The Episcopal Church of the Holy Innocents
Sixth Sunday of Easter, May 21, 2017, Year A
My gods and your gods
“Hear O Israel, The Lord our God, the Lord is one” Amen (Deuteronomy 6:4)
What I just prayed is called the Shema and it is the primary prayer of the Jewish people found in Deuteronomy 6 verse 4. It is a very ancient prayer. No one knows really how long this prayer has been in use before its appearance in the Torah or its oral tradition. It is found everywhere especially in the Mezuzahs which are affixed to the right side of the front door of observant Jews. This prayer is also found in the tefillin which religious males wear on their foreheads and on their arms according to the instructions in Deuteronomy 6 vs.8. You may remember when Rob Schram was here during our Lenten Series on prayer, a few years ago, and he presented Jewish ways of praying. He wrapped the tefillin around his arms and on his forehead. The box on the arm and on the forehead each contained the Shema. This prayer reflects the first commandment which proclaims “you shall have no other gods before me” (Exodus 20:5).
Reading Acts 17 in preparation for this sermon reminded me of this prayer, one that Paul would have known from childhood because he was raised a religious Jewish household. He describes himself as a Jew among Jews, circumcised on the eighth day, of the tribe of Benjamin, raised a Pharisee, once named Saul of Tarsus, righteous and blameless under the law and persecutor of the new sect called Christians (Philippians 3:5). Paul came out of the monotheistic tradition that says “Hear O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one.”
Paul’s Jewish identity changed when Jesus appeared to him on the road to Damascus and he converted to Christianity (Acts 9). At first local believers were very leery of Paul, they did not trust him. After all he was present at the stoning of Stephen encouraging his punishment. But much has changed and Paul is a new believer and an ardent one. He starts missionary trips which will take him through much of the known world preaching the Gospel.
He finds himself in Athens, Greece after trouble in Thessalonica. The Athenians are great lovers of philosophy and always want to know what is the latest philosophy circulating around the world.
When he comes to Athens, and sees the plethora of gods and goddesses, each with its own shrine, Paul uses this to pay the Athenians a complement. “I see that you Athenians take your religion seriously. When I arrived here the other day, I was fascinated with all the shrines I came across. And then I found one inscribed, to the god nobody knows.” Paul might have said to them “Is this shrine just in case you missed one along the way?” But notice Paul’s technique here. First he compliments them –“you take your religion seriously” and then he makes use of what he knows about their culture, they even include a shrine to the god nobody knows, and tie it into an introduction to Jesus. Even his sermon talks directly to the Athenian culture.
There is a God, Paul says, “Who made the world and everything in it.”
I want to tell you about him so you can worship intelligently, know who you are dealing with. This God is not remote; he’s near. He’s not made out of stone; it doesn’t make a lot of sense to hire a sculptor to chisel a god out of stone for us, does it? The unknown is now known, and he’s calling for a radical life-change. Paul is a good example of a preacher who can take what he sees around him and use it as an object lesson in his presentation.
This dramatic story has some good lessons for us if we want to tell our own faith story to someone who may not know much about Christianity. What if one of your neighbors or co-workers or even a family member asked you: why do you go to church? What’s in it for you?
I’ve been thinking about going to church and I’m wondering why I should do that.
I was raised___________(fill in the blank) and I don’t want to go to that church – what do you like about your church? Why should I go there?
Peter says “Be ready to speak up and tell anyone who asks why you’re living the way you are, and always with the utmost courtesy” (I Peter 3:15-16, The Message). Are you ready to speak up?
The first thing one does in such circumstance is to send a quick, one word prayer heavenward HELP! The second thing is to listen for what the person is really saying. Are they asking about theology or liturgical practice? Do they want to know what the congregation is like and would they fit in there? Is it a friendly place? Are they interested in a relationship with God? You can always probe with a question or two. Have you had any experience with church? What was it like? What does church mean to you? Would you like to come to church with me next Sunday? I can help you with the service and we can go out to breakfast after the service.
Remember what Jesus says in today’s reading from the Gospel according to John. 14:15-17 “If you love me, show it by doing what I’ve told you. I will talk to the Father, and he’ll provide you another Friend so that you will always have someone with you. This Friend is the Spirit of Truth. The godless world can’t take him in because it doesn’t have eyes to see him, doesn’t know what to look for. But you know him already because he has been staying with you, and will even be in you!” The Holy Spirit will give you the words you need.
Paul’s lessons on witnessing to our faith are helpful to us as we contemplate how we might tell others about our own faith. But that not all that is in this reading. There are some questions that I find useful to ask myself when I read this passage. The passage and the first commandment say there is one God and we shall have no other gods before our one God. I have to ask myself – do I have any gods that come before the One God that I have taken vows to serve? The answer to that question, and I know you are waiting for me to tell you what a bad girl I have been, is of course, I lose track of who is really in charge.
We all generally have issues in our lives that we let come between us and God, mine are most often a function of my/our failure to trust God completely and therefore we try to control events and leave God out of it. Sometimes we put substances such as alcohol, drugs, food in between ourselves and God. You have heard my story about my struggle with alcohol. It became the god of my life and until I was ready to give it up, it ruled my life. Thank God for recovery.
We can let other things stand in our way, too. Possessions, money, power, prestige, competition, and so on, anything that comes between us and God can become a false god. I think about families where a fight has come between its members and hatred is the primary god. Forgiveness coming from our loving relation with Jesus and it should direct us in a different direction. Another good example of what stands in the way of our relationship with God and can become a god in its own right is resentment. Resentment can take over our lives and discolor everything. Beware or resentments. Anything that prevents us from loving Jesus with all our hearts and serving him according to what he requires. We are to keep our hearts at attention, in adoration before Christ our Master as Peter says. And John tells us “if you love me show it by doing what I’ve told you.” Love one another, serve one another, and pray for one another, these beautiful actions Jesus lays before us.
Hear O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is One.
 Acts 17:22-31
I Peter 3:13-22