A sermon based on Acts 17:22-31

The other week I attended a performance at the Pillsbury House Theatre. It was part of their youth programming; a project called the Chicago Avenue Project. For the Spring portion of the program they choose eight children actors between the ages of 8 and 13. They pair them with an adult playwright who writes a short play for them to be featured in. Then the children act in that play with an adult actor under the direction of an adult director. It’s an amazingly fun program. At the end of the rehearsal time all of the children perform their plays as one complete evening of theatre. They do three shows for free for anyone who wants to come.

At the 4pm matinee that I attended the audience was filled with toddlers and pre-schoolers. It was noisy and the kids were excited. Emily, the artistic director of the program, got up to give a welcome. She asked the audience, “How many of you are seeing a play for the very first time?” All over the theatre small voices shouted “ME!” while hands were raised and waved in the air.

Then Emily said, what’s going to happen is that in just a minute the lights are going to go down and it’s going to be very dark. But we’re all friends here and we’re in this together so it’s going to be okay. And then you are going to see some really fun stuff.

It was such a simple welcome, but it stuck with me because of course, if you’ve never seen a play before, you would have no idea that the lights go out before everything starts. And if you’re a small person who is afraid of the dark (or things happening suddenly) having that happen might be very frightening. Emily’s gentle introduction let the children know what was coming and helped them to not be afraid. And by letting them know, she also taught them something about what happens in this new world that they were being introduced to for the first time.

I think we sometimes forget what it’s like to be a small person learning to navigate the world for the first time. We forget the anxiety and the fear. We forget the confusion and the learning curve.

Can you remember the last time you tried something entirely new? When was it? How outside of your comfort zone was it?

Do you remember how you felt as you walked into a new space for the first time? Wondering where to sit or stand? Wondering if you could learn all you needed to know as quickly as you needed to know it?

The older we get and the more life experience we acquire the easier it is to forget how hard it can be to try something new, to recognize newness in our lives and allow ourselves to be changed by new encounters. To put it even more simply, sometimes we just don’t know what we don’t know. 

So what does all of this have to do with church and God and our spiritual lives? For that we turn to the passage that was read earlier from the book of Acts. 

The book of Acts is an amazing book. It’s one of my favorites in the Bible. First of all because it’s filled with amazing stories and adventures, but mostly because it’s so human and honest. Acts tells the story of the very first followers of Jesus. The ones who are founding the church.

But it’s not like Jesus left them with a blueprint. Certainly he left them with instructions; go to every corner of the earth and teach and make disciples. And he left them the Holy Spirit. But the rest was, frankly, pretty vague. How, exactly were they going to go to every corner of the earth? What did it mean to make disciples? What did it mean to follow a Jesus who was no longer physically present with them? How was this whole thing supposed to look?

Acts is the story of them figuring it out. Flailing along. Messing up. Changing their minds. When the book begins only Jewish people were allowed to be a part of the church, but the end the doors have been thrown open to everyone. It’s the story of how things got started. How they made sense of their new lives and callings.

And in today’s passage we have this wonderful little vignette. Paul was in Athens. He was there because his preaching had gotten him into trouble in the towns he had been in before. He was in Athens for a break, for safety, to regroup. As he walked around the marketplaces he noticed that there were idols everywhere. And he find this statue that is dedicated “to the unknown God.” Later on Paul is taken to the high court and asked to speak and he starts by talking about this statue that is for the unknown God.

Now, Paul is kind of known for his bluster. He can be a little blunt. His preaching was regularly getting him into trouble. And yet, in this moment, instead of going on the defensive he starts gently, “I can see that you are very religious.” He’s acknowledging their religiosity, their pursuit of something higher, their desire to be a part of something bigger than themselves. He lets them know that he gets it, that he feels it too. And then he brings up this statue and instead of making fun of them for having a statue to an unknown God, instead of disparaging them, he kind of applauds them for having all of their bases covered. He appreciates their humility in stating so clearly that there are things that they might not know. There might be a God that they haven’t found yet. And Paul uses this humility, this openness, to tell them about the Christian God and about the life and work of Jesus. “What you worship as unknown, I now proclaim to you.”

I appreciate that you are open, so let me tell about what I know that you haven’t experienced yet. He gives this beautiful speech and in it he says, “so that they would search for God and perhaps grope for him and find him—though indeed he is not far from each one of us. For ‘In him we live and move and have our being’; as even some of your own poets have said, ‘For we too are his offspring.’ Since we are God’s offspring…” He quotes their own poets to them, he interprets their longings and lets them know that they can be a part of something, that God is not far from them. That they, too, are God’s offspring.

And what does it mean to be God’s offspring? It means that God is concerned for and cares about each one of us, from the tiniest of babies to the oldest of elders. That no matter where we are in our life’s journey, God is close to us and calling us to be involved in the ongoing work of Jesus in the world.

I believe that much of our work in life is to simply pay attention, to notice, and to find and make meaning. So much of spirituality is looking for where God is working in the world, naming that work, and then finding out how we can be a part of it, knowing that God is close to us as we venture down new paths.

It’s like this: I see that you really care about immigration, God is the God of the immigrants, let’s work together for justice. I see that you really care about the earth and creation, God has given the earth to us as a gift, let’s work together to care for our planet. I see that you really care about LGBTQ people, God has given us diversity and created us good, let’s work together to create a world that honors that diversity. We pay attention, we name it, we get involved.

And as adults who are given care of children; whether as parents or grandparents or teachers or as adults in community with children and youth in this place, part of our calling is to honor where children are, to help them name their experiences, and to get involved with them.

I think back to that experience at Pillsbury house where Emily told the children about the darkness. She honored their excitement for seeing something new, told them about what they were going to experience, and then showed them how cool theatre can be. It was simple but it made a big difference.

We can do the same thing here. Honor children’s curiosity about what happens in worship and in the life of the church, honor their passions and interests, connect with them on their level, and then find ways for us all to do the work together.

It might mean that the starting point is listening to a child tell you for the 400th time about their legos or the newest movie they’ve seen or what the hottest game is. But even when you are hearing it for the millionth time, remember that their excitement is being shared with you. When a child is noisy in worship or yells out an answer to a rhetorical question during the sermon, remember that they are gracing you with their enthusiasm. Don’t dampen their excitement, allow their excitement to excite you.

But it’s not just children and youth who are experiencing new things, who are entering into situations where they are facing the unknown, who are learning and growing. It’s all of us! (Or at least it should be!) For some of us it’s entering a new stage of life; marriage, having children, being an “empty nester”, living without a spouse or a parent. For others it’s a new job or hobby, or a new avenue of justice work. 

And we’re afraid. And nervous. We don’t know what we don’t know and in that not knowing we are terrified that we’re going to mess it up.

So we remember these words from Paul: In God we live and move and have our being. God is close to each one of us, longing to be found by us. All we need to do is pay attention.

What new thing will you learn? What new justice journey will you embark on? How will you pay attention to the work God is already doing in the world? How will you name that work? How will you get involved?

How would the world be different; How would our church be different if we encouraged this quest for learning new things, for cultivating curiosity, for paying attention? How would it shift how we interact with one another and how we do ministry together?

We have been given the gifts of wonder and curiosity. Our spirituality is tied to how we pay attention.

When Emily told the children that it was about to get dark she also told them that they weren’t alone, that we were all in it together. And that applies here as well; we are not alone when we try new things, we are not alone when we struggle, we are not alone as we learn and fail and try again. We are not alone as we grow, as we enter new stages of life, as we follow Jesus. God is close to each one of us and we are all in it together.

So let us wonder. Let us grow. Let us learn. Let us be curious. Let us try new things. Let us help one another along on the journey by sharing what we have learned at each stage of our lives. Let us encourage one another to ask questions and figure things out. Let us experiment. Let us boldly admit that we don’t know everything and that there is always more to learn. Let us name where we are seeing God working in the world, and let us work together.

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