astounded that He taught them “as one having authority,” rather than as one of their temple authorities.  So…how do we teach one another as one having authority?  That is what we will be working on together, and each week for the next five weeks, we will be talking about one of the many significant sermons that are presented in the New Testament: the Sermon on the Mount, Stephen’s farewell speech before his martyrdom, Paul’s address to the Areopagus, and last week, Peter’s Pentecost sermon.  We have arrived at this point in the series after a pair of inaugural sermons by Jesus to kick off His own ministry: His sermon on Isaiah from Luke 4, and the previously referenced Sermon on the Mount from Matthew; then, we continue onto another inaugural sermon, this time from chief among Jesus’s disciples, Peter, on the occasion of the arrival of the Holy Spirit.  For a change of pace last week we arrived at an ending sermon, the final words of Stephen’s impassioned defense before the Sanhedrin just prior to being sentenced and stoned to death by them, and this week, we end the series not with an ending sermon, but with an in-between sermon (for lack of a better term): Paul’s message to the Areopagus in Athens.

So Paul finds himself in a bit of an awkward circumstance: it turns out that the Areopagus (the assembly upon Mars Hill in Athens) basically is driven by the gawking and fawning over the newest, latest craze, and that current (forbidden, I might add) craze is Christianity…as opposed to, say, Tickle Me Elmo dolls and pogs when I was a kid, but hey, whether collectible cardboard circles or the Savior of humanity, we all want what other people have and we don’t.  As Luke writes in the verse immediately preceding where today’s passage picks up:

All Athenians as well as the foreigners who live in Athens used to spend their time doing nothing but talking about or listening to the newest thing. (CEB)

Except that instead of camping out in front of Best Buy or Toys R Us overnight for said newest thing, the Athenians do something maybe even more neurotic: they have Paul arrested so that he can be taken to the council at the Areopagus to tell them all about this newfangled fad called The Way.  And really, wouldn’t that make Christmas shopping for your family so much easier, so that instead of having to plan out weeks in advance how to obtain the right Furby, you could just have that Furby arrested and brought to you instead?

So Paul is under arrest when he begins his address, but he leaves afterwards of his own volition, meaning they must have freed him after his message.  Why would they do that?  Well, let’s dig into exactly what Paul is saying to them…and, by extension, to us.

Paul is a master at reaching audiences, even if he doesn’t always seem it by the grumpy and cantankerous prose in some of his letters (“I wish those who unsettled you would castrate themselves,” he writes to the Galatians regarding the debate over circumcision…le sigh).  And even though he has been seized and thus is under no small degree of duress, he does something incredibly respectful, something that I think would serve all of us well when talking to people of differing faiths than ours: he recognizes the devoted nature of the Athenians’ faith to their pagan gods.

In other words, he doesn’t lead off with “You’re wrong, and here’s why,” he leads off with, “I can see you have a great capacity for faith and I affirm that capacity.”  For Paul, having faith is so, so important, and if it is not faith in the God of Judeo-Christian tradition, well, at least Paul can work with that.

Paul can work with it because the Athenians still acknowledge that not all their gods are known, and so Paul tells them about this God that remained heretofore unknown to them: the God who made the earth and the heavens and all that is in them, who does not need a temple or a home built by human hands (where have we heard this before?  Remember Stephen from last week?), who created every nation, every peoples under the sun, all because God isn’t far away from any of us.

Even if your faith is in an unknown god, or a god not the God of Abraham, God still isn’t far away from you or me or anyone else.  There is no asterisk to Paul’s statement, no exceptions proferred.  The Athenians might not have Paul’s specific faith, but the faith they do have is rich and deep and can be oriented towards the God of Scripture.

It may not happen right away for all of the Athenians, though, as some of those present in the Areopagus begin to guffaw at Paul’s kookyboots notion that we are one day raised from the dead, but enough people do begin to believe that the seed has been planted: Dionysus and (this is important), a woman named Damaris.

How many women get named in the Bible?  Not many.  Even in the Gospels, the Samaritan woman at the well is unnamed.  The Syrophoenician woman who is the only person in Scripture to verbally joust with Jesus and not come out looking like a fool, she too is anonymous.  But many of the female believers are not.  There is Mary the mother of Jesus, Mary the mother of James, Mary Magdalene, Salome, Susanna, Phoebe the deacon in Rome, and here, in Athens, Damaris.

In Athens, historically women were as commodified and oppressed as they were in Old Testament marriage laws.  They were treated as property, and Athenian marriages often were not for love but for political or commercial reasons.  But in Jesus Christ, in the message of Paul proclaimed one day in the heart of Athens, a woman named Damaris finds liberation amidst the bondage, freedom amidst the slavery.

And her world is changed.  As is ours.  Because, as Paul says, as the Athenian poets of old said, as we still say, we are all His offspring.

So let us carry that lineage with us, passing it down from generation to generation, just as parents pass down their folk songs and their recipes, their singing and their joy, to us, their children.  I saw that kind of immortality in full display watching the von Trapps perform on Youtube (divine experiences on Youtube?  Really, pastor?  You whippersnapper, you), and I have every reason to believe that this kind of immortality has been promised to, and is possible for, each of you.

Take it.  Accept that gift.  And live in the knowledge that you are, and will forever be, a child of God just as Christ was the son of God; that you were born of God’s breath just as Christ was born of God’s substance.

Now go and live that life and identity out, in all that you do, in all that you say, in all that you are.

May it be so.  Amen.

Rev. Eric Atcheson
Longview, Washington
February 15, 2015

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