Sunday, May 17,2020
Encountering God in a new way
The Rev. Mark Wilkinson, Rector
St. Paul’s Episcopal Church
Katy TX 77493
“We encounter God in gathered community, in Word proclaimed, in Bread broken and in Wine poured. We encounter God in Peace and Blessing and Sending. We encounter God in prayer and praise.”1
-Br. James Koester Society of Saint John the Evangelist
I would like to examine our passage from Acts through the lens that Br. James has provided in this meditation on encountering God that he posted on the monastery’s website Friday morning. For Paul is trying to invite his audience and us into a different way to encounter God than most of the world understands. Before else please realize he is speaking of many ways to encounter God even when we cannot do all of them.
Paul is in Athens in this part of Acts. He has spoken in the synagogues and is less than pleased with what he has seen in terms of worship of God there. Paul is greatly troubled by the “forest of idols” he has found as the Greek would imply. The synagogue has had little if any influence on the belief of the city or even of its members.
In this specific passage Paul has been brought before a counsel. Think in terms of a debating society more than a trial. They want him to explain his teachings and to have a discussion. The Greek indicates it is a friendly or collegial exchange for enlightenment and understanding. There is no element of trial here. Most importantly this is not an I am right you are wrong discussion. Hold onto that thought for I will come back to it.
The gods in the Greek and for that matter the Roman world lived in another realm and were often fickle nasty beings. Human beings were almost playthings for the gods. Certainly, it was believed that failure to appease any of these Gods would lead to disaster. Some of the persecutions of the early church were a result of the belief that they had offended the Roman gods and brought disaster on the empire in a variety of ways. This could be a natural disaster or the defeat in battle of an army. The cause had to be that someone had angered the gods by improper or insufficient worship.
The first point that Paul is trying to make is that God as Paul knows God is different from the gods that the Greeks were worshiping. This passage is where the well-known line about “God in whom we live and move and have our being” comes from. This passage is behind Tillich’s concept of God as the ground of all being. All that we are, all that the world is has been created and is created by God. God is not a being who sits just out there somewhere deciding whom to smite and whom to reward. God is the center of our being.
This is the concept that God is in all things which is at the heart of Celtic Christianity. This is known as panentheism, God in all things. By the way that is the name of my favorite website about Ignatian spirituality. Now panentheism is very different from pantheism, which is what the Greeks believed. Any of us who have wandered in the woods, along the shoreline or watched a magnificent sunrise or sunset understand that there is God in that beauty, but we know that the water is not God nor is there a god of the water, the trees or the sun for that matter.
Now the problem that Paul faced and we face today is how to convince others that we have something that they should consider especially when it goes against everything society teaches. Paul is inviting people in by saying we are not that different. He is inviting them to know God and Jesus the way he does, but he is not threatening them with eternal damnation if they do not believe his way. Paul never does that.
We might look at Paul’s teaching as a clue to effective evangelism in our world. We face many of the same challenges. Now we don’t have a pantheon of gods out there, but there certainly are plenty of “idols” if you will to distract people. There is a message of consumption as a god to be worshipped. The lure of power and prestige is another demanding idol of our time. Yet we know that at some point in time most realize that these gods can never be appeased no matter what the ad agencies, media and internet tell us.
I am not talking about preaching and teaching a watered-down Christianity, but one that is alive, expansive, and welcoming. In today’s world some refer to this as cultural relativism. A claim that if you are willing to consider that religion and beliefs may evolve to meet the needs of a society is somehow not taking religion seriously. I believe just the opposite is true. I believe that if we fail to adapt our message so that it speaks to the people or our time, just as Paul did, we have made the institution an idol and a god to be worshipped. I take my religion far too seriously to think that religion is fixed, final and will never change. This is not about adapting Christianity for a culture but how do we approach a culture. How can culture inform our practice?
If we truly believe what John writes in this as well as last week’s gospel that there are many rooms in God’s mansion and that God dwells in each of us, how does that influence our efforts at evangelism at inviting, welcoming and connecting people to our parish and to God?
The Rev. Stephanie Spellers now on Michael Currey’s staff was a colleague of mine in Massachusetts. While there, she wrote a book entitled Radical Welcome. Radical Welcome is about going beyond just including but truly and radically welcoming. The challenge that she lays out is to consider if being inclusive is enough if by being inclusive we mean everyone can come join us, but they must become just like us. Now that is a way to welcome people, but Radical Welcome goes beyond that.
Radical Hospitality means welcoming all in and seeing what they have to offer to enrich our parish and our faith. What can the other teach us about God, Jesus and ourselves since John has taught us that God dwells in all people. Then we allow ourselves to be changed as well as leading the other into an understanding of God. The Church has to get off the I am right and you are wrong path or we are doomed. For the very people we need to attract are repelled by that way of being and it shows that we have not grown out of a very basic faith. This is what Richard Rohr, Brian McClaren, Phyllis Tickle, Rob Bell and our Presiding Bishop are all trying to tell us. God is big enough for all to gather together in God’s name. God’s love is all inclusive just as John’s gospel proclaims.
I follow a blog by The Rt. Rev. Dan Edwards, the Bishop of Nevada whom I met at General Convention when I worked with a committee that he was a member of. He was writing along these lines and was in fact arguing that we as a church are in better shape than many think. He sees a hopeful future out there for us. The last of his three points are what this sermon is all about.
“So here are my three fundamental and absolutely simple points about the future of the Episcopal Church:
1.The future is unwritten. We don’t know what is coming next. The prophets of gloom are expressing an attitude, not a proven fact.
2. God invites to a future of hope and spiritual prosperity. If we don’t want that, we should just say so instead of hiding behind pessimistic fatalism. If we die, it will be an act of ecclesiastical suicide.
3. We must not change in order to survive. That would be self-serving and unbearably boring. We must change in order to dance into the new thing that God is doing, to experience the surprise and delight of grace erupting in new ways.2”
Paul was inviting the people of Athens to dance a new dance. Bishop Dan is saying the Christ continues to invite us into a new dance, a dance bathed in the love of God and Christ, a dance that says everyone is loved by God regardless of who they are. That is a dance we can all learn to dance and it is a dance of hope, faith and love.
As I said at the opening of this sermon, this is a dance that invites us to “encounter God in gathered community, in Word proclaimed, in Bread broken and in Wine poured. We encounter God in Peace and Blessing and Sending. We encounter God in prayer and praise.3”
We are now involved in a dance that none of us ever imagined. This may not be the dance that we signed up for or planned on attending. As a matter of fact, Bishop Dan wrote this statement 6 years ago. I believe it is even more true now than it was then. This is a dance which invites us to dance with all God’s children. So let’s dance even if it means we need to learn some new steps. AMEN.