Good News for Idolators
May 21, Sixth Sunday of Easter:
Sermon by Nicholas Hayes, Seminarian Intern
At an intersection along a back country Michigan road, about 30 minutes from the town where I grew up, stands a small, ramshackle, faded white church. I’d drive by it a lot growing up, when my parents and I would make our monthly pilgrimage from our 8,000 person town to the “big city” of Ann Arbor. The church was one of the landmarks I’d anticipate seeing along the way. What made it memorable was the large sign that loomed over it, which looked like it might have been lifted from a truckstop: “Only Jesus saves from the fires of Hell! Repent and believe in Him! ”it proclaimed to those driving by, in large black, block letters.
As I grew older, it came to appreciate the absurdity of such a road sign, not least on account of its contrast with the next sign along the road: “Dinosaur Park, next right.” But when I was younger, I would feel a mounting sense of dread every time we would approach it. And even as I began to find it funny, in my teen years, the discomfort never quite went away. By then, I had started to have more personal and direct encounters with the same brand of Christianity that would put a sign like that on the road. To me, that sign became the symbol of what “evangelism” was. “Evangelism” was about hell, and judgment, and the demand to “believe…or else.” “Evangelism was about fear.
Whether it’s a street corner sign, a street corner preacher, or an episode of the 700 club, I’d venture to say a large number of us have experienced that kind of evangelism. That may be why, for many of us Episcopalians, evangelism is so often an uncomfortable subject: the evangelism of fear has made us afraid of evangelism. It’s not something we’re particularly keen to talk about, or do. Even though we’d love to see more people in our churches, our preference is for newcomers to find us, and like us, and decide to stay—rather than for us to go out and find them. That certainly sometimes works, and it seems a whole lot less problematic than other kinds of evangelism. But on the other hand fewer people seem to be naturally “finding” Church these days. As Bishop Gates suggested in his meeting with our vestry two weeks ago, church communities are no longer something many people seek to belong to by default, in the way they used to. If we want to preserve our communities, we may need to get better at evangelism.
But surely filling our pews isn’t the only reason evangelism matters. If we look at the practice of the first Christians, evangelism—actively “sharing the good news of Christ”–was absolutely central to their understanding of what it meant to be a Christian. Our selection from the letter of Peter this week features the mandate to give an account of the hope that is in you. And in today’s Acts reading, we see Paul almost literally preaching on a “street corner”—the street corner in this case being the Areopagus, also known as “Mars Hill,” one of the central public spaces in Athens. Paul’s “Mars Hill” sermon to the Athenians is one of the most famous examples of evangelism in the New Testament. But it represents a very different vision of evangelism, and its importance, than the one held up by that road sign. And it’s a vision that’s still quite relevant today.
In sharing the good news with the Athenians, Paul is not concerned so much with hell, nor with unbelief, but with idolatry. Paul’s evangelism is a response to idolatry. Just before this passage, the Scripture tells us that when Paul came to Athens, he was “deeply distressed” by all the idols he saw, and Paul begins his sermon by speaking of the Athenians’ religion.
Rather than simply condemning the Athenians’ idolatry, Paul takes it as a sign of a hunger for God, and appeals to that underlying hunger. He interprets the famous Altar to an “Unknown God” on Mars Hill as an expression of the Athenians’ own recognition of something beyond their idols, and suggests that God is already intimately close to them, yet not recognized as such. What Paul does is give that unknown God for which they already long a name, and suggest God is much greater than any of the idols imagined by human imagination. Only then does he testify to the marvelous things that God has done for him and his community in raising Jesus from the dead. This is not an evangelism of fear. In the language of the first letter of Peter, Paul “gives an account of the hope that is in him, with gentleness and reverence.”
Now at first, Paul’s approach may seem very far removed from the present. Idolatry in the literal sense isn’t exactly one of our problems; to the contrary, our society seems less religious every day. But I think Paul means something deeper than mere “statue worship” by idolatry. Idolatry, for Paul, means worshipping in God’s place things that are not worthy of our worship, not only because they are not God, but because they are not even worthy of us, as God’s children.” That is the real significance of the Athenians’ idolatry. And idolatry of that kind is alive and well today. The late novelist David Foster Wallace—an atheist who eventually converted to Christianity—captured its features particularly well in a commencement address he gave at Kenyon College, called “This is Water.” As it’s that time of year, I’d like to share some of it with you:
In the day-to-day trenches of adult life, Wallace wrote, there is actually no such thing as atheism. There is no such thing as not worshipping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship. And an outstanding reason for choosing some sort of God or spiritual-type thing to worship — be it J.C. or Allah, be it Yahweh or the Wiccan mother-goddess or the Four Noble Truths or some infrangible set of ethical principles — is that pretty much anything else you worship will eat you alive. If you worship money and things — if they are where you tap real meaning in life — then you will never have enough. Never feel you have enough. It’s the truth. Worship your own body and beauty and sexual allure and you will always feel ugly, and when time and age start showing, you will die a million deaths before they finally plant you. On one level, we all know this stuff already — it’s been codified as myths, proverbs, clichés, bromides, epigrams, parables: the skeleton of every great story. The trick is keeping the truth up-front in daily consciousness. Worship power — you will feel weak and afraid, and you will need ever more power over others to keep the fear at bay. Worship your intellect, being seen as smart — you will end up feeling stupid, a fraud, always on the verge of being found out.
Look, the insidious thing about these forms of worship is not that they’re evil or sinful; it is that they are unconscious. They are default-settings. They’re the kind of worship you just gradually slip into, day after day, getting more and more selective about what you see and how you measure value without ever being fully aware that that’s what you’re doing nd the world will not discourage you from operating on your default-settings, because the world of men and money and power hums along quite nicely on the fuel of fear and contempt and frustration and craving and the worship of self. Our own present culture has harnessed these forces in ways that have yielded extraordinary wealth and comfort and personal freedom. The freedom to be lords of our own tiny skull-sized kingdoms, alone at the center of all creation. This kind of freedom has much to recommend it. But of course there are all different kinds of freedom, and the kind that is most precious you will not hear much talked about in the great outside world of winning and achieving and displaying. The really important kind of freedom involves attention, and awareness, and discipline, and effort, and being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them, over and over, in myriad petty little unsexy ways, every day. That is real freedom. The alternative is unconsciousness, the default-setting, the “rat race” — the constant gnawing sense of having had and lost some infinite thing.
St Paul and David Foster Wallace may seem an unlikely pairing. And yet I think they are each on to something profound about us human beings. We are natural idolaters, but our idolatry is also the flip side of something deeply good about us—our insatiable hunger for the infinite, for what we as Christians know as God. Our hunger for God is a product of the Spirit, which works in all of us. But unless that hunger is kept oriented towards its true source, we will seek to feed it by turning to an idol, with which our ego becomes defined—money, beauty, power, knowledge, even a violent image of God (as in the evangelism of fear). And the idol will eat us alive, and drive us to eat each other alive. that’s why it is so important to anchor ourselves as individuals in spiritual practices that call us constantly out of our false selves back to our Source, practices that teach us how to love, how to be free.
We don’t have to be Christian, or religious at all, to recognize how true this picture remains today. Idolatry is alive and well in our culture, and this is no less true of us as Christians than it is of anyone else. The idols are different than they were in Paul’s day, but idols they remain, and some days it feels like they eat us alive. At the same time, at some level, many of us recognize the emptiness of our idols, and their destructive consequences. And nearly all of us hunger for “something more.” People are searching for ways to connect to something greater, to teach them how to love, and how to be free. Many have simply stopped looking to organized religion to do the job. Hence our “spiritual but not religious” moment.
But religion may yet have something to offer to that spiritual hunger. One needn’t be religious to find an anchoring spirituality, but how much more surely we anchor ourselves if we practice in community with others, upon the firm ground of an ancient tradition. We need not believe that our Christian faith tradition is the only path to God to recognize that it is a remarkably rich one. The person of Jesus gives us a model of perfect love to imitate in our lives, and a sign in which to hope, that God’s love is stronger than anything, even than death. The prayers we learn, the table we share every Sunday, the works of service and justice we perform for each other and others are the ways we keep ourselves anchored in God. And the language of our tradition gives us a way to see and to name the ever-present work of grace—of the Spirit–in our lives for what it is, and to try and bring our lives into greater conformity with it. As Christians, our faith tradition, and our faith community, is a gift we can offer to others. Paul’s sermon on Mars Hill offers a model of how we offer it to others. Rather than relying on fear or judgment, we meet others where they are, connect to their spiritual desires, and give an account of the hope that is within us.
So as prepare to celebrate the presence of the Spirit in our midst, on Pentecost, we have an opportunity to ask ourselves: Where is the Spirit already at work in the world around us? Beneath the idols of our culture, which we all know too well, where is the Spirit stirring up hunger for God? And how shall we connect to that hunger, and offer our tradition, and our community, as a gift to it? Wow shall we go out into the world, and give an account of the hope that is in us?