May 21, 2017, 6th Sunday of Easter YR A The Rev. Anne Abdy Acts 17:22-31; Psalm 66:7-18; 1 Peter 3:13-22; John 14:15-21
When I was a kid growing up in Namibia it was a time of carefree play, of being with family, of walking the streets or riding my bike unescorted to school. In the early seventies, there was no television so playing cards and board games was the order of the day. Monopoly tournaments went on for days. There was story time in the evenings, playing in dry river beds and sleep overs with friends on weekends.
Home entertainment was very different back then than today. Watching a movie was more like a production than just sliding a disk into the open mouth of the DVD player. It was a block party of neighbors and friends. One person was assigned to operate the film projector making sure that the film was threaded through to the wheel on the front end of the projector. Another person would jimmy up a sheet on the wall with masking tape while the rest of us kids waited for the hot popcorn to arrive.
But the best part of the week was the Saturday matinée movie at the single large screen theater across town. It was the show that all the kids in town went to. When you have two hundred or so kids unsupervised in a dark space for about two hours, a lot went on. Now I am not suggesting that any hanky-panky took place, but there was just good old fashion fun. Fun, like throwing popcorn at your neighbor below you, or talking throughout the movie without being hushed, or seat swapping, or running around in front of the screen and up the aisle.
So how does growing up in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries match with the first century Scriptures we read in the lessons today? Idolatry. In the Bible, idolatry is defined as any intentional obsession which takes your mind off God and Paul was very concerned about the use of this practice. As much as six verses earlier, Paul is described as “very distressed” (Acts 17:16) as he wandered through the cobbled streets of Athens.
He came to the attention of the city folk because they noticed a stranger snooping around the Parthenon. Then he is seen arguing with the Jews in the synagogue and in the marketplace with pretty much anyone who would listen to him. This morning’s reading from Acts begins with Paul addressing the Aeropagus Council. I like to think that the Athenians were learned people and wanted to hear his point of view.
Here Paul cleverly argues against the use of idols by doing three things. He sets up his argument by front loading it with compliments. He acknowledges the citizens’ desire to be an educated city-state. That they would want to engage in the leisurely reading of philosophy, the arts, and culture. Athens, is much like Eugene, it is a city of learning. Individuals are wrestling with the big questions of life. So Paul compliments the city on their openness to be well read. He is hospitable.
Then Paul acknowledges the city’s need to worship many Gods. Athens was one of the major commercial centers along trade routes east and west both on land and by boat. So naturally, the Athenians wanted to be a gracious City-State, would not only worship their own numerous gods, but would want to honor other gods too, including the offering of an altar with the inscription “to an unknown god.” (Act 17:23)
Lastly, Paul uses this moment to engage in evangelism as only Paul can. Maybe it was the Holy Spirit speaking through him and his teaching keeps him out of jail.
Now, some learned folks today will say “Idolatry is not just a pagan issue. It is not just an Old Testament or Jewish issue. It is a human issue.” Liraz Margalit, a Christian writer, suggests that the use of electronic devices, various versions of video games, and the need to be “in touch” twenty-four seven as being a source of idol worship. She also determined that screen devices are at least detrimental to children today. Additionally she suggested that the good intentions of flat screen devices as educational tools are no longer helpful and that this technology has slowly crept into our lives. Writing an article for the magazine, Life, Patrick Mabilog suggested that technology is taking over our lives with programmed robots and appliances, and with more and more people are looking at tiny screens rather than looking up and talking with each other.
In an article published in the Insider in 2016 the following statistics were offered: “The US Department of Health and Human Services “estimates that American children spend a whopping seven hours a day in front of electronic media, and other statistics say that kids as young as two years old are regularly playing iPad games and have playroom toys that involve touch screens.” While I am not here to debate the good and bad practices of the multi-media mega-technology complex, parenting styles, or even the educational system, I just know that my childhood was more innocent and I got to experience lots of stuff, like eating dirt from the sand box, or swinging upside down from a jungle gym. It was just another time.
I am not even going to address how as adults we are slaves to the time piece. We hurry from place to place. We take extra work home or we inhale our food. All of which things I am guilty of. Those same Christian writers could very well suggest that the fast pace of the business and working world of the twenty-first century is another form of idolatry. Or the fact that most of the proposed Federal budget is designated for defense spending while cuts are made to those who are in most need of those scarce funds.
The act of idol worship is about putting everything and anything before God. That is what Paul is upset about. He understands culture so he finds it curious that there is an altar to an “unknown god.” Maybe the Athenians did know about our God, the God of the Abraham, Jacob, and Isaac.
Because of this knowledge, Paul preaches on the resurrected Christ and the God who cares for his people. He reminds the Athenians that they can put their trust in this God. There is no need for multiple gods. One God—that’s it.
Paul introduces the Athenians to the concept of radical exclusivity. This is a God that we don’t want to push away and this is a God that will allow you to sleep at night.
I came across this story that I think illustrates the point that Paul is making.
A farmer owned land along the Atlantic seacoast and had difficulty hiring help because the help dreaded the hurricanes that came through wreaking havoc on the buildings and crops. Finally, a short, thin man, well past middle age, approached the farmer.
“Are you a good farm hand?” the farmer asked him.
“Well, I can sleep when the wind blows,” answered the little man.
Although puzzled by this answer, the farmer, desperate for help, hired him. The man worked well around the farm, busy from dawn to dusk, and the farmer felt satisfied with the man’s work.
Then one night the wind howled loudly in from offshore. Jumping out of bed, the farmer grabbed a lantern and rushed next door to the hired hand’s sleeping quarters. He shook the man and yelled,
“Get up! A storm is coming! Tie things down before they blow away!”
The man rolled over in bed and said firmly,
“No sir. I told you, I can sleep when the wind blows.”
The farmer hurried outside to prepare the property for the storm. To his amazement, he discovered that all of the haystacks had been covered with tarps.
The cows were in the barn, the chickens were in the coops, and the doors were barred. The shutters were tightly secured. Everything was tied down. Nothing could blow away. In that moment the farmer then understood what his hired hand meant, and he returned to bed to also sleep while the wind blew.
Paul tells the people of Athens that only one God can help you weather the storms of life. Not this or that God. Only one God, and that God is my God, the God that lives in us and we in him. We might make the same prophetic statement today. Our focus in the twenty-first century is so scattered and distracted, and we are bombarded by so many external demands which takes our focus off Him, our God. Life today is difficult and it is easy to put God on the back burner with intellectualizing statements and book knowledge.
Our God is a God who wants to be alive in us.
Our God wants to awaken our desire for Him.
Our God promises to protect and care for us.
This is another Easter message.
So what to do? Use the acronym FROG: F-R-O-G. Fully Rely On God so that you can sleep securely weathering the storms of life.
 Ed Stetzer, “Idolatry Is Alive Today: Why Modern Church Leaders Still Fight An Old Battle,” Christianity Today, October 8, 2014, accessed May 18, 2017, http://www.christianitytoday.com/edstetzer/2014/october/idolatry-is-alive-today-why-modern-church-leaders-still-fig.html.
 Liraz Margalit, “Tykes And Tablets: Is Too Much Screen Tim Damaging Your Child’s Brain?,” Insider, March 3, 2016, accessed May 18, 2017, Insiderhttps://thenextweb.com/insider/2016/03/21/tykes-tablets-much-screen-time-damaging-childs-brain/#.tnw_b3UiaWF3.
 Patrick Mabilog, “Putting God First: 5 Modern-Day Idols We’re In Danger Of Letting Take Over Our Lives,” Life, May 23, 2016, https://www.christiantoday.com/article/5.modern.day.idols.that.are.taking.over.our.lives/84609.htm
 Margalit, Ibid.
 Mabilog, Ibid.