To an unknown god

Every Sunday afternoon, sometime between recording the morning’s attendance in the parish register and preparing for the 5 p.m. service, I find time to pull out the Scripture passages for the following Sunday and read through them for the first time.  For a priest, this is akin to that moment just before you tear into the biggest present under the tree on Christmas morning.  In that moment of heightened anticipation, you know that under the wrapping paper could be a ski jacket and two tickets to Colorado, or it could be an oversized, scratchy, electric blue sweater hand-knitted by your Great Aunt Betty.  I feel the same way about the Scripture lessons.  Very many Sundays, I’ll take that first peek and, to be honest, I feel like I’ve been given Aunt Betty’s sweater.  Some things just won’t preach.  But other weeks—like this week—oh, baby, it’s the ticket to the ski slopes!

In Acts this morning, Paul wanders through Athens looking at the temples and shrines to the various Greek gods.  He finally stops to speak to any who will listen, and what he says is nothing short of amazing.  He says that among all the godly statues and shrines in this pagan city, he has found one altar with the inscription, “To an unknown god.”  He goes on to claim to the Greeks that, “What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you…”  This god the Greeks worship as anonymous is, in fact, Paul says, God, the maker of heaven and earth who has instilled in all of God’s creation a desire “that they would search for God and perhaps grope for him and find him—though indeed he is not far from any of us.  For in him we live and move and have our being.”

Paul at the Areopagus

Paul at the Areopagus

Here Paul grants more to these pagans that we are often willing to concede to those whose faith differs from our own.  Paul grants that even before his arrival with the Good News of Jesus Christ, God has been present and active in their lives.  He is saying nothing less than that there is truth to be found in their pagan religion.  Paul does not dismiss them as primitive heathen.  He does not condemn all that they have believed and replace it with Jesus.  Rather, he finds points of contact between what they have known and what he now has to share.

How can Paul say this?  If he were anyone other than Paul, we might be tempted to say he’s some cultural relativist who is giving up Jesus’ claim (read just last Sunday) to be the Way, the Truth, and the Life.  Our common understanding—even though it is an understanding that may make some of us fidgety and uncomfortable—is that truth is to be found only in Christianity.  There may be any number of reasons that we cling to this understanding, but I suspect one is that it makes it much easier for us to dismiss or even despise those who are not Christian.  For instance, in today’s world, when virtually all Muslims are suspect (and not just the tiny percentage who would do violence in the name of God), we may subconsciously decide, because Muslims have denied the truth of Jesus, that it’s o.k. to be wary and deny that they are human beings with the same hopes and fears as the rest of us.

But c’mon, this is Paul.  This is the guy who took the Gospel to the Gentiles and who wrote the letters that make up two thirds of the New Testament.  And he doesn’t adopt our exclusive position.  Paul engages the pagan people of Athens as though they share common ground—they share truths—from which to have a conversation about faith.  So what in the world is Paul talking about?  Well, he’s talking about a deeply orthodox reading of Scripture.  Consider this: In Genesis, we are told that God creates all human beings in God’s own divine image.  In John’s Gospel, this is amplified when John claims that the whole creation is made through Christ.  John says, “All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being.”  Paul affirms this understanding in his own letter to the Colossians when he says, “in [Christ] all things were created…He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together.”

"The reason that the Hindu Bhagavad Gita and many Native American stories seem to ring so true in parts is because they are true."

“The reason the Hindu Bhagavad Gita and many Native American stories seem to ring so true in parts is because they are true.”

In other words, Paul believes that the God of Jesus Christ is present in the Greeks just as in himself.  Paul recognizes that Christ, though anonymous and hidden to the Greeks and others, is nevertheless God’s cosmic reality who works through the lives of all people, slowly but surely leading all those who will pay attention toward the embrace of God.

Now, don’t check out yet!  I want us to talk about what this does and does not mean.  What it does mean is that Paul fits with those theologians—and I include myself here—who believe that God reveals himself to all people in all times and in all places.  The reason that the Hindu Bhagavad Gita and many Native American stories seem to ring so true in parts is because they are true.  Theologians call this truth God’s “general revelation,” and as one studies the landscape of the world’s great religions, the pattern of this revealed truth emerges.  There are at least two major insights that general revelation imparts.  The first is that the divine reality, which we call God, is benevolent.  God wishes good for creation.  The second insight is that all is not as it should be.  There is something wrong with creation.  A Buddhist might describe this fact differently than a Christian, but both would agree that in the world something is essentially off-kilter.[i]

That there are insights that are part of our common human religious understanding is something over which we should rejoice.  If we can let down our defenses and let go of our need to categorize non-Christians as mysterious and fearsome, then we can begin to hear from them the way that God truly is working in their lives.  They will seem less like foreigners to us and more like relations, beloved siblings with whom we share a divine parent.

"The image they use is of God as a mountaintop and all religions as equal paths to this single pinnacle.  But this sweeping claim reveals either an ignorance of the various religions (including Christianity) or a conscious failure to honor the uniqueness of each religion by pretending that essential differences don’t exist."

“The image they use is of God as a mountaintop and all religions as equal paths to this single pinnacle. But this sweeping claim reveals either an ignorance of the various religions or a conscious failure to honor the uniqueness of each religion by pretending that essential differences don’t exist.”

Yet some theologians jump off from this reality and conclude that all the world’s religions are essentially the same.  The image they use is of God as a mountaintop and all religions as equal paths to this single pinnacle.  But this sweeping claim reveals either an ignorance of the various religions (including Christianity) or a conscious failure to honor the uniqueness of each religion by pretending that essential differences don’t exist.

Paul would rebel at this notion, and so do I, because the essential differences in the religions are as real as their shared truths.  The other faiths of the world may each share some of the vital aspects of Christianity, but they only share some.  There are perhaps two primary instances in which the truth upheld by Christianity diverges.  First, there is the prescription that most religions offer as a solution to the brokenness of the world.  In most religions (including other monotheistic ones) adherents right their relationship with God through their own actions.  Prayers are offered; sacrifices are made; good karma is accumulated, and these things render the breach between God and humans repaired.  This is in stark contrast to the truth of God’s love we Christians say is revealed in Jesus.  What we know—what we experience—is that nothing in our own power can restore us and the world to God’s intentions for it.  Only God can accomplish this, and God does so through the gift of grace that is freely given and cannot be earned or achieved.

The second place of divergence is this: Many religions understand the world to be cyclical, characterized by an endless repetition of cosmic birth, decay, destruction, and rebirth.  Lives in the creation, and indeed the creation itself, are considered to be inherently painful, and the ultimate hope is to escape the cycle of rebirth altogether and enter into something beyond it.

The samsara cycle of birth, decay, destruction, and rebirth in Hinduism, Buddhism, and other Eastern religious traditions.

The samsara cycle of birth, decay, destruction, and rebirth in Hinduism, Buddhism, and other Eastern religious traditions.

Nothing could be further from the truth embodied in Jesus.  The creation, our faith affirms, is not an endless cycle, nor is it base or evil, and escaping the world is not our goal.  The creation is the stuff—the art, even—of God himself.  It is a linear tapestry moving toward the fulfillment of God’s Purpose, and it is in the single life of Jesus—God Incarnate—that we come to know what God’s Purpose is.  God’s Purpose is to redeem this world.  As we see in Jesus, God uplifts the downtrodden and values love and compassion over selfish and personal gain.  In Jesus, God begins to make this broken world whole.  Jesus reveals that living is not primarily for the sake of some heavenly reward.  The “eternal life” of which Jesus speaks throughout the Gospels is living in union with God and creation, and that is salvation.  And at the end of time, Revelation assures us, heaven will descend upon this world.  This good creation, of which we are a part right now, will be fully transformed and made new, and we will be part of it.

This whole truth, about the goodness of creation, the gift of grace, and God’s Purpose for the world is fully known in Jesus the Christ.  It is the truth to which Paul adds an exclamation point today when he says, “of this [God] has given assurance to all by raising [Christ] from the dead.”

Tapestry

“Creation is a linear tapestry moving toward the fulfillment of God’s Purpose, and it is in the single life of Jesus—God Incarnate—that we come to know what God’s Purpose is.”

So, where are we?  Where does Paul take us today?  We can and should say that there is truth in other religions, truth that we should hope their adherents will share with us.  But we must also affirm that the ultimate truth of God, incarnate in Jesus, is something that we must share, something that completes all truth and reveals God’s love and grace for the world.

The remaining question is whether other religions can save.  Salvation, as I’ve just said, is not primarily about going to some heaven.  It’s about living fully in union with God, in this life and the next, and this happens when our wills and our lives are conformed to Jesus.  So the question is, can the adherents of other faiths be followers of the Way of Jesus Christ—which is the way of love that seeks to make God’s world whole—without consciously knowing it?  If we wish to pursue this question, we can do so only by listening to the adherents of other faiths and discerning from what they share with us the ways in which the hidden Christ moves in their lives.  Ultimately, though, this judgment is not one we are called to make.  What we are called to do is make the Purpose of Christ our own.  We are called, as the Body of Christ, to go into the world and further his project of love and reconciliation.  This work should be our life’s love and task.  If we busy ourselves with it, then I have faith and confidence that the arms of God, which hold his children closer than we know, will bring us to that day when his Purpose is fulfilled and Christ truly “is all in all.”

 

[i] Knitter, Paul.  No Other Name? (Orbis Books: Maryknoll, New York), 1985, 100.

“How will you hold the world?”

Episcopal High School
Houston, Texas
Baccalaureate
May 17, 2014

 

Good evening.  Thank you to Mr. Smith, Fr. Green, Rev. Holden, the trustees, faculty, and administration for inviting me to be with you today.  I have looked forward to this occasion for some time.  You see, before going to seminary and becoming a priest, I was a university admission director.  I spent sleepless nights knowing that the educational future of high school seniors rested in part on whether or not I offered a positive recommendation to our admissions committee.  I know intimately the alternating feelings of hope and anxiety many of you have had in recent months as you’ve applied for, and then waited upon a letter or email from, your first-choice college.  Because of that, I’ve had you in my prayers, even when you didn’t know it.

I am not going to speak to you long this afternoon.  Though I have not sat where you are sitting in twenty-three years, within me there is still something of the eighteen year old.  You are sitting there thinking about what comes next, both later tonight and at your commencement, which I understand is a much more fun event.  I will tell you what I tell young couples when I do their wedding rehearsals (another event participants don’t generally want to attend!): I’ll make you a deal.  If you’ll give me your laser-like attention for a few minutes, I promise only to take a few minutes.  I need every set of eyes.  Deal?

Toni Morrison

Toni Morrison

I want to share with you a story, and only one.  It comes from the acclaimed author Toni Morrison.  Ms. Morrison told this story when she accepted the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1993.  Here it is:

“Once upon a time there was an old woman. Blind. Wise…  [She] lives alone in a small house outside of town. Her reputation for wisdom is without peer and without question. Among her people she is both the law and its transgression. The honor she is paid and the awe in which she is held reach beyond her neighborhood to places far away; to the city where the intelligence of rural prophets is the source of much amusement.”

Let’s pause for just a second.  Can you see her in your mind’s eye?  This wizened, old, blind woman sitting on the porch, rocking?  O.k., Toni Morrison goes on…

“One day the [blind] woman is visited by some young people who seem to be bent on disproving her clairvoyance and showing her up for the fraud they believe she is. Their plan is simple: they enter her house and ask the one question the answer to which rides solely on her difference from them, a difference they regard as a profound disability: her blindness. They stand before her, and one of them says, ‘Old woman, I hold in my hand a bird. Tell me whether it is living or dead.’

She does not answer, and the question is repeated. ‘Is the bird I am holding living or dead?’

Still she doesn’t answer. She is blind and cannot see her visitors, let alone what is in their hands. She does not know their color, gender or homeland. She only knows their motive.  The old woman’s silence is so long, the young people have trouble holding their laughter.

Finally she speaks and her voice is soft but stern. ‘I don’t know,’ she says. ‘I don’t know whether the bird you are holding is dead or alive, but what I do know is that it is in your hands. It is in your hands.’

Her answer can be taken to mean: if it is dead, you have either found it that way or you have killed it. If it is alive, you can still kill it. Whether it is to stay alive, it is your decision. Whatever the case, it is your responsibility.”

O.k.  Let me ask you, seniors: Do you understand the story?  I wish that I could stand before you this afternoon and tell you a joke, or quote Andy Samberg, or tell you that you’re all exceptional.  I can’t and I won’t, though, because the stakes are too high for you and for the world.

Holding the worldYou will go off from here to further your lives.  Some of you will think about fame, and that’s o.k.  Some of you will think about having authority over other people, and that’s o.k.  Some of you will think about earning lots of money, and that’s o.k.  It’s all o.k., so long as you remember that you hold the world in your hands.  It is in your hands.

Do you understand the story?  Whether the world lives or dies depends entirely upon how you hold it.  There will be people who encourage you to believe the world is there for your amusement, that it is in your right to smother it for a laugh or a dollar, in order to fulfill your own ego needs.  Those people are wrong.  It is not in your right, but it is in your power.  It is equally in your power—and it is your responsibility—to help the world and its people flourish, fly, and sing, to release the world from the deadly grip in which the generations before you have held it.

I said earlier that I would not stand before you and tell you that you are each exceptional.  But I will stand and remind you that you are, all of you, children of God.  And that means you are good.  It means you are made in the image of the Creator and share in God’s very power to create.

See, I believe in God, and therefore I believe in you, too.  I have hope in you.  I expect you to leave this place, and leave your homes, and cut the apron strings from your parents, and imagine all the things that could be better, and more beautiful, and more fair, and more true.  And then I expect you to make them so, not for your own sake but for the sake of the world.  Because, dead or alive, the world is in your hands.  It is in your hands.

Blessings and congratulations to you.  Amen.

How will you tell your story?

Last week you all were kind to allow me to attend the annual North American Deans Conference, that yearly gathering of cathedral deans from the United States and Canada.  This year we met in Miami.  Dean Doug McCaleb of Trinity Cathedral was a most gracious host, and I had a fantastic time.  The collective deans discussed historic churches and the way that beautiful old buildings can still be effective tools for growing the church and spreading the Good News of God in Christ.  I love being with my fellow deans.  They are a colleague group who understands the particular quirks, challenges, and joys of cathedral ministry.  We broke bread together.  We prayed together.  And for lunch one day, we went on a cruise.

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Though we are still in the Easter season, today’s first reading (Acts 2:42-47) fast-forwards in the biblical narrative to the other side of Pentecost.  It’s been a whirlwind time for the followers of Jesus.  The heights and depths they’ve experienced in the past few weeks have been tumultuous.  One day not long ago, if you’d asked the twelve apostles what the future looked like, they’d have charted a path for you with more or less certain expectations.  They had a sense of where Jesus was leading them and their role in that future.  But then Holy Week happened; and Easter; and the Ascension of Jesus; and the selection of Judas Iscariot’s replacement; and the arrival of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost.  All the disciples’ plans have been upended, and things have been moving at a pace that has prevented them from redefining their reality.  They no longer know their own storyline.Carnival atrium

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Other than a one hour Mississippi River tour on the old Memphis Queen paddleboat during my childhood, I’ve never been on a cruise.  And so, as at the Deans’ Conference I didn’t really know what to expect.  The deans boarded this particular ship for this particular cruise line—we’ll call it Circus Cruises—and stepped into a seven story high central atrium.  From that first split second on board, my senses were bombarded.  Music blared.  Lights flashed.  Everything was gilded.  Uniformed staff handed out drinks as they directed us to the elevators.

I stepped off the elevator several decks later to be confronted with a series of huge, widow-sized digital picture frames.  Photos of various previous passengers flashed in the frames.  Some wore Hawaiian shirts.  Others wore faux historic costumes, as if they were antebellum socialites or Golden Age Hollywood stars.  And in front of the digital frames were a dozen large advertisements, seeking to entice me to have my photo taken.  The placards asked, “How will you tell your story?”

____________

That is the question faced by the disciples after the earthly Jesus has left them.  They are without definition.  Jesus had offered them a path, a Way, but now it is up to them to decide whether it will be their Way, whether Jesus’ story will become their own.  To choose Jesus’ Way would require setting aside other stories: stories of ambition, inward indulgence, peaceful anonymity, and more.

The disciples could return to their homes and resume the old way of life they’d known before they encountered Jesus, a life at least of predictability.  They could seek a new messiah, one who better fulfills their expectations of a hero who will cast off the yoke of the Roman Empire and bring them glory.  They could reinvent themselves entirely, settling in a new place with a new identity.

But they choose to tell none of these stories.  In the Acts reading today, the twelve apostles and the other followers of Jesus choose to continue, to carry on, to walk the path of Jesus’ story.  The Book of Acts tells us, “They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.”  The disciples choose to define themselves—irrevocably and forever, in their own hearts and publicly in their society—as Christians.  They decide to embrace and endure everything that comes with that storyline, both the challenge and the promise.

Twelve apostles

Jesus had offered them a path, a Way, but now it is up to them to decide whether it will be their Way, whether Jesus’ story will become their own.

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Back on Circus Cruises, as my eyes and ears adjusted to my surroundings on the ship, I realized all that glitters is not gold.  The ship was tattered and worn.  Even the gilding was clearly a thin façade.  The ship was a glitzy, make-believe reality, just like those digital photos that could render me Sam Houston or Humphrey Bogart or anyone else I wanted to be other than me.  And my eyes were repeatedly drawn to those ubiquitous advertisements: How will you tell your story?   Just as it was for the disciples, that is our question, too.

One other thing about the ship on which I had lunch.  It lever left port.  We ate, walked the gilded halls, and passed through the Lido Deck with its shallow pools, but we never moved.   I took a cruise that didn’t go anywhere, and, somehow, that was emblematic of the experience, too.

The cruise ship—at least that cruise ship on Circus Cruises; it’s the only one I’ve experienced, and I speak of no others—is an icon of the story our culture encourages us to tell: Be anyone other than yourself.  Wear a disguise.  Slap on a veneer of glitz and polish to hide your flaws.  Bombard the senses with lights and sound to provide further distraction from any other storyline.  And if that story doesn’t work out, swipe the digital screen clear and be someone else.  It’s our modern version of Jay Gatsby.  People on the Lido Deck might even swoon as we walk by.

But in our culture as on that cruise ship, all that glitters isn’t gold.  The veneer, the lights, the sounds, the frenetic changes in identity, cannot long hide the tattered dinginess of it all, or the fact that the ship isn’t moving.  In that way of living—in that story—there is no growth, no enlightenment, no movement toward God.  Just glitter; no gold.

But we are not on that boat today.  We are in this one, this ark, this church.  There is no veneer here.  The wood is solid.  The polished brass is pure.  The baptismal pool is spiritually deep.  And the storyline is forever.  But there are also no disguises here.  We are called to be who we truly are, with our warts and flaws as honest and prominent as all the rest, because they are truer to the story than our Jay Gatsby smile.How will you tell your story

We are called here out of the frenetic storylines our world gives us, out of the ever-changing digital frames and into an identity that endures.  This story comes with challenge, just as it comes with promise.  It requires that we set aside ambition, and inward indulgence, and sometimes quiet anonymity in favor of courage, self-sacrifice, service, and love.  In this story we devote ourselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread together, and to prayer.

And this ship moves.  It leaves the safe harbor and travels into the very mystery of God, which sometimes we experience as a tranquil lagoon but other times as a whirlpool, upending us just when we’ve gained our sea legs.

There is no better tale to tell.  There is no greater adventure.  Your page is ready to turn, and the next one is at present blank paper.  The world’s Circus Cruise has plenty of storylines from which to choose.  Jesus has but one.  How will you tell your story?