Sermon by Jonathan L. Walton, Plummer Professor of Christian Morals and Pusey Minister in the Memorial Church, for Harvard Memorial Church's Sunday Worship Service.
“For as I went through the city and looked carefully at objects of your worship, I found among them an altar with the inscription, ‘To an unknown god.” Acts 17:23a
It’s graduation season! It is time for students to claim their degrees. It is time for some to transition from pupil to practitioner. It is time for our graduates to enter the so-called “real world.”
This is why we refer to graduation as commencement. It is not the end. To the contrary, graduation is just the beginning. Some will commence their careers. Others will soon marry and commence new family bonds. And I hope all of you will continue to wrestle with the big questions you developed during your time here.
As you depart this place, there are a few insights that I believe emerge from today’s scripture lesson. In the 17th chapter of Acts, we catch the Apostle Paul on his second missionary journey. He is in the city of Athens. Paul is a long way from home. Of course, I mean this more theoretically than geographically. Paul is a long way from the comfortable campus of his alma mater, the University of Tarsus. Paul is a long way from those who worship the god of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. And Paul, the pious early apostle of the Jesus movement, is a long way from his congregation of Gentile God-fearers. Paul is in Athens.
We all know something of the prominence of Athens in the ancient world. Athens was a site of learning. Athens was a hub of philosophical inquiry. Athens was a place where ideas were created and debated. Descendants of Socrates, the Stoics, the Epicureans were just a few of the factions waiting to challenge epistemic upstarts who felt they had a novice idea.
In walks Paul. He is preaching and teaching the gospel of Jesus. Some Athenians think he is teaching a new religion. Some believe him to sound strange. Others are genuinely curious about this Jewish teacher talking about a risen Savior. Thus they invite Paul to the Areopagus—a site in the city that served as a public forum for such debates. The Romans referred to this site as Mars Hill after the Roman god of war. For those of you who have ever traveled to Athens and trekked up to the Acropolis, when you look southward back over the steps, Mars Hill sits to your right on the western side. I recall admiring the rock platform from above and noticing that Mars Hill appeared as a veritable boxing ring. It was not difficult to envision Paul sparring with his Athenian interlocutors.
The Apostle Paul starts with a concession. He says, “Athenians, I see how religious you are in every way.” Paul demonstrates that he welcomes an open and honest exchange. We do not see any signs of hatred or hostility. Nor do we see any signs of demagoguery or defensiveness. But rather there is sincere engagement across lines of difference.
We should all keep this in mind. Many of you are going to leave this campus having developed new ideas and innovative approaches. Many of you have been stretched intellectually and politically. Some of you have embraced a diversity of perspectives. Most of you are quite different today than they were when you arrived. Like the Apostle Paul, some of you have experienced your own Damascus Road conversions. You’ve been knocked off your horse of tradition. You’ve developed new visions of reality. Thus, Harvard proved to be a socially and spiritually transformative experience. This is wonderful.
Nevertheless, just because you have changed does not mean that the rest of the world has. Though you have moved in a few different directions, this does not mean that friends back home and family members have as well. Nor should they. This is why it will be important for you to remember to follow Paul’s approach.
Don’t expect anyone to affirm who you are, if you cannot affirm who they are. Do not expect anyone to respect you and what you have to say, until you can demonstrate that you respect them and what they have to say.
This is one of the reasons many in this nation have come to resent higher education. It is not that everyone is anti-intellectual. It is not that everyone is intellectually inept. But what many have come to abhor is the arrogant disdain and haughty contempt of which you and I can be found guilty. This is the power of institutions like this one. Often we can begin to think that our presence here and the degrees earned provide us with some esoteric, otherworldly wisdom. We develop the propensity to talk at others, rather than with others. We slip into the habit of talking down to the people whose labor has lifted us up.
Paul teaches us an important lesson here. He is prepared to make a case for his position. He is prepared to explain to others his embrace of Jesus Christ. Yet before he makes the case for his own religious identity, he affirms their religious identity. Before he critiques their position, he acknowledges their position, “I see how extremely religious you are in every way.”
This is what I want you to remember, Class of 2017. It’s a lesson I learned from a former mentor: Never speak a word of judgment before you speak a word of grace.
Being an alum of this fine institution does not make you more special than anyone else. Do not worship this institution. Do not fetishize your degree. Your relationship to this institution does not make you special.
Don’t get me wrong. You are special! You are precious. You are indispensable. Why? Not because you are a graduate of any institution, but simply because you are a child of God. Therefore, everyone you come into contact with—no matter if they were educated at Harvard or a homeless shelter—is just as beautiful and special as you are. Never forget this.
In fact, this may be the area where the Athenians were lacking. They had come to worship their traditions. They had come to worship their status and standing. The Athenians had come to worship their power as the epicenter of Empire, and as the intellectual justification for Hellenistic culture. This is why Paul presses them on this point. Paul says, “In walking around your city, I noticed something in a few of your temples. I noticed the inscription Agnostos Theos, ‘to an unknown God.’” How do you worship a God that you do not know?
This is basically the question Paul asks of the Athenians. This may be the question the text is asking us. What do you worship? Do we realize who and what we worship?
When Paul looked around and saw their elaborate temples and structures of self-aggrandizement, he made a proposal. Maybe their God was unknown because they did not need to name God. Maybe they did not want to own what they truly worshipped. Their God was signified in their wealth. Their God was represented by their power. Their God was captured in displays of status and stature.
Paul is making an important point. Our God should not just be comprised of the markers established by worldly success. If your God is simply a reflection of your so-called achievements then that God will surely disappoint.
For instance, I caught an interview on ESPN the other day. It was with former NFL quarterback Ryan Leaf. Twenty years ago, Leaf was considered among the best football players in the NFL draft. The Montana native was a proven winner. Many expected that he would one day make the Hall of Fame. When he was drafted #2 overall by the San Diego Chargers, just behind Peyton Manning, this confirmed that he was on his way to sports immortality.
Within five years, however, Ryan Leaf was atop another NFL list. He was considered the biggest bust in professional football history. His life went on a downward spiral. Drug addiction. Multiple arrests. Eventually three years behind bars.
Leaf made an important concession in the interview. He believed that being a successful football player made him better than everyone else. Leaf had a narrow view of success. Success meant money, power and prestige associated with being a star quarterback. In effect, Leaf worshipped himself. This is why when his career suffered, his entire life careened out of control. That which the young quarterback worshipped, ultimately let him down.
This is why Paul offers the Athenians another image of God. Paul describes a God not of our own making. His God is not made by human hands. But rather God is the one who holds us in his hands. The God Paul offers does not emerge from human intellect. We worship a savior who is so much greater than our limited capacity.
Paul is making an important point for us today. God should symbolize not our strength, but our dependency on a reality greater than ourselves. God should remind us all of our own vulnerability and fragility. We cannot worship our money. We should not worship our might. We ought not worship our many accomplishments and acclaims.
We should worship, however, a God in whom we must all come before humbly. We should worship a God who stretches us beyond the superficiality of society’s simplistic labels and titles. To use social media speak, we should worship a God in whom we can all stand before “unfiltered.” For when we recognize our own vulnerability and dependency, we can better empathize and acknowledge the complicated beauty of others.
This is what Ryan Leaf experienced in prison. His cellmate was an Iraqi war veteran. The Iraqi vet would not allow Leaf to sit and blow balloons for his own pity party. He forced Leaf to participate in a prison literacy program where inmates helped other inmates. Leaf said that for the first time in his life, he did something for somebody else other than himself. And this gave him a sense of purpose that was more fulfilling than anything he ever experienced on the football field. Grace before judgment. Dependency on a God greater than ourselves. These are the lessons we might take away from this text.
In conclusion, there is a story that I heard often growing up. It is the tale of a small town boy that left his rural Baptist church to pursue theological education. He attended a prestigious New England institution. (Let’s say Yale Divinity School, cough, cough) The young man earned stellar grades in his degree program.
Following graduation, he was invited back home to celebrate the retirement of his childhood pastor. This pastor never attended college. He rarely left the small southern region. But he served the congregation faithfully for decades.
The young man remembered that whenever his pastor spoke in public, he would conclude his remarks with the 23rd Psalm. Thus in part tribute to his pastor, and in part to demonstrate his own homiletic elocution, the young man stood before the banquet and recited the psalm.
The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.
He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: he leadeth me beside the still waters.
He restoreth my soul: he leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name's sake.
Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.
Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies: thou anointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over.
Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life: and I will dwell in the house of the Lord for ever.
The young man received a rousing ovation from the assembly.
When it was time for the elderly pastor to speak, he, too, concluded with the 23rd Psalm as expected. Yet his version sounded different than the young man’s. The pastor declared,
The Lawd is my shepherd: he has been so good to me.
He laid me down when I was sick, and quenched my body when I was thirsty.
He blessed my soul. And he helped me to live right, because God alone is holy.
And though I have walked through the valley of the shadow of death, I no longer fear evil, sickness or suffering. Because through every trial, heartbreak and disappointment, God has brought me through.
God has set a table in the midst of those who tried to dig ditches for me. And he has been bread on my table and water in my cup.
Surely goodness and mercy have followed me all the days of my life. And that's why I promised Him that I would serve him until I die. So I’ll stay on the battlefield for my Lawd.
The young man noticed that there was not a dry eye in the room. Confused and bewildered, the young preacher went up to a deacon and asked, “why is it that when I recited the 23rd Psalm perfectly and formally everyone applauded? Yet when Pastor said it with his broken, colloquial English and improvisations everyone cried?”
The deacon looked at the boy with sympathy in his eyes. He told him, “It is quite evident that you know the 23rd Psalm young man. But it is more evident that Pastor knows the shepherd!”
And that's my final word for you Class of 2017. There is no need for you to worship an unknown God of your own creation. Get to know the shepherd for yourself!