This sermon was filmed on location at Oheyawahi/Pilot Knob in Mendota Heights, MN. It brings three things into conversation:
- Paul’s speech on Mars Hill in Acts 17:22-31
- The current #georgefloyd outburst of protests around racial injustice.
- The Oheyawahi sacred grounds and how the indigenous people fit into the conversation in the midst of black/white racial tension.
Read more about this passage here.
So much has happened since the last time we gathered together in real time and space. Wave after wave of disruption has crashed down on our lives.
Do you remember when the biggest change we were mourning was the loss of Easter worship and graduation ceremonies?
Now, in the past two weeks we have watched in horror as the whole world has erupted in protests around the ongoing problem of racial inequities and injustice.
If you are anything like me, it is overwhelming and exhausting to try to wrap my mind around what is happening.
In times like these I would normally invite us all to simply take a deep breath.
The irony is that even taking a deep breath is cause for anxiety in a world of pandemic.
It is also ironic since the phrase, “I Can’t Breathe” has become the moniker for the current upheaval.
Last week we heard the sound of the Spirit like a violent rushing wind that disrupts our lives. The very breath of God is swirling so fast we can hardly breathe.
Today I am faced with a challenge. How do I take a story from 2,000 years ago about a rogue preacher who climbed a Hill in Athens and gave a speech and connect it to our current situation? And, do it in less than 11 minutes?
The key to connecting these things is to realize that the Apostle Paul was wrestling with the same question that we face today:
How can different cultures and races live together in peace?
I think our story today addresses this head on.
The text is Acts 17:22-31. I invite to open your Bibles, or open your Bible app or go to biblia.com and follow along.
Paul was a Jewish leader, aPharisee, who was set on destroying Jesus’ disciples. Then he encountered the risen Christ on his way to Damascus and it completely shattered his world view. He spent the rest of his life traveling throughout the Gentile world, moving from city to city, talking about the Good News. In Acts chapter 17, he comes to the city of Athens. This is the epicenter of Greek Philosophy. It the place where Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle had rattled people’s cages 500 years before Paul.
As he is walking through the city he notices all these statues and altars to the various Greek gods. All you Percy Jackson fans can name them with me. There were altars to Zeus, Apollos, Athena, and all the others.
Paul started talking to the people in the street about it and talking about the Risen Christ and the Good News, and the people were so intrigued that they invited him to this rocky hill called the Aeropagus. It was the place where the Athenian council would gather to make big decisions.
That’s where Paul’s speech starts. Let me just read it once and then we’ll make some connections.
22 Then Paul stood in front of the Areopagus and said, “Athenians, I see how extremely religious you are in every way. 23 For as I went through the city and looked carefully at the objects of your worship, I found among them an altar with the inscription, ‘To an unknown god.’ What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you. 24 The God who made the world and everything in it, he who is Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in shrines made by human hands, 25 nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mortals life and breath and all things. 26 From one ancestor he made all nations to inhabit the whole earth, and he allotted the times of their existence and the boundaries of the places where they would live, 27 so that they would search for God and perhaps grope for him and find him—though indeed he is not far from each one of us. 28 For ‘In him we live and move and have our being’; as even some of your own poets have said,
‘For we too are his offspring.’
29 Since we are God’s offspring, we ought not to think that the deity is like gold, or silver, or stone, an image formed by the art and imagination of mortals. 30 While God has overlooked the times of human ignorance, now he commands all people everywhere to repent, 31 because he has fixed a day on which he will have the world judged in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed, and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead.”
There is so much in this text that I wish we had about three hours to unpack it. I only have about four minutes left, so I’m going to jump to some conclusions.
There are three key words that must be unpacked:
repent. The greek word is metanoia. It literally means to change one’s mind or perception of reality. Paul says that ALL nations must change the way we perceive reality. When Paul encountered the Risen Christ it totally blew apart his way of understanding God. It opened his mind up to the Creator of ALL things and ALL people. God is way beyond the box that Paul tried to keep God in.
If we want to know peace in this world, we must ALL change the way we perceive reality and realize that our race and our way of doing things is not THE race or THE way of doing things in the world.
The second word is judge. It literally means to pick out, to discern, to separate. Jesus tells us not to judge, because we are not supposed to distinguish one person as more valuable than another. Only God can separate and determine who is “good” and who is “bad.”
God will judge. But how?
That leads us to the third word: rightness. The Greek word is dikaiosune. It is most often translated “righteousness.” That word is loaded with theological baggage. Christians have debated over it for centuries. We usually use it to mean “goodness” or “value” and create a hierarchy of righteousness which then empowers us to condemn and marginalize the “unrighteous.”
This is not helpful. An equally valid translation of dikaiosune is the word justice.
God will judge ALL people with JUSTICE.
Allow me to put Paul’s words in my own translation:
He tells the Athenians, and I believe Paul is telling us:
“The time has come to get over ourselves and the petty little gods that we have created that divide us. We need to change our perception and realize that we are all God’s Children and it is not our place to divide and condemn. The Creator of All Things is the only one who can judge us. Here’s the thing. When God judges, God does it with justice. God sees us all as God’s children, the nations that God established to seek, touch, and find God. We’re getting there.”
What do we do with this text today? I write these words from my own place in the world. I am a white male ELCA Pastor with a conservative Evangelical background living in the suburbs in a very white church.
I believe that people like me, church leaders who carry 500 years of protestant baggage, who have created paper idols of scripture, creeds, and confessions, need to have our own Damascus Road encounter with the Risen Christ all over again. Paul’s speech on Mars Hill disrupts our idolatry. It disrupts our tendency to draw dividing lines of theology, ideaology, race, and culture and reminds us of these things:
- God is the creator of ALL people and ALL nations.
- We are ALL God’s children, equal in value.
- Our uniqueness is valuable, because God created it.
- Only God can judge the value of the other, and God values ALL of it.
- We can trust in this proclamation, because God raised Jesus from the dead, proving that there is life after we completely mess things up, and there is always new life in God.
- We can only know the resurrection life after we die to the things that divide us.
- The Risen Christ is beyond our doctrinal statements and leads us into the great unknown of peace on Earth, good will to ALL people.