Fumbling and Finding

by: Rev. Caroline Cupp

Then Paul stood in front of the Areopagus and said, “Athenians, I see how extremely spiritual you are in every way. 23 For 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. 24 The 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, 25 nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mortals life and breath and all things. 26 From one ancestor he made all peoples to inhabit the whole earth, and he allotted the times of their existence and the boundaries of the places where they would live, 27 so that they would search for God and perhaps fumble about for him and find him—though indeed he is not far from each one of us. 28 For ‘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.’

29 “Since 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. 30 While God has overlooked the times of human ignorance, now he commands all people everywhere to repent, 31 because 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.”

Good morning. As I spent time with this week with this reading from Acts, it struck me that this passage, where the perennially uncool Paul is lecturing a bunch of skeptical, eye-rolling Athenians, might be slightly too on-point for Mothers’ Day. I imagine each one of us here has experienced that sense of frantic desperation where you’re trying every trick in the book to get a cynical listener to take in your words of wisdom: The grade you get in AP history doesn’t determine your future happiness. Being broken up with won’t hurt forever. A week is too long to go without a shower. And no matter how convincing we find our own arguments, how self-evident their claims, it is entirely uncertain whether they’re hitting the mark. We’ve also likely been on the receiving end of those lectures at some point in our lives – listening dubiously to someone who wants to convince us of something that we’re not entirely certain we believe, whether that’s a parent, a politician, or even a pastor. We humans were built with a healthy dose of skepticism, and that can serve us well – our prehistoric ancestors didn’t just jump to eat any berry that looked like it might taste good, or leap at the chance to go toe-to-toe with a saber-toothed tiger. Skepticism about new things can serve us well, can protect us. Most often, we seek comfort in what we understand, control, and predict.

In some ways, the comfort we find in the Bible speaks to this part of ourselves that seeks safety. Not only are the stories we find there familiar, or at least some of them are familiar some of the time, but more importantly, it’s the end that’s known – we read Scripture as people who trust that no matter how narrow the odds, how unlikely the victory, all will be well. The arc of history is, in fits and starts, winding its way toward God’s kingdom come, and so whatever trials and sorrows we face, they are and will be swept up in the larger story of Christ. This is a good and faithful, even essential, way of approaching Scripture, and really of approaching life.

And at the same time, it can be tempting to get so caught up in the ending that we lose the grittiness and texture of the situations that we find in the Bible. We hear this passage from Acts, where Paul, who never hesitates to share how unimpressive he finds himself – this is not a dashing, charismatic David or a commanding Solomon. Paul is bald, short, bow-legged, with a big awkward nose, and he’s preaching to these totally skeptical, aesthetically-minded Athenians – a people who equated physical beauty with moral righteousness, and it’s so hard not to overlay what we know will happen onto this story that holds so much uncertainty and vulnerability within it – Paul will be a towering Apostle, converter of nations, and in time the city of Athens, then carpeted with shrines dedicated to idols, will be transformed into one of the strongholds of the Christian faith,. But even if we, sitting here nearly two millenia later, know that Paul’s gospel message eventually finds a home, most of the time we humans don’t tend to live our lives with a clear view of how things will turn out. We might trust that God is Lord of heaven and earth, but we don’t know what tomorrow brings, whether our best laid plans will come to fruition, whether our deepest longings will be fulfilled. If we’re honest, we know that the things that are most important are the ones over which we have the least control.

And I think that when we hold both of those things together – the trust in the overarching Lordship of God, and the messiness and uncertainty of our lives, and by extension the lives of the people we meet in Scripture, who were people just like us, that the Word of God begins to unfurl and reveal itself. That’s especially true when we resist the temptation to quickly identify with the hero, or the winning team, and instead allow the evangelists to preach to us.

So let’s say for a moment that you are not here, in West Chester, your mind drifting off to your brunch order, but rather a first century Athenian who’s made your way to the central square to hear this foreign visitor speak. What kind of ears might you be hearing with? Now Athens in Paul’s day was a very rich, cosmopolitan stew. If you were walking to the market, you’d find your route dotted with an ever-increasing number of shrines and temples to local gods. These deities were fickle and moody, unquestioningly devoted to the military success of the Greco-Roman empire, and there was pressure to just keep building and pouring out sacrifices to try to ensure you were covering all your bases and you’d continue to be victorious in war and anything else that might come along. And then in the midst of that sort of potpourri of popular religion was the equivalent of the great university, this ivory tower of ruled by Stoics and Epicurean philosophers. Each of these schools had different approaches, but both focused on the values of personal growth, virtue, reverence, character, discipline – essentially, cultivating your best and most enlightened self as a person fortunate enough to be born a Greek. And it wasn’t neatly divided; people being people, they dabbled among all of these schools and shrines to some degree. These are the people that Paul is preaching to – sophisticated, educated, and focused on civic values and self-improvement.

And I think it’s worth pausing there for a minute, because often when we think about idols, or maybe just when I do, this is not the kind of idol I’ve got in mind – I’m not picturing reducing anxiety, eating healthier food, being a more loyal friend, as falling into the category of idolatry. And yet those are the kind of topics that consume the energies of these philosophers. It’s one thing to come in as a religious Jew and say, hey, this polytheism and all these jealous, vindictive little deities are really off-base. It’s another to approach people who share many of the values that we do, values we would hope our neighbors would share, and say, “That which you worship, whether it’s a golden sculpture, the desire for self-improvement, or a philosophical ideal – all of that means nothing compared to the God who created it, and us, all.”

Pastor Tim Keller describes idols as good things that become ultimate things. Good things that become ultimate things, things that themselves draw our final loyalty, a loyalty that rightly belongs only to God. Maybe you’re like me and you hear that definition and immediately start running down the list of important things in your life with a measuring stick – do I love my family more than God? My work? My life? My friends? And what would loving something more than God look like – what is that moment when a good thing becomes an ultimate thing, when it slips into the wrong position on our list? What does it look like to love God the most, especially when so often we experience that God reflected through these other pieces of our lives?

It would make our experiences as Christians a lot easier if that question had a simple answer, right? If we could just point to an action, or an antidote, and say, “OK, right there – that’s how we know, that’s how we fix it.” But I don’t think we get that as humans. It’s often in hindsight that we realize that something was amiss – when we are in the midst of life, it’s hard to see idolatry played out in the thousands of decisions we make every day. There’s a book called Desiring the Kingdom, and the author talks about how humans are created with this innate drive to worship. We less homo sapiens, we’re homo worshippians or whatever the Latin of that would be, like those little newborn sea turtles who pop out of their eggs and are pulled like magnets toward the ocean, only instead we humans are looking around us, seeking something to weave our longings into. It’s the reason why the first structures that people built back in the prehistoric days, before houses or fortresses, were shrines. It’s the reason why we get so enamored with ideas, with teams, with cultural figures, why about 100,000 people making a pilgrimage downtown to see Taylor Swift this weekend. There’s something in our souls that cries out to worship, to be caught up in something wider and deeper than ourselves. And with this drive, this capacity, comes the challenge – we have to stay constantly vigilant that our worship is directed well. That it settles not on something that is at our beck and call, that serves us, that we can influence, control, even if that something is very, very good, but rather with the God who chooses not only to form the universe, to be Lord of life and conqueror of death, but also to be with us.

And as I sort of go in circles around this really complex idea, surrounded by a group of people who generally share this same way of thinking of God as the ultimate, overarching creator and sustainer of life, I can only imagine how challenging this would have been for Paul, who didn’t have a shared culture, religious tradition, or set of hopes with the Greeks and was trying to convey this concept without the benefit of Scripture, or the ideas of a Messiah or Resurrection. How would a person even begin?

A couple of months ago my husband and I rented an AirBnB with dear friends. The husband is American, but his wife grew up in Kazakhstan and came to the US as an adult. Kazakhstan is a nominally Muslim country but given the fact that it was part of the USSR, this woman didn’t grow up with any exposure to religious language or concepts or music or any of that – none of it was part of her experience. So we’re in this AirBnB playing a board game, and in this game you randomly pick a card with a word on it and you have to work with your partner to guess the word by using lots of synonyms. So if your word is apple, you might say pie, caramel, American as…you get it. So we’re clicking along, and then the word that came up for our pair was grace. My friend just looked at me with this utter confusion and was like, “I have no idea what that word means” and I’m just fumbling around totally ineffectively trying to come up with things that aren’t rooted in theology but failing miserably: “Um…unconditional? Given by Jesus? Can’t earn? Say it before dinner? Amazing??” Kevin was sitting next to me laughing his head off about all that wasted seminary tuition money, and I’m pretty sure that’s about the time I argued that this was just a friendly match and we really didn’t need to keep score.

But really, I think it’s humbling moments like this, ones when you realize that all that fancy education didn’t actually equip you for a simple definition of something that’s core to your life, that makes one appreciate just how amazing Paul was. This is early in his career – if Paul’s the Bill Gates of the church, this is not Bill Gates, billionaire captain of industry, this is Bill Gates, teenager at prom. He’s not bolstered by the confidence that this is all going to turn out well. And Paul was an incredibly smart man, and he was well-educated, and brilliant in how he engaged people, but there’s also this sense of him being totally out of his league here. He’s unappealing to hear and look at in a culture obsessed with beauty, he’s not Greek, and he’s giving a confusing message that people don’t seem to understand, at least not at first. There’s no immediate conversion, no cheers, no evidence of changed hearts or lives in that amphitheater, no altar call – the seeds that Paul sows take years, lifetimes, generations to take hold. And one question is what kind of strength and faith it would take to recognize all of that and still get up and proclaim the gospel, and what does that mean for those who seek to imitate him. I wonder what it would look like to preach like Paul today, not only on street corners, but in corner offices and courtrooms, on soccer fields and in PTA meetings. I wonder what opportunities I give up to live the gospel because I just think the odds are too long, or no one wants to listen to me yammering on. And I wonder who is out there preaching to me, challenging me to rethink the idols in my life, and I don’t hear them because they’re not what I’d expect. And yet it’s always, again and again in Scripture, these unlikely messengers that God sends to wake us out of our slumber.

But the other thing I wonder about is the extraordinary capacity of the Holy Spirit to open our eyes to things that God wants us to see, even if there’s no logical reason why we should. Because we know that, against all odds, Paul’s message did take hold. It slipped under the skeptical walls that these men had built up and slowly, perhaps without their realizing it, created a quiet revolution. The great-great-great grandchildren of these Athenians would be building churches, celebrating sacraments. They’d bless their sons by naming them after this strange, foreign man who once stood, friendless, in an amphitheater, and shared news that no one yet saw as good. Clearly, a spirit was blowing here. And the amazing, and perhaps somewhat frightening thing given we’re people who preach transformation but don’t often much like change, is that that spirit of conversion didn’t only happen back in Athens, it’s happened throughout history.

Take for example slavery. As far as we can tell, from our earliest days human beings have enslaved each other. Slavery took different forms in different eras and places, but for thousands and thousands of years, slavery, and all of the cruel and ugly things you have to do to keep people enslaved, was this inextricable part of economic and social systems all over the world. And then, seemingly out of nowhere in the 1700’s, groups of people started saying, “Actually, slavery is wrong.” Until that time there had been people who had sought reforms, tried to make enslavement more humane, but we don’t see a historical record of any widespread abolitionist movements. But then, like a light that had been flicked on, there were, and these movements grew up particularly under small, fringe groups of Christians like the Quakers, who despite the fact that they were in the extreme minority in the US And Europe, had this massive, outsized role in changing people’s hearts around slavery. And because this is so recent historians can actually track and measure this phenomenon and say, in this town in England, whose industrial economy was totally tied in with the slave trade, one year a thousand people signed a petition to end abolish it. The next year four thousand people signed the petition, and the next year fifty thousand, and then a hundred thousand. And this wasn’t like, “oh, their economy had moved on and no longer depended on unpaid labor” – not a bit. It was just like, “We’ve realized the cost of prosperity is too high and continuing down this path of treating some of God’s children as chattel is unacceptable.” Governments started acting against their own economic interests by emancipating slaves. And obviously this wasn’t universal, it didn’t end slavery everywhere, and it certainly didn’t stop racist policies, but during the 19th century slavery became the extreme exception in the world, rather than the rule. Which begs the question – if humanity can pivot so massively, and so deeply against what it has always done, what else is possible? What might God be doing, even now, to transform those places in our world that don’t align with the kingdom that he is creating among us, and what role might we have in that work if we allow ourselves to be brought into it?

As I hear Paul preach to the Athenians about this unknown God, this God whom he says they’ve been created by and caught up in without realizing it, I’m struck by the idea of hearing that message with our modern ears. Maybe modern’s not the right word – there are plenty of people who are not a bit shy around proclaiming, outside of the company of fellow believers, that the God we see in Christ is the one true Lord, the one to whom all must bow. And yet, in a world where we are a mere generation removed from the horrors of the Holocaust, where as we sit here, we know that violence is raging in the Middle East and Europe, where the costs of intolerance in our schools and on our streets are so high and so inescapable, we are aware of the all too terrible power that’s held when anyone believes that they have a monopoly on the truth. We Christians speak these words not with self-satisfaction or triumph, but confess them with fear and trembling because while our God is good, we know that humans are capable of such awful things when we believe that we have all the answers.

And maybe we’re at a time in history, in the great arc of religion, where to say “I know God” is more complicated than it’s ever been – the more we learn about the world, the planet, the building blocks of what makes us human, the more we realize how much it is we don’t know. And to preach certainty about anything, even about God, can feel like hubris – that we, like Paul, are far out of our league. And that’s where I think that Paul meets us – not as people who can wrap our minds around anything, much less God, with certainty, but as those who are, with the Athenians, invited to recognize the Resurrected as he moves into their midst. This is the God who we are invited not to understand, but to accept. A God who will not bow down to our notions of what he ought to be, a God who can’t be captured through art or imagination, boxed into a church or a people, a God who comes to us not in our highest towers but in our least articulate fumbling, that is the God who Paul is inviting us to see, not out there, but right with us. A God that we can’t predict or control, a God whom we serve not because he needs our worship but because he is the only who deserves ours. The great rabbi Abraham Heschel once said that faith is not clinging to a shrine, but an endless pilgrimage of the heart. And so as you go out into whatever this week holds for you, I invite you once more to this pilgrimage, to stand in the company of all of the faithful throughout the ages who, in our joys and our doubts, have caught a glimpse of this God as we work and play and parent and guide, and that you hold tight those words of Paul that you search for God and perhaps fumble about for him and find him, for he is, not, and will never be not far from us. In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, Amen.


Works Cited:
J.R. Briggs, “On the Eagles, the Super Bowl, and the Idols in All Our Cities” https://www.missioalliance.org/eagles-idolatry-rest-us/
Dee Ledger, “Shrines” https://bethesdaucc.org/sermon/shrines-rev-dee-ledger-may-17-2020/
Anna Wichman, “Would You Be Considered Beautiful in Ancient Greece?” https://greekreporter.com/2022/12/07/ancient-greek-beauty-standards-beautiful-greece/


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