Today we remember the life and work of the great theologian James Cone. May he rest in peace and rise in glory. And may we honor his memory by keeping his teachings alive for future generations.
To know the warmth of love,
To have the assurance that someone cares,
To be confident of our worth,
To be bold to love in return,
To be washed over with grace,
To be accepted as we are:
This is to know a bit of God.
Let us pray... Omnipresent God, everywhere we look, we find you. Known by many names and in many traditions, you are limited by none of them. You are the Source of all that is good. We are from you and forever we exist in you, and so it is that we rejoice. Amen.
Ernest Holmes wrote:
“Within Thee is fullness of Life. Within Thee is complete Joy and everlasting Peace. Within Thee is all. Thou art in me and I am in Thee…I am One with the fullness of All Life.”
We read in the Acts of the Apostles (17.16-29):
While Paul was waiting for them in Athens, he was deeply distressed to see that the city was full of idols. So he argued in the synagogue with the Jews and the devout persons, and also in the marketplace every day with those who happened to be there. Also some Epicurean and Stoic philosophers debated with him. Some said, “What does this babbler want to say?” Others said, “He seems to be a proclaimer of foreign divinities.” (This was because he was telling the good news about Jesus and the resurrection.)
So they took him and brought him to the Areopagus and 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.” Now all the Athenians and the foreigners living there would spend their time in nothing but telling or hearing something new.
Then Paul stood in front of the Areopagus and said, “Athenians, I see how extremely religious you are in every way. 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…[the] Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in shrines made by human hands…since [it is the Lord of heaven and earth that] gives to all mortals life and breath and all things…
[This One] made all nations to inhabit the whole earth, and…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…and find [God]—though indeed [this God] is not far from each one of us. For ‘In [this One] we live and move and have our being’; as even some of your own poets have said, “we too are [divine] offspring.’
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.
Reflection by Rev. Dr. BK Hipsher, Virtual Chaplain, Sunshine Cathedral
(click on the shaded text below for an audio recording of the reflection)
There’s a lot on my mind today. It’s another rainy, cold Sunday in what is supposed to be a season of Spring and sunlight and warmth. The great black theologian James Cone died yesterday and that makes my heart sad. Another voice crying in the wilderness is silenced by death. And then we have our readings today that speaks to us of the One God, a concept that may have caused the most war and hatred and violence in human history. It’s hard to know where to start.
So I’ll start at the end of my thought process and work backward. In our story from Acts we find Paul in Athens. This was a vibrant city full of art and culture, philosophy and theology. The Greeks in Athens were among the most literate and forward thinking of their day. Paul was there engaging in conversation and debate. There is no mention that he was preaching on the street or holding worship services as we do in our day. He was meeting these intellectuals on their own ground. And after debating and dialoguing with these very learned people, trying to convince them that he was “right,” it appears to me that he began trying to be open minded about their religious practice, although in my fundamentalist upbringing I was taught that he was trying to convert the “pagans” there.
We read Paul saying to these folks, “Athenians, I see how extremely religious you are in every way. 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.’” Paul acknowledges that these people are aware that there is some kind of force or power that is greater than themselves. He does not put them down, he picks out the inscription “to an unknown god” to illustrate that the concept of One God is unknowable and undefinable.
Paul recognized that even idol worship is an expression of a yearning to know the nature of God. And he tried to engage these intellectuals with a compliment to what they do not know as a way to illuminate the folly of attempting to define, or contain, or even name God. Idol worship is not using an image to evoke a transcendent experience of God. Rather it is literally worshiping a “thing” as though the object itself contains the capacity to form a relationship with humanity.
It’s easy for us to say that we have come so far beyond the understanding of the Athenians in the first century. We don’t worship gods made of wood or metal or clay. We know that God cannot be contained in statues or objects. Why then do we continue to look to success or money or fame, privilege and power and yearn for them as if these things have the power to make us happy and give us a life of fulfillment and meaning?
The answer is simple, we want a simple answer to the burning question that has plagued humanity since creation... where is God? Who is God? How can we connect with God? What can we do that will bring us into relationship with God and give our lives meaning? We want to know God’s name, know the rules, be on the “right” side. So we construct theologies of exclusion that give us the idea that we alone know the answers and all would be well if everyone else simply followed what we “know” to be “true.”
But God does not have only one name. God has as many names as there are names. God does not have only one form. Because there are as many forms of God as there are faces that look back at us in a mirror, all made in the image of God. As I’ve said before here I think we have fundamentally misunderstood the concept of the One God.
We think that One God means that there is one, definable, singular entity and that if we could only name it, describe it, contain it, THEN all would be well and all people would be united. And so we fight wars trying to make other accept our concept of God. We diminish others because they have a different idea, or name, or image for God.
I believe that One God means that WE are all part of the ONE. We are all ONE family. We are all part of ONE whole of creation. Our lives are each a miracle of the force that animates all life in the universe. We are all part of the ONE. We thought that One God meant One singular thing. But the truth is that we all make up ONE God, ONE family, ONE spiritual reality and it takes ALL of us and our unique understandings and expressions, to give us just a glimpse of the magnificence of the One God.
That’s what I believe. God is a mystery beyond our naming. God is a mystery beyond our knowing. God cannot be contained in any one idea or theology or religious practice. God is that within whom “we live and move and have our being” as the ancient Greek philosopher Epimenides wrote 7 centuries before Paul quoted him in our reading today.
The great theologian James Cone opened our eyes to our responsibility to work for justice for the oppressed rather than sitting on our privilege and looking down on those we see as “other.” He wrote about the cross and how white supremacists have appropriated that symbol and used it as an image of terror, torture, and death. He reminded us that black bodies swinging from lynching trees recall the execution of Jesus by the forces of empire that conspire to control the bodies of those who demand economic justice for all.
This week too, the first “Beyonce Mass” was held at an Episcopal Church in San Francisco on a Wednesday night. That service generally gets about 50 people in attendance. But this week 750 – 900 people showed up to form a community around universal archetypes found in the lyrics of songs by Beyonce Knowles-Carter. And the internet went NUTS! So-called Christians denouncing this gathering of the beloved community as heretical and idolatrous. Sound familiar?
Whenever a name for God or an expression of God with which we are unfamiliar comes to our consciousness we tend to label it as heretical, in error, even downright sinful. These unfamiliar images and names and expressions of God can get unsettling and make us fearful. But we MUST realize that there are so many different names for God, expressions of religion, paths to God precisely because there are so many of us humans who experience God in different ways.
Let us embrace another’s experience of God so that we can expand our minds to the infinite possibilities that is God’s nature. Let us endeavor to open our minds to the possibility that all the names and images and expressions of religions are correct... that God is so magnificent that God can never be contained in one point of view.
May all images of God be blessed. May all expression of God be blessed. May all efforts to love be blessed. Let us pray... Holy One of many names: we are in you, from you, filled with you, guided by you, and so it is that all is well. Amen.
Music Suggested for Meditation