Preaching to Chickens
Rev. Christa Fuller Burns
Faith Presbyterian Church
Acts 17:22-31 – 29 April 2018
I am having a little debate with myself. It is not a particularly profound debate, like the debate I had when I decided to retire. No. I am debating whether to stay on Facebook! I am conflicted. On the one hand, Facebook has proven to have been careless with its member’s security. On the other hand, I do recognize the effectiveness of the communication Facebook allows. As many of you know, I find out things about my congregation from their posts on Facebook. When we redid our website, we also upped our profile on Facebook, recognizing that it is an effective way to communicate. We learned this week that Facebook has only increased its earnings since the debacle over it’s security provisions. What is one to do?
We can learn a lot from the Apostle Paul about communication! Without the technology of the internet, Paul was a one man communication machine. By the time we find ourselves in Athens in chapter 17 of Acts, Paul has been to Lydda, Antioch, Cyprus, Iconium, Lycaonia, Lystra, Derbe, Cilicia, Galtia-Mysia, Troas, Phillipi, Thessalonica, and Berea. It is exhausting, just to read Paul’s travel schedule. In each of these places, Paul goes to the synagogue first to preach and tell the story of Jesus Christ.
Finally, he comes to Athens, that glittering center of culture and art and philosophy in the ancient world. It was like going to New York or Paris and Paul is not impressed. For one thing, Athens is full of idols and nothing offends a Jew more than physical representations of God. In addition, there is the problem of multiple gods for a man who took the ten commandments seriously and the one that says you shall have no other gods except me. Paul is supposed to be waiting in Athens for Silas and Timothy to meet up with him. He could have been getting some R and R but instead every day Paul goes to the synagogue and to the market place and argues his case for Jesus. Sometimes, he debates with the intelligentsia of the city who want to know what this babbler is saying. Babbler is another way of saying barbarian or heathen. At least they asked, right? At least they were curious.
These learned men who love to hear themselves talk, who debate for the fun of it the merits of this poet or that philosopher, take Paul to the Areopagus. The Areopagus is both a place – a rocky mound in the shadow of the Acropolis – and the most respected council of elders in the history of Athens who took their name from the place where they met. Paul is invited to make his case, then, in the most powerful and influential forum…sort of like President Macron of France speaking before our Senate.
Paul stands in front of the Areopagus and begins by saying: You Athenians – I see how very religious you are…in every way. Don’t you imagine that their ears perked up when Paul pays them a compliment – like some people we know for whom flattery is the way to get a cabinet appointment? Now that he has their attention, Paul goes on to say how he has been all over their beautiful city and he has seen the objects of their worship, in other words all the beautifully carved idols. He saw, for example, one that was inscribed “To an unknown god.” Uh oh. As listeners of this speech, we are tipped off that something is coming and we may not like it.
Paul says “What you worship is therefore unknown.” On the other hand, I worship the God who made the world and everything in it and this God doesn’t live in shrines made by human hands. This God doesn’t need humans to accomplish creation. I imagine Paul standing on that hill surrounded by blooming cherry trees or red bud trees and he appeals to the beauty of the natural world and he argues that God made all of this.
This God gives life and breath to all living things – the inference being your gods do not do this. From one ancestor, this God made all nations, giving them their existence and creating boundaries of the places where they would live all in order that they might grope for him and find him. This God is not far away – like those gods you think are up in the heavens. In this God, we live and move and have our being. Then Paul quotes one of the Athenians’ own poets, “For we too are his offspring.” The guy is good!
If we are God’s offspring, then we shouldn’t think that God is a silver or golden image…like your idols.
Now Paul comes to the zinger, now that he has appealed to the Athenians religiosity, and the beauty of their city, and to their own self importance (they are heirs of God) he suggests that God might overlook the times of human ignorance, like maybe now, if people would only repent…or change. It is not too late. You can still change. The world, Paul argues, will be judged according to how righteous it has been by God’s appointed man who God has raised from the dead. Well, you can almost hear the collective groan of Paul’s audience. Acts says they scoffed. Or some did. However, they did not dismiss him outright. We will hear you again about this, they said. One preacher has said that their reaction is similar to his congregation after a sermon. As they shake his hand, they say “Well that was really interesting.” In other words, I don’t believe a word of it…but it was interesting. Maybe it is like how I feel when someone tells me, I really enjoyed your sermon and I am not sure enjoy is what I want people to feel.
At that point, Paul leaves. He walks down from the hill and disappears into the streets of the city. We might wonder how he felt. Perhaps he was saying to himself, well that was a bomb! Perhaps he was saying, well, I shot my wad and if they don’t get it, I can’t do any better. It’s one sermon. Chalk it up. Keep moving.
However, we read that some of the people that heard Paul that day joined Paul and became believers. Among them are Dionysius and Damaris. Some claim that Damaris, a woman, would become the founder of the congregation in Athens. Ok – so if you get two people like Dionysius and Damaris – that is not a bad result.
What are the lessons we learn about communication from Paul?
One. Take it to the marketplace and the center of influence. Paul didn’t just stay in the hallowed halls of the synagogue. He witnessed in Walmart. He witnessed in the State house. He witnessed in the grassy commons of Johns Hopkins. We Christians need to share the Good News with those who do not go to church. Maybe we share it on Facebook.
We know it can be dangerous to take it to the floor of the assembly. The House of Representative’s chaplain was fired last week. It seems the Rev. Patrick J. Conroy, a Jesuit priest, prayed that there would be no winners and losers in the proposed tax bill, that both rich and poor would benefit equally. Sometimes, when we just repeat Jesus’ words about the poor we risk getting in trouble.
Two. Speak in the language of your listeners. Paul quoted a Greek poet and he used Greek words, like grope, which unfortunately has a different connotation for us. Back then, grope probably meant to search about blindly. The rapper Kendrick Lamar won a Pulitzer Prize…a rapper is recognized for what he wrote! In one of his songs, Lamar wrote to other rappers who he suggests see themselves as god-like. He repeats the line, “this is what God feels like” and “we are just mortals”. I think we should pay attention to Kendrick Lamar.
Three. Don’t be discouraged if folk don’t give you a standing ovation at the conclusion of your sermon or your explanation of your position. If only two – Dionysius or Damaris – give you a thumbs up, you’ve won!
Four. Paul didn’t pull any punches. He didn’t shy away from calling out the powerful Athenians by arguing their gods were mere silver and gold images and by exhorting them to change because God is going to come to call into account those who are righteous. Sometimes I think we Christians are simply too nice – we are squeamish about preaching the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
James Cone died this week-end. James Cone taught at Union, my alma mater, and I had him in my first year for systematic theology. Cone was the architect of black liberation theology and he did not pull any punches when it came to calling out what he saw as unchristian behavior. Christ’s crucifixion, he argued, was the first lynching and Christ was black. Racism is unchristian. In his words, “The crucifixion was clearly a first-century lynching. Both are symbols of the death of the innocent, mob hysteria, humiliation and terror. They both also reveal a thirst for life that refuses to let the worst determine our final meaning and demonstrate that God can transform ugliness into beauty, into God’s liberating presence.”
Congressman John Lewis, the beloved civil rights icon, likes to tell the story about growing up dirt poor in Georgia. He lived on a farm and from an early age all he wanted to be was a preacher. For Christmas one year, he received a Bible. And when he was about 8 years old, he would go out to the chicken yard, gather all the chickens together and preach to the chickens as if they were his congregation. You know, he said, those chickens would shake their heads just like they were agreeing with me. Those chickens, he said, listened to me…which is more than I can say of my fellow members in Congress.
Who knows who God will give us to share the story of Jesus Christ. It may be the prestigious academy of Athenians, it may be the House of Representatives, it may be a rappers young audience, it may be….well, it may be just chickens. Our job is to tell the story to a world that so desperately needs it!