We live and move in him, can’t get away from him! One of your poets said it well: “We’re the God-created.”
(Preached on Sunday, May 21, 2017)
Imagine walking through the ancient city of Athens. It is a thriving urban center filled with people. Even though it is no longer the great center of the world, (that claim having passed to Rome about two centuries ago) it is still revered as a model of all that is cultured, learned, and modern. It is granted a special dispensation of freedom from the Emperor of Rome because of its special, historic status. It is filled with architectural marvels, a still-bustling agora (marketplace), and temples. Around every corner you encounter another temple honoring another god. As you approached the city you passed the temple to Demeter, goddess of the harvest and here is the Temple of Ares, the god of war. Over there is the Temple of Hephaestus, the god of blacksmiths and artisans, maker of weapons and tools while off in the distance the gigantic temple to Zeus, the Olympeium. But your eyes are drawn unmistakably upward to the crown of the city, the Acropolis with the glorious Parthenon, the temple to Athena, goddess of war, as well as a temple to Poseidon, god of the seas.
These are just the major temples ever-impinging upon your awareness. But literally everywhere you walk you will find small altars and “tiny-house” type structures honoring lesser known gods. (Dianne and I were amazed at the number of such structures when we visited Pompeii.) These are the peopled Paul is addressing on the Areopagus, Mars Hill – highly educated, highly sophisticated city dwellers who have been steeped in a culture of philosophical study and debate; who feel as if they have “heard it all” yet are always open to “hearing a new thing.”
We are not so different from Paul’s audience. The philosophies of our time swirl around us and distract us and entire us with the powerful aid of various forms of electronic media. We are intrigued by, on social media, talk shows, self-help books, and discussion groups, all sorts of “new” ideas and methods and philosophies that compete for our attention. We discover that in the midst of materialism and nationalism and militarism we depend on “other gods” for our living and survival. Yet people find themselves not quite satisfied, still groping for a God who is near at hand. They are hungry for spiritual food in a world that leaves us wanting something deeper and more meaningful than simply “more and more, and newer and newer.”
Paul sensed the same yearning on the part of the Athenians as he describes their desire to cover all the bases by providing temples and altars to all the known gods worshiped in the cities and among the vast variety of people living around the Mediterranean world. He also notices they even have a shrine “To the Unknown God.” Paul proceeds to fill in the blanks for them and identify this “Unknown God.” As he does, the goes back to the beginning and points them to the Creation, the natural world all around them, telling them about the Creator of that entire world and pointing out how that world proclaims the Creator’s presence and glory.
This shrine “To the Unknown God” illustrates the truth that, though human beings have a wide variety of ways for experiencing God, there are many people who struggle to sense God’s presence and for whom God remains just an intellectual idea but never experience in a personal way.
The Australian preacher and poet Bruce Prewer has composed a poem illustrating this truth. It is titled Searching for God? or “None Are So blind.”
I met a “cool” magpie perched on my back fence,
who was on for a talk of religion and sense:
“I’ve found farms and gold mines, parks and city towers,
studied sky and landscape through the long daylight hours.
The mountains and clouds are certainly true,
foxes and eagles are as real as you,
but as for the Air my mother adored
it’s not to be found at home or abroad.”
I met a “cool” dolphin swimming off Byron Bay,
a sharp witted fellow who had plenty to say:
“I’ve done all my research from ‘round here to Fiji
to find that divinity that some call the Sea.
I’ve found coral reefs, and a great clam’s lid,
sunken ships and sharks, and plenty giant squid,
but as for the Sea to which great whales sing,
I can’t find a sign of that sort of Thing.
Paul clearly understands that God is not really far from any one of us. As he told the Athenians, We live and move in him, can’t get away from him! One of your poets said it well: “We’re the God-created.” Just as God became flesh in Jesus, God is also incarnate in and through the rest of God’s creation, the natural world. The relationship we enjoy with God is real, permanent, and a gift that cannot be withdrawn. It is our ongoing source of life and is not dependent on physical presence or absence or on our understanding it or accepting it.
To illustrate our intimate connections to God let’s think for a moment about our “sacred marriage” to trees. What, you don’t thing about trees as being your “spouse”? But you really should. Right now you are engaged in sacred intercourse with trees, and really with plants of all sorts, which is as intimate as most aspects of human love-making.
You may remember something about this from high school biology, but probably didn’t consider it deeply. Oxygen is discarded at the end of a tree’s photosynthetic process. To create tree-flesh – bark and branch, leaves and fruit – the tree combines energy from the sun and carbon-dioxide, and gives off oxygen as a by-product. We do something of the reverse – take the tree’s oxygen and combine it with our food to make our carbon-based flesh, then exhale leftover carbon dioxide. The tree’s out-breath is our in-breath, and vice-versa, in a ceaseless exchange of love. There is a sort of interpenetration between human beings and trees. Each supports and nurtures the other. Boundaries between self and other fall away – the two are woven together in a way that creates a greater whole. It sounds a lot like a marriage ceremony when the pastor pronounces the verse from Genesis at the end: “A man will leave his father and his mother and be united with his wife, and the two will become one flesh.” We are bio-married to tree, breathing life into each other.
As Paul stated, in God we live and move and have our being. Our relationship to trees is just one of the many, many ways we are intimately connected to God and to all the created order, or all of it and all of us are part of God and God is in us and always with us.
I was raised to believe that God was up there in heaven looking down on us. But Jesus and the apostle Paul have taught me that we are much more intimately connected with God than that picture suggests. Alice Walker, in her novel The Color Purple, presents the way one of her characters moved beyond such a traditional image of God to an image of much more intimate connections with God. The main character of the story, Celie, is conversing with another character who has become a sort of mentor for her, Shug. This is Celie’s recollection of the conversation:
Then [Shug] say: Tell me what your God look like, Celie. Okay, I say, He big and old and tall and gray bearded and white. He wear robes and go barefooted… Then she tell me this old white man is the same God she used to see when she prayed. If you wait to find God in church, Celie, she say, that’s who is bound to show up, cause that’s where he live…. Here’s the thing, say Shug. The think I believe. God inside you and inside everybody else, You come into the world with God. But only them that search for it inside find it. She say, My first step from the old white man was trees. Then air. Then birds. Then other people. but one day when I was sitting quiet and feeling like a motherless child, which I was, it come to me: that feeling of being part of everything, not separate at all. I knew that if I cut a tree, my arm would bleed. And I laughed and I cried and I run all around the house. I knew just what it was. In fact, when it happen, you can’t miss it.
As Paul proclaimed, God is not remote, but God is near. We live and move in God and cannot get away from God. Living after the resurrection means embracing that truth and embracing our intimate connections: with God, with trees, with other people, with all of the creation.