Monday, May 22, 2017

The Evolution of Idols
A Sermon on Acts 17:22-31
By Griff Martin
For the People of First Austin: a baptist community of faith
On the Sixth Sunday of Eastertide
May 21, 2017

Grace and peace to you this morning. It is the sixth Sunday of our Easter celebration and I hope you are still celebrating the ultimate truth: Christ Is Risen! (He is Risen Indeed!) Alleluia!

May this truth be the foundation for all we hear this day.

Incarnate God, we ask that you once again take the Word and transform it into a living and breathing Resurrected reality we can all together experience. Be present here in this space and in these words God for if you are present here then nothing else will matter, but if you are not present here then nothing else will matter. In the name of the Creator, the Risen Christ and the Comforter. 

A report came back earlier this month about the impact of ACL Festival on Austin’s economy and it was better than most expected. Last year’s festival was 52% better than 2013 (when it was still just one weekend) and 24% higher than the previous year 2015, both weekends of the Festival last year brought about $277 million into our city’s economy. 

This was exciting news and it came out right about the time the lineup for next year was being announced. So that morning on KGSR radio you could win a wristband for next year’s festival by calling in and answering the question, how much money did ACL bring into our city last year? It seemed easy since they had been talking about the number literally all morning.

So the first caller is so excited because he is sure that he knows the right answer… and he is certain that he is about to win wristbands for the weekend before they are even on sale. The DJ even says, “Although I am sure you know it, I still have to ask: How much money did last year’s festival bring into Austin?” And the caller replies “277 billion dollars.” The DJ goes quiet, “Can you say that again?” (thinking he must have heard the caller wrong since $277 billion is more than our state budget). The caller again with much enthusiasm, “277 billion dollars.” The DJ, “Sir is that billion with a b?” And then says, “We will have to take the next caller” and then in a moment of brilliance says “Caller 2… let’s hope you have this, the previous caller was off by several hundred billion.”

It’s bizarre because in some ways the caller was really close, literally off by just one letter and yet at the same time off by several hundred billion dollars….. so close and yet so very far.

I think it might be exactly how God feels about this text.

This week, the 6th Sunday of Easter, we get Paul and just saying his name probably gets your heart racing a bit and not in the good way. Paul is typically not the Patron Saint of a Church like ours because of some of his statements about women, slavery, and sexuality…some of which we read wrong and some of which are just simply wrong. There are times that Paul comes across as a babbler who simply must share every thought that runs through his mind (which is frustrating because it seems his mind produces all these thoughts in literary brilliance). He might be the guy who today we would not follow on Twitter because of our rising blood pressure. In fact in today’s text one of the words used by the Athenians to describe Paul is the Greek word spermalogos… and I am just going to leave it there and let you put two and two together.

Paul loves being right and he loves to argue to prove he is right. In fact honestly when I select one of Paul’s epistles for the sermon, more often than not on Monday morning I begin by taking a very deep breath, bracing myself for what will surely be a long week of arguments.

This text finds Paul in deep trouble. He is here in Athens after being driven out of Philippi, Thessalonica and Berea. He has been creating scenes as he is known to do and there are folks that believe the world would be better without his voice in it. Athens should be a safe place, it’s a big city and he can blend in here and wait and be quiet, three jobs which are not his strong suits. But that is why he is here, to blend in and be quiet and wait until Silas and Timothy can join him.

So while waiting he begins to wander and he looks around the city and this city is extremely religious, there are statues to all the gods here. One translation of Scripture says the city was a “junkyard of idols.” Athena, Zeus, Ares, Jupiter, Venus, Diana, Neptune…. it’s a vast food court of idols and thoughts and religions, almost a first century Westworld where all your dreams can come true as you “live without limits” because there is every possibility here. There is a valid question about these idols: are they here because the city is extremely religious and spiritual or is the city extremely superstitious and want to have all the bases covered? It could be either, we are not told, what we are told is that there were a lot of idols and the longer he wandered, the angrier Paul got about these idols.

Which makes sense for our Paul who began life as a devout Jew and whom would have known the Shema quite well (“Hear O Israel, the Lord your God is one”), who would know that the 10 Commandments begin with two commands against idolatry (no other gods and no graven images). It’s worth noting that the Torah- the first book of faith for three of our major world religions- seems to prefer worship of no god over worshipping the wrong ones. And this has stuck with Paul in his Christ following, and rightly so… there is no room for idols in Christ following and everywhere he turns in this city there are idols and it’s getting to him.

Until he can no longer help himself and Paul is in front of a crowd and he is offering what amounts to a truly brilliantly constructed sermon of classic rhetoric, this passage alone has lead many to compare Paul to Socrates and is often held up as a prime example of a sermon and public speaking. It’s a fine sermon where Paul takes one of their idols, the one titled “To An Unknown God,” and offers to introduce them to the Unknown God and in that introduction he destroys their idols, their worldview and he lays a very concise and quite beautiful introduction to our God.

And at the end of the story, despite all our feelings about Paul, we find ourselves cheering him on and giving him an amen, a hurray. It’s almost a perfect movie climax, you hear the Chariots of Fire theme song and we all feel strong enough to jump from our seats and go change the world. We are ready to follow his example and go out into the streets and offer the same message, to offer our world an introduction to the unknown God. And I think it’s right there…. at that moment as we are ready to follow Paul into the streets that we need to stop and listen, because I think it’s then that God is saying over us: “oh they are off by a few hundred billion once again….” So close and yet not close at all.

This story is not about going to preach a sermon, this story is a sermon we need to hear first. You can’t preach it until you have heard it and followed it. This story can not be a rallying call to proclaim the unknown God until it is first a contemplative text that makes us sit and ask the pivotal question: Are we walking among the idols of our world today or are we bowing down in front of them? You can’t address the idols on the streets until you address the idols in your heart. You can’t take on the idols out there until you face the idols within. 

And we have this pesky problem with idols today: it seems that they have gone the way of the devil, we don’t talk about them and we act like they don’t exist. We think of idols and we think of Israelites dancing in front of a golden cow or Rachel running off with her household God’s in her bag or those worshiping Baal in the showdown with Elijah. It’s silly, nonsense, almost comical, who would think a statue- an icon- has any real sense of power? We think it’s all so very Old Testament and we are so far from that.

When the truth is our idols have not disappeared, however they might not be all around us anymore, lining our streets, they might be much closer these days.

Maybe our idols are in our back pockets or in our purses…. Maybe our idol is the power of money and the ability to buy things, which we think gives us power and certainly feds our ego. It’s another trip to Nordstrom’s, it’s the fancy car we drive, it’s our house, it’s our vacation home, it’s the newest technology that we bought before anyone else could. It’s the ability to buy things that temporarily fill the need for More and make us feel superior to others.

Maybe our idols are that person we pretend to be on social media- the one we project out there, the one where things are always going our way and everything looks completely perfect, where our kids behave perfect all the time, where our marriage looks happily ever after, where even our pets make us look like we have the ideal life. The one where it looks like we are the perfect family eating dinner cooked by Ina Garten in a dining room straight from Anthrologie while sharing stories of how wonderful our day is… and we have a clever hashtag to go with it. Our idol is the self we project for others.

Maybe our idol is that thing that we use to escape, to help us escape from the truth of the world (although the truth is with these idols we don’t use them, they use us)…. It might be alcohol, it might be pills, it might be pornography, it might be Facebook or Netflix, and it might be something good that numbs us it might even be our children, our partners, our marriages, taking care of someone, keeping our calendars full of doing good. It’s whatever it is that keeps us from doing the real work of our soul (and each of us has something like this, most of us just never admit it).

Maybe our idol is our belief in independence that we can do all things without anyone else’s help. Maybe our idol is our belief in power and the belief that we can do anything or the closely related idol of control where we believe that we can be in charge. And maybe together those three independence, power and control make up the idol of privilege. … the fact that for a lot of us in this room we are middle class white folks and the world has been pretty good to us and despite that is not fair to everyone else, if we are honest about it we would say we are somewhat okay with it.

Maybe it’s the bible or religion, us Baptist have a long history of turning these two into answers and certainties, we have this bad habit of making them the ultimate instead of the way to the ultimate. Instead of the finger pointing to the light, they become the light.

And there are plenty of others, the idol of romance, sex, gender, friendship, patriotism, consumerism, capitalism, the desire for a long and healthy life, family… the idols of greed, violence, politics, perfectionism. Our idols are anything or anyone that holds the place that God alone should hold in our lives.

And some of them need to be released and we need to repent of some of them. Others just need to be named and put in their proper place, while others just need to be held a little less tight. As Barbara Brown Taylor writes: “It is only when we stop believing in all of these and stop looking for everything that is not God to save us, only when we are able to empty our hearts and wait without idols, that there is room for God to bring us God.”

An idol is anything that takes the place or priority of God in your soul.

So what is it for you? Because maybe this morning its time that your unknown God became known. So name that this morning with me… name it and then hear the words of Paul, rewritten for us today- in what I am calling the 9th and Trinity Translation:

It is obvious that you First Austinites take your religion seriously. I mean you are here on Sunday morning instead of brunching or biking or paddle boarding or napping. Religion, God… it means some thing to you. Although paying attention to your lives I have seen that there are other things taking the place of God in your life, so let me this morning introduce you-remind you- of the true God who is worthy of worship and worthy of all your devotion, not just part…

The God who created the world and declared it as good, the one whom lives beyond any cage or category or division we create, this God is the one who desires all. God made you, you did not make God. And God made a good world for you, a loving world that is welcoming to you. And God gave you a need for God, God did not force a relationship but gave you a desire for one, and then God gave you time to go about trying to find God, to be satisfied in God, to know God, to be called by God, to love God. It’s like a big game of hide and seek, but God hides in all the obvious places. God is everywhere, as Scripture says: “In God we live and move and have our being.”

And God will excuse us when we don’t know better, but First Austinites you have sat in these pews long enough to know better. You know the unspoken and unnamed idols in your heart, as does God, and you know they have no place there. The unknown is now known and God is ready for us to change our ways. Because there will come a day when all will be set right and hopefully we are part of those who are doing the setting right… because that is what God wants, to love us and to be loved by us- a love that is beyond any other in our life- and to have us bringing about God’s kingdom in the world, those two things are what God desires… those two things are why God raised Jesus from the dead.

May those words wash over us. May we hear the sermon we need to fully hear this sermon before rushing off into the streets.

Amen and amen.

Art: Gold Cross No. 5, Painting by Greta Olivas, 


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