Searching and Stumbling

A sermon  preached at Southminster Presbyterian Church

April 29, 2018

Acts 17:22-31

I love this story. I love the idea of people arguing over ideas, and debating differences. I know not everyone shares my enjoyment of disagreement. I know many people prefer an absence of conflict.

There was, and is, however, a tradition in Judaism of contending for ideas. For not making lazy arguments, but for making an argument that stands up to critique. Some of these arguments are kept as midrash, a collection of scriptural and theological arguing kept as tradition.  It is evident in this story. Paul, in the synagogue, arguing. Paul, in the marketplace, arguing.

In our public squares, these days, we’ve lost the skill of rhetoric, of building an argument, of defending it on merit, rather than on emotion. We tend to be really good at labeling the other side as “snowflakes” or “nazis”, and we acknowledge both labels may be true for particular individuals but they aren’t true across the board. We reach for stereotype and personal attack, without attending to the merit, or the facts, of the situation.

What Paul was doing in the market place is not what happens today on Twitter. He’s not calling people lazy, stupid, or lying. Paul does not accuse his opponents of witch hunts, or bad motives.

We must reclaim an ability to argue. Not for the sake of fighting, but because we all see the world differently and we need understanding. Seeing the world in diverse ways is a good thing. None of us has all the answers. All of us, however, might be able to find some sort of solution.  We need to seek what it is we have in common, where we can move out of our own entrenched views to seek our common interest, and to build relationships.

I’m not suggesting we argue to convert people to join us in our trenches, but as a way for all of us to leave our trenches behind, while carrying forward what is good about our views, and by picking up what is good about the views of the other.

Samar Minallah Khan, the feminist Pakistani anthropologist and filmmaker, was enraged. Local tribal leaders were trading little girls as compensation for their male family members’ crimes.

These leaders, responsible for settling legal disputes in their villages, act as local judges. A longstanding practice was to address major crimes by “compensating” a harmed family with a daughter of the family doing the harm. The guilty father or uncle was then considered “free” and the village was told this issue was “resolved.” Samar thought this tradition, called swara, was horrendous — it forever changed a young girl’s life, through no fault of her own. But although she was angry, she realized she’d never get to the outcome she wanted if she led with that anger.

So she tried something else. First, she listened more than she talked. She listened to the religious (male) leaders explain the use of swara, and its benefits, and she asked how that tradition would have been interpreted by the Prophet Mohammad. She listened to the fathers and uncles who allowed their crimes to be expiated this way. And by listening, Samar learned so much that it enabled her to bridge a seemingly unbridgeable chasm of difference.

Samar had first assumed that the fathers whose crimes were being forgiven this way were happy to let their daughters suffer for their crimes, but when she listened to them, she heard that they were not. They wanted another way. She heard from local leaders that they placed an extremely high value on tradition. She heard from religious Muslim legal scholars that swara was a form of “vicarious liability,” which is not allowed in Islam.

And finally, she heard that in earlier times, disputes were also resolved by sending a girl to an enemy’s family, but she didn’t stay there permanently; instead, she would be given gifts and then sent back to her parents’ home. All of this, she taped.

She convened local communities to watch these videos and talk with each other about the tradition and its implications. One by one, local tribal leaders changed what they considered true justice. They decided that swara could be replaced by monetary compensation. Samar created change not by selling her idea, but creating a way for everyone arrive at a new idea, together.

What Samar did was to ask people to share their perspective, without trying to convince them of hers.” 

She managed to bridge some very large divides, and to help the community find a common path forward.

Paul shares the Good News of the Gospel with a crowd of Athenians in the marketplace and his rhetoric is masterful. He doesn’t insult them. He doesn’t scare them. He invites them to see something familiar in a new way. He allows them to re-interpret their tradition in light of new information about Jesus. He encourages them to consider that the God for whom they have been striving, who was unknown, is now able to be known through the person of Jesus of Nazareth. He’s confident in his own beliefs, without denigrating their own.

Paul suggests that one of the reasons we were created by this now known God was so we “would search for God and perhaps grope for him and find him—though indeed he is not far from each one of us”.

I love this. What a gift. How would we live life differently if we considered that we were here on earth to search and grope and, perhaps, find God? Doesn’t that remove any certainty we might try to bring to the faith journey?

If we are here to be Searchers and Gropers and Finders, then we are not here to be Declarers and Fact Finders and People who live without mystery. It isn’t our job to have all of the answers and get an “A” on the test of life. God created us to seek, to wander around in the dark with our hands out in front of us, hoping we’ll stumble into the God we seek.

Paul calls them to imagine God, and themselves, in more lofty terms than they are used to doing. Rather than worshipping a God of stone or silver or gold, they are called to consider that we are offspring of God. And so the God we worship should be better than stone. And the people who worship God reflect God’s very love back to the world.

The tension in this text between known and unknown keeps us from settling with easy answers. Yes, God is closer to us than an “unknown god”. We are offspring of God, who is nearby. We know about God through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, a man who was known. But for all we know about God, we are still groping in the dark, searching high and low and, perhaps, finding God.

How do you share the Good News of the Gospel? With a set of proscribed tenets to which the Athenians must adhere? Or do you invite people to stumble around in the dark with you, knowing that God is never far away?

I’m grateful we have space here to search and stumble together. This week at one of the board meetings I attended, one of my friends used a blessing, often attributed to Mother Teresa, similar to a blessing written by Kent Keith. I think it’s a good companion to our goals of searching and stumbling through this life together.

People are often unreasonable, irrational, and self-centered.
Forgive them anyway. 
If you are kind, people may accuse you of selfish, ulterior motives.
Be kind anyway.
If you are successful, you will win some unfaithful friends and some genuine enemies.
Succeed anyway.
If you are honest and sincere people may deceive you.
Be honest and sincere anyway.
What you spend years creating, others could destroy overnight.
Create anyway.
If you find serenity and happiness, some may be jealous.

Be happy anyway.
The good you do today, will often be forgotten.

Do good anyway.

Give the best you have, and it will never be enough.
Give your best anyway.
In the final analysis, it is between you and God.

It was never between you and them anyway.

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