Sermon Preached by the Rev. Thomas P. O’Dell
Rector, Christ Episcopal Church, Charlevoix, Michigan
May 21, 2017 – The Sixth Sunday of Easter, Year A
St. Paul was the great preacher and evangelist to the Gentiles. He travelled far and wide to spread the Good News of Jesus Christ.
As we travel with Paul in today’s reading from the Acts of the Apostles, we find ourselves in Greece — at the Areopagus in Athens, the most prestigious center of intellectual inquiry in all the ancient world.
As the apostle entered Athens, he encountered idols — lots and lots of idols. Idols everywhere, on every street corner. Shrines crafted for the worship of the gods and goddesses of commerce, of war, of the sun, the moon and the stars, thunder, lightening, rain, and on, and on, and on. “Here an idol, there an idol, everywhere an idol!”
In this great center of learning and philosophy, Paul learned something about pagans and idolatry. He learned that, the problem with pagans is not that they refuse to worship. The problem with pagans is that they will worship absolutely anything that is put in front of their face.
Did you notice St. Paul’s wry, feigned astonishment in the sermon that he preached to the Athenians at the Areopagus? At the very beginning of his address, his voice dripping with sarcasm, Paul said:
“Athenians, I see how extremely religious you are in every way. For as I went through the city and looked carefully at the objects of your worship, I found among them an altar with the inscription, ‘To an unknown god.’”
In other words, the Athenians didn't want to miss any possible opportunity to engage in idolatry. So just in case they might have missed the chance to build a shrine to a false god, they wanted to keep their options open — just in case they ever missed the opportunity for idolatry.
As I reflected on Paul’s sarcastic “take down” of the Athenians this past week, I was taken back in time. I was reminded of two conversations of which I was a part within a week of each other — one in Africa and one in the United States — 29 years ago. Way back in 1988.
That spring I was invited to lead a retreat for the clergy of the Diocese of Tamale in Ghana. I had worked in that diocese of Northern Ghana off and on for years, and the bishop wanted me to reflect with his priests on the benefits of lifting up the ministry of laypersons. The retreat was based on St. Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians. We looked at powerful passages like this one in chapter 12: “There are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; and there are varieties of services, but the same Lord; and there are varieties of activities, but it is the same God who activates all of them in everyone.”
During a break in the retreat, the Ghanaian clergy erupted into a heated argument. They even started yelling at one another. I was worried for a minute that a fight was about to break out.
The source of their conflict was a chapter in First Corinthians that we were not dealing with in the retreat — the eighth chapter. In this chapter, the Apostle discusses whether Christians ought to eat food that has been sacrificed to idols — to Greek and Roman gods. The very ones that Paul encountered on his way to the Areopagus.
This is probably not an issue that keeps you up at night — whether to eat food that has been sacrificed at the shrine of a false god. But for my Ghanian friends at the clergy retreat, it was exceedingly relevant and crucially important. Each and every one of the priests on that retreat was the very first person in his family to have been baptized as a Christian.
Everyone else in their families were still practitioners of traditional, animistic religion. Trees, and rocks and rivers were worshipped as gods. So when my friends returned to their parents’ homes for a meal, they would be served a guinea fowl or a goat that had been sacrificed to the family god — maybe the huge baobab tree outside the family hut.
My friends’ very relevant, very real, concern was whether baptized Christians — by partaking of such food — would be lending credence to belief in the reality and power of such false gods.
Their argument went on for 45 minutes. It was only interrupted when my friend, Joe Anyindana, shouted out, “My brothers, we must stop this argument right now. Tom is here with us. Tom is from America, and they don't have false gods in America.”
“They don't have false gods in America.”
Just a week after this experience, I found myself back home — enjoying a vacation at my parents’ house in my Kentucky hometown. One night at a social gathering I ran into a high school classmate who, until that moment, had not known that I had been ordained and was serving as a priest.
She was a wife and mother of two young children. When she heard the news that I had been ordained, she blurted out in a proud and haughty voice, “Oh, our family doesn't go to church.”
“Oh really?” I replied nonchalantly as I attempted an immediate retreat to the boiled shrimp. But she blocked my path, and she continued on in a voice that was dripping with condescension:
“We don't have time,” she informed me. “I’ve started taking art classes at the college, both my husband and I are on several very important civic boards, my daughter has dance lessons, my son is in the swim club, and they both play competitive soccer. We don't have time for extras.”
“We don't have time for extras.”
“They don't have false gods in America.”
I hasten to offer two quick caveats at this point:
- I am not making even a veiled criticism of any of this woman’s activities. I am not stupid. I enjoy being your rector!
- I am preaching to the choir. You are here. You obviously understand the priorities and the perspectives of the life of faith.
But if we’re honest with ourselves, we’ll acknowledge that the world in which we live all-too-often points people to the precipice of paganism, luring them to give themselves to a round of interests, activities and acquisitions that has no center — so that the interests, activities and acquisitions become ends in themselves.
And this is idolatry.
And this is why St. Paul’s experience in Athens is relevant to us.
We are called, like Paul, to preach to the Athenians. Make that the Michiganders
God longs for us to work tirelessly and creatively to let the people of our community know that there are plenty of things to do and items to acquire, but there is only one Creator of the universe in whom we live and move and have our being.
There are plenty of pleasant activities to give our time to. There is only one Savior and lover of souls to give our lives to.
Our challenge — our Christian calling — is to let the people of our community know that Jesus Christ is made the sure and solid foundation of all we are, all we do, and all we ever hope to become.
Sermon Topics: False Idols in America?