And because I care about this kind of thing, the day's hymns were "Ye Servants of God, Your Master Proclaim" (Presbyterian Hymnal 477), "I Believe in God Almighty" (Sing the Faith 2042), and "My Hope is Built on Nothing Less" (PH 379).
May 29, 2011, First Presbyterian Church, Lawrence, KS
“Reading the Idols and Speaking Hope”
I Peter 3: 13-22
Acts 17: 22-34
Father Jean de Brebeuf was a Jesuit missionary who evangelized among the Huron peoples of what is now Canada from 1625 to his death in 1649, near the lake that now bears their name. Like any decent missionary in any age, he faced the task of understanding this new people with a different way of life, and a distinctly different way of interpreting the world, from his own. As he lived and worked among the Huron he quite likely became frustrated over the multiplicity of spirits suggested in their cosmology, spirits inhabiting natural and inanimate objects all around. He was probably mystified at some of the traditions and practices of the Huron, and no doubt noticed the striking differences between his own background and theirs, which made even some basic elements of his task of proclamation difficult.
Take, for example, the Nativity story. Many of us can no doubt recite some of our favorite parts of the story without prompting, such as, say, the proclamation of the angels to the shepherds. However, as Father Jean no doubt observed, the very concept of a “shepherd” would make no sense to a people who were hunters, not herders or domesticators of any animal. How does one adjust? Or for that matter, think about the gifts of the Magi. We have enough trouble with the frankincense and myrrh; how could he possibly explain them to the Huron?
For Father Jean the process was slow. From 1625 to 1634 the grand total of Hurons who had converted to Christianity was … zero. The next two years were better; the number of Christians among the Huron skyrocketed to … fourteen. Still Father Jean persisted, continuing to live among and with the Hurons, learning their customs and traditions with respect and compassion, and with time, the number of Hurons who embraced the faith grew. In turn Father Jean became an expert on Huron culture and language and its primary interpreter and defender to the outside world. Father Jean continued to live among the Hurons until being captured by their enemies, the Iroquois, and martyred in 1649. The Iroquois routed and scattered the Huron people, driving them further west. This would seem to be the end of Father Jean’s story, except…
Thirty years later, another Jesuit missionary encountered some of the scattered remnant of the Hurons. He was surprised to hear them singing a tune he knew, one that he recognized as a French Christmas carol. The tune in this case also carried the Christmas story, albeit in quite a different form than he might recognize; the “spirits who enslave humanity” flee at the birth of Jesus, the “spirits who live in the sky” bear witness to hunters, and three “men of great authority” honor the newborn child not with frankincense or myrry, but by rubbing his scalp with sunflower oil – a sign of greatest honor among the Huron. While such a presentation no doubt sounds alien to our ears, Father Jean’s adaptive carol persisted in the memory of the scattered Hurons, eventually to be recorded and preserved as the first Christmas carol created in Canada, and probably in all of North America. (A heavily adapted and modified English version of the carol is found in our hymnal as #61.)
Whether he recognized it or not, Father Jean was following in the footsteps of Paul as recorded in today’s reading from the book of Acts. This passage, and the context in which it occurs, reflects a rather odd situation for the apostle. Having been run out of not one, but two towns for his proclamation of Christ, as recorded earlier in Chapter 17, Paul was hustled off to Athens to wait while his colleagues stayed behind to support the Christ-followers rattled by the riots against them and Paul. If one reads through the book of Acts, one doesn’t often see Paul in a position of waiting, except perhaps when he’s in prison. Here it apparently doesn’t sit well with him. He didn’t set up his tentmaking business, which he normally did when planning to stay in a city and preach for a time. Instead, like a traveler bored with the hotel mini-bar and pay-per-view movies, he sets off to see Athens.
Fabled as the home of the greatest philosophers and thinkers of the centuries, Athens was by Paul’s time an intellectual shadow of its former self. Such forums as the Areopagus, the center of intellectual debate and discussion, remained, but the discourse there was no longer as original, no longer as provocative, no longer as earth-shaking as in the city’s glory days; novelty prevailed at the expense of genuine intellectual endeavor. The pristine temples and buildings of the city were now crowded with shabby idols and shrines to a plethora of deities both local and imported from various corners of the Roman Empire. One can easily imagine Paul, the Pharisee-trained Jew turned Christian evangelist, muttering under his breath at each new shrine or idol, and possibly chortling out loud at the sight of a shrine labeled “To an unknown God” (v. 23). Finally he can no longer contain himself; he makes his way not only to the synagogue, but also the civic forum of Athens to plead his case and to argue with the locals, including in verse 18 some Epicurean and Stoic philosophers. Word gets around about this “babbler” and he is soon hustled off to the Areopagus itself, the center of philosophical debate in Athens, to present his message to the city’s self-presumed intellectual elite.
Paul’s message, which comprises today’s reading, is – far from the fire-breathing rhetorical scolding one might expect from the apostle – quite a model of reaching out to an audience not steeped in his own tradition. His opening statement, while possibly delivered slightly tongue-in-cheek, doesn’t scold the Athenians for their proliferation of idols, but instead honors their quest for religious understanding; the altar “To an unknown God” is not mocked, but used as a starting point for Paul’s proclamation: “what therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you” (v. 23). One might imagine the audience nodding in assent, their interest and curiosity piqued.
From this beginning Paul proceeds to establish more common ground with his hearers. Almost as if acknowledging an inside joke, Paul moves gently beyond the notion of gods bound to shrines “made by human hands” (v. 24) – you and I, we really don’t buy that silly idea, right? Those of us of a certain age might recall the lyrics of a song by Don Henley, reminding us that “you never have to get down on your knees for a little tin god.” Paul connects with his listeners with this idea and then expands his proclamation to the all-creating God who gives live and breath to all living things.
His next flourish of identification with his audience is to use well-known quotes from two poets of the Greek tradition in support of his argument; “in whom we live and move and have our being” (v. 28) evokes the works of Epimenides from six centuries before, and “For we too are his offspring” the writings of Aratus, three centuries after Epimenides. These were not unfamiliar sayings even to Jews of Paul’s time, but his citation of these Greek poets nonetheless reinforces Paul’s bond with his listeners; see what we have in common? This “unknown god” isn’t so alien, is it?
So far, so good. Paul has been quite gentle with his audience to this point, but things turn in verse 30. Just as one might suspect Paul is veering close to some sort of uncharacteristic universalism, he drives on to the first concept in his argument that diverges seriously from Athenian thought and understanding. This world, he says, which has worshipped these idols in ignorance, is now called to repent of this error by a God who has given to the world this sign of hope: a man who was raised from the dead.
The idea of resurrection was too much for most of the learned audience. It just didn’t fit with modern Athenian spirituality; an eternal soul, sure, but a resurrected body? In the Athenian mind that’s just ridiculous. Impossible. And a little gross, too. Many scoffed and dismissed Paul; a few expressed at least a mild curiosity to hear more, and Luke tells us that “a few” believed, going so far as to name two of them, Dioynsius “the Areopagite” (whose nickname suggests he was a regular at these discussions?) and a woman named Damaris. Not exactly a top-shelf conversion rate. Still, to avoid that which is the fount of hope for any Christian is not compatible with Paul’s mission. No matter how much Paul might be able to accommodate parts of his message to his Athenian audience, the core of the Christian good news – the Easter news, the Man raised from the dead – is indispensible.
What we see in Paul, and in Father Jean centuries later, models for us the imperative laid out in today’s reading from I Peter. To a people apparently facing either current or imminent persecution, the author counsels among many other instructions that they should “always be ready to make your defense to anyone who demands from you an accounting for the hope that is in you” (v. 15), but that such an account be given “with gentleness and reverence” (v. 16). That isn’t a charge limited to professional missionaries or biblical evangelists; all believers share in this command – not one of Bible-thumping or racking up monster growth numbers and transforming ourselves into a megachurch, but simply speaking to our hope, why we dare to hope in a world devoted to dashing hope, in which each week’s headlines seem striving to outdo the week before in stories of disaster and despair, whether the latest tornado outbreak or the brutality of tyrants or the mulishness of politicians. We have hope, and it’s our job to be able to say so, and why.
We rehearse that hope here, you might notice. Whether in the hymns we sing, or the prayers that we pray; in the act of baptism, or in the breaking of the bread in communion; in the words of an anthem that reminds us we are so loved of God that we are called God’s children (shades of Paul quoting Aratus), or maybe even a fumbling first sermon from an overaged ministerial inquirer; we rehearse our hope here. We may not have the chameleon-like intellect of Paul, able to speak to any audience at any time, or the dogged persistence of Father Jean, but we do have the same hope to defend and recommend to a world filled with idols, and not just Scotty McCreery or others of the kind found on TV shows.
Maybe it’s the idol of security – the one that says we must protect ourselves at all costs; or the idol of celebrity – the quest to be famous for being famous; the idol of power and influence, the idol of wealth and possession, maybe even the idol of “religion” – my church, my way, or else; all these idols and many more line our streets and litter our walkways in our own contemporary Athens. I will leave it to you to decide how much Mount Oread might have in common with the Areopagus, but in the end we are left with the question: how do we speak to those idols, and the false promises they offer? Can we speak our hope? Can we find a language of gentleness and reverence to speak hope to a world that doesn’t recognize hope?
God of all hope, God of the Man risen from the dead, dwell within us with your wisdom and compassion; that we may in gentleness and reverence show your hope in deed and word in all corners of your world. Amen.