2020.05.17 Sixth Sunday of Easter
God who made heaven and earth, who flung stars into space and knelt in the dust to shape our frail form, who walked amongst us in Jesus and who breathes life into all, we come to offer our praise and thanksgiving. Receive our worship and receive us. Open our hands. Take from us our burdens and our fears. Strengthen us for the days ahead. Shape our hearts for love and our hands for giving. Use this time to fulfil your purposes in us. Amen.
Seeking the unknown God
I have long loved this passage in Acts that tells of Paul addressing the Athenians at the Areopagus, a place where judges held court and philosophers battled wits. Paul stands before the crowd, pointing out to them that they are a nation of seekers who among their altars to myriad gods include an altar addressed To an Unknown God. He goes on to proclaim who God is – maker of heaven and earth, giver of life and breath to all humans, and revealed in Jesus Christ.
In 2002 whilst on sabbatical I took a course with St George’s College, Jerusalem entitled In the footsteps of Paul. One of the highlights was a visit to Athens, where we climbed up to the Areopagus and read this passage alongside letters we had prepared to our gathered crowd. I had written a letter from Thecla to Paul (an early follower, her daring do was recorded in The Apocryphal Acts of Paul and Thecla). I don’t remember much of what was written and read but for Paul’s address. It struck me then, as it does now, that it is timeless. For it speaks to the longing in the human heart that drives us to seek God.
It is the poetry in Paul’s speech that most moves me. He speaks of how we are made to search for God, groping, and to find God –though indeed God is not far from each one of us. For ‘in God we live and move and have our being’.
Like the altar To the Unknown God, we know that there is Something. It is so close to us – as close as our breath, as close as the atoms that make up all matter. And yet it is so far beyond our understanding, as far as the sun, moon and stars. We reach, grope, grasp for God but can never put God in a box, never find the perfect words, never fully comprehend the enormity despite the intimacy.
Yesterday I heard that so far during this pandemic, 25% of people under the age of 35 have searched religious sites online. We know that nowhere near that many people of any age attend church in this country. But still there is the longing. The present challenges touch that longing. Questions of meaning and purpose surface. The urge to pray, to reach out to the Source of Being, bubbles up. I am reminded of the saying: there are no atheists in foxholes. When we are in extremis, we reach out for a lifeline. We know that we are not enough on our own. We are creatures, not the Creator.
We are creatures, part of an interdependent web of life, all of which is beloved by its Creator. The pandemic underscores the interdependent web. A cough in Wuhan becomes a global infection in a few short weeks. Disease jumps from species to species, person to person. Our hitherto comfy lifestyles have been dependent on chains of production and distribution we never thought about until now. We need each other to live. And we need God to live well – this unknowable God, the Source, the Guide, the Goal. Something in us knows that. Something that makes us search and grope and ultimately, hopefully find God.
Augustine Bishop of Hippo wrote this three centuries after Paul:
Late have I loved you, O Beauty ever ancient, ever new, late have I loved you!
You were within me, but I was outside, and it was there that I searched for you.
In my unloveliness I plunged into the lovely things which you created.
You were with me, but I was not with you.
Created things kept me from you;
yet if they had not been in you they would have not been at all.
You called, you shouted, and you shattered my deafness.
You flashed, you shone, and you dispelled my blindness.
You breathed your fragrance on me; I breathed you in and now I pant for you.
I have tasted you, now I hunger and thirst for you.
You touched me, and now I burn for your peace.
May all of our searching and groping lead us to find ourselves in God, whose love will never let us go, whose presence sustains us and whose life within us overflows to abundance.
So be it. Amen.
Hymn You are before me, Lord, you are behind R&S 731
You are before me, Lord, you are behind,
and over me you have spread out your hand;
such knowledge is too wonderful for me,
too high to grasp, too great to understand.
Then where, Lord, from your Spirit shall I go,
and where, Lord, from your presence shall I fly?
If I ascend to heaven you are there,
and still are with me though in hell I lie;
and if I take my flight into the dawn,
or if I dwell on ocean’s farthest shore,
your mighty hand will rest upon me still,
and your right hand will guard me evermore.
If I should say ‘Darkness will cover me,
and I shall hide within the vale of night’,
surely the darkness is not dark to you,
the night is as the day, the darkness light.
Search me, O God, search me and know my heart;
try me, O God, my mind and spirit try;
keep me from any path that gives you pain,
and lead me in the everlasting way.
Psalm 139: 5-12, 23, 24 metrical version by R. Pitt-Watson (1923- ) © I. Pitt-Watson
And now unto the One who is able to keep us from falling
and lift us from the dark valley of despair to the bright mountain of hope,
from the midnight of desperation to the daybreak of joy:
to God be power and authority, forever and ever. Amen.