Debra Recommends

This Shared DreamAfter the BeginningTo Say Nothing of the DogThe Girl With the Dragon TattooA New Beginning for Pastors and Congregations: Building an Excellent Match Upon Your Shared StrengthsThree Cups of Tea: One Man's Mission To Promote Peace...One School At A Time

More of Debra's books »
Book recommendations, book reviews, quotes, book clubs, book trivia, book lists

6.02.2011

An Unknown God


Sermon Preached on the Sixth Sunday of Easter
May 29, 2011 - St. Mark's Episcopal Church
Acts 17:22-31



INTIMATE[1]
Knowledge always deceives.
It always limits the Truth, every concept and image does.
From cage to cage the caravan moves,
but I give thanks,
for at each divine juncture
my wings expand
and I
touch Him more
intimately.
In times of great triumph and in great sadness, we reach to the depth of our faith experience for ritual, for support, for meaning.  The church’s sacraments which celebrate and commemorate so many individual rites of passage – baptism, confirmation, marriage, ministry to the sick, to the dying, and rites of burial - seem to expect this and are there, in fact, to assist us with just these types of occasions.  Newer resources of our church include liturgies and prayers related to childbearing, childbirth, and loss, expanded burial rites for children and for those who have taken their own life.  We offer blessings for pregnant women, anniversaries of a marriage, dedications of homes, offices, church buildings, and even rituals for the installation of new rectors.  Intuitively, it seems, we turn to religion in times set apart from the ordinary – for better or for worse.
In good times, it is relatively easy to accept that God’s love is so encompassing, so broad, so deep, so high that the Almighty Embrace includes even the likes of you and me.  Of course it does! When things are going well in our lives, we may even find it easy to believe that God is blessing us with this good fortune.  That new job – thanks be to God! The offer on the house just accepted – thanks be to God!  Graduation from high school, from college, successful defense of a doctoral dissertation – thanks be to God! The passage from John’s gospel we read today begins and ends with love.  The notion that our God is a God of love is perhaps the most oft-cited mantra of our faith. 
But when the tide turns, how quickly we waver, how quickly we turn away from thanksgiving, from adoration and awe to wonder, to question, to doubt.  The familiar mantra of God’s love can fall flat in the face of great loss or disappointment.  Paula D'Arcy knows something about the potential inadequacies of our faith in times of tragedy.  D’Arcy is the President of the Red Bird Foundation, an organization which supports the growth and spiritual development of those in need – particularly of those in prison and those living in third world cultures.  Her ministry emerged, as most do, from personal experience – in her case, a personal tragedy. In 1975 she survived a drunk driving accident which took the lives of her husband and her twenty-one month old daughter.  D’Arcy was pregnant at the time of the accident and gave birth to a second daughter, Beth some months after the accident.[2]  In her book, Gift of the Red Bird, D’Arcy writes:
 “I’ve come to understand that ‘familiar’ can be a great barrier to new revelations. My original expectations about the manner of God’s presence were so set. Bit by bit those expectations had to be dismantled so I would be able to see what was, rather than what I expected or had been taught.”
Familiarity, expectations - not God - are what leave us feeling lost and without faith in times of trouble.  We’ve set our hearts and minds on a god of our own creation and that god, who is no god, cannot sustain us in times of real need.  That god who is no god is great for times of triumph and celebration; but a god who is no god cannot carry us through the difficulties of life.
In today’s reading from the Acts of the Apostles, Paul is speaking to the Athenians in front of the Areopagus and comments on “an altar with the inscription, ‘To an unknown god.’”  The Rev. Quinn Caldwell prepared a reflection on this verse for The Christian Century in which he points out that the many objects of the Athenians worship which Paul observed as he went through the city “point to what the people of the city love: their gods and the virtues, blessings and graces they represent.”[3]  Caldwell continues by suggesting that those very same objects
“show what the people fear: those same gods and the anger that the people will call down upon themselves if they fail to worship them properly.  Of all that Paul sees, one thing speaks more eloquently of fear than the others: the altar to an unknown god, the one that’s erected just in case there’s a god out there whom the people haven’t yet heard of but who is powerful enough to make them sorry should they offend him or her.”[4]
Of course, Paul uses this image of the unknown god to make a case for the God of his faith – and ours. For Paul declares that this god whom the Athenians “worship as unknown” is indeed the God who has been made known through Jesus Christ; that this unknown god is indeed the very God who created “the world and everything in it,” the God who “gives to all mortals life and breath and all things,” the God who has “allotted the times of their existence and the boundaries of the places where they would live” and the God who 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.”[5] For Paul, the only thing the Athenians have reason to fear is that they might be found on that day of judgment to be worshipping an image of “gold, or silver, or stone, an image formed by the art and imagination of mortals” rather than worshipping the one true God revealed through Jesus Christ.  This speech of Paul’s is perhaps one of the earliest examples of Christian apologetics and, according to Scripture, it met with some success in drawing converts:
“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.”[6]
But, for those of us who are already believers – who already think we know this God – this story from the Acts of the Apostles invites us in another direction.  Perhaps you and I are invited to learn more about this “unknown God” or, if not to learn more, than to love more.  A 14th century English mystic wrote of God, in The Cloud of Unknowing:
“But now thou askest me and sayest, “How shall I think on Himself, and what is He?” and to this I cannot answer thee . . . For thou hast brought me with thy question into that same darkness, and into that same cloud of unknowing, that I would thou wert in thyself. For of all other creatures and their works, yea, and of the works of God’s self, may a man through grace have fullhead of knowing, and well he can think of them: but of God Himself can no man think. And therefore I would leave all that thing that I can think, and choose to my love that thing that I cannot think. For why; He may well be loved, but not thought. By love may He be gotten and holden; but by thought never.”[7]
By love God can be caught and held, but by thinking never.  Our God is, indeed, a God of love and, in good times, we seem to have little, if any, difficulty in accepting that.  But the truth of the matter is, our God is a God of love even when the tide turns. And it is only our attempt to figure it out, to make sense of that love in the face of tragedy, which gets in the way of God’s loving embrace.
Perhaps Paul’s apologetic to you and to me – to those who have already accepted the good news of Jesus – might read like this:
“St. Markans, I see how extremely religious you are in every way. For as I went through the church and looked carefully at the objects of your worship, I found among them a font with the inscription, ‘One Faith, One Lord, One Baptism.’ Whom we therefore worship as Lord, as known among us, this I proclaim to you: There is much we do not yet know about this Lord, our God. There is much which will continue to be revealed to us if we but open our hearts and minds to experience the work of God’s Spirit among us.  We are, indeed, God’s beloved offspring, yet we ought not to think that this God is like our words, formed by the imagination of mortals. For those very words can become a great barrier to new revelations.  Let us allow our words, our images, our understanding of God, to be dismantled so that we might experience – no, might love - what is, rather than that which we expect.”
INTIMATE[8]
Knowledge always deceives.
It always limits the Truth, every concept and image does.
From cage to cage the caravan moves,
but I give thanks,
for at each divine juncture
my wings expand
and I
touch Him more
intimately.


[1] Meister Eckhart, “Intimate” in Love Poems from God: Twelve Sacred Voices from the East and West, translated by Daniel Ladinsky, (New York: Penguin, 2002), p. 101.
[2] Details of Paula D’Arcy’s life compiled from The Red Bird Foundation website accessed on May 28, 2011.
[3] Quinn G. Caldwell, “Living by the Word: Reflections on the Lectionary,” The Christian Century (May 17, 2011), p. 21.
[4] Ibid.
[5] Acts 17:23-26, 31.
[6] Acts 17:32-34.
[7] The Cloud of Unknowing, chapter 6 as accessed online at Christian Classics Ethereal Library on May 28, 2011.
[8] Meister Eckhart.

In the News . . .

Loading...