Prayers to the Unknown God
John 14:15-21    Acts 17:22-31
Sixth Sunday of Easter/Memorial Weekend    May 29, 2011

    The Athenians were just like most of us in one important way; they had questions about God, the universe, and the veracity of their particular perspective on religion.  Paul even noticed that they had created a statue honoring “the unknown god,” just so they wouldn’t leave anyone out of their pantheon.  They wanted to be certain that every base had been covered, religiously speaking, and must have felt this god that they did not yet know held a key to some secret aspect of their faith.  Faith is one part of our lives that by definition cannot be proven.  Faith can be experienced and felt, but it cannot be scientifically tested.  God is like this as well.  God can also be experienced and felt, but no one has ever managed to take a picture of God’s face or record the voice of God.  Despite this, there are still people who come along in most every age who try to define things that even Jesus refused to pin down.  The recent excitement about Harold Camping’s May 21st prophecy is a great example of someone trying to get specific about something that Jesus himself said was none of our business.  When someone asked Jesus when the end of the world would come, he said that only God knew the answer to that.  Although we may not like that we don’t and even can’t have all of the answers, there is a sense of peace to be gained from recognizing that all of this is in God’s hands and not ours.  We simply have to live our lives to the best of our abilities, leaning on faith for the things we don’t understand, and leave the rest to God.
    The details of faith are simply blurry in some areas and yet faith has a core of absolute knowledge that provides a powerful foundation for everything else around it.  Faith enables us to move forward “in spite of” everything, because it comes from a place that is so different from the world of facts and solid proof in which we spend so much of our time.  If we can manage to lean into our faith when we don’t know the answers, then we find ourselves better equipped to respond to whatever comes to us, with courage and a measure of assurance that we are on a good path.  It can be difficult knowing that other people have very different experiences of faith and of God than we do.  When we lean on our faith, it can lead us in different directions than other folks’ faith might lead them, which gets complicated if one or both of us thinks we have all of the right answers.  If you go back to the followers of Jesus in the first century, they were each unique and very different from the others.  There were fishermen who were simple men of the earth, and a tax collector who was wily with other people’s money, there was a Zealot who hoped for revolution and a woman who supported the ministry through her sales of royal purple goods.  Each of the disciples and the people who followed Jesus after them brought something unique to the ministry.  Each of them had their own perspective on Jesus and on what his ministry was all about.  They discussed and even argued about the stories he told and what his parables really meant.  Jesus often had to intervene in order to restore order among them.  These people did not agree on much, and so it would be simplistic for us to believe they agreed on exactly what Jesus purpose was, and on what was essential to a faithful life.  But one thing they did agree on, is that Jesus was offering something special, something worth learning about. 
    I find it intriguing that the people of Athens, although they had many gods and goddesses, must have still felt that something was missing.  They must have felt that their faith was not expressed in full, despite the fact that they had gods and goddesses representing almost every aspect of life anyone could think of!  It almost seems that, instead of arguing about the authenticity or power of certain gods or goddesses, the Athenians accepted every one of them.  Instead of deciding which ones were authentic, they put up countless statues and temples, and worshipped all of them.  They had a god of war and a goddess of the hunt, a god of the harvest and a goddess of love, a god of thunder and a goddess of springtime, just to get started.  Even so, the Athenians built a statue to honor the unknown god, and ascribed to this god the creation of the world and everything in it.  They said that this god did not live in a shrine made by human hands, and claimed that he did not require sacrifices.  The named gods and goddesses each had clearly defined duties, but this god whom they could not name seemed to be responsible for the whole world.  This unknown god lived in such a way that people did not have to take care of him - no shelter or temple was needed, nor did he require sacrifices.  This god took care of them.  This was quite different to the Athenian understanding; usually a god or goddess had to be cajoled and courted in order to ensure a good harvest, a win over the enemy or a good partner for marriage. 
    Paul noted how similar the Athenian understandings about this unknown god were to how the early Christians viewed their God, the God of Jesus.  He then used this entry point as a way of talking with the Athenian people about the God he knew through Jesus Christ and about Jesus himself.  He also quoted one of their own poets in an attempt to help them understand how they might relate to this God when he described this God as the one in whom “we live and move and have our being.”  The reading from John’s gospel this morning carries this theme of closeness with God into a connection with Jesus himself, recording Jesus as saying that he would not leave his followers orphaned, that they would be able to see him even after he left them.  According to Jesus, they would also receive the one whom he called the Advocate or the Spirit of truth to be with them forever. 
    There is an interesting juxtaposition between the scriptures and their messages this morning.  It is a balance between what we do know and what we do not; between our faith and the reality of our lives.  We have faith which guides us along the paths we walk.  We know God and feel God’s presence within our hearts and souls, and yet we cannot define either faith or God.  On our good days, this is just fine.  The kind of knowing that we have about these things is deeply rooted and real; it is unshakable.  On bad days, we might wish we could see or hear or taste something that would assure us that we are on the right path.  Those difficult days are the ones in which we lean on our fellow pilgrims and ask them to help us see the way; we listen to their experiences and depend on their prayers to carry us through.  Community is a necessary aspect of our lives of faith.  We take turns caring for and even carrying one another as needed.  On Memorial Day, we can’t help but to think of and remember those who carried us on their shoulders in terms of creating a country in which we have the freedom to express our faith and worship God as we feel moved.  We are blessed by the saints in this community and all around us, and by the gifts we receive from each of them this and every day.  Let’s give thanks.
    God of all that we know, you hold every one of us in your hands and in your heart.  We thank you for all of those who have carried us through the years.  We thank you for our friends and family, for our communities of faith and for all of those who have been with us when we most needed them.  We thank you especially today, for those who gave up their lives to protect the freedoms we enjoy every day, but barely acknowledge as we go about our lives.  We ask your blessing to rest on those who went off to war and never returned home, and on those who returned home in body but were broken in spirit.  We pray also that you would be a strong presence in the lives of their families, granting them courage and faith for the difficulties they face and losses they grieve.  We pray for a time when your peace and justice will reign all over this wide earth, for all people in every land, a time when no more soldiers will need to go off to war, but will be able to stay home and watch their gardens and their children grow.  In the name of Jesus we pray, Amen.