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Knoxville, TN, United States
Interim Pastor of Evergreen Presbyterian Church (USA), Dothan, AL.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

Acts 17:22-31
James McTyre
Lake Hills Presbyterian Church (USA)
Sunday, April 27, 2008

Acts 17:22 Then Paul stood in front of the Areopagus and said, "Athenians, I see how extremely religious you are in every way.

The Apostle Paul, the first global missionary of the church, had been preaching in what's now the country of Turkey. The Bible doesn't specifically say what happened to make Paul feel the need to leave Turkey, the region where he was born and raised, but evidently, the Spirit was kind of drying up. One night, Paul had a dream. In his dream, a man from Greece was pleading with Paul to, “Please come and help us.” That was all it took to get Paul and his flock of missionaries to decide to hop a boat and sail to Greece.

In Greece, their first stopping point was Philippi. We get the book of the Bible, the letter to the Philippians, from this mission outpost. Things went well in Philippi, at first. But then, Paul and his associate, Silas, got in trouble with the local authorities for being preachy know-it-alls and disrupting the slave trade. After a brief trial, they were attacked by a crowd, stripped naked, beaten with rods and thrown in jail. Then, thanks the miracle of a very localized earthquake epicentered at the jail, all the prisoners were set free. Faced with a God who could cause earthquakes with laser-beam precision, the Philippian fathers very kindly asked Paul and his preachers to leave the city and never return.

Next, Paul landed in Thessalonica, from which we get the books of the Bible, the letters to the Thessalonians, 1 and 2. Paul and his friends had more jail time, but this time, instead of sending an earthquake, God simply sent bail – which also works. Following this, the missionaries decided it would be best to move along again.

So, then they went to Berea. This time, word was beginning to travel faster than the jailers. Before Paul and his associates could be thrown in jail the Christians of Berea decided to escort them to yet another city in scenic ancient Greece. This time, it was Athens.

Athens – city of philosophers, the birthplace of democracy, host city of the first modern Olympics – Athens was the perfect place for Paul to land. The Bible itself says that the people of Athens “would spend their time in nothing but telling or hearing something new.” Kind of like California, but with togas.

Athens would have been the perfect place for Paul to preach, except for all the idols. Athenian Idols were everywhere Paul looked. On just about every corner - statues of nude men. It drove Paul nuts. Remember, Paul was Jewish, a Jewish convert to Christianity. Idolatry and nudity not only violated several commandments embedded in Paul's psyche, they were also really irritating to someone who was preaching the One God in Jesus Christ for all humanity.

So Paul started arguing. He argued in the synagogues. He argued in the market square. Now, the Athenians were a little different. Instead of dragging Paul to jail, the Bible says “they took him and brought him to the Areopagus, where they asked him, 'May we know what this new teaching is that you are presenting? It sounds rather strange to us, so we would like to know what it means.'” (They're so polite in Athens. But, after all, it's in southern Greece.)

Why in the world would it matter where they took Paul, and why would Luke the writer of Acts mention the Areopagus by name? The Bible doesn't say specifically. A little history helps.

The Areopagus was not the center for public debate. “Pagos” in Greek means, “big rock.” Areo probably comes from the name of Ares, the Greek god of war – not polite war, but savage, bloodthirsty, slaughtering war. The Areopagus was the traditional place in Athens where murder trials were held. So, while the Areopagus might not mean so much to you and me, for Paul -- who preached Christ crucified, for Paul, who had recently stood before the magistrates -- for Paul, who had recently been beaten with rods -- Paul who had in at least one jail and driven out of every town he'd visited – for Paul to be taken to a hill, not unlike the hill where Christ was crucified, a hill honoring the Greek god of slaughter, a hill where murder trials were held – well, suddenly those open-minded Athenians might have looked a little more menacing.

But even with his knees knocking, Paul was a genius. Again, a little history. The Areopagus, the homicide court of Athens, was also the site of the temple to the Unknown God. Remember, Athens was filled with statues to the “Big 12” gods (Zeus, Athena, Ares, etc.), and also scores of lesser gods. Legend had it that around 600 years before Paul, Athens was in the grips of a plague and desperate to appease the gods with the appropriate sacrifices. There was a philosopher named Epimenides who came up with a 600 BC health care plan. Epimenides' idea went like this:

The Athenians gathered a flock of sheep to the Areopagus and released them. The sheep roamed about Athens and the surrounding hills. Wherever a sheep stopped and lied down a sacrifice was made to the local god of that place. There were so many gardens and buildings associated with a specific god or goddess, that pretty much wherever a sheep landed, the people could build an altar and make a sacrifice (and I'm guessing it was the unfortunate sheep. Thanks for all your help, there, Fluffy). However, at least one, if not several, quick-thinking sheep led the Athenians to locations that had no god(s) associated. Looked like a good plan on the sheeps' behalf. Sadly for them, though, Epimenides (also thinking quickly) realized the hole in his health care logic and told the Athenians, “Oops. We must have missed a god,” and built an altar and made the sacrifice to... the Unknown God, on the Areopagus. Perhaps given the moral failings of the Big 12 gods, this god who started out as a placeholder for a religious “Oops,” the Unknown God, became very popular.

So, here's Paul, standing atop the Areopagus, this place of murderous death. He looks out at the Temple of the Unknown God. Thinking even more quickly than the sheep or Epimenides, he says,

“For as I went through the city and looked carefully at the objects of your worship, I found among them an altar with the inscription, 'To an unknown god.' What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you. The God who made the world and everything in it, he who is Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in shrines made by human hands, nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mortals life and breath and all things. From one ancestor he made all nations to inhabit the whole earth, and he allotted the times of their existence and the boundaries of the places where they would live, so that they would search for God and perhaps grope for him and find him--though indeed he is not far from each one of us.”

And, Paul's genius doesn't stop there. He knows the philosophy of Epimenides and even quotes him to the Greeks:

For 'In him we live and move and have our being'; as even some of your own poets have said, 'For we too are his offspring.'

Again, we hear this quoted about our God, but the line about 'In him we live and move and have our being,' is in quotes in your Bible. It's in quotes because Paul is quoting the great philosopher of the Athenians to the Athenians. The line, 'in him live and move and have our being' was originally part of a poem written by Epimenides about Zeus, the number one god of the Greek Big 12, who was, according to Greek religion, the father of all creation.

Paul is a genius of biblical proportions. He stands on the hilltop of murder, remembers the guy who invented the Unknown God, quotes this guy talking about the #1 Greek god, and applies the Greeks' own philosopher to Christ who died on a hilltop and the God of Jesus in whom we 'live and breathe and have our being.' Dang, Paul is good. And if you don't know the history, you miss that. Unlike the rest of us preachers, Paul is brilliant. Biblically brilliant.

So Paul, who's been so annoyed by all the naked, idolatrous statues, goes on:

“Since we are God's offspring (implied there, NOT the offspring of Zeus or any other naked statue), 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. While God has overlooked the times of human ignorance (and as much as the Greeks love their gods, they hate ignorance, so again Paul's landing a genius jab), now he commands all people everywhere to repent, because he has fixed a day on which he will have the world judged in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed, and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead."

Oh, Paul just couldn't resist. Apparently, according to the Bible, he had them, right up until the point about the resurrection. The rest of the story picks up in verse 32:

When they (the Athenians) heard of the resurrection of the dead, some scoffed; but others said, “We will hear you again about this.” (In other words, “Hmmm. Well. That's interesting. Thank you very much. Let's talk about this again some other time. We'll call you.”) At that point (the Bible says) Paul left them.

But some of them joined him and became believers, including Dionysius the Areopagite and a woman named Damaris, and others with them. After this, Paul left Athens.

OK. Here's the thing. You're logical, sensible people. You live – not in the cradle of democracy – but in its greatest example. We've got more American Idols than we can count – homes, cars, TVs and the people who live in them. We are desperately aware of the unknown. We may not worship the god of the unknown, but we live in fear of the unknown every single day. Every week, we come to worship. We walk up the hill to sit before the cross, we listen to words and songs and prayers about the God in whom we live and move and have our being – are we going to do more than rub our chins and say, “Hmmm. That's Interesting. Thank you very much. Let's talk about this again some other time.”?? Or are we going to do what Paul said to do?: Repent. Repent and live and breathe and have our being in the God who is known. The God who knows us. The God who brought Jesus Christ back from the dead?

Sunday, April 20, 2008


The title of today's sermon is, “How to Complain.”

Now, you might think it strange that you'd have a sermon offering lessons on how to complain. Is this something we really need? Isn't there enough complaining in the world without the church offering to help you do it even better? After all, the Bible says, “do everything without complaining or arguing” (Philippians 2:14). But, while one verse says, “Don't complain,” if you took all the complaints out of the Bible you'd have a pamphlet. It's filled with either complaints or responses to complaints. Why? Because God knows people. In the beginning... Eve complained about the food selection, Adam complained about Eve, and God complained about their kids. The prophets complain about the people, the government, and the weather. Jesus complains about his own disciples who are sometimes not the sharpest knives in the drawer. And then there's Job who complains – and complains, and complains for 42 chapters.

Today's Old Testament passage, Psalm 31, is a masterful complaint. In the New Testament passage, the disciples Thomas and Philip raise their hands and interrupt Jesus with technical complaints during this incredibly tender and touching moment when Jesus is trying to tell them how much he loves them. So much of the Bible is either addressed to complaints or expressed in the form of complaints; but we don't talk very much about that in church. In church, everyone's supposed to be “nice.” We don't talk very much about complaining in church, probably because we're pretty clumsy at complaining. When people start complaining, other people get hurt. Instead of listening to the Bible, we take our lessons on complaining from people who are rude: Radio talk show hosts. Reality show contestants. News commentators. The complaints in the Bible may be many things, but they aren't rude. Psalm 31 is a psalm of David. King David. David the musician. David the artist. And I'll bet you when people first heard the psalm they didn't say, “Oh, there's Dave, complaining again.” That's because the Psalmist understood how to complain, not with rudeness, but with style. Today's sermon is an attempt to help you learn how to be a better complainer. If it helps, fine. If not, send me a complaint.

Why do we complain?

I had to laugh when I read the dedication line of Psalm 31. It says, “A psalm of David. To the choir director.” Apparently choir directors know something about complaints. It's in the job description. I picture the royal Choirmaster coming into David's office, banging his head on the desk, and saying, “It's two weeks from Passover, and they won't sing the Halleluia Chorus!” So, David, a genius of both leadership and music, doesn't say, “Fire the whole bunch of them!” Instead, he writes his Choirmaster a new song, a song about complaining. And he doesn't hold back.

I am hurting and almost blind.

My whole body aches.

I have known only sorrow

all my life long,

and I suffer

year after year (especially in the weeks before Christmas).

I am weak from sin,

and my bones are breaking.

And the choir director says, “Yes! You know how I feel!”

In a way, David is saying to his choir director, “I feel your pain.” But I think he's also saying, “Cheer up. Things could be worse.” Sometimes in the middle of a complaint we need to be reminded of that. Things could be worse. However, in the middle of a fine white whine, that's not way we want to hear. We want to hear, “You're so right. You're righter than right.” We know things could be worse, but that's not the point. That's because most of the time our complaining isn't a search for a solution. Some helpful idiot says, “Here's a way to solve this problem,” and we say, “That'll never work.” Why? Because it's more validating to complain. Complaining is a way to validate ourselves. We complain in order to get attention, but more than that, we complain in order to get the attention we deserve.

Next time you're with a group of people, when someone tells a story about how bad they've had it, listen to what happens next. Most of the time, if someone has a complaint, the next person is going to tell about their own complaint. And pretty soon, it's as if there's a competition of – not one-upsmanship, but - one-downsmanship to see who's got the best worst story. “Oh, well, if you think that's bad, did I ever tell you about the time my Aunt Martha the dog groomer got attacked by a herd of angry Chihuahuas.” Complaining is a competitive sport. But it's a hollow victory, because if you win, instead of admiring you, everyone's sitting around thinking, “Wow. I'm glad I'm not him.”

We complain in order to get attention. If you have the winning complaint, you get attention. And that's not necessarily a bad thing. The writer of Psalm 31 wants God's attention, and says so. “Hey Lord! Do as you promised and rescue me! Look how messed up I am!” And, with his list of complaints, the writer deserves the attention of a loving, caring God. We're taught not to be complainers, but there are plenty of injustices in the world that deserve complaint. If your school is filled with mold, you should complain. If your nurse gives you the wrong medication, you should complain. We complain in order to bring attention – government's attention, our family's attention, God's attention – we complain to bring attention to an injustice. We complain to get attention for the greater good, and that's not necessarily a bad thing.

The problem with complaining in order to get attention is that it's kind of addictive. We get a thrill when someone pays attention to our complaints. So we do it again. We get more attention. And then we start finding things to complain about – not because we're lifting up injustices for all to see, but because we want more attention, and more attention. There's a difference between a person with a complaint and a complainer. Do you remember on Saturday Night Live a few years ago when they had the sketch about that family, “The Whiners”? (“We're Wendy and Doug Whiner.”) I think it's safe to say the example of Psalm 31 is not a song about whining. In the Bible, the Israelites in the wilderness whined to Moses, “We don't like this manna God keeps sending.” So God sent poisonous snakes. God doesn't like whiners.

Complaints bring attention to an injustice. Whining tries to bring validation by proving how miserable we are. The problem with complaints when they cross the line into whining is twofold. First, God already knows how miserable you are. After the third or fourth repetition, you can be pretty sure God gets it. Second, you don't need to whine in order to get validation because God already says, “You are my son; you are my daughter. I love you. You are mine.” The point of Easter, the point of Christ's suffering and resurrection is God saying, “There is nothing, nothing, in this world that can separate you from my love. Nothing.” God's will is to leave no one behind.

So, how do we learn to complain well. After all, this is America, where everybody's got a Constitutional right to complain. It's one of those Amendments. Complaining is one of our most plentiful natural resources. But how do we become skilled at complaining, the way the writer of Psalm 31 was?

Again, it's not a total surprise this was written for the Choir Director. So many really good complaints are songs. It's also not a total surprise that in a country where everyone has a right to complain we should also give birth to The Blues. B. B. King, Hank Williams, Etta James – they know how to complain... with style. Even Elvis used to know how to do it: “Oh, since my baby left me / I've found a new place to dwell / I'm living down on Lonely Street / at Heartbreak Hotel.” That's the artistry of The Blues. It's complaining that makes you want to dance.

Psalm 31 is, first of all, a song. That should tell you something. It's the Jewish Blues. Music touches the heart and the soul, and can help heal the heart and the soul like nothing else. Choir directors (and accompanists) understand that; that's the point of their ministry – healing the heart and soul in all points of life, even if it takes a sad song.

Second, Psalm 31 isn't just a song, it's a faithful song. Yes, in lines like, “I have known only sorrow all my life long,” (and how many Blues songs are expansions on that line?), yes, the attention is drawn to the singer. But not for long. The singer only points to himself or herself in order to make a point. The point is to point the listener to God. Psalm 31 is saying, “Yes I've got it bad, and that ain't good... but God is so good. Furthermore, God has been good, and I know God will be good again.”

Third, instead of pointing only at the singer, and God's promise to him or to her, the psalm reaches out with this assurance to everyone who hears. Listen to the last line of the psalm. It says, “Be strong and take heart, all you who hope in the LORD.” In other words, God's justice isn't just a thing between God and me. There's evangelism in this psalm. There's the hope that all people will come to know the strength and the heart that come from trusting in God, singing to God, crying out to God when life is rotten, and when it's pretty good, too.

So if you want to complain well, artistically, profoundly, you can use the example of Psalm 31 as a guide.

First, sing out. And I think you can do that metaphorically as well as literally. When some of us sing out we cause small animals to whine, or howl, and that's not good. Instead of sitting still when you see injustice, or are the victim of injustice, complain. Let your voice be heard. When you speak from the heart it will be music to someone's ears, even if you're speaking of heartbreak. Bear in mind, not everyone appreciates the Blues. But sometimes they just have to be heard.

Second, if you want to complain well, direct your song, your complaint not only to the right person, but direct your complaint to God. It's OK. You can't hurt God. Really. Jesus has already died. Let God have it. That's right: let God have it. Let God HAVE it. Get it off your chest and put it on God's. There's room on the cross for your sins, and for your complaints, and for the injustices you've suffered. Give them to God. Let God have it. And let go of it.

Third, if you want to complain well, sing (and complain) not for your personal attention and glory, do it in the hope that someone else might sing along. Make your complaint an act of evangelism. Say to people, “Look, I know you're in a rotten place right now. You're not alone. With God's help, let's get out of here together. Be strong. Take heart. Trust in the Lord, who's gotten out of rottener places than this.”

Lastly, if you want to complain well, remember that most of the complaints in the Bible – not all of them, but most of them – are written in the form of songs. Now what does that mean? Should I go out and write a Blues song about how bad I feel? Maybe. If that's your gift. Get some dark sunglasses and a harmonica and go down to Market Square and let the world hear you. What that really means is, phrase your complaint in a form that's not an offense to the ear. Whining is sing-songy, but it's not a song. It's not artistry. Rudeness is speaking out, who wants to sing along with that? A well-composed complaint is an invitation to others to join in. It makes people want to take up your cause, not slam their hands over their ears, or over your mouth. The Bible says to speak the truth with love. If you can make the truth your heart's song, even better.

If you complain poorly, you'll either drive everyone else away, or you'll attract other complainers... and then you'll drive lots of people away. If you strive after the example of Psalm 31, you'll attract God.

O Lord,

2 Turn your ear to me,

come quickly to my rescue;

be my rock of refuge,

a strong fortress to save me.

5 Into your hands I commit my spirit;

redeem me, O LORD, the God of truth.

7 I will be glad and rejoice in your love,

for you saw my affliction

and knew the anguish of my soul.

24 Be strong and take heart,

all you who hope in the LORD.

We don't hear many complaints like that anymore. Maybe we should. Maybe we should start with ourselves.