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Holy Envy

Rev. Dan Smith
Sun, May 25

The Sixth Week of Eastertide

Text: Acts 17: 22-31

Last week, I had the privilege of joining five of my clergy colleagues for a few days of study leave in Santa Fe, New Mexico.  One of them, who is currently on sabbatical, had rented a large house on a ridge which looked across the river valley to a mountain horizon over which the sun would set each night through a spectacular array of pink and orange clouds.  In addition to time for reading, meditation and exercise and lots of shop talk about our ministries, we did a few touristy things as well, like exploring the gorgeous landscapes that inspired the artwork of Georgia O’keeffe.  One morning, we found ourselves hiking amidst the towering desert stone structures she called the “White Place,” after the lightness of the color of the giant rock formation.  We visited Ghost Ranch in Abiqui. And, we heard the story of and saw O’keeffe’s favorite natural inspiration, a flat-topped mountain called Cerro Pedernal. The Pedernal, as it’s known, lifts high into the Northern New Mexico sky and is visible for miles. O’keeffe once famously said of the vast mesa, “God told me if I painted it enough, I could have it.” At least she knew it wasn’t hers to begin with!  O’Keeffe’s ashes are scattered on that mountaintop today.  For the famous artist and for the Native Americans who still populate much of the region, the Pedernal was like an altar set down in that majestic and painted desert land. The writer Barbara Brown Taylor has another description for such altars in the world:  “places where human beings have met and may continue to meet up with the divine More they sometimes call God.”  This was certainly true for O’keefe’s favorite spot. It was a place where she could meet up with that divine More that she called God!

I wonder what altars this story brings to your minds, what places of divine meeting?  Perhaps they are altars in nature, art or our tradition, perhaps it’s even at this church and this table! What are those altar-like places of wonder, loss or love where you have met God, and where you continue to meet and know God?  

Before we explore that question, let’s first flashback about two thousand years and imagine the Apostle Paul making his way into Athens, which happens to be the classic university town, full of big ideas and people who were not afraid to use them.  The Areopagus, or Mars Hill, as it was known, was a public place where scholars and philosophers were invited to share ideas in open exchange.  Though the audience is unspecified in our reading from Acts, we can imagine Paul had an attentive group of listeners to his makeshift sermon. Biblical commentaries disagree on whether or not Paul was being sincere in his opening remarks, but I suggest we take him at face value. When he says “I have seen how extremely religious you are” let’s try to hear it as a genuine compliment as opposed to a calculated rhetorical strategy. When he ‘carefully’ surveys their religious objects, again, I suggest we stick to the text and understand this line to mean that he was truly engaged in learning about their ways.  And when he saw that altar, and took the time to read the inscription underneath it “to an unknown God,” once again, once again, this can be read a sign of sincere interest and respect and perhaps even admiration for their ways of searching for God!

For the Athenians who venerated a pantheon of gods, this altar to an unknown God may have been their way of covering their bases.  It may have been a stand-in for a god or gods they did not know, a plea for forgiveness for whatever unintended omissions, sort of like the ‘tomb of the Unknown Soldier” in Arlington National Cemetery. It may also have been a humble admission of their mortality and recognition that the divine was ultimately something far greater than they could fully imagine.  Whatever the case, Paul’s posture towards these Athenians here reminds me of something articulated once by the former Dean of Harvard Divinity School and Bishop of Stockholm, Krister Stendahl.  He laid out three basic rules for engaging in interreligious dialogue:

(1) When trying to understand another religion, you should ask the adherents of that religion and not its enemies.

(2) Don't compare your best to their worst.

(3) Leave room for “holy envy.” 

First, ask adherents not their enemies. In our text, Paul was right there in face-to-face conversation with the adherents of Hellenistic culture and religion, even learning their poetry!

Second, don’t compare your best to their worst. Paul doesn’t insult the Athenians here.  And he exercises some serious restraint in the tenor of his evangelism, especially compared to some of the zeal he shares in so many of his others sermons! Did you not notice he does not even mention the name of Jesus?

Third, leave room for Holy Envy. Paul says, “I have seen how extremely religious you are!”  Perhaps there were things about Athenian religiosity that Paul wishes his fellow Christians could adapt or practice.  We can relate to this right, when we admire the daily prayer of Muslims or the Friday night Shabbat dinners of Jews.

To those three rules, I would add a fourth: “Be clear about what you are contributing to the interreligious dialogue! And here, Paul serves as a model for people of all faiths.  After doing his best to meet the Athenians where they were, he sees an opportunity to let them know where he was!  He offers a compelling testimony of his faith in his God that to him is both knowable and known.

You know that credit card commercial that ends with the question “what’s in your wallet?”  I’ve got another question:  What’s on your altar?  Paul’s answer is clear! Paul’s God gives life and breaths to all living things, wants to be known, and wants us to know ourselves, always inviting us to become our best selves by way of confession and repentance.  Ultimately, he says he knows this God by virtue of a righteous human judge who God has set apart by raising him from the dead.  He’s not rattling off a list of systematic doctrine here. None of that existed yet when this was written. He’s no Jesus freak here, either.  He is speaking from experience and from what he’s come to hold in his heart with passion and conviction!  What’s more, Paul is excited to be sharing his faith here and elsewhere. And he shares it in such a way that this Athenian peers might understand.  He even quotes an Athenian poet, Epiminedes, when he says that they all “live and move and have their being” in this God.  Perhaps the Athenians have rubbed off on us!

You see….Paul saw the Athenian altar to an unknown God as an opening to share his own faith.  He took it as symbol of the humility of the Athenians proclaiming that they did not know everything there was to know about God!  Paul matches this humility when he says, “God can’t be contained by any human shrines!”  But he doesn’t stop there.  He then goes on, as if to say,“But this I do know! This I do believe.” There’s no sense of a watered down civic faith here.  Without that clear articulation of his own faith, there could have been no genuine interreligious dialogue! 

So, with Paul’s model in mind, I ask again:  what’s on your altar?  What holds that place of what Paul Tillich called “ultimate concern” in your life?  What lies at the ‘center of your faith’ and where do you most find yourself encountering that divine More?  Put another way, were you given a chance to stand up in our own Areopagus of Harvard Square, say, what would you offer? Assuming you could trust a spirit of mutual respect if not mutual holy envy, what would you contribute to the dialogue?

 A few years ago when the Greater Boston Interfaith Organization was fighting for statewide healthcare reform and as we were zeroing in on a legislative package that was enduring significant backlash from the extremes of both sides of the political spectrum, a State Rep pulled me aside and said:  you know, there are always someone who will try to sacrifice the common good at the altar of perfection.  It may not have been an original sentiment but it was the first time I’d heard it.  The line has stayed with me, and it made we wonder:

Do we sacrifice the common good at the altar of perfection?

For that matter, do we sacrifice a life giving connection to Jesus at the altar of vague, universal values?

Do we sacrifice our convictions about what’s right and wrong at the altar of a moral relativism we call inclusion? 

Do we sacrifice our capacity to share what gives our lives hope and meaning at the altar of our fear, fear of what others will think of us, fear of intruding or overwhelming. 

I ask these questions because I think they point to obstacles we face when it comes to sharing our faith.  Knowing what is on our altars is sometimes a matter of first removing those less than ultimate concerns that can leave us feeling tongue tied and insecure about sharing our faith!  Concerns about not being articulate enough, not knowing scripture enough, not seeming open enough to others ways, or not being confident enough!  If this is what’s holding us back, we are worshipping our fears more than our God in whom we all live and move and have our being!  We should take a page from Paul and his sermon at the Areopagus!  Listen and learn what we can from others, practice sacred envy always, but do not be afraid to share what you hold most sacred and what’s on your altar!  Just imagine for a moment that others may be genuinely interested in learning about your faith! Others may even be willing to hold that sense of sacred envy towards us, towards the gifts and graces of belonging to a community of shared values and rituals and social engagement, towards the ways we have of lifting up and blessing those most important human moments of joy and loss.

I just spent a week with an Episcopalian rector, the Dean of the Cathedral in Sacramento, who shared with me the story of something he calls “Yoga Church.”  A longtime practitioner himself of silent meditation and Bikram or so called hot yoga, he came into relationship with a local Yoga Studio.  When they found out that he was minister, they asked him if could teach them about Jesus, not out of any desire to convert their classes but out of their own curiosity and out of their hope that he would be able to speak to them in a language they could appreciate and understand.  He leads a class once a week now, not at church, but at the studio, before the yoga session.  He said that a few people in the class have ended up coming to his church whether to visit or stoy but far more are happy just to have a better understanding of who Jesus was and is.  This class is a very cool idea, and something I’d love for us to try!

Or, consider the Daughters of Abraham interfaith reading groups, which began here at First Church and of which there are now over 20 chapters of small groups of Christian, Jewish and Muslim women who read books about the each other’s faiths.  Consider the Kids4Peace summer camp that we sponsor and that will host 12 Christian, Jewish and Muslim 6th graders from Israel and Palestine and 12 of the same from Boston for an interreligious exchange in which they will learn about each others faith practices, everything from daily prayers to different eating and worship habits.  These are opportunities to encounter the faith and altar places of others, chances to learn and practice sacred envy and to practice contributing what we can to the dialogue.

When it comes to sharing what’s on our altars and maybe first tidying them up, I hope we can all take Paul’s lead.  Keep it simple. Makes sure what's on your altar is in your heart, and not just in your head, share it in a language that others can understand. Ask yourself first, what is on your altar?  Maybe its that God is a great mystery, though one you know through relationships – with nature, with art or music, with other people, offering specific examples!  Maybe it’s a favorite hymn or prayer that captures your faith, or a story of something meaningful that happened to you that first inspired your faith in God. Maybe it's the way Jesus has taught you how to live a good life, with love, mercy, healing and justice for yourself, your neighbors and the world. Maybe its gratitude for the lessons of forgiveness and second chances or a conviction that God’s big love is stronger than death or judgment.  Once you are clear on even a few simple things, how do you share it?  Paul did it in just 8 verses. And it may come after someone is sharing with you what’s important to them. Or, you could try starting the conversation by asking others about those places where they meet the sacred, about what is on their altars!   You might be surprised by what you learn from the conversation, not only about them but about yourself as well.  By all means, leave room for holy envy, both yours and theirs, be prepared to find a new, perhaps even a shared altar of encountering that divine More that we call God!  Amen.

 

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