Proclaiming the Unknown God

The following is the sermon I preached for Confirmation Sunday at Fourth Presbyterian Church on April 27, 2014. The scripture readings were John 20:19-31 and Acts 17:16-34. You can listen to an audio recording of the sermon here:

Proclaiming the Unknown God (4.27.2014)

Preaching on Confirmation Sunday (4.27.2014)This week I as I prepared for this sermon and for Confirmation Sunday, I received one of those emails that get forwarded around from person to person—pastors tend to receive a lot of those. This one was a collection of cute things kids say in church. Some of them were funny ways that children sometimes mess up familiar words, like the three year old child who began the Lord’s prayer, “Our Father, who does art in heaven, Harold is his name.” Some of them are examples of children speaking the truth that adults are afraid to admit, like when a Sunday School teacher asked why we’re supposed to be quiet in church and one bright little girl responded, “Because people are sleeping in there.” Or the little boy overheard praying, “Lord, if you can’t make me a better boy, don’t worry about it. I’m having a real good time like I am.” (I can identify with that a bit.)

But one of them really caught my attention because it cuts right to the heart of what I do here at Fourth Church. After the baptism of his baby brother, a young boy sobbed all the way home in the back seat of the family car. His father asked him numerous times what was wrong but the boy was inconsolable. Finally, through his tears he managed to say, “That preacher said she wanted us brought up in a Christian home, but I want to stay with you guys.”

It could go one of two ways, right? On the one hand, perhaps this little boy was discerning enough to recognize that though his family goes to church and values it enough to have their children baptized, they really aren’t doing much else to distinguish themselves as a Christian family. Or, perhaps a more charitable reading is that this family had so integrated faith into the fabric of their family life that it never occurred to the boy that this way of being needed a label like “Christian.” I’ll let you decide where you find yourself between those two extremes. As families or as individuals, most of us fall somewhere in the middle.

But this question of how we nurture Christian families is very much at the center of what we are celebrating today. The confirmation of our eighth graders is a visible sign of one significant way that we as a congregation fulfill the promises we make when we baptize our children. And that’s the beauty of our Presbyterian understanding of these things. Baptism and faith formation are not private family matters. When parents bring their children here for baptism or Sunday School or youth ministry, the congregation as a whole—each of us—pledges to be responsible for raising our children in the faith of this community.

On Confirmation Sunday we witness the fulfillment of these promises in profound ways. Many of these young people were baptized right here in this sanctuary thirteen or fourteen years ago. Some of you were likely here when it happened and you made those promises yourself. In the years since then, we have provided opportunities for these youth to learn about our beliefs and values, to participate in our rituals and practices, to discover role models and mentors in faith. And through the process of their confirmation program we have given them the opportunity to make this faith their own. They have wrestled with big questions and complex doctrines, they have been open to the presence of God in their lives, they have thought about who they are and how God calls them to be in the world. And today twenty-nine of them will stand before this congregation and profess with their own mouths the faith that their parents and this community have tried instill in them.

But then what? What happens next? We know from experience that some of them will stay involved in our youth ministry as high school students. Some of them will come to church and worship with their families here in the sanctuary. Some of them will slowly drift away and might not come back until they get married or have children of their own. Some of them may never come back.

Because I wanted to have a better sense of what really happens after confirmation, I put together a research project and wrote a thesis about it for the Doctor of Ministry degree I have recently completed. Prior to this year’s class of 29, I have confirmed 282 young people in this and one other congregation over the course of twelve years of youth ministry. I wanted to know what their faith looked like after all this investment—two, four, eight, or twelve years after confirmation.

By traditional measures like church membership or worship attendance, what I discovered wasn’t very encouraging. Not many of these young adults are actively involved in Christian congregations. In this respect they are not very different from growing numbers of emerging adults who are less and less committed to traditional religious institutions.

But beyond this sobering reality, there are signs of hope. Almost all of them continue to ask what Paul Tillich called questions of ultimate concern. Like most human beings, they are actively looking for meaning in life. And most of them still believe in God. Many of them engage in prayer or meditation, or are at least open to these practices. They still value community and service to others.

So what’s changed? Why do so many of the young people we confirm end up doing something else on Sunday mornings, even though they had positive confirmation experiences and have generally high regard for the church? The answer may be that while the world is changing, the church simply isn’t keeping pace. It may be that when it comes to church, nothing has really changed. And maybe that’s the problem.

In one respect, we are changing in positive directions. For some time now progressive churches like ours have de-emphasized dogmatism or propositional faith and have instead prioritized openness to a variety of beliefs. Faith for us has less to do with accepting a list of doctrines and more to do with nurturing relationships with God and with each other.

I believe we can see this play out in the story of so-called doubting Thomas. Thomas was told an incredible story about the resurrected Jesus that any rational person would have trouble accepting at face value. In this respect, he is like every young person who ever participates in confirmation. He is like many of us who struggle with questions and doubts. Indeed, he was the very first person to question the most unbelievable—but most important—doctrine about Jesus.

Yet remarkably, unlike many of us, when he asks for proof he gets it. Jesus himself shows up to offer Thomas the opportunity to touch his wounds and see for himself that he is real. But if you read the text closely, Thomas never actually touches Jesus. Instead, he is content with the presence of Jesus because it reminds him of the deep relationship they have shared. He didn’t need to hear a biblical, theological, or philosophical defense of resurrection. In that moment, it didn’t have to make sense in his brain. He simply needed to know that Jesus was there, in the midst of the community he created, loving Thomas and the others as he always did.

But as much as we succeed in adapting our theology and beliefs to postmodern times, we struggle to make our forms of church relevant to emerging generations. And this doesn’t have anything to do with the kind of music that we sing or the way that we dress. Often we fail to recognize that what we do here is culturally conditioned. It is one social construction—however we do it—through which we respond to God’s presence in our lives. But it is not the only one. And maybe we need to be more attentive to meeting people where they are and helping them realize that God is not bound by buildings made by human hands or traditional forms of congregational life. In this respect, I have found much challenge and inspiration in Paul’s speech to the Athenians on Mars Hill.

Of course, my appreciation for this speech has fluctuated over the years. When I was an evangelical teenager I marveled at the genius of his presentation of the gospel in language that his Greek audience would understand. It seemed like a brilliant approach to evangelism.

But in college and seminary, as I grew to value the full biblical context of Jesus’ life and message, I began to resent Paul’s speech because it presents the gospel without telling the story of the Hebrew Bible, which is the proper context. He never once even mentions Jesus by name—did you pick up on that? It started to sound to me like a simplistic gospel that presents Jesus as the universal solution to a generic human problem with no reference whatsoever to the sweeping themes of the Bible. For me, without an understanding of the Hebrew Bible and Second Temple Judaism, Jesus just doesn’t make much sense.

But now, as I think more and more about ministry with youth and young adults, I have rediscovered an appreciation for Paul’s speech because I see more clearly the similarities between ancient Athens and contemporary post-Christendom North America. Our culture is just as “flooded with idols” as the Athens of Paul’s day. They may not be explicitly religious idols, but our devotion to materialism, consumerism, militarism, and celebrity serve similar functions. According to John Calvin, “the human mind is a perpetual factory for idols,” and we see that play out every day. And though in some ways our culture is also “very religious in every way”—by world standards we are still a remarkably religious nation—we too are obsessed with novelty and ask the kinds of philosophical and theological questions that only privilege and security can afford. We like to think of ourselves as educated and sophisticated and well versed in the best thinking of the day. Just as Paul proclaimed his message in the Athenian “marketplace of ideas,” contemporary Christians like you and me proclaim our message in the complex and fluid marketplace of American religiosity. Like Paul on Mars Hill, we need to proclaim the gospel where the people actually are and do it in language they will actually understand.

Like those former confirmands I surveyed, many people who do not come to church still believe in some kind of God and engage in some form of prayer or meditation. Though their faith is neither dogmatic nor grounded in traditional congregational involvement, it is faith nonetheless. Perhaps these people understand a deeper truth that Paul tried to impress upon the Athenians: in our idolizing of institutional religion and our idolizing of certainty of belief, maybe we are just as guilty of assuming that God lives in temples made with human hands and that somehow God needs something from us. If God is in fact the ground of being in which we “live and move and have our being,” can we not engage God beyond the walls of our church buildings? Can we not proclaim an unknown God beyond the limitations of our theological endeavors? As Jay Bakker notes, “It’s easy to read this scene on the Areopagus as Paul introducing the Athenians to the unknown God so they can now think of this God as known, but what if Paul isn’t contradicting the unknown part? What if Paul is saying that this unknown God is the God of all things and cannot be known?”

I met with each one of our confirmands before today, one on one. One of the first theological questions I asked them was, “how do you know that God exists?” Almost all of them said, “we can’t know—that’s what faith is about.” One of them, in her statement of faith, talks about God as “Something with a capital S.” The unknown God.

Though Paul would have considered them pagan, the Athenians were certainly seeking out meaning in life. Many people in our culture are no different. They are very much involved in the search for meaning, but it is often on their own terms. “At least they are searching,” writes Will Willimon. “They at least know that something else is needed to make sense out of life, to give coherence to the world. The church, rather than standing back from pagan religiosity, pointing our fingers in righteous indignation, should, like Paul in Athens, minster to their searching.” Minister to their searching.

When I talk about and experiment with crazy things like BBQ church or tailgate communion at Soldier Field, it’s not just a gimmick. It’s a way of recognizing that God is present in all of life. It’s a ways of making everyday life—where people actually live—sacred, because God is there in everything that we do.

Friends, as we mark the 100th anniversary of this magnificent sanctuary and our presence here on Michigan Avenue, a year and a half after the completing the Gratz Center and learning how we can leverage that building for our mission and ministry, and as we anticipate the arrival of our new pastor, now is the time to think in new ways about who we are and what God is calling us to do.

We don’t necessarily need to change anything about what we do in this space. It’s obviously working. It clearly meets the spiritual needs of many people. But friends, it’s not just about us. There are many more out there who don’t find this compelling enough to come. And in our post-Christendom context, I’m not sure it’s likely that we can woo them back. But they’re still seeking God, and God is not far from them.

Over the last couple of years, I’ve tried to pay attention to the history of this congregation. One of the things that has impressed me about John Timothy Stone 100 years ago as he envisioned this sanctuary and what it could mean for ministry in Chicago, is that he very much had a missionary vision for how this church would reach out into the communities around this space. I pray that we might recapture some of that missionary vision and spirit.

Because God is calling us. God is sending us. People are out there, seeking God. Perhaps, through us, they might even find God. Indeed, God is not far from each one of us.

Amen.

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  1. […] Because one of the scripture readings was the same, there are some thematic similarities to my April 27 confirmation sermon. You can listen to an audio recording of this sermon […]

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