Matthew 10: 40-42
I believe there is no better way to scare church people than… a good old sermon on discipleship. Maybe this is why the lectionary tends to schedule some specific texts around this topic during the time of summer. Often, when we think of discipleship in a church context, words like sacrifice, denial, austerity or renunciation come to mind. We remember that Jesus told his disciples, “If any want to become my follower, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose it for my sake will find it.” Just a few verses prior today’s text from the Gospel according to Matthew, Jesus sends out the disciples with the following instructions: “Take no gold, or silver, or copper in your belts, no bag for the journey, or two tunics, or sandals, or a staff.” They are called to cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers and cast out demons completely free of charge and with a huge smile on their face.
Without surprise, we have come to see discipleship as something reserved for only a few exceptional individuals. We are convinced that it takes a special call and gifts to willingly give up everything you own, set aside relationships with family and friends or devote your whole existence to a lifestyle contradicting the ways of our world. No wonders why there are so few men and women who enroll in our theological colleges these days. Who really wants to fulfil exceptional ministries in these challenging conditions? To sign up for the risky business of discipleship, one has to be nothing short than a hero, a prophet, a holy person or a complete masochist. Thank God we have ministers, priests and clergy person to do this for us. They accept the call. They have this vocation. They are expected to be the disciples we believe we cannot be. After all, we are just normal people. We do not have this faith that can move mountains. We do not know the right words or biblical passages. We would not even know where to begin and how to do it properly. It is better for us to leave discipleship to them.
That’s what most of us often believe. However, today’s fairly short Gospel passage helps us to broad our minds and see discipleship differently. Jesus says, “Whoever welcomes you welcomes me.” We are not somehow-kinda-good-enough-delegates-of-Christ-sent-because-no-one-better-was-available-to-do-it-today. No. “Whoever welcomes you welcomes me.” One equates the other and vice versa. God’s power is present and works identically through all and every disciple as with Jesus. This major theological statement undercuts our sense of hierarchy and democratizes the idea of who is allowed to be involved in God’s ministries in this world. Ordinary people have the same capacities, gifts and call to discipleship than those on the church’s payroll.
Discipleship often begins by being aware of “the little ones” constantly surrounding us. These little ones are not necessarily just the children in our lives and community. They are all of those who are without power, title or privilege. They are those who are considered disposable or useless by our society. They are the ones our leaders often forget or overlook. They are the prostitutes on the streets of this city, racialized youth struggling to find a job, seniors abandoned by their family or people of the First Nations living in worst conditions that in a Third World country. They are all of those who knock at the door of our churches and remind us that we are not called to be a members-only club, a place where those who know the secret password can gather to celebrate their good fortune or a hideout to escape the chaos of our lives. They are the ones who are looking at us and hoping to discover a glimpse of God’s presence in this world.
We look at it, discipleship is basically faith in action and it does not have to be extravagant or spectacular. Jesus speaks of giving a simple cup of cold water because most often nothing more than a minor favour or small gesture is required… like giving a hug to someone who is sad… extending a listening ear to someone in need of a friend… offering a ride to someone without a car… volunteering at a senior’s facility… making a small donation to an agency helping young girls to go to school… According to Jesus, there are no small deeds. Everything done in the name of our faith and spirituality is important and can have an incredible impact. We might not have to power to completely change the whole world, but changing the world of the little ones constantly surrounding us every day is our call as disciples of Jesus the Christ.
In fact, the truth is that we are already doing it all the time without really noticing it. Discipleship is a way of life, a series of core values or a few guiding principles influencing our existence. We do not look at our calendar and decide that tomorrow we will be generous and maybe the end of the week we will show compassion to some else. We try to do what seems natural for us in every given circumstance. We try to do the right thing, to create a better world, to be the best version of ourselves. We try to apply the great principles of the realm of God Jesus came to proclaim, like loving one another, forgiving our next kin, helping our neighbour, sharing with those who have less. Discipleship is just to be God’s church in this world.
Of course we have made mistakes in the past and, trust me, we continue to make more in the future. However, I do know if you really noticed it, we the church, we disciples of Jesus the Christ are our best not when we talk about theology or preach on the differences between the numerous translations of the Bible, but when we act… when we do a myriad of small gestures… when we welcome members of the LGBTQ communities on Sunday mornings… when we commit to reconciliation and right relationships with our native sisters and brothers… when we raise money to sponsor refugees… when we send a card to someone who broke one’s leg. All of this does not necessarily require extensive training, degrees or letters after our name. All of us can do these simple actions.
Discipleship does not have to be a dirty, intimidating or scary word in our churches. One does not have to be a superhero or agree to sign up to follow an elaborate system rules and regulations. We do not ought to know all the correct beliefs and answers. As Jesus reminds us, discipleship is no more complicate than faithful small gestures that can be done all of us every day of our lives. Amen.
Acts 2: 1-21
This week I really struggled when I began to write this sermon because I hesitated between two introductions. One option was a quote from an article entitled, Four Key Challenges in Pastoral Transitions, which says, “The pastor leaving will set the tone for how the new pastor is received. Differences of personality or theology that distinguish the new pastor from the old should not interfere with the manner in which the departing pastor helps prepare the way for the new pastor. Everything possible should be done to pave the way for a successful transition in the church from which a pastor leaves and for the continuation of ongoing ministries in the new congregation.”
Instead, I decided to go with my second option: science fiction. I understand science fiction might not be your cup of tea and hopefully your next minister will not bore you to death with this topic, but just try to stay with me for a few moments one more time. I am a fan of Battlestar Galactica, the second version, the Reimagined Series. The main narrative arch that ties this TV series together is, “All of this has happened before, and all of this will happen again.” The characters of this show progressively discover that everything they are doing – all their struggles and adventures – is part of an ongoing continuum. Essentially, they replicate actions from a distant past that will be eventually repeated in the future.
I like this concept because I believe that it speaks much about us human beings. For many different reasons, we have some difficulties to look at events with a broad perspective. We struggle to see the big picture. For example, this congregation will go through a time of transition very soon and it worries several people. After all, never before the entire staff has decided to leave at the same time. Sally has been here as Director of Music for 38 years. Glenda has been the office administrator for 22 years. There is a sense that this is a moment of rupture, a definite break, a life-altering event for Kanata United Church. For some, this represents as much as a change then… maybe… the assassination of John F. Kennedy or 9/11 for other people. There is this perception that nothing will be the same again.
In our churches, we tend to see Pentecost as one of these moments of definite rupture. Maybe all of us know the story very well because it is read every God-given year. After Jesus’ death, resurrection and ascension, the disciples gathered in one place, under the same roof. Without warning, “there came a sound like a rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house.” Then, the Spirit of God fell upon the disciples in the form of tongues of fire. Those common men suddenly found the courage and the strength to do what they thought was impossible. They preached with assurance and authority the Good News to representatives of all known nations under the sky. Even if some present that day initially believed the disciples were drunk, thousand were baptized and joined their movement. This specific moment is understood a definitive turning point in the God’s mission. This creative burst, this Big Bang, marks the beginning of the Church. God was doing a new thing.
God was not doing a new thing. We like to repeat this statement in our churches. However, when we look at this event from a broader perspective and go back to our bibles, we discover that it was not the case. There is nothing new here. On many occasions, God’s Spirit manifested itself with sound, light and amazing special effects before the day of Pentecost. It was not even the first time that the presence of the Divine was associated with fire. In the book of Genesis, a smoking fire pot and flaming torch sealed the covenant God made with Abraham. In Exodus, Moses encountered God through a burning bush. The prophet Elijah (you remember the wonderful musical he had not that long ago) defeated Baal’s priest and brought back his people to God when fire felt from heaven and consumed the burnt offerings.
Also it was not the first time that common men were inspired and empowered to share their faith, and speak about God’s deeds and power to the people. The First Testament is filled with a long prophetic tradition of such individuals. Some of those prophets came from modest origins like Amos. Others went to their own people to announce that God was about to transform radically this world like Joel or Isaiah. There is even Jonah who went to Nineveh to preach to a foreign nation, the Babylonians.
The same can be said about the initial reaction of the crowd. Jesus’ disciples were mocked and discredited by those who were in Jerusalem that day. Many other prophets had been rejected, often in much harsher ways. When the chief priest of the Temple heard Jeremiah prophesying, he struck the prophet and put him in the stocks. Elijah had to flee to Beer-sheba because king Ahab and queen Jezebel wanted to kill him. What we look at all of this, what happened on the day of Pentecost is not that different from other stories in the First Testament. The symbols, the messengers, the message and even the initial negative reaction of the crowd are in direct continuity with the history of the people of God. All of this has happened before.
Too often, we are unable to understand that we are part of something bigger than the current set of events. We struggle to envision that we belong to a large historical continuum that has a past, a present and a future. We forget that God’s people continuously live in a series of great cycles that are not that different from one another. In her book, The Great Emergence, Phyllis Tickle reflects on this phenomenon and comes to the conclusion that every five hundred years or so the church experiences what she calls a great garage sale. If you are like me, you probably accumulate, accumulate and accumulate stuff in your garage or basement to the point there is no more room. One day, you lose your tempter and decide to do a great purge and clean up everything to make space for something new. Then you start to accumulate again until the next purge. According to Phyllis Tickle, we are in the midst of one of those great garage sales. We are letting go of what we do not use anymore to make space for something new. This whole process is not different from what happened during the time of the Reformation 500 years ago or previous times of great renewal, re-examination of the fundamental questions and recommitment to a renewed living of faith.
The event described in the second chapter of the Book of the Apostles is not the beginning of something new or even the birth of the Church as it is often proclaimed. It was just one more step in the great journey of God’s people. As the prophets of older times, the disciples spoke up and proclaimed the same the good news to the people. It was the same Spirit of God that warmed their hearts and move them to become more than they previously believed.
In the same way, the same Spirit of God is still active in our world these days. During the 20th century, we have been blessed by the work of great theologians like Elaine Pagels, the inspired proclamation of preachers like Martin Luther King Jr, or the amazing compassion of individuals like Jean Vanier. Like all of those who preceded them, they added their part to the ongoing ministries of God’s people. They help us to see the presence of God in our world and invited us to journey with them.
And that’s not all. All of this will happen again. This morning we had the great joy to celebrate the confirmation of Kyla. Three weeks ago, it was Alex, Jacob, Owen and Carmen who made the same commitment that will also be repeated by our children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren in the future. Each new generation following us will not have to establish a new covenant with God. Their task will be to proclaim the same message in a fresh new way. They will be invited, as we are today, as our ancestors in faith in the past, to navigate confusing times and challenging events, and to interpret them through the lenses of faith and spirituality. They will be moved by the Spirit of God to communicate effectively and reach out all of those who need to hear the Good News.
All of this has happened before, and all of this will happen again. Each and every one of us are called to find our place and bring our gifts in the great continuum of the journey of God’s people. For almost 7 years, I played my part at Kanata United Church. I built on the foundations laid of the past ministers and very soon a new voice will come with different sensibilities, interests and I hope for you a different accent. However, as it was the case on the day of Pentecost, nothing will be really new. It will be the still same church, the same ongoing ministries and the same good news to be proclaimed to the world. For the Spirit of God presented in the past, the present and the future, let us say thanks be to Holy One and amen.
Genesis 18: 1-15
I am 47 year-old. This means that I am a member of the generation X, which is between the Baby boomers and the Millennials. As children, we experienced the consequences of the significant increase of the divorce rate in our society. As teenagers, we witnessed the rise of the HIV / AIDS epidemic. As adults, we are mostly known as cynical individuals. And honestly, on most days, it is hard not to be cynical. We are surrounded by so many lies, deceptions and broken promises. We know that every politician runs to defend the middle-class, but once elected, they all implement policies favouring the wealthy. Leaders preach one thing in public and do the complete opposite in private. Glitter and sensationalism have become more important in our media than content and truth. So when someone shows up to proclaim a message of hope or transformation, we tend to be, at best, very sceptical.
Abraham and Sarah obviously were not members of the generation X. Still, when I read their story, I feel some sort of connection. At the beginning of the chapter 12 in the book of Genesis, God showed up in their lives with an amazing promise. “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you”, says the Lord. “I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing.” So Abraham and Sarah went wherever God led them. As we meet them in today’s passage, at the beginning of chapter 18, their situation is not as fantastic as they might have expected. For several years, our couple had travelled across many lands and kingdoms without finding a place to call home. And above all, the promise of an offspring never materialized. They remained childless despite God’s assurance.
One day, when Abraham was sitting at the entrance of his tent, he saw three strangers. He rushed to these men and invited them to come to eat and rest. Abraham offered them the best in ancient Near East courtesy and hospitality, not knowing that one of them was God. After inquiring about Abraham’s wife, one of the guests declared, “I will surely return in due season (meaning next year), and your wife Sarah shall have a son.” Notice here… not may, but shall have a son! As she was listening from inside the tent, Sarah began to laugh.
Yes, Sarah laughed. Her laugh was not one of joy or relief from the cultural stigma of being a childless woman in a patriarchal society. No. Her laugh was rooted in disbelief. It was a cynical laugh. Sarah was aware that men are good to brag about their virility when they are among themselves. Still, she knew better. This pregnancy thing sounded ridiculous because she was beyond childbearing age. Biological facts cannot be denied. There was no conceivable way this could be. It made as much sense as being told, I don’t know, that all the staff is leaving at the same time but everything will be fine. Your answer would probably be, ‘Ah! It’s easy for you to say. You are not the one who will have to make this happen.’ So Sarah laughed at this improbable promise. She laughed so hard that God asked, “Did I hear Sarah laugh?” And Sarah replied with something like, “No Lord! I did not laugh when you said maybe the most stupid statement I even heard in my whole life. Of course, I will have a child. My husband is too old to do… what a man has to do to get me pregnant. I am old myself, but sure it will happen. Even if you made this promise many, many years ago and I never saw the beginning of it fulfillment, I will trust you this time. Sure, why not.” To Sarah’s unbelief and skepticism, God replied: “Is anything too difficult for the Lord?” That day, Sarah’s answer was surely yes. However, as we continue to read the story, she bore a son from Abraham in the following months and called him Isaac, which means in Hebrew he laughs.
For centuries, ‘Is anything too difficult for the Lord?, has been in our churches a mantra we often repeat. When confronted to a challenging situation that seems issueless, we like to remind ourselves that nothing is impossible to God. It’s like in the Gospel according to Matthew when Jesus declares, “If you believe, you will receive whatever you ask for in prayer.” So my friends, let us pray, pray, pray and pray. If God can grant Abraham and Sarah a child despite their old age and barrenness, let us have faith that God can to the same for us. Nothing is too outside the ordinary for the Lord. Ask and you shall receive.
All of this can be very inspirational, especially for regular churchgoers. We like to believe that God’s promises are true. However, what do we say to those whose prayers are not necessarily answered? What happens when your spouse is not healed from this terrible or terminal disease? How should we react when a loved one struggling with addiction assures us for the fifteenth time that this time is the right one, he or she is over it? What should you believe if despite all your prayers and deeds you cannot have a child of your own? What does it say about your faith? What does it say about God’s faithfulness? Many years ago, I encountered a man whose father was a drunk and violent. As a child he reached out to his clergy person who told him to pray so God can change him… which did not happen. What do you think his reaction was when I said I wanted to become an ordained minister? Who can really blame him? If God is love, why his life had to be such a mess? What did he do to deserve this? As you can see, ‘Is anything too difficult for the Lord?’ can turn to be a very harmful statement for many.
When we focus all our faith in the fulfillment of our prayers, we might end up profoundly disappointed. God is not a vending machine granting favours and blessings to those who put the right amount of prayers and devotions in a cosmic slot. This is not how it works. However, we can still believe that God is faithful. Despite all the evidences pointing to the contrary, God never forgot nor abandoned Abraham and Sarah. Through all their trials and tribulations, God remained present and gave them the hope, the reassurance and the strength to go on. They doubted; they questioned; they struggled, and yet they continuously felt God’s presence at their side. Eventually they discovered that God was as much as in the fulfillment of the promise than in the journey leading to it.
Sometimes, we are invited to change our perceptions and open ourselves to the signs surrounding us. God is present in our midst, often in the most unexpected places. We often encounter strangers in our neighbourhood, reach out to visitors at our churches or talk to children in our communities and suddenly this word, this idea emerges in our mind and souls. We discover we can open ourselves to unexpected new possibilities. We can change our mindset and go beyond our pain, grief and disbelief. We can even come to believe in a God that does not necessarily meddle in human affairs, requires our constant devotions or even expect the right number of prayers every day, but still loves and cares for us.
Honestly, on some days, it is difficult not to be cynical. It is difficult not to be convinced that all this “God stuff” is just wishful thinking. Nevertheless, when we expect it the least, we are reminded that God’s promises are true. As the story of Abraham and Sarah teaches us, we are all invited to go and journey with God. While we know from experience that our prayers and demands are not necessarily met exactly when or the way we desire, we can be assured that something will change, often starting with ourselves. We can believe that God will never forget or let us down, no matter our doubts or how loud we laugh. Amen.
2 Corinthians 13: 11-13
This morning I would like to begin my sermon by showing you a clip, once again. This time it comes from The Lord of the Rings, more specifically The Two Towers, the second instalment this famous trilogy. For those who might not be familiar with the works of J.R.R. Tolkien, the main character of this high-fantasy movie a very ordinary individual named Frodo Baggins, played by Elijah Wood. There is absolutely nothing special or particular about him. Yet, after a series of encounters and events, he is caught in great epic confrontation between forces of good and evil. Frodo’s specific mission to take on a very dangerous journey to a distant mountain to destroy a ring, a powerful artefact that many want to possess at all costs. After several obstacles and tribulations, our hero reaches the point that he is just ready to give up; he feels he cannot do it anymore. Sam, his travelling companion, offers these following words…
When we look at the world surrounding us, it is often tempting simply to give up because we come there are no such things as a happy end. After very recent terrorist attacks in Manchester, London, Paris, and also Melbourne, Kabul and Tehran, we can only but wonder how can the world go back to the way it was after such violence. How can we remain engaged in our society when elected leaders consolidate their powers through lies and deceit. How can we keep a shred of optimism when the climate changes crisis does not receive any serious answers. Too often, we feel like a few individuals lost in a sea of ignorance, selfishness and political games. We doubt we can make a real difference. We are unsure we can still find some signs of hope in our fellow human beings. As Frodo wonders, on what can we hold on to?
Maybe the apostle Paul felt that way when he was on the verge of ending his last letter to the Corinthians. He had all the reasons in the world to walk away from the community of faith he established previously. To say that the early church at Corinth was dysfunctional would be an understatement. The Corinthian community was torn by many fights, interpersonal rivalries, spiritual arrogance, lack of sensitivity toward less experienced members, sexual immorality, and theological conflicts, just to name a few. And if this would not be enough, some sort of super-apostles within the congregation has challenged Paul’s authority. This group was determined to discredit the apostle by outshining and outspeaking him.
Most of us in a similar situation would have said, the heck with it. They do not want to listen, so be it. I am done wasting my time with them. Let them argue with one another and see if I care. However, Paul remembered that there is some good in this world and it is worth fighting for it. The man known for his hot temper and uncompromising statements surprises us by behaving like a faithful parent who does not condone nor abandon a troubled child. After the storm of tears, rebukes, recriminations and self-justifications in his letter, Paul concludes with an ultimate attempt to reach out to the Corinthians. His last words are an appeal to order, mutual agreement and peace. Stop playing games, he asks them. Put your differences aside and try to agree with one another. Go beyond your divisions and find ways to live in harmony.
I know. These simple words are far from being new or revolutionary. Yet they are still as powerful as they were 2,000 years ago. They are still relevant and speak to us today. Yes, in our broken world driven by cruelty, hatred and injustice, we encounter many situations in which the road to reconciliation seems to be forever closed. The divisions in our church and congregations are not that different from the time of the Corinthians. The use of force and violence for political purposes is considered normal. However, Paul reminds us that it does not have to be that way. Something else is desirable, something else is required. Despite the signs of darkness present in our lives, hope is possible. Peace can exist in our midst. Transformation and renewal are not a distant dream, but a close by possibility available to all.
This might seem difficult at first glance, but it is not actually the case because all of this always begins with each and every one of us. Experience teaches us that we cannot really control other people even if we try. And almost none of us has the power to influence the great events and policies of our world. However, we have control over our own person, about what we say and do. We can begin with an honest look at ourselves. We can be courageous enough to have a sincere time of self-examination. We can detect the part we are playing in the conflicts that undermine our lives. We can identify the concrete actions we can do to facilitate reconciliation with ourselves and those surrounding us.
We do not have to be a superhero or paragon of faith to extend compassion to our sisters and brothers all around us experiencing a different context or lifestyle than ours. All of us can perform small acts of kindness every day without being asked, seen or expecting retributions of some sort. We can drive someone to an appointment, encourage a teenager struggling with self-esteem, water the garden of a busy neighbour or listening for the twelfth time the same story share by a relative suffering from Alzheimer’s disease with a smile on our face. We can do all of this and firmly believe that those actions and words will have a ripple effect in the lives of others.
Like the Corinthians, we need to remember we are not alone in this world. As the United Church’s New Creed says, we live in God’s world, a God of love, a God of peace, a God who makes all things new. We can face the challenges of our lives for the Risen Christ can be experienced in our midst when injustice is denounced, the injured are healed or food is shared with friends and strangers. We can create and sustain fellowship among each other because the Holy Spirit always finds ways to create spaces for communication, mutual understanding, respect and growth. Nothing in this world or in heavens can make this disappear, not even our worst divisions and conflicts.
“What are we holding on Sam?”
“There is some good in this world, Mr. Frodo, and it is worth fighting for it.”
Bombs can explode. False rumours can be spread around. Bickering and petty quarrels can drive politics. And as the Corinthians, we might be essentially just a bunch of imperfect believers. Yes… Nevertheless, we can still have hope. We can still believe in a better future. We can still continue our journeys, even the most difficult ones, because we have in our possession all that we need to relate with one another in harmony, to make a difference, and to build God’s world here and now. Amen.
Acts 17: 22-34
I do not know if you noticed it, but I have not preached for the last three Sundays. Maybe some of you hope that these last few weeks refreshed and reenergized me, and even inspired me to write one amazing sermon for this morning. If this is your expectation, you might be disappointed. Do not get me wrong. I worked hard this week to prepare this reflection. It is just that sometimes we tend to build huge expectations for a specific event or day and when the moment comes it is rarely as good as we dreamed. Paris is not as beautiful as we have been told. Your team does not go as far in the playoffs as expected. And if you are like me, you barely remember what happened on your wedding day.
A perfect example of this could be a United Church’s document called Song of Faith. Since the beginning of our denomination, there is an understanding that each generation would be invited to write a text that articulates their faith in their own context. In 1968, A New Creed was issued by our church. So in the 1990s, people believe that time came for a new statement of faith. Committees were formed, consultations were made and in 2003 the church released Song of Faith whose first words are: “God is Holy Mystery, beyond complete knowledge, above perfect description”. The response of many was, “Really. We waited 30 years for a text that cannot even offer a simple and clear definition of God.” Most of us has been raised in church contexts that gave us definitions and explanations that resemble to a catechism. Who is God? God is the eternal personal Spirit, Creator and Upholder of all things. What is the Church? The Church is the society of the redeemed and was brought into existence by God Himself through the work and risen power of Christ. By the way, these come from the 1940 Statement of Faith. Now we are told that God is some sort of big unknown entity, a holy mystery. Some are still saying, “What a disappointment! What a missed opportunity!”
Somehow this makes me think of today’s text from Acts of the Apostles. After a successful passage in the city Beroea where many came to believe in his message, Paul finally arrived in Athens, the centre of Greek culture. The Athenians were known for their interest in the divine and openness to philosophies and religions. As he did in previous cities, Paul began to preach in the synagogue and the marketplace every day to those who happened to be there. Some Epicurean and Stoic philosophers noticed him and even if they consider him a babbler, they invited Paul to address the Areopagus, which was a council made up of philosophers and wise men. I know it sounds strange according to today’s standards. Just try to use your imagination. This group asked Paul, “May we know what is this new teaching is that you are presenting? It sounds rather strange to us, so we would like to know what it means.”
Convincing a group of philosophers and individuals known for their wisdom is a big challenge, but if someone can do it, Paul was the man. We can find many examples in our Bibles of his ability to adapt his message and behaviours to meet people where they are. As he stood in front of the Areopagus, Paul did not begin his address by belittling their beliefs, condemning the worship of idols or threatening the Athenians with divine judgment, brimstone and eternal fire. Rather he got them on their good side by complimenting their deep religious convictions. The Athenians had temples and devotions for gods who were overseeing different aspects of their lives: commerce, war, wine, harvest and so on. Paul added, “For as I went through the city and looked carefully at the object of your worship, I found among them an altar with the inscription, ‘to an unknown god,’” Paul seized this opportunity to proclaim that this unknown god is in reality the Lord of heaven and earth, the god that he worshipped; a god who is the source of all life, not confined to a specific shine made by a human being, depends on nothing and needs no sacrifice to show greatness.
What Paul did that day is very cleaver. He used arguments found in Jewish and Greek culture. He quoted material from an Athenian poet. And then he slipped in the zinger; they were both offspring of this one and only God. As we are reading this today, we can only say that it is brilliant. Nobody could resist to this perfectly crafted argument. Paul must have won many converts on that day. However the text tells us, “But some of them join him and became believers, including Dionysius the Areopagite and a woman named Damaris, and others with them.” Well, this is not particularly impressive. We might be tempted to say, ‘What a missed opportunity! What a disappointment!’
… or maybe not. Paul’s words at the Areopagus, like those coming from Song of Faith 2,000 years later, have this capacity to bring our faith and spirituality somewhere else. They have the power to free our minds and souls from a narrow understanding of God. They remind us that God cannot be limited to one temple or sanctuary, restricted to specific functions or powers, or even defined by one single specie living on one planet of the universe. God is bigger and greater than everything we can conceive with our human brains. Our God is indeed an unknown god, beyond complete knowledge, above perfect description.
For us today, Paul’s address to the Athenians is maybe less the perfect template for evangelization and more a solid base to initiate interfaith and interreligious dialogues. I do not think I have to explain to you how our society has changed during the last century and cultural and religious diversity has become a challenge these days. In the interest of peace and harmony some are trying to erase our differences by claiming that all religions and gods are exactly the same. Let us hold hands and sing a hymn that is generic and politically correct. However another path is offered to us, a way that goes beyond platitudes and good feelings. We can build relationships on a common ground which is our quest for the divine in our lives, our search for a reality bigger than us, our desire to be touched a light, our hope to find this something that we call God. We do not have to be exactly identical or belong to the same church to recognize our similarities. We do not have to deny our beliefs or values to acknowledge that we share a common journey. Like an old Japanese proverb says, ‘There are many paths leading to the top of a mountain, but from up there, all look at the same sky.’
If we are ready to conceive that God is bigger than all we can imagine, we cannot expect to be always 100% right about everything. We have to be humble enough to accept that God is also speaking through a member of another faith group or even those who claim there is no such thing as a theistic God ruling over heaven and earth. We have to create opportunities for real and faithful dialogue in order to learn from one another. We have to imagine new ways to express our longings and unfulfilled needs. We have to develop a hunger for different spirituality and transcendent experiences. We have to become searchers and seekers unafraid to ask difficult questions that might not have one clear and simple answer. We have to come together with all our human brothers and sisters and consider ourselves God’s offspring.
Expectations can be very tricky, and they often lead to disappointment. Maybe it depends on the way we look at things. Where some see a failure, others chose to see an opening. Paul’s address to the Areopagus in Athens, the United Church’s Song of Faith or even this sermon have a point in common. They are not necessarily as good as some initially hoped, but they are still opportunities to wrestle with challenging questions, to open our minds to unexpected realities or to engage honestly our faith and spirituality. The bottom line might be that no matter where we go or what we do, the opportunity is always ours to discover how the unknown God we worship is present and active in those we meet on our journeys. Amen.