Dangerous Meanings

On the one hand, we live in a world that is rotten with gods.

When I was very young, in one classroom or another, every school day started with the entire class standing up, and putting our hands over our hearts, and reciting the pledge of allegiance. It was a whole classroom—maybe even a whole school—full of children promising our faith and our fidelity to a flag and a republic, under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all. In monotonous unison.

And anyone who didn’t want to participate in that pledge—anyone who was saving their faith and their fidelity for something else—could sit in the hall and wait. But I don’t remember anyone ever doing that.

And I know that some people have fond memories and strong feelings about the pledge, but…

It’s just a little bit creepy, right? Partly because a group of children speaking in monotonous unison is always a little bit creepy. But also partly because it was an almost religious ritual; it was an almost worshipful act.

And also partly because we know how easy it is for patriotism to slide into nationalism… because we know how easy it is to go from reciting a well-meaning pledge to bowing down before the altar of an infallible state… because we have lived under repressive regimes, or read about it in history books, or watched the news.

And we live in a world that is rotten with gods. We bow down before all sorts of altars: of ideologies and media networks… of markets and careers and treasures on earth… or parties and pleasures of the flesh… of power and privilege and prestige.

And I want to be clear. I am not saying that we shouldn’t like things. I am not saying that we shouldn’t be fans. I’m just noticing how easy it is for that to slide into worship. I’m just noticing how easy it is to let those things rule over us. I’m just noticing how easy it is for those things to become more important than anything else at all.

In our scripture for today, Paul is waiting for Timothy and Silas to arrive in Athens. And Paul is killing time doing what Paul does. He is arguing with Jews in the synagogue and philosophers in the marketplace.

And arguing with philosophers is a blessing and a curse. Because the thing about arguing with philosophers is that they are interested in what you have to say. So they take him to the Areopagus—more famously known as Mars Hill—the place where they used to hold trials about murder, and battery, and olive tree arson, and religious matters… so that he can argue with more people.

And Paul knows that Athens is rotten with gods. There are household gods and the gods of all households. There are the gods of the city and the people and the empire. There are the gods of romance and medicine and war and death.

An offering here for the planting and here for the harvest. A sacrifice here for victory and here for recovery. An altar here to Athena… and here to Hephaestus… and here… to an unknown god.

So Paul says to these people… these philosophers, these Athenians, these folks who are eager to hear new things… Paul says to these people:

Athenians, I see how devout you are! I have walked the streets of this city and I has seen altar on altar on altar. I even saw an altar to an unknown god! And that tells me that you are on the right track. That tells me that you are looking for the right thing. That tells me that you are in search of something great. So let me tell you about this god who you do not know…

…in the beginning…

And he tells the people about the God who we know, who called the worlds into being and shaped every living thing… who set the sun and moon on their courses and breathed life into us… who does not live in temples or ask us for food, but who gives this world to us as a gift… 

…who calls us to search for them… and, when we find that so difficult, who comes and finds us.

And he tells these people that this God has set the time when the world will be judged by the Christ who they have appointed. And he tells these people that God has assured us of this by raising this Christ from the dead.

And… it works… a little bit. Some people believe. And some people thing that this is a bold claim, and a very bold claim, and an extremely bold claim, and that they need to hear more. And some people scoff.

But everyone has one more god to think about.

On the one hand, we live in a world that is rotten with gods. On the other hand, we are desperately searching—we are desperately groping among these gods—for someone who can give us meaning… for someone in whom we can live and move and have our being.

We look for it in patriotism and nationalism… in ideologies and media networks… in markets and careers and treasures on earth… in parties and pleasures of the flesh… in power and privilege and prestige… and in so much more.

And when I say we, I mean me.

And when I say we, I mean us: the people in this congregation.

And when I say we, I mean everybody.

We all sometimes slip from liking things to worshipping them. We all sometimes slide from being fans of things to bowing down at their altars. We all look for meaning—we all grope for meaning—in things that…

…in things that…

…well…

I want to say that we look for meaning in things that cannot provide meaning. And that’s probably true. We accept fuzzy facsimiles of meaning. We settle for something that looks just enough like meaning if we tilt our heads and squint and use our imagination. We roll with comforting lies and reassuring illusions.

But it is also true that we look for meaning in things that provide dangerous meanings.

A long time ago, I preached a sermon where I talked about Ashli Babbitt. Ashli was a woman who went to the Capitol on January 6, 2021, because she believed that an election had been stolen, and because she believed that there was a secret cabal of high-ranking Satan-worshipping politicians and celebrities who kidnapped and enslaved children.

And she wore her hoodie and her American flag backpack… and went through the halls of congress, looking for senators and representatives.

And when she tried to get through a broken window and into the Speaker’s Lobby, she was shot… and killed.

And I told you then that Ashli did not start there. Like so many others, she had a life filled with triumphs and with troubles. And, like so many others, one day, she started down a paranoid path. She bowed down before the altar of a god who offered her dangerous meaning. And she went to the Capitol breathing murder. And she died.

And I am telling you now that this god did not die with Ashli or leave with the counting of electoral votes. There are still people… on national stages and big media networks… with power and privilege and prestige… even in churches… who bow down—who make sacrifices—at the same altar.

And while that is the important one to pay attention to right now, I will remind you: we live in a world that is rotten with gods. And plenty of them are asking us to bow down at their altars—to make sacrifices—in exchange for dangerous meanings.

Today we are celebrating a baptism. And I know that’s a weird segue. But a baptism is both a welcome and a reminder.

You see, we practice infant baptism here. And while Caroline is no longer an infant, she is still too young to understand what has happened to her. She is too young to understand what she has just gotten herself into.

And that’s okay, because none of us understand what we’ve gotten ourselves into. We are all here worshipping at the altar of an unknown god who we hear in the words of the prophets and the sheer silence between mountains… who we see in the life of a crucified and risen savior…

…who does not live in temples or ask us for food, but who gives this world to us as a gift…

…who is not the god of the city or the people or the empire… who is not the god of romance or medicine or war or death…

…who is the god who is love…

…who calls us to search for them. And, when we find that so difficult, who comes and finds us… even though we do not understand what that means… even though we cannot understand what that means.

And it is, maybe, our faith in that god… who is known and unknown… who asks for nothing and for everything… who is so far away and right next to us and within every one of us… whose altar is the pleading face and the outstretched hand…

…it is, maybe, our faith in that god that keeps us from worshipping those other gods… from rolling with comforting lies and reassuring illusions… from adopting dangerous meanings….

…it is, maybe, our faith in that god that offers us the true and fulling meaning of a life lived in love… that makes us human… and that will, in the end, lead the God who is love to judge the world with love.

Hallelujah. Amen.

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