Scripture: Acts 17:16-28a
Acting Out: Living, Moving, Being
Rev. Leanne Walt
An eclectic group sat around our table at Rotary Club this past Thursday - a mortgage salesman, a bank manager, a retired High School principal, a financial planner, an architect, and a minister. Sounds like the beginning of a bad joke, I know, but there we were, the bunch of us and before I could get the financial planner’s thoughts on my stock portfolio or on our recent establishment of a 529 Plan, he looked over from across the table and asked:
“So, are you, like, a priest?” which is a question, that as many times as I’m asked it never ceases to amaze me.
“No,” I smiled and shook my head, waiting to see if that answer would suffice.
In the short time that I’ve been attending Rotary, I’ve learned that this guy is the much loved, resident funny man, so I sensed this wasn’t the end of his line of questioning. And, because God makes for more interesting table conversation than do mortgage rates, the others didn’t seem to mind and, I certainly didn’t. You know, I’ve found that somehow when a minister, priest, or rabbi, enters the equation, suddenly that rule of etiquette, “don’t talk religion or politics at the dinner table” goes right out the window. In fact, I would imagine the same to be true for politics if we were to dine with Scott or Elizabeth, Mitt, or Barack, especially these days. No matter what our political views, we just couldn’t help ourselves.
He continued, “You know, when he was dying my grandfather suddenly became a Christian and I said, ‘Gramps, it doesn’t work that way. You can’t live your life one way and then when you’re time’s up decide that you need God.’ What do you think about that? Do you think God turned him away?” He looked up at me from across the table.
Using that old pastoral trick, I turned the question back to him, “Do you think God turned him away?’
“I would have,” he said.
“But would God have?” I asked.
“Ah, yeah, maybe not, but what about science?” He continued, “Does science make you doubt the existence of God?”
“Actually, science enhances my belief,” I said, “since as much as we know, there is still so much that we don’t,” which, as you can imagine, sparked a energetic exchange among the whole group - because whether mortgage salesman, architect, high school principal, bank manager, or minister, man or woman, young or old, Republican, Democrat, Libertarian, or Independent, Moderate or Conservative, all hues of skin and all styles of life, Christian, Muslim, Jew, Unitarian, Hindu, Quaker, Sikh, Baha’i, Buddhist, Atheist, or Agnostic, we are all guided by this common journey to test the spirit of truth ~ moving from the how to the why, from the origins of organisms to purpose and meaning, from the tangible to the transcendent, from the physical to the eternal, from the realities of science to the mysteries of faith.
The journey of testing, questioning, and challenging the spirit of truth long preceded this week’s meeting of the Braintree Rotary Club, it’s one that we’ve all undertaken by virtue of our coming into this world possessing a body and soul, reason and sensation and it was the prevailing journey in the ancient world, for those that followed Moses through the Red Sea with the hope of the Promised Land, for those three that followed the rising star with the hope of a Savior Child, and for those who followed Jesus long after he was gone from this world with the hope of making disciples. In fact, this journey for the spirit of truth we find aptly articulated by the early followers of Jesus. Paul, of course among them.
Where we pick up in Acts this morning we join him in Athens on his continuing mission testifying to the life, miracles, and ministry of Jesus. By the time Paul was there, Athens was no longer the most renowned city in the ancient world as it had been overwhelmed by forces of Roman occupation, yet in many ways it remained the cultural, historical, and philosophical center of the region. And here, in the 17th chapter, Paul challenges Greek philosophy with its emphasis on nature and their belief in many gods.
And he says to them that God intended this to be our journey - to test the spirit of truth – to bridge the divine and human, heaven and earth divide, to ignite within each one the urge to search for, grope for, hope for, and find God.
Not the unknown and manifold God that the pagans professed but the God whom Paul, borrowing from Greek poetry, identifies as, the God “in whom we live, and move, and have our being.” God that is known, not unknown; God that is near, not far; God within, not beyond.
There is a scene in the book, The Shack, where the main character Mack finds himself in a shack in the middle of the woods with God in form of a large African American woman named Papa, and Jesus, who, appropriately resembles a middle-eastern carpenter, and the Holy Spirit in the form of an Asian woman named Sarayu…have I intrigued you enough to read the book?
But there is a scene where Mack explains to Papa, Sarayu, and Jesus that he tries to prioritize God above all other things in his life, kind of like a pyramid, with God at the very top and all other relationships falling below.
And Jesus says to him, “Mack, I don’t want to be first among a list of values; I want to be at the center of everything. When I live in you, then together we can live through everything that happens to you. Rather than the top of a pyramid, I want to be the center of a mobile, where everything in your life, your friends, family, occupation, thoughts, activities – is connected to me but moves with the wind, in and out and back and forth, in an incredible dance of being.”
“For in him we live and move and have our being.”
God that is known, not unknown; God that is near, not far, God within, not beyond.
Some years before I began to walk this journey and dance of being with the fine people of First Church, our brother and friend, Dick Hewson, faithful servant of God through this body of Christ, was overcome by Alzheimer’s disease – you know, Rev. Bill Abernathy, a wonderful UCC minister here in Massachusetts who battled Parkinson’s for 27 years until he passed away in 2010 described Parkinson’s as a man with muddy shoes that knocks on your door one day and refuses to leave. The man with muddy shoes stays in your house, uninvited, puts his feet up on the coffee table, gets comfortable, and refuses to leave. Alzheimer’s is also surely muddy and most certainly uninvited, cutting in on the dance of being that God intends for us.
I was reminded, though, this week of a story from a time before Dick’s man with the muddy shoes came knocking – a story that I had heard right after we moved into the parsonage – a story about the infamous Hewson family who used to live just around the corner from where we are in the Highlands, the house on the bend, raised up on a hill and set back from the road. Apparently, the Hewson boys – the four of them and Dick – had built THE BEST tree house EVER – elaborately wired with electricity and always playing music that traveled all the way to the other side of the neighborhood. And, each night, when it was time for dinner Dick would stand at the back door and give off a whistle whose sound, from what I’ve been told, traveled further than the music from the tree house…gathering his beloved safely in for the night.
Suddenly a God that can seem so far is made near in a love that is visible and a God that can seem unknowable is made known in our hearts – through a life well lived, a song well sung, a dance well danced with God at its center.
It is a difficult maneuver, particularly when the man with the muddy shoes is involved, to move from the how to the why, from the tangible to the transcendent, from the physical to the eternal, from the realities of science to the mysteries of faith. It's a difficult maneuver. For as Paul elsewhere writes, “we know in part, and we prophesy in part…” (1 Cor 13).
But if we keep God at the center and not at the top, if we ground ourselves in rather than reach above for God, we find that even in the presence of the man with the muddy shoes and even in the heart of the grandfather who spent his life doubting only to believe in the end, God is there all the while - living, moving, being – calling, restoring, strengthening, and forgiving.
 Young, W.M. Paul, The Shack: where tragedy confronts eternity, p. 209