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Sermon for Sunday 21 May 2017

FIRST READING Acts 17:16-31

16Now while Paul was waiting for them at Athens, his spirit was provoked within him as he saw that the city was full of idols. 17So he reasoned in the synagogue with the Jews and the devout persons, and in the marketplace every day with those who happened to be there. 18Some of the Epicurean and Stoic philosophers also conversed with him. And some said, “What does this babbler wish to say?” Others said, “He seems to be a preacher of foreign divinities” — because he was preaching Jesus and the resurrection. 19And they took him and brought him to the Areopagus, saying, “May we know what this new teaching is that you are presenting? 20For you bring some strange things to our ears. We wish to know therefore what these things mean.” 21Now all the Athenians and the foreigners who lived there would spend their time in nothing except telling or hearing something new. 22So Paul, standing in the midst of the Areopagus, said: “Men of Athens, I perceive that in every way you are very religious. 23For as I passed along and observed the objects of your worship, I found also an altar with this inscription: ‘To the unknown god.’ What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you. 24The God who made the world and everything in it, being Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in temples made by man, 25nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mankind life and breath and everything. 26And he made from one man every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth, having determined allotted periods and the boundaries of their dwelling place, 27that they should seek God, and perhaps feel their way toward him and find him. Yet he is actually not far from each one of us, 28for ‘In him we live and move and have our being’; as even some of your own poets have said, ‘For we are indeed his offspring.’ 29Being then God’s offspring, we ought not to think that the divine being is like gold or silver or stone, an image formed by the art and imagination of man. 30The times of ignorance God overlooked, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent, 31because he has fixed a day on which he will judge the world in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed; and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead.”


PSALM Psalm 66:7-18

7Bless our God, you peoples; make the voice of his praise to be heard 8Who holds our souls in life, and will not allow our feet to slip. 9For you, O God, have proved us; you have tried us just as silver is tried. 10You brought us into the snare; you laid heavy burdens upon our backs. 11You let enemies ride over our heads; we went through fire and water; but you brought us out into a place of refreshment. 12I will enter your house with burnt offerings and will pay you my vows, which I promised with my lips and spoke with my mouth when I was in trouble. 13I will offer you sacrifices of fat beasts with the smoke of rams; I will give you oxen and goats. 14Come and listen, all you who fear God, and I will tell you what he has done for me. 15I called out to him with my mouth, and his praise was on my tongue. 16If I had found evil in my heart, the Lord would not have heard me; 17But in truth God has heard me; he has attended to the voice of my prayer. 18Blessed be God, who has not rejected my prayer, nor withheld his love from me.


SECOND READING 1 Peter 3:13-22

13Now who is there to harm you if you are zealous for what is good? 14But even if you should suffer for righteousness’ sake, you will be blessed. Have no fear of them, nor be troubled, 15but in your hearts honor Christ the Lord as holy, always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect, 16having a good conscience, so that, when you are slandered, those who revile your good behavior in Christ may be put to shame. 17For it is better to suffer for doing good, if that should be God’s will, than for doing evil. 18For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh but made alive in the spirit, 19in which he went and proclaimed to the spirits in prison, 20because they formerly did not obey, when God’s patience waited in the days of Noah, while the ark was being prepared, in which a few, that is, eight persons, were brought safely through water. 21Baptism, which corresponds to this, now saves you, not as a removal of dirt from the body but as an appeal to God for a good conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ, 22who has gone into heaven and is at the right hand of God, with angels, authorities, and powers having been subjected to him.


GOSPEL John 14:15-21

15{Jesus said,} “If you love me, you will keep my commandments. 16And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Helper, to be with you forever, 17even the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him. You know him, for he dwells with you and will be in you. 18“I will not leave you as orphans; I will come to you. 19Yet a little while and the world will see me no more, but you will see me. Because I live, you also will live. 20In that day you will know that I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you. 21Whoever has my commandments and keeps them, he it is who loves me. And he who loves me will be loved by my Father, and I will love him and manifest myself to him.”



Once upon a time there was a gentleman who led a very programmed life. He planned for every eventuality with utter care. He made sure he always had a plan B, just in case. Every night before going to bed he placed on his night stand two glasses: one with water and one was empty. When his visiting friend asked him “why?” he said: “The one with water is there in case I wake up at night and I feel thirsty.” Still not getting the point, the curious friend asked: “How about the other one?” “Oh! This is in case I wake up at night and I’m not thirsty!” the gentleman replied. Now that’s what I call being thoroughly prepared.
Are you one of those people who always has a backup plan? Do you make your commitments and focus your energies on one thing, but have an alternative in mind just in case things don’t work out with the first one? You might call it “Plan B” or something else, but basically, you’re hedging your bets and covering yourself in case the situation goes south. If you’re one of these people, then I’m with you, because I generally think it’s a good idea. Now I don’t want anyone to think that I’m obsessive or something, but I have been accused on occasion of having a backup for the backup.
I was constantly being accused of this by my good friend and hunting partner while I was in Alaska. Anytime we’d go out, even if it was just for an over nighter, I’d make sure I had a spare source for cooking, light, emergencies and what have you. I never saw the problem with this kind of planning so long as we had the room, or the extra stuff could be transported in the plane, or on the 4-wheeler or on the snow machine. I mean, why get caught in a difficult situation without a backup plan. It just makes sense to me.
Think about it, we were constantly developing backup plans while I was in the military. Government agencies, at all levels, formulate contingency plans and even those in the business community develop backup plans trying to anticipate changes in the market. After all, isn’t that why we buy insurance? Even the church puts energy and resources into planning and alternate planning when developing and implementing our ministries and programs. Graduating High school seniors applying to colleges do this as they apply for their first-choice schools and then have a list of “safety schools,” or backup possibilities. It just makes good sense and most people would assert that it’s a wise course of action.
People do this all the time in their personal lives, as well. Back in High school, I remember hearing about young women who had “backup plans” or dates for the prom. If the boy they preferred didn’t ask them to the dance, then they would move on to “Plan B” just to make sure they didn’t miss the event. For those young ladies, the Prom was a significant occasion and not being there was an unacceptable option. There can also be times when hedging our bets has to do with us assuming we can explain it all.
We live in an age where incredible scientific advancements take place every day. Take GRIN, the acronym for (G) genetic engineering, (R) robotics, (I) information technology and (N) nanotechnology. The human genome has been mapped. Nano-technology is constructing miniscule machines that can deliver inter-cellular messages or make molecular level repairs. Astro-physicists forward that they have mapped the curvature of the universe, delved into black holes and listened to echoes that they claim are from the Big Bang.
Scientific inquiry and experiment claim to have revealed the “hows” and “whys” and “whats” of the never before known. We think we’re so smart. We think we have a handle on how the universe works. Yet the smallest particle we’ve yet to explain is the Higgs boson, the particle that gives mass to matter. Scientists call this the “God particle.” Like the God of creation, it can’t be fully explained or understood. It’s as if the scientific community wanted to make sure they have all the bases were covered just in case. Maybe it’s just superstition, which can also have a powerful effect on people.
Why did the builders of the new Yankee Stadium spend five hours and $50,000 digging through two feet of concrete in 2009? They did this to extract a David Ortiz Red Sox jersey that had been secretly buried in the concrete floor of the visiting team’s dug out. A construction worker, an unrepentant Red Sox fan, had slipped the jersey into the concrete in order to permanently “jinx” the new Yankee stadium.
The story of the jersey finally came to light because another construction worker who had seen the shirt go into the slab got worried and confessed: “I don’t want to be responsible for sinking the franchise,” he said. The stadium, a multi-billion-dollar project, was brought to a screeching halt; the glowing new future for the Yankees was endangered; immediate, expensive action was taken, and why? Because everyone believed in the jinxing power of a piece of cloth submerged down in a concrete floor in a locker room. That’s what I call one high-powered hex! However, placing one’s faith in superstition, hedging one’s bets, making sure one has a plan B can all get in the way of our true devotion to God. This is the situation Paul was confronted with in our first reading for today from Acts.
Paul, waiting on Timothy and Silas to join him, takes the opportunity to tour the city of Athens. While doing so, he sees all the shrines and temples erected and how the people faithfully worshiped these images made of human hands. The Roman people were careful to pay homage to all the gods, to guarantee they had all their bases covered. They wanted to ensure that if their preferred god didn’t work out, they already had god B on their side. This of course angered Paul, so he engaged the locals every chance he got in order to educate them on what is real and what isn’t real. But what’s interesting in this reading is how educated Paul is and of how much he understands the local beliefs and culture.
Paul, knowing that simply insisting that their gods are not real wouldn’t get him very far, looks around and sees a shrine to the “unknown god” and ceases the opportunity to talk with the community in a way they will respect and understand. Now, this unassuming shrine would normally be a relatively easy thing to ignore. After all, in a polytheistic culture, such as Rome’s, there were many gods, some of whom might be a bit obscure, even unknown, as Paul suggests. Paul knew that strictly speaking, the Romans were “religious” people, but not in the sense that we use the word. They were religious in the sense that they were faithful to follow the practices of their polytheistic beliefs.
They were so conscientious in their practices that they didn’t want to offend or leave any deity out, so they covered their bases, or hedged their bets, by constructing an altar to an “unknown god.” This was important in that culture, because the shrine was well-known and encountered frequently. It wasn’t so much for a god who wasn’t known, as it was an altar to a god who might be around, but people may not be aware of yet. It was a placeholder, if you will, for a god who may yet show up on the scene. It could be seen as a sort of a backup plan, in case the gods they were worshiping at the moment didn’t work out as well as we had hoped.
The Romans, being not only polytheistic, but practical as well, came up with an empty seat sort of option. This way, any god who might be wandering about, wouldn’t take offense at not having an altar, and the Romans wouldn’t miss out on a potential deity that might be of help at some point down the road for them. Such is the focus of the “unknown god” that Paul describes in this passage from Acts. All this covering the deity bases was, of course, well and good for your average Roman. Good, that is, until Paul comes on the scene with these wild stories about Jesus.
Paul, a gifted student and rhetorician, invokes the “unknown god,” in order to share with them the gospel, the truth. The truth that in Jesus Christ, the one true God has become known, and the option of laying out a place setting for a god who may come along has now been removed. In other words, when it comes to the obedience and worship of God, there are no more “Plan Bs.” No more backup plans or alternative strategies. For Paul, and I think ultimately for us, all the eggs go in the Jesus basket. No more hedging our bets, no more “safety” options. The eternal God who created everything, wants it all; our obedience, our worship, our praise and devotion.
This, of course, is an easy thing for a preacher to seize upon. The jump onto the rhetorical slide is easy. Down we go, as we lift up the one true answer in Jesus Christ. We pick up momentum as we challenge people to throw out their carefully laid plans, rational options, and safety nets, and urge them to grab instead, onto the One sure thing. Now we’re really flying as we, with Paul, throw all caution to the wind and call on all people to follow a God who “does not live in shrines made by human hands.” This is any preacher’s fantasy.
Yet, when one stops to consider this whole Christian enterprise, the thing seems almost foolhardy. Our practical nature causes us to ponder that maybe the Romans had a point. Why not place our spiritual cards on a table where we can bet on any number of deities, even ones who haven’t shown up yet? Doesn’t it make sense to cover all the bases? Isn’t it just practical in a spiritual sort of way?
It reminds me of those who forward the idea that the church should be an interfaith center where all spiritual options would be open to the folks who came in the door. Often times, these people are well meaning. The problem is that they’re confused, and wrong. God was clear when He gave us the First Commandment, “You shalt have no other gods before me.” (Exodus 20:3) This command and sentence ends with a period for a reason. There are no caveats, no exceptions, no covering of one’s bets, no backup plans.
We’re to have nothing in our lives that comes between us and the worship and obedience of the one true God. One of the things I ask the confirmands to do is name the things that can come between us and God. The answers they give are amazing. There are so many things in our lives today that become little gods, idols that we worship. Video games, cell phones, friends, sports, our looks, our clothing, our cars, our leisure time. The list seems endless. Any one of these things on their own is harmless and good. However, when they become the focus of our lives, they become a substitute for the one true God. This command is so important that Jesus reiterated it’s importance when He said, “I am the way, the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” (John 14:6b)
I remember a conversation with another student while I was in Seminary. We were standing by the altar in the chapel one afternoon. We had been having lively discussions in class about God being “known by many names” and the so called “many paths to God.” This person looked at me intensely as we gazed at the cross over the altar, and he said, “I’ll be happy when we can put a statue of the Buddha right next to the cross.” Needless to say, I was taken aback and the temptation was to discredit this person for his lack of clarity and focus in faith. But in truth, he was no different from the Romans Paul was addressing. And a more pointed question we need to ask is, is he really any different than many of us today? Think about it.
Are we able to jettison all the things that we use as backup plans in our lives in favor of our faith in God through Jesus Christ? Okay, so maybe we don’t build an altar to an unknown God. But could it be that we do hedge our bets a bit, when it comes to totally trusting in God? How does that old World War I song by Frank Loesser go? “Praise the Lord and Pass the Ammunition?” Maybe we aren’t polytheistic like the Romans; but then again, maybe we are.
It’s a tough question that each of us must constantly ask ourselves. Do we have a multiplicity of gods who get our allegiance and our trust, along with the God of Israel? Maybe instead of the twelve gods of the Romans, we have other gods like money. Or possibly we worship the god of national interest or patriotism? Or could it be that we bow down at the altar of social station or influence?
You see, I’m concerned that we’re not so different from my seminary friend who wanted to place a statue of Buddha next to the cross. Truth be told, we may have more in common with the Romans of Paul’s day than we might imagine. I think that we, like many people, hedge our bets when it comes to our faith. And so, easy or not, I jump onto the preacher’s side and stand today with Paul. I do think that we are called to choose.
In a world that yaks, pleads, and begs for our attention and our loyalty, the voice of Jesus bids us to choose Him. In a time when uncertainty clouds our judgment and we scatter like sheep without a shepherd, the good shepherd, Jesus, calls us by name. In a culture where countless gods of material wealth, power, and influence reach out in seductive song to us, the God of love stands on the solid ground of hope and new beginning and bids us sing “His” song.
Yes, there are many gods out there, both known and unknown, but we who gather here today, come to sit at the feet of the Creator of heaven and earth, who has come to us in Jesus Christ. As faithful followers of the one and only true God, we have chosen. We have taken all our eggs and put them in the Jesus basket. We do so, finally, because we trust in the message we have heard from Jesus as He stood up in the temple that day and read from the Isaiah scroll: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor. (Luke 4:18-19)
We trust, and believe that this anointed One, who has been sent, is our Savior and our Redeemer, and it’s Him and no other whom we follow. As true believers in the triune God, we put all our eggs in the Jesus basket, we set aside all the substitutes and plan Bs and place our full faith and allegiance in the One true God who has made Himself know to us in His Son, our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. This is the only plan we need, because God will never fail us, in this world or in the next. And to that truth I say, thanks be to God! Amen.

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