To the unknown God…

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Listen while you read…


Hear now a reading from the book Mr. and Mrs. God in the Creation Kitchen, by Nancy Wood.

[reading from actual book]

“Deep in the heavens, in a space without beginning or end, was the Creation Kitchen. In it were all kinds of pots and pans, jars and mixing bowls, and an oven big enough to roast a star.”

“Off in a corner, Mr. and Mrs. God were hard at work. Fans were going. Something very large and round was baking in the oven. When the timer rang, Mr. God opened the oven door and let the giant orb roll itself out into the universe. It was the brightest, hottest thing either one of them had ever seen.”

“I’m going to call it the sun,” Mr. God said.

“Mrs. God started molding another fat lump of dough. She baked it slowly, peeking in the oven every so often to see if it was done.”

“Not yet,” she said. “But soon.”

“When it was ready, she flung the fiery ball out into space.”

“There,” she said, “I’m naming that one earth.”

These are wonderful images from one of Evelyn’s favorite imaginative stories. You may be asking yourself why I am reading this to you on Sunday morning. The answer is that we can learn a great deal about how we imagine God, how we visualize, understand, conceptualize, the Divine by exploring children’s books. They are an endless source of insight into what we believe…and how we wrestle to understand our place in the cosmos. Because we want to teach our children what we believe, and we will work to shape a story to make it engaging to pass on our perspectives, right?

St. Paul encountered the richness of the Ancient Greeks’ perspective on the Divine when he visited the Areopagus in Athens. While they didn’t have children’s books such as this one, they had their own particular religious systems through which they expressed their theological understandings. The Greeks had a particular way of imagining the Divine as well…

Paul shares with them “I see how religious you are in every way.” He has walked through the city, and he has noticed what he calls “the objects of your worship.”

Of course the ancient world during that time was full of altars and shrines, focusing on one deity or another: gods, goddesses, demigods, heroes. Interestingly, their perspective isn’t that different from the images of Mr. and Mrs. God. Divine beings working on the created world, influencing it, creating it, messing with it, and people—by various means—focusing their worship on these deities in various ways, making offerings.

It is a universal human phenomenon, I would argue, to worship something.

And, St. Paul shared an observation with the Athenians about how he has noticed one shrine in particular: “To an unknown God.” Interesting, St. Paul notes with them, that they have this particular altar.

Now, I remember many years ago hearing a reflection on this text. And that reflection was a bit pejorative toward the Athenians: poor, misguided Athenians, with their misdirected religious devotions. They want to make sure that they cover all the bases, so they put up this altar to make sure they don’t miss anyone. Such a point-of-view makes the Athenians look clueless and off-base while we Christians—of course—have all the correct answers.

My concern with this perspective now is that we Western Christians, ourselves, are surrounded by countless altars to the things we worship. I wonder if St. Paul walked through one of our cities, would he say the same thing? “I see how extremely religious you are in every way. For as I went through the city and looked carefully at the objects of your worship…”

This year, this text has made me stop and think about what my religious practice looks like. What am I worshipping?

To put a fine point on it, I wonder if I am worshipping God or the more comfortable image of God that I have constructed—and which I uphold—within my organized life? We all have these images of God. It is so tempting to anthromorphize God, to return the favor, as it were, and seek to create God in our own image. So, to go a step further, rather than worship the Source of Being of all Life, a force and Fount of Love that infuses all things with creative energy, who is an endless source of creativity and inspiration, and who cannot be controlled but who willingly incarnated in the person of Jesus of Nazareth and showed us the way to form true community and embody self-giving compassion in the world around us….instead of worshipping this God (realizing that these words don’t even do God justice), we in the Western world now worship a god who supports our own drive for individual success and prosperity and wealth: The God of More. “God helps those who help themselves,” we hear folks say. But of course the only problem is that this particular belief is nowhere in our sacred texts.

St. Paul’s exchange to the Athenians helped me see my own temptation to anthromorphize God, to make God into some larger, “all-powerful” version of, well, me….with my vested interests, with my ideas on who is right and wrong, with my particular perspective on how life should be lived, a deity who has my understanding of the purpose of life.

The phrase, “to an unknown god” hooked me these past couple of weeks, and it made me think about ways I am still stuck in the mindset of “Mr. and Mrs. God in the Creation Kitchen,” with this sense of strict separation between God and creation, with God as an object.

What else is there? Some might wonder. Well, there is another way to imagine God, one that the mystics have always nudged us toward. St. Paul points toward this mystical understanding of God when he tells the Athenians that God is the source of all life, and that God gave shape to all existence, “so that they would search for God and perhaps grope for him and find him—though he is not far from each one of us. For ‘In him we live and move and have our being.’”

This, friends, is a different image of God from the one we so often see: the image of God being a version of ourselves writ large, giving permission to our ambitions and greed and self-interest and competitiveness.

Just this week I was on a walk, listening to Krista Tippett’s radio program OnBeing. She was interviewing Rabbi Lawrence Kushner, a world-renowned practitioner of Kabalah, the rich world of the Jewish mystical tradition. I had heard the things the rabbi was saying before, but one particular image caught me and made me stop on the sidewalk. I “got it” more from this image—at least I think I did.

I invite you to take one hand and make a large circle with it. Then, take the other hand and make a small circle. Put the large circle over the big circle. I think I could argue that this is how we, in the West, so often think of God: big circle, above little circle, separate from it.

Now, take your hand with the big circle. Only this time, place the little circle inside the big circle. And hold it there as you remember St. Paul’s words…
“…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. For, ‘In him we live and move and have our being.’”

I invite you, during this week, as we draw near to the Feasts of the Ascension and Pentecost, to pay attention….to notice those places that arise within you where you catch a glimpse of how, in God, you “live and move and have your being.” What graces have you been given, to realize aspects of God that were “unknown” to you? You may want to jot down these experiences on a bit of paper and start a journal of such experiences. Where do you notice the Divine in a fresh, new way?

As the collect for today says, “O God, you have prepared for those who love you such good things as surpass our understanding: Pour into our hearts such love towards you, that we, loving you in all things and above all things, may obtain your promises, which exceed all that we can desire; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.”

The Rev. Stuart Craig Higginbotham | Easter 6, Year A | Acts 17:22-31 | May 25, 2014

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