“Paul then stood up before the council of the Areopagus and delivered this address: “Citizens of Athens, I note that in every
respect you are scrupulously religious. As I walked about looking at your shrines I even discovered an altar inscribed, ʻTo an Unknown God.ʼ Now, what you are worshipping in ignorance I intend to make known to you.”
“For the God who made the world and all that is in it, the Sovereign of heaven and earth, doesnʼt live in sanctuaries
made by human hands, and isnʼt served by humans, as if in need of anything. No! God is the One who gives everyone life, breath – everything. From one person God created all of humankind to inhabit the entire earth, and set the time for each nation to exist and the exact place where each nation should dwell. God did this so that human beings would seek, reach out for, and perhaps find the One who is not really far from any of us – the One in whom we live and move and have our being. As one of your poets has put it, ʻWe too are Godʼs children.ʼ”
“If we are in fact children of God, then itʼs inexcusable to think that the Divine Nature is like an image of gold, silver or stone
– an image formed by the art and thought of mortals. God, who overlooked such ignorance in the past, now commands all people everywhere to reform their lives. For a day has been set when the whole world will be judged with justice. And this judge, who is a human being, has already been appointed. God has given proof of all of this by raising this judge from the dead.”
I was in a very different place the last time I preached this text. It has been about twelve years since I picked this text up and lived with it. Twelve years ago I was an evangelical, fundamentalist preacher saving the lost on a sun laden boardwalk in Venice Beach. With my Bible in one hand and courageous conviction in the other I sought to corral folks in to apologetic arguments in which I could (by the power of the Holy Spirit) compel them of their wicked ways and therefore save their mortal soul from eternal damnation.
It was rather simple. I was blessed to have a divine knowledge that others could have access to yet actively decided against. It was my duty to win them for the Lord. I would use this passage to argue against the “Idols” they worshipped by being there on that sunny, sandy beach filled with people having lunch and listening to music. I burned with frustration at these people and their shunning of the Gospel. Did they not know that death was really “real” and so was the possible eternal damnation that waited them?
I would use the altar of Agnostos Theos to frame an argument that they were Christians waiting to be realized. That the hole they were filling with beach, sun, fun and roller blades; could in fact only be filled with Jesus Christ. That they, in fact, needed Jesus to make sense of all of this crazy business that surrounded them. The GOOD NEWS is that it is still was not too late to recognize the sin in their life and turn from it and beg mercy of God. They could recognize that the UNKOWN gods they worshiped in darkness were just waiting to be removed by the light that Jesus has to offer and that I could lead them to that light.
Buddhists, Hindus, Muslims and anyone else that was not quite Christian [enough] were just waiting to wake up to the knowledge I already held. I was one of the righteous and certain to inherit heaven and all of the goodies that comes with it. I judged from a place of moral and ethical purity, one that most certainly did not include anything outside of a strict and “Biblical” sexual ethic. If you did not live in the manner I did or practice a faith that I could engage as my own you were worshipping that Unknown God. You were embracing a faith that was veiled with hellacious trappings and were doomed to be judged eternally for it. “Now, what you are worshipping in ignorance I intend to make known to you.”
Here we are twelve years later. Iʼve just returned from a national conference focused on LGBTQ rights and the national movement we, here at, are a part of. I no longer preach on a sandy, sunny beachy boardwalk. I am part of a group of Disciple ministers that traces itself to pioneers of faith in America. I am blessed to be accountable to you the fine people of Douglass Blvd. Christian Church. I revisit this text from Acts with these new eyes and this renewed heart.
Gone is the certainty of my righteousness. Gone is the notion of “sleeping” Christians just waiting to be awakened. Gone
is the need to point to the divine portions of others that are different than mine as Agnostos Theos.
I read this passage now and something different keeps coming back to me. “For the God who made the world and all that is in it, the Sovereign of heaven and earth, doesnʼt live in sanctuaries made by human hands, and isnʼt served by humans, as if in need of anything.”
Iʼll read it again, “…God who made the world and all that is in it, the Sovereign of heaven and earth, doesnʼt live in sanctuaries made by human hands.” I spent my life trying to move in from the weather, from the sun and sand. I thought it a better way to be inside a sanctuary with beautiful architecture that imitated the beauty of Godʼs creation.
I realized that the zeal of the Old Ryan was not born from my passion for loving God as much as my zeal to serve God was rooted in fear and jealousy. I looked at those on the beach worshiping the sun and enjoying community as less than because
I wanted to be out there with them. I wanted to be in that crowd listening to music and enjoying the sun-baked sands. I took the God out of creation and placed that awe-inspiring creativity and glory in the safe confines of the brick and mortar church. There is Gods majesty inside that building and I must get everyone in to that building so that they can revel in Gods glory.
I would go to concerts and ball games and get upset at all of the cheering fans rooting on their favorite team or with no shame or embarrassment sing along with their favorite musicians. I would search my mind on how to get these “unchurched” people to church on Sunday to experience the glory filled creativity that God displayed in that “House.”
God the maker of heaven and earth, the fashioner of faith, the architect of hope, the known and unknown holder of existence…that God does not live in sanctuaries formed by human hands. Then where does God reside?
God resides in the hearts of those that hurt, those that have lost hope or those that struggle to find the words to cry out. God resides in the works of those that feed the hungry, cloth the naked and love kindness. God lives in the actions of mercy and grace of that anonymous gesture of good will…that collection taken up to pay someoneʼs rent.
God does not live here in this place. Look around at these walls. Godʼs presence here with us. This very architecture proclaims Gods might and we honor God with this space. But God does not live here. When we depart from this place today God is not going to sigh in relief that the visitors have gone. Then throw on some more comfy clothes and microwave some popcorn and turn on Netflix to catch up on Arrested Development.
When we depart from here. God comes with us. When we go so does God. “…God who made the world and all that is in it, the Sovereign of heaven and earth, doesnʼt live in sanctuaries made by human hands, and isnʼt served by humans, as if in need of anything.”
God does not live here in this house, the church is not this place. The church is that place where God resides and if we proclaim to follow and love Jesus, as we seek to be Disciples of the Christ then we believe that God resides in our heart. Therefore, we are that place to which God resides and then we must be the church!
The church is our community serving God in abundance and without abandon. The church is the kindness, mercy and compassion we offer to those in suffering and those being persecuted by power. God resides in the Gospel we are to those that need a good word.
We cannot be a church without a mission, without a purpose. If we do not serve others we canʼt be a church. A church exists not for itself but for others. Just as Jesus does not exist for the sake of the Christ but for the sake of creation Jesusʼ purpose rests in our need for grace, salvation and reconciliation.
Last week I also was part of a gathering called UNCO in New York. It was a gathering of around 80 people trying to get insight, renewal, hope or something like that. There were lay leaders and ordained leaders. There were all kinds of denominations represented. It was sort of hippie and sort of Bukowski.
Meredith and I were part of the leadership and we were charged with holding up the frame so that others could put in the fittings and finish the space. I was personally charged with being a holy listener. I intentionally listened to people stories, hopes and dreams.
I heard stories that had frustration. The church no longer had money to pay a salary. The church was going to close down. The congregation was tired from trying to hold it together. There was fighting between the elders. What could they do?
I heard stories that had hope. The church just opened a feeding program to the local homeless population. The church is now ministering to the growing aging community via a senior activity group. The church has transformed in to a community center.
I heard stories that dreamed dreams. I want to be a part of a church that has more mission budget than operational budget. I want to be part of a church where my faith is formed in relationship. I want to stay here and be a part of the church.
Every story was filled with fear of something. Every story expressed the hope that they might be a part of something more. Every story delivered an expectation that God is still here and that God was moving in the church in dynamic ways.
I listened for 3 days and on the final day we had a worship service like this one. We had songs, prayers, invocations, a sermon and we celebrated at the Table. Two Methodist ministers [husband and wife] presided at the Table. Christy, one of the ministers, held the couples youngest child, Sam in her arms. Sam is not quite a year old. Josh offered a welcome and prayed over the meal. As he did all of the children gathered there began to circle the Table. Swarming around mom and dad. Josh and Christy delivered worked to bless this meal with the sounds of children muffling portions of it.
I began to smile and wonder what was going on. The other children came up and longingly stared at the Table. Anticipating the bread and cup to come. They knew what this meant. There was something big awaiting us.
Josh finished his part and Christy began the Great Thanksgiving. Then little Elli asked her mom what she was doing and she replied, “saying grace.” As Christy continued little Ben was in front of the Table whispering the Holy Words that Jesus uttered on the night he was betrayed. He whispered as if these words were to precious to be heard by just anyone. With tears in our eyes we offered up thanks for this meal set before us…we approached the Table with a reverence and awe.
I am not sure when I realized that I had just witnessed the church as I had always hoped. Here is that intersection of frustration, hopes and dreams. I get another chance from the God that always gives second chances. Here is God not giving up on me. Here is God reminding me of the beauty available in being who I am called to be. “…God who made the world and all that is in it, the Sovereign of heaven and earth, doesnʼt live in sanctuaries made by human hands, and isnʼt served by humans, as if in need of anything.”
Right there, in an oversized t-shirt with a cross and Jesus scribbled in marker on it was a reminder that the church is not the institutions we are part of. The church is not the pensions, the assemblies, the hymnals, the lock-ins, the Sunday schools, or the Sunday celebrations. The church is us. The church is people that desperately need hope. The church is people like you and I that wrestle with faith and do our best to live out what it is that we feel God is moving us to. The church is a people that relish in the thought of God taking delight in our delight of the Kingdom drawn near.