Sermon May 10 Acts 17:14ff The Unknown God Rev. Betsy Hogan
Did you see the Snowbird flyover? I know that not all of us were best-placed to see it last weekend. And then others of us, of course, happen to live right underneath the path they took, and had a quite spectacular view.
In my case, in the west end of Halifax, we thought perhaps we'd be 'sort of' under the flight path... but with so many trees in the neighbourhood it made sense to walk down to our newly-opened-with-social-distancing Flynn Park, to see if we could get a better view.
And it seemed like everyone else in the neighbourhood had the same idea. In little clutches and groups, pushing strollers and being pulled by dogs on leashes, there was this stream of people down to the park, in the ten or so minutes before the flyover was scheduled.
Little voices getting impatient: "when are the planes coming?" A bit of chit-chat across the divides. Some people brought soccer balls to kick back and forth while they waited. And then suddenly, voices raised. "Here they come!"
And everyone stopped. And looked up. And pointed kind of toward the edge of the treetops – and there they were! And then they were gone.
Ten seconds, maybe? It was completely ridiculous. And yet, at the same time, I found it incredibly moving. Not so much the planes themselves, although they did look pretty cool.
But it was the effort of it all. That's what I found so moving. The decision and the motivation of the pilots, of course! And yes, I know, even though they would have been practicing anyway, it DID involve extra fuel getting here from Saskatchewan. And yes, of course, just as the disciples get annoyed when the woman pours the whole bottle of expensive perfume on Jesus feet, "couldn't that money have been given to the poor"...
But remember how Jesus answered them? "Leave her alone. She has done a beautiful thing." And that was the motivation – to do a beautiful thing.
And it WAS a beautiful thing, and I DID find that moving. But what I also found moving was the effort of it all not just for the pilots, but for everyone else. Everyone who was there. Everyone who'd bothered coming down to the park.
Who put proper clothes on and brushed their hair. And stuffed little arms into little jackets. And paid attention to the clock, and paused whatever they were doing, and walked a block or two blocks or whatever – and no, it's not like it was some kind of major sacrifice, but it did involve intent.
The effort of it all. For about ten seconds. Which is so patently ridiculous that THAT'S what I found so moving. When the Snowbirds flew over... and then everybody went home.
Having manifested, not just with their spirits but with their bodies, this profound need we have for shared moments. For symbolic ceremony that somehow transcends all the talky talky and lifts us, however briefly, out of ordinary time.
It was ten seconds, which is utterly ridiculous, because it was absolutely MORE than that. A kind of secular liturgy of passing over the hurting middle piece of the province that obviously a lot of people needed. Because there they all were. Looking up.
I was not surprised at all, these past few days, to hear that people around the province had started putting a little pair of rubber boots on their front porches, in a kind of mute expression of grief for three-year-old Dylan. The little one from Truro. Who as I write this hasn't yet been found – and I think the whole province felt it in their bones when his little boots WERE found.
I wasn't surprised because tartan scarves tied around trees, and little candles everywhere, and rainbow pictures with "ca va bien aller", and teddy bears in windows to greet passersby, and little fairy doors tucked into tree roots, and Nova Scotia flags.
We NEED emblems and symbols and the common language of "stay the blazes home". We NEED these expressions of solidarity and shared grief and shared comfort. They're how we reach out, but they also feed us and make us feel like we have a voice and connect us to something larger than ourselves.
In effect, what they are... is they're our altars To An Unknown God.
It's a phrase that comes to us from our reading today from the book of the Acts of the Apostles. It's part of the weirdness of the lectionary cycle of readings, the scheduled list of passages agreed to by the mainline churches to sort of cover much of the Bible being heard in services over a three year period –
It's part of the weirdness of our lectionary cycle of readings that in the weeks following Easter, when we get the stories of Jesus appearing risen to the disciples at various times and in various places, we ALSO get these stories from the book of Acts.
Which all take place later. Not a LOT later, but later. When the disciples have been "sent out" – which is all the word Apostle means, it just means someone who's "sent out" – so the book of the Acts of the Apostles is just the stories of what various Apostles got up to, what they DID, their ACTS, once they'd all been "sent out" to preach the good news of Jesus' message to the various countries around the Mediterranean and even further.
Doubting Thomas, for example, heads to India, according to tradition. Others go to North Africa, some go to Persia and Crete, some stay closer to home, and then a little bit later still, a learned man called Saul of Tarsus experiences a great conversion....
... and he renames himself Paul and he too is "sent out". And spends the rest of his life sort of sailing the Mediterranean from place to place, preaching the gospel and establishing Christian communities.
These are all the stories in the book of Acts. And so the story we heard earlier is one of these from the book of Acts that's about the Apostle Paul.
He's been with a group of Christians living in what we'd now call Turkey, and they've decided to send him to Athens. In Greece.
Only, Athens isn't just like "in Greece" – it's pretty much the intellectual, philosophical, artistic HEART of Greece. It's where scholars gather, and ideas get shared. It's all about public lectures and passionate debates, about the rights of the individual and the responsibility of the community and the purpose of human life and the nature of fulfillment and the character of the divine.
Athens is a place of ideas and ideals and ideologies. Where they're lifted up and debated and argued over – all these ideas and ideals and ideologies, like they're idols. Which in fact, they literally ARE. When Paul enters Athens what he's struck by immediately is all the ideas and ideals and ideologies that are IDOLS in Athens.
Altars and statues. Emblems and symbols. Expressions and representations of everything that for the people of Athens MATTERS.
Including, in a fantastic example of the Athenians wanting to make sure all their bases are covered, an altar set up for worship and clearly labeled "To An Unknown God".
Which honestly, I absolutely love that. I love the humility of it, but I also love the bright cheeky breeziness of it. Where they know -- there must surely be... something they haven't thought of, something they haven't named, something they've not quite pinned down, something MORE – and whatever it is, they know it's there too.
So it gets its own altar. "To An Unknown God".
For the Apostle Paul, of course, it's his way in. That something they haven't thought of, something they haven't named, something they've not quite pinned down, something MORE – "Let me tell you about that something," the Apostle Paul says to them. "Because everything you have wrapped up in that Unknown God? That's the God I know."
Who created all things and filled them with life. Who hovers in and around and through and makes us more somehow all together than just each of us lined up in a row.
That Unknown God, says Paul, that's the God I know. Who's always where we are. In whom we live and move and have our being. Who connects us and holds us and abides with us and challenges us and guides us – and is IN us and in ALL creation. So that somehow all we can see is also that more-ness of the God-ness we can't see.
That's the God I want to tell you about, says Paul to the Athenians. That's the God I know. And the thing is, Paul says to the Athenians, I can tell by this altar that you already know that God too.
And he's right. They do. In fact, as he points out, their own poetry, the Athenians, in their own words, it speaks the same message: "for we too are God's children".
What we've been surrounded by in these weeks, and especially in the last few weeks, has really been Little Altars Everywhere. To An Unknown God that WE might say is KNOWN, but in fact is essentially a mystery. Transcendent and yet somehow felt, in whatever it is that makes us more than just each of us lined up in a row.
Beyond, and yet somehow manifest, in the meaning of our symbols hanging in our windows or sitting on our front porches.
Invisible, and yet somehow palpable – not just in airplane flyovers and impressive vapour trails, but in that deciding that happens to say those ten seconds matter. Even if we're not really sure why.
What we've been weirdly surrounded by in these weeks has been layers and expressions and manifestations of faith. In more-ness and beyond-ness and connected-ness and being held. I think that's deeply moving. I find it deeply comforting. And I also find it hopeful.
God is still speaking, is the way our neighbours in the United Church of Christ in the US put it. God is still speaking. And little altars everywhere are hopeful. Because it means we're still listening. Amen.