This is the most recent sermon I have preached, and it was preached on July 5th of this year. Now, let me just say at the beginning, that I don’t believe a sermon is a sermon unless it is somewhat controversial. After all, Jesus didn’t come just to reaffirm everything people already thought about the world. Jesus challenged people – still challenges people – and oftentimes that makes us uncomfortable. I’m not sure you can have a comfortable sermon – certainly, there may be something comforting about it, but if we ever allow ourselves to get complacent with the Gospel, then I think that’s a surefire sign that we may be heading for trouble.
That said, this sermon may be a bit more controversial than others I’ve preached. It turned at least one visitor away from the church and caused another member to effectively denounce my call into the ministry. The trouble is, while certain views of mine may become apparent in the reading of this sermon, the sermon itself is not explicitly advocating on behalf of those views. Instead, it is a challenge to carefully weigh new teachings against the old, rather than simply scoff at them for the sake of tradition. After all, Christianity would never have gained any traction if those who heard Paul and others preach were unwilling to embrace something new. The text for this sermon, quite appropriately, comes from the Book of Acts, chapter 17, verses 16-34: Paul’s famous Mars Hill speech to the Athenians. The text and sermon follows.
While Paul was waiting for them in Athens, he was deeply distressed to see that the city was full of idols. So he argued in the synagogue with the Jews and the devout persons, and also in the marketplace every day with those who happened to be there. Also some Epicurean and Stoic philosophers debated with him. Some said, “What does this babbler want to say?” Others said, “He seems to be a proclaimer of foreign divinities.” (This was because he was telling the good news about Jesus and the resurrection.) So they took him and brought him to the Areopagus and asked him, “May we know what this new teaching is that you are presenting? It sounds rather strange to us, so we would like to know what it means.” Now all the Athenians and the foreigners living there would spend their time in nothing but telling or hearing something new. Then Paul stood in front of the Areopagus and said, “Athenians, I see how extremely religious you are in every way. 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. 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, 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. From one ancestor 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, so that they would search for God and perhaps grope for him and find him—though indeed he is not far from each one of us. 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.’ 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. While God has overlooked the times of human ignorance, now he commands all people everywhere to repent, 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.” When they heard of the resurrection of the dead, some scoffed; but others said, “We will hear you again about this.” At that point Paul left them. But some of them joined him and became believers, including Dionysius the Areopagite and a woman named Damaris, and others with them.
I’d like for us all to imagine, if you will, going to the supermarket. Imagine that you’re going down the aisles, checking things off your list, and all of the sudden someone comes up to you and asks you point blank what your opinion is of the Confederate Flag. Yeah, we’re going there. And then suppose they proceed to tell you that they have noticed far too many Confederate Flags in the area – on bumper stickers, t-shirts, in front houses and flying outside public buildings, even – and it greatly disturbs them. After all, don’t you know that it is the flag of a nation whose sole purpose for existence, according to their own documents and speeches, was to preserve the institution of slavery? Don’t you know that that nation was defeated, and the flag has since been used by white supremacist groups and segregationists to advocate for the continued oppression of black Americans? Don’t you agree that it ought to be taken down? And at the same time, someone else comes up and starts to debate with them, refuting the claim that the flag stands for slavery and racism; that instead it stands for liberty against a tyrannical government, that even though the Confederates lost the flag still represents those ideals for which they fought so passionately – individual liberty and the rights of individual states. The flag is flown as a tribute to Americans who fought and died, as a recognition of our heritage. It is not a symbol of hate. And then the first person says that while they understand that many people feel that way and can appreciate the value of honoring one’s ancestors and heritage, the flag is still used to support racism, and the mere fact that it is given a place of honor in polite society gives tacit acceptance to those who still harbor racist attitudes and opinions. The flag itself is both a symptom and an underlying contributor to systemic racism in the United States – systemic racism, they explain, is not an individual character flaw, but rather a series of policies and attitudes throughout the country that negatively impact people of color. In other words, you can “not be racist” and still contribute to systemic racism. Then, all of the sudden, a group of people who have been listening in on the conversation from the next aisle come over and ask the person who started it all to come with them to the high school auditorium down the road and explain these new ideas, for they have never heard of systemic racism, and they are curious to learn more about it. Meanwhile, you have stood there next to the peanut butter and jelly with your mouth hanging open, flabbergasted, unable to utter a word throughout the entire thing. Because, let’s face it – this would never happen!
I am given to understand that there are three basic rules for polite conversation in American society. The first is that you never discuss politics. The second that you never discuss religion. And the third is that if you do discuss either of those things, you never give even one inch on your position. In our text today, Paul violates all of those rules. He goes around arguing in the marketplace with anyone who will take him up, claiming that God is not found in idols, but is instead a transcendent, personal God – the God of the Universe. In Ancient Greco-Roman culture, this was both a religious and a political claim. There was no such thing as the separation of church and state; religion and politics were the same thing – there was no conception of a difference between the two. And as if it weren’t enough for Paul to discuss these things in public – in broad daylight! – when he does give his speech we see that, rather than call the Athenians horrible idolaters who need to repent and accept Jesus into their hearts, Paul compliments them. He finds a point of connection. He says, “Athenians, I see how extremely religious you are in every way. 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.” Unlike many of our politicians and, unfortunately, many of us, Paul chooses to start his argument by finding the good in the other side’s point of view. Rather than condemn their idolatrous practices, he realizes that all of the idols throughout the city that were causing him such great distress had at least one very good and very important significance – the Athenians were pious.
Now, of course, that does not make idolatry right. It is still deeply distressing for Paul. But Paul realizes he isn’t going to change any hearts or minds by calling the Athenians filthy sinners and demanding they come over to his side immediately, or else. Perhaps we could all take a page out of Paul’s book. Perhaps, rather than condemning others’ views outright we should seek to find the good in those views, and try to understand why others may hold them. But in order to do this, in order to find the good in someone else’s opinion, we must first do something else; and that is why Paul isn’t the only one we should pay attention to in this story. Paul’s speech is great, for sure, but did we notice what prompted it? “[The Athenians] took him to the Areopagus and asked him, ‘May we know what this new teaching is that you are presenting? It sounds rather strange to us, so we would like to know what it means.’”
Isn’t that incredible? I mean, I think it is. How many times do we actually say to somebody else who has a new or different opinion from ours “I’d like to hear what you have to say”? How many times are we open and receptive to that newness? The people of Athens, it seems, were “always telling or hearing something new”, according to the text. Now, I think we often read that as a derogatory remark by Luke; it isn’t always the best thing to be jumping from one new thing to another. But the point also stands that if the Athenians hadn’t been open to hearing something new that day, they never would have listened to Paul in the first place. Paul’s religion is new. Christianity, at the time that Paul is speaking to the Athenians, is brand new. Sure, it has old roots – but even Jesus is often accused of bringing a strange new teaching. Jesus gives new commandments. And let’s not forget that our entire section of the Bible that is just ours, as Christians, is called the “New” Testament. New isn’t always bad. But I will grant that it is often scary.
That’s why we tend to want to preserve things the way they are, isn’t it? We’re afraid. We’re afraid of the new on the one hand because, what if we fail? What if it doesn’t work? What if it isn’t, in fact, better than the old? But we are also afraid of the new because change inevitably involves loss. Even if what is new is also exciting and good for us, there is still the dread that things won’t be the same, and, let’s be honest, we’ll miss things the way they were. You’ve probably experienced this at weddings, graduations, births, moves, new jobs, maybe even conversion. On the larger, macro-scale you’ve probably experienced this through technology advances, changing economic landscapes, new laws and new social values. All of the sudden something you were quite familiar with becomes outdated; your favorite restaurant goes out of business; the Confederate Flag no longer flies outside the state house; LGBTQ persons are now legally allowed to marry. There is the tendency to want to not move forward. There is the tendency to hold on to the old, especially those parts we deem exceptionally good. Of course, new is not always better. That’s not what I’m saying. But it does seem we have lost that Athenian curiosity, that openness to hearing, doing, practicing, believing something new.
What is needed, then, is to ask ourselves why we resist change. Is it really because the new thing is worse than the old, or is it our preservationist tendencies getting in the way? This is especially important with new ideas and beliefs, because to a large extent our ideas and beliefs make up who we see ourselves to be. If we were to change our world view, it would feel like a betrayal of who we really are. But if everyone in the world decided not to change for that reason, then you and I wouldn’t be here. Christianity would’ve died before it could even get off the ground. The Disciples weren’t blank slates waiting to be given a set of beliefs. Neither were the Athenians. Those who converted – supposedly they found something better, something more holy. They discovered that the new Christian understanding of God made a lot more sense than idolatry. Were they afraid to move on from their former beliefs? You bet! There are a number of Athenians who remain not fully convinced yet say, “We will hear you again about this,” and, unfortunately, Paul decides to leave them, which I believe was a mistake – some of those Athenians might have become converts. Change is a process. It takes time. Any newlywed couple will tell you this – it’s not as if they suddenly adapted to being married and living together with a couple “I do’s” and the exchanging of rings. The marriage is not going to work if they are unable to let go of their old family’s rituals, traditions, way of organizing the dishes in the kitchen, bathroom policies, thermostat setting, etc., and embrace new ways of doing all of those things. But, of course, that doesn’t happen overnight. There is a grieving process. There is loss. There is coping with the fact that things just aren’t going to be the same anymore. But that is no reason not to get married. It’s no reason not to allow LGBTQ persons to get married. It’s no reason not to take down that flag. No; if there is any reason not to do these things, that is not it. And I think that many of us may find, more often than not, that upon deep self-reflection, all those little reasons we come up with not to embrace something new are really just there to hide the real reason – that we’re scared. We want things to stay the same. We don’t want to lose anything.
Yesterday we once again celebrated our country’s independence, and aside from the fireworks and the burgers and the beer and the celebration of freedom and all, I think it’s worth also remembering that the United States was a new nation once. Our forefathers once decided to throw off not just the old government, but the old form of government, and embark upon the journey of becoming a new country with an entirely new form of government. Is it not something we celebrate this weekend – that they were granted the courage and the discernment to sluff off the old and embrace the new? That, though this was not necessarily something that was easy to do – indeed, an entire war had to be fought and won – nevertheless they committed themselves to newness, to uncertainty, based upon the conviction that the old way of doing things was no longer right, and that they had a moral imperative to fight for a more just and free society? And yet, even after it was all over, Thomas Jefferson himself recognized that the new thing they had established was not – could not – be perfect. That hindsight is 20/20, and that in the future a more mature and more experienced humanity might recognize the necessity to move on still to newer and better things: in a letter to Samuel Kercheval on July 12, 1816 he wrote, “I am certainly not an advocate for frequent and untried changes in laws and constitutions. I think moderate imperfections had better be borne with; because, when once known, we accommodate ourselves to them, and find practical means of correcting their ill effects. But I know also, that laws and institutions must go hand in hand with the progress of the human mind. As that becomes more developed, more enlightened, as new discoveries are made, new truths disclosed, and manners and opinions change with the change of circumstances, institutions must advance also, and keep pace with the times. We might as well require a man to wear still the coat which fitted him when a boy, as civilized society to remain ever under the regimen of their barbarous ancestors.”
Many of us may not realize it, but I think it’s safe to say that Jefferson has now joined the ranks of our “barbarous” ancestors, to use his words. That doesn’t mean he was a bad man, necessarily – perhaps a bit less enlightened (he did own slaves). Indeed there are still plenty of good things about the man, about the founding fathers and mothers, our founding documents and our system of government, that should be recognized as such and kept. There are plenty of good things about Christianity, things that have remained in the faith for thousands of years because people recognized their importance and significance. No, progress should never be pursued simply for the sake of progress. But, as I hope I (and Jefferson, and Paul, for that matter) have made clear, neither should progress be resisted for the sake of tradition. We must carefully judge whether or not the new thing that confronts us or the new thing for which we seek is truly worthy of replacing the old, and whether our resistance to it is really because it is unworthy, or because deep down we don’t want things to change.
Thus saith the Lord: “Remember not the former things, nor consider the things of old. Behold, I am doing a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?” Even here, in the 43rd chapter of Isaiah, we see that God is also a God of newness. God is a God of change and justice and righteousness, a God who interrupts the status quo and gives freedom to the oppressed and release to the captive, a God who in fact embraces something new by becoming a living, breathing human being and walking amongst us on this earth. God is not content with things remaining the same because, guess what? The Kindom of God is not yet fully present here on Earth. To be honest, it’s not even fully present right here in this church – now, that’s not supposed to be a judgmental statement, just a recognition of the fact that we’re not perfect. And yes, it’s okay, as human beings, to be imperfect, but not if we remain content with all our imperfections. Not if we stop striving to embody the Kindom of God, to be the true, wildly diverse Body of Christ. Not as long as we take a look around and say, “eh, this is good enough.” Because if we do that, then we will probably miss the new thing that God is doing.
Instead of holding onto the past, instead of relishing the “good old days” and hoping against hope that if we just keep going the way we are people will come to their senses and come back to the church, come back to traditional marriage, come back to the institution of slavery, come back to monarchy, come back to Stoicism and Epicureanism – perhaps, instead of dwelling on the former things, it might be better for us to be like the Athenians, and to inquire of our more developed, more enlightened society, “May we know what this new teaching is?” and then to hear – not just listen, but really hear – something new. Amen.