Sunday, May 25, 2014

The Unknown Knower

Acts 17:22-31
22Then Paul stood in front of the Areopagus and said, “Athenians, I see how extremely religious you are in every way. 23For 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. 24The 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, 25nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mortals life and breath and all things. 26From 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, 27so 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. 28For ‘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.’
29Since 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. 30While God has overlooked the times of human ignorance, now he commands all people everywhere to repent, 31because 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.”

After my son’s brother was born, I heard a lot of “Momma. Momma. Momma! Mommmmmmaaa!”
“just a minute, Jonah,” I’d say.
“hang on, Jonah,” I’d plead.
“I’m coming, Jonah,” I’d sigh.

And then I’d proceed to try doing two - or more - things at once. Nursing while spreading the peanut butter. Tying the shoe while bouncing the baby. Listening to the story about a truck and a tree and a polka dotted monster while shushing and rocking and folding the baby and the laundry, respectively. Filling the sippy cup and listening to NPR and catching the baby before he rolled off the couch.

And when I’d try to have an adult conversation? Forget it.
“Momma! Momma! Momma!”


“There’s a squirrel over there!”
“I just saw a flatbed truck!”
“Where does hail come from?”
“Why are there owls?”

I’d have to continually remind myself that I wanted the title, “Momma” and that I am honored to be called that, and that before he could talk, I couldn’t wait until he said it out loud: “Momma.”
Poor Jonah. When his brother was born, his whole world split in two. Now Momma and Dadda have two kids they’re caring for, two kids they’re devoted to, two sets of needs, two sets of demands, two sets of stories and questions and observations to listen to.

And all Jonah wants is his Momma’s attention. He wants to be the focus of her world. He wants to share his life with her and know that she’s there, that she’s listening, that she’s watching.

In our Acts passage today, Paul is entering a scene full of searchers. People full of the desire to find God, to know God, to figure God out, to know the who and the what and the why of God.

So they go to what they know - gold and silver and burnt offerings and temples and shrines. They go to reason and philosophy and altars and thinkers. And they even have enough sense to include what they don’t know - just in case they’ve missed something - the unknown god.

And Paul honors that. He honors their searching, their questions, the answers they find, and the journey they’re on. 
I think he understands how unknown God can seem.
He sees a hillside full of people calling out “God. God. God! Goddddd!!!” People aching for just a little attention from God. And so, they think, we’ll try to say it in as many ways as we can in the hopes that we’ll get it right, even just once. In hopes that God will hear us, will answer us, if we just figure out how to do it, how to be heard.

They are striving. Reaching out. Reaching towards. Reaching for. Reaching, always reaching.

And that persistence, that stubbornness, that courage and endurance is a gift. It’s a sign of grace. And is to be commended and encouraged.

But what if, after all that striving and reaching and trying, God still seems so far away?
You know, at least to me, more often than is probably “right” for a leader in the church, God seems so far away. So silent. So...unknown.
Prayers seem to go unanswered. And life is so hard. We wait for jobs or healings or our numbers to come up or for the violence to end or for the relationship to stop being so broken. And we stay unemployed, we stay sick and poor and we stay beat up and hurt by our families. The girls in Nigeria are still missing and the crisis is still going on in Ukraine and there are still shootings in Homewood and the baby still won’t sleep through the night and the pollen in the air just won’t let up and that tumor is still there, still growing.
And maybe there is a light at the end of the tunnel, or maybe we’ll look back on all this tough stuff and we’ll see where God was working. But for now, it’s empty. It’s an abyss. It’s looking down into a steaming volcano. It’s the profound darkness of a cave when you turn off your headlamps. It’s 11:00 at night and you still have three loads of laundry to do and lunches to pack. You’re 65 and you still haven’t saved a dime for your retirement. You’re an alcoholic and you know you’re drinking yourself to death but the thought of quitting seems impossible, so you take one more drink. You’ve fed a 100 people at your community meal and they’re back the next day, hungry again.

Still we search.
We call out and hear our echoes against the cave walls.
We feel the weight of the darkness. It makes it hard to breathe. And yet we keep breathing.
We put up shrines to God - hoping that if we change them from gold to silver, from traditional to contemporary worship, from organs to guitars and drum kits, from the Latin Mass to the Quaker Meeting, from socialism to capitalism, from Democrat to Republican and back again, that we’ll finally get it right.

We are searching for an unknown God. At least, a God who can never be fully known. At least, not independently, not on our own.
It’s as if the more we walk towards God, the further away God is.
And yet. And yet, Paul tells us, “For in him we live and move and have our being.”  - Fascinatingly, this is not even a traditional Christian or Jewish thought - it is a Greek concept. And yet, nonetheless true. A foreign idea that still proclaims the truth of God.

For in God we live and move and have our very being.

We are inside of God. In the womb of God. Living off of, being created by, breathing in the very being of God.

God is the one in whom we live and move and have our being.

It’s not what we do, but who we are that makes us children of God. God is the air that we breathe.

Does a fish notice the water all around it? Or does it simply swim, going about its fishy day, never noticing that the substance all around it is what gives it breath and life?
God is the air we breathe. That substance or light or spirit all around us that we fail to notice, but is still there, still present and consistent and life-giving nonetheless.

And it is God who knows us. Who surrounds us. Who has birthed us. Who sees us.

The Athenians, though commendable in their attempt to know God, have it backwards.
In their striving to know God, they miss that God already knows them.

Our God is The Unknown Knowing God.

And whether we know it or not doesn’t make it any less true. Whether the fish knows what this water does for it, whether it knows that it needs the water flowing over its gills in order to have life or not, doesn’t make the water any less real, any less necessary, any less life giving.

It’s not what we hear or what we feel or what we believe or what we know.
It is that we are known.

I don’t think this just a diatribe against idols. Although it is that. I think that the real question here is one of direction - our constant striving to get God right - to make God out of silver or gold or “Facebook likes” or bank accounts or military might - versus our need, and God’s desire, for us to know that God has gotten us right. We’ll never be able to know and see and love God like we should. But we are known and seen and loved by God. And that’s Grace. And that’s what it’s all about.

When I travelled to India in 2005, I was really perplexed by the thousands of deities we saw in the hundreds of temples and shrines that we visited all over the country. First, I was surprised by how small these deities seemed. We’d walk through these giant temples, with parapets reaching to the skies and towering gates filled with ornately decorated scenes from the Bhagavad Gita and the Ramayana and the Vedas, walk through what seemed like miles of courtyards and walkways to the center of the temple to get a glimpse of the main deity housed within. And then, there it would be, most of them 2-3 feet tall. A stone figure, draped in silk and flowers and spices, but almost disappointingly unimpressive.

I mean, obviously, they had to know that God was so much bigger than this carved stone, more than this porcelain figure, more than this tiny flame dancing in an oil lamp.

And yet they approached this deity with all the boldness and adoration of the children of God.

But I don’t think devotees come to these shrines to see the fullness of God. I think they come with incredible humility, they come with the realization that this tiny little figure, this piece of carved rock or painted porcelain is all the God they can really know, all the God that they can handle.

They don’t come to their temple to know God. They come to be seen by God.

It’s a concept called, “Darshan.” - Being seen by God is so much more important than knowing all there is to know about God.
In fact these deities are just plastic or porcelain or stone - just objects - until they are literally given eyes, until they are able to see.
For the Hindus, and I think for us, too, God isn’t God unless God sees, unless God knows, unless God comes to us.

And the ultimate Darshan? The ultimate seeing? The ultimate knowing that God comes to us?
It is the one in whom the Father lives, and the one who lives in the Father.
The one who advocates for us.
The one whom we can know - just a little bit - because he abides with us, and he is in us, just as we are in him.

The incarnation:
God’s greatest expression that you are known. That you are loved. That you are in God and God is in you. That in him we live and move and have our being.

And our response? Our response to our being known is to be the hands and feet of Christ himself. To follow Christ’s commandment to love one another, as we are loved. To know one another as we are known.

When Jonah is calling out to me, “Momma! Momma! Momma!”, instead of being totally overwhelmed and flabbergasted and annoyed, when I stop what I’m doing, when I bend down to him and look him in the eye and say, “Yes, Jonah, you have my full attention,” that is when he and I are most connected, when he knows that I am listening, that I am fully participating in his life, that I’m ready to respond to what he wants to show me, and that I am truly delighted to hear his question or his story or see the nest in the tree or the rock on the sidewalk or the red car that just passed by.

God’s always bending down to us. Knowing us. Reminding us that we are fully known. Looking us in the eye and saying, “yes, sweet child of mine, yes, yes, you have my full attention.”

Thanks be to God.

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