Sermon: Extremely Religious

May 14, 2023

Acts 17:22-31
John 14:15-21

by Eric Anderson

We know of the Apostle Paul from two sources: his own letters, and the book Acts of the Apostles, written some years later by the same person who wrote Luke’s Gospel. Acts is sort of “Luke’s Gospel – the Sequel!”

Paul had received a very challenging commission as an apostle. While most of the early leaders of the Christian movement concentrated on other Jews, thinking of themselves as reformers or as part of a new school of thought within Judaism, Paul went to non-Jews, to Gentiles. Those early Christians felt a real urgency to communicate the good news of Jesus, his teaching, his crucifixion, and his resurrection. Once they accepted that the word of God’s grace could be and should be extended to people of every nation and religion, some among them began that work, notably the notorious former persecutor Saul of Tarsus, best known by the name he used when writing in Greek: Paulous, or Paul.

That wasn’t easy. Greeks and Romans and the other peoples who lived around the eastern Mediterranean didn’t share the core beliefs of Jews. They didn’t know the stories of Moses or David; they didn’t know the words of Isaiah or Jeremiah. They didn’t know what an “Anointed One” or “Messiah” or “Christous” meant. Paul wanted to teach them.

As Philip Ruge-Jones writes at Working Preacher, “No other passage of the New Testament more explicitly puts on display the challenge of an apologist: How does the faith flowering in this new movement relate to beliefs in the world around it, especially beyond the Jewish soil in which The Way’s first green blade appeared?”

Where would the teachers of Jesus’ story find common ground with the people of the world beyond the hills and valleys of Israel?

Where will we find common ground in the twenty-first century in a culture that has been fostering and feeding factionalism?

I admit that I find this a considerable challenge. Like the cat and the myna and the koa’e kea and the honu, I believe that people find common ground in the care and protection and nurture of children. No culture that I know of has developed a monopoly on sound child raising; no culture that I know of has entirely failed to provide for its children. In December of 2012, after a man took twenty-six lives at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, I was convinced that that common ground, care for the children, would soon prompt effective protective measures. The state of Connecticut did pass laws making it harder to kill quite so many people quite so quickly. The Congress of the United States did not.

And it has not despite further mass shootings in Orlando and Las Vegas, despite deaths in  synagogues and churches, despite the increased pace of mass shootings – in the seven days since a gunman killed eight people and injured seven in Allen, Texas, there have been twenty-one more shootings that injured or killed at least our people in the United States. Nineteen have died. Eighty-three have been wounded.

Mass shootings, however, do not take most of the lives claimed by bullets during the year. So far in 2023, according to the Gun Violence Archive, 6,702 people have lost their lives to homicide or accidents with guns. But 8,844 people have died from suicide.

According to a twelve-year study of 26 million California residents published by Stanford University in 2020, “Men who owned handguns were eight times more likely than men who didn’t to die of self-inflicted gunshot wounds. Women who owned handguns were more than 35 times more likely than women who didn’t to kill themselves with a gun.”

Back to that common ground again, it’s not that these folks don’t care about children, or adults, or all those people who have died and are likely to die. They are persuaded, however, that their children are better off with free access to guns.

That’s where we no longer stand on common ground.

There are limits to common ground. Robert Jones, Jr., has written, “We can disagree and still love each other unless your disagreement is rooted in my oppression and denial of my humanity and right to exist.” Racism, sexism, heterosexism, nationalism, and so many other “isms” are explicitly based in the denial of someone else’s humanity. Any time the idea arises that someone else’s life, health, reputation, or dignity does not matter, we no longer stand on common ground. “All other ground is sinking sand,” says the hymn. Any ground in which God’s people are considered anything other than God’s precious children is no more than sinking sand.

“I see how extremely religious you are.” Paul offered the Athenians common ground in the ground itself. Look at creation, he said. This is a work of the God I know, one whom you honor as unknown, but bless you for honoring God as you know how little you know. Gently, tenderly, he worked toward a more sensitive issue, the presence of idols in their shrines and temples. “Since we are God’s offspring, we ought not to think that the deity is like gold, or silver, or stone, an image formed by the art and imagination of mortals,” he said, and once more found common ground because, indeed, most Mediterranean peoples did not identify the image with the deity. An idol was a symbol, not the god or goddess themselves. For a first century Jew, this was as delicate and sensitive a manner to speak against the veneration of idols as I can imagine.

It didn’t work with everyone. Some scoffed. But some did come to learn more, and to form the seed of a new gathering of Christians in Athens.

How are we going to find that common ground in the twenty-first century?

For all that Americans claim to be extremely religious, I think we’re surrounded by idolatry. It just doesn’t look like the idolatry of two thousand years ago, when you had a statue of a deity here and a painting of a deity there. Those are pretty easy to see, and to appreciate for what they are.

I think Americans have made guns into an idol. Venerating them. Wearing AR-15 pins to show their loyalty. Serving them. Sacrificing to them. Sacrificing human lives to them.

It’s hard to find common ground with people who dedicate themselves the ability to take life on a moment’s notice.

I think wealth is an American idol. You’ve heard me say that once or twice before, I think. Maybe more than once or twice. The preachers of the prosperity gospel directly contradict the teachings of Jesus.

I think American exceptionalism is an idol, the idea that this nation is the best that has ever been. Quite aside from the fact that it’s easy to demonstrate that citizens of other nations are healthier, happier, and more satisfied with their lives, the history of race-based slavery, subordination of women, ghettoization of immigrants, acquisition of territory by force, and ongoing protection of some people at the expense of other people, looks so much like the history of other powerful nations and empires that “exceptional” is the only word you can not use about it.

How are we going to find common ground?

First, we’ll have to find it with the people who are willing to look for it. We’ll have to be people who are willing to look for it. That means we’ll have to get beyond our dismay, as the Apostle Paul had to get beyond his distress at the idols of Athens. We’ll have to trust that people will listen, and we’ll have to be prepared to listen – and be prepared to perceive the idols to which we cling, the ones we don’t wish to acknowledge.

That also means that there are people we can’t work with, at least not to start, and perhaps not ever. If someone tells you that they have the right to deny someone’s life, health, reputation, or dignity, they’re not partners in the quest to find common ground. They won’t contribute. They will obstruct. They can’t be permitted to have power over others. Why? Because they’ve already told you they will abuse it.

As Maya Angelou said in an interview with Oprah Winfrey, “My dear, when people show you who they are, why don’t you believe them? Why must you be shown 29 times before you can see who they really are? Why can’t you get it the first time?”

Once we’ve got partners, we’re going to have to start from the ground up. We don’t dare assume common ground; we’ve got to ask about common ground. The honu seems to abandon her offspring, but they do hatch and they do find their way to the sea. People do things that seem utterly strange to us, but they’ve got reason to believe that it makes things better. They might even be right.

We need to take the inscription on that ancient Athenian altar seriously: “To an unknown god.” We are the heirs of people who told us a great deal about God – but the truth is that they knew far less than there is to know, and there is far more of God to learn than we know to teach. To be extremely religious, we have to start with our ignorance and our curiosity and our questions.

That’s how we’ll find common ground.


Watch the Recorded Sermon

There are usually changes in the preaching of the sermon. Sometimes they come on purpose. Sometimes they come accidentally. We hope that they change the sermon for the better.

The image is a view of the Areopagus hill in Athens, taken from the Acropolis that rises above it. Photo by Jebulon – Own work, CC0,

Categories Sermons | Tags: | Posted on May 14, 2023

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