Rev. Susan M. Hudson, St Pauls Presbyterian Church, May 25, 2014

National Pastimes and Spiritual Longings
[Psalm 66:8-20; Acts 17:2-31]

            Paul has come a long way in his missionary journeys… and finds himself in the center of Athens, Greece, near the Acropolis. Have any here visited Athens… and seen the Acropolis?  Last summer for Vacation Bible School, we created a little “Athens” and met the Apostle Paul there. That’s where today’s Scripture takes place. 

Paul stood in front of the Areopagus… in English we call it “Mars Hill” – there’s even a college in NC named Mars Hill, taken from this Scripture.  However, the name of the highest governing body in Athens was also called the “Council of Areopagus.”  Some readers of this Scripture think Paul was on trial in front of the political leaders of Athens; however other people think this was a more informal encounter. The Areopagus and Acropolis were where the “intelligentsia” of the city hung out.  On a summer’s night, there were no movies, so people mingled in the city at the Acropolis and famous people gave speeches, like Socrates.

So here Paul addresses the Athenians, in a context that might compare with his standing outside the Capital Building on Memorial Day Weekend to address Americans.  I wonder what he would say to us in this culture! Let’s imagine Paul having a dialogue with us!

“Americans, I see how extremely patriotic you are this weekend. You are flying your flags high, decorating the graves of your fallen soldiers, even marking the graves of unknown soldiers with dignity and respect. You are hosting colorful parades and prayer services at the gravesites of fallen comrades.  I admire your passion and commitment and your desire to make the world a better place. As you gather on holy ground around the remains of loved ones long deceased, I want you to be assured that the God who made the world and everything in it, offers you a kind of freedom that no nation on earth can fully protect or guarantee, and a life that never dies.

I see you Americans also treasure your weekends of travel, rest and refreshment. Your highways are crowded even though the price of gas is exorbitantly high! You love your theme parks, sports teams, T.V. & reality shows, video games, and other national pastimes that are a great diversion from the day to day hard work of your jobs. Sometimes you spend lots of money on cruises, boats, vacation homes where you can escape from the pressures of your daily lives. And yet God offers you Americans a deeper sort of rest, for which you do not have to strive, drive, or spend money.

This God, who made the world and everything in it, doesn’t dwell in your favorite vacation spots, nor can our God be limited by denominations, national borders and cultures.  Our God created all nations to inhabit the earth and it is God’s desire that all people seek him and find him, for God is not far from any of us. “In God, we live and move and have our being” according to the Greek poets Paul was quoting.

We long for permanence, a name that outlasts time. We long for a life that conquers death, peace that passes under-standing.  Yes, we are all God’s offspring, imprinted with God’s DNA and yet, God commands all people everywhere to repent, for the ways we fall short of God’s glory. God has appointed a Savior who has taken the fall for us, suffered for our sins, and now judges the whole world with righteousness.
No nation can hold herself above God, for all nations fall short of God’s glory.

            I will admit it. This has been an emotionally tough week for this congregation!  We lost two patriarchs: both received full military honors for their service to our country…T.J. Willis in the navy… and Tinker Jackson in the army.  It was a privilege to be present when members of the armed services presented the flag to their widows.

            I will also admit that when my daughters come to town, I love going to movies with them & escaping the pressure and intensity of my job!  So yesterday, Rebekah, our entertainment coordinator recommended we see “Million Dollar Arm,” at Millstone Theaters in Fayetteville.

            The movie focuses on one of America’s greatest national pastimes:  baseball!  It’s based on a true story. J.B. Bernstein, a Los Angeles based sports agent… was in trouble financially and could not get players to sign contracts with him.  Near bankruptcy, he and an Indian partner dreamed up the scheme of recruiting a whole new “market” for baseball in a country of 1.1 billion people, by going to India and finding undiscovered talent.  They ended up hosting a reality show in India called “Million Dollar Arm”… in 2008… to see if they could convert some cricket players who “bowl” into baseball players who “pitch.”

            To make a long story short…and not to ruin the ending of a great movie, we see J.B. Bernstein, the typical wheeler-dealer American who is in it totally for the “dollars.”  He shows incredible insensitivity to the two winners of the reality show, Rinku Singh and Dinesh Patel.  They have to leave their native Indian villages, where their parents work for about $25/week and are thrust into a pressure-packed training program to become in less than one year professional baseball players.  The trainer, Tom House, predicted it would be nearly impossible to accomplish it.

            I won’t ruin the story for you… but the modest, prayerful Hindu young men, who beat out 37,000 competitors, have to adjust to America, with all of our immorality, drinking, the lack of close family connections and the individualism that we, as Americans, take for granted as normal.  J.B. Berstein was quite willing to uproot these young men for his own financial purposes, without ever considering the impact it would have on their lives, families & future.

            The first time we see “Mr. J.B. Sir” praying in this movie is near the end, when he joins Rinku and Dinesh at the little Hindu altar they create in his apartment.  If the movie is accurate, J.B. Bernstein discovers some deeper spiritual longings and desires for commitment he never knew he had through his encounter with Rinku and Dinesh…

What we see in “Million Dollar Arm” is a more light-hearted version of something that happened much earlier in our history, when the early settlers brought Africans to America for economic reasons.  Many of our ancestors “used” people for their own purposes, even justifying slavery by quoting Scripture.  Let’s listen to one of our great poets, Maya Angelou, as she critiques that practice. She writes:

 Still I Rise
You may write me down in history
With your bitter, twisted lies,
You may trod me in the very dirt
But still, like dust, I'll rise.
Does my sassiness upset you?
Why are you beset with gloom?
'Cause I walk like I've got oil wells
Pumping in my living room.

Just like moons and like suns,
With the certainty of tides,
Just like hopes springing high,
Still I'll rise.
Did you want to see me broken?
Bowed head and lowered eyes?
Shoulders falling down like teardrops.
Weakened by my soulful cries.
Does my haughtiness offend you?
Don't you take it awful hard
'Cause I laugh like I've got gold mines
Diggin' in my own back yard.
You may shoot me with your words,
You may cut me with your eyes,
You may kill me with your hatefulness,
But still, like air, I'll rise...
Out of the huts of history's shame
I rise
Up from a past that's rooted in pain
I rise
I'm a black ocean, leaping and wide,
Welling and swelling I bear in the tide.
Leaving behind nights of terror and fear
I rise
Into a daybreak that's wondrously clear
I rise
Bringing the gifts that my ancestors gave,
I am the dream and the hope of the slave.
I rise
I rise
I rise.

Out of the ashes of our own mistakes as a nation, we are invited by Paul’s speech outside the capital of our country to seek God first with hearts, minds, souls and strength, so that this beautiful nation will continue to thrive.  This is God’s land, not ours, and as people of all ethnicities continue to come here, seeking freedom, peace and opportunity, let us humble ourselves, as King Solomon did in the Old Testament.  We read in II Chronicles 7:14:  “If my people who are called by my name humble themselves, pray, seek my face, and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, and will forgive their sin and heal their land.”

            As early immigrants to the great land of America, our Scottish ancestors in Robeson County were welcomed and assisted by the indigenous people to survive and thrive here.  Throughout our history, we have also committed grave sins: against fellow Americans and against people of other nationalities, sometimes purely for economic gain, and sometimes using the Bible to justify our actions. 

            As Paul praised the Athenians for their intelligence and for their extremely religious ways, naming and worshiping many different Gods, he then challenged them to recognize and worship the One True God who made heaven and earth. 

            I believe Paul would praise Americans for many of our gifts: energy, intelligence, religiosity & patriotism; however, he would also challenge us NOT to be diverted by what is less important: MONEY. How often do we spend our time and money on things that can’t satisfy our deepest spiritual longings? We can’t buy happiness, security, permanence or peace.

            Blaise Pascal described an “infinite abyss” within the soul of every person reserved for God alone. Centuries earlier, St. Augustine confessed to God:  “You have made us for yourself and our heart is restless until it rests in you.”

            On this Memorial Day Weekend, we remember fallen soldiers and soldiers returning from Afghanistan with disabilities that will affect their lives on earth for many years to come.  They have paid dearly and so have their families for this international conflict.

And yet, let us also REMEMBER the ONE who died for ALL, so that people of all nationalities may call upon his name and be saved. When Christ returns all wars will cease, economic striving will not be necessary, God’s people will be One.

            God wants us to pray for that day to come. In the words of Psalm 66:
           
            “Come and hear, all you who fear God, and I will tell you what God has done for me. I cried aloud to him and praised him with my voice. If I had cherished iniquity in my heart, the Lord would not have listened. But truly God has listened; he has given heed to the words of my prayer.  Blessed be God, because he has not rejected my prayer or removed his steadfast love from me.” (Psalm 66:16-20)

            Sisters and brothers, let’s not confuse our national pastimes with our deepest spiritual longings.  Even as we rest and re-create ourselves this weekend: playing putt-putt, cards, watching movies, eating well; let’s not ignore our deeper spiritual longings for God’s love and forgiveness. Let’s not feed our spiritual hungers with material things that don’t satisfy. Only Christ, the Living Lord, gives true rest to our restless hearts.  Let us pray.

 

Quoted by Sean A. White in “The Theological Perspective on Acts 17:22-31,” Feasting on the Word, Year A, Vol. II, p. 474.