Sunday, April 27, 2008

Sermon for Sunday, April 27, 2008, Easter VI, Year A. Acts 17: 22-31

If you want to preach to a stranger, you’ve got to make yourself a little bit less of a stranger to them.

So it was for the new principal at Junior High School 22.

The new principal at Junior High School 22 wasn’t what anyone expected.

Junior High School 22 was one of the worst schools in the entire city of New York. It sat in the poverty-ridden South Bronx. It was known as a place where chaos reigned. The incidence of violence was so high that there were police patrolling the halls. Attendance was so poor that it was no wonder that test scores were the lowest in the city.

Teachers were demoralized. They could not do their jobs in this environment, and they had seen six other principals come and go in the prior decade. The parents, mostly Latino and African-American, despaired that their children would get enough education to survive in high school.

So here was this new principal, and you might understand the dismay on the faces of the parents and the teachers as he addressed them at his first parent-teacher’s meeting. What had the school board sent them?

Shimon Waronker was wearing a velvet yarmulke. The ritual tassels of his undergarments hung down. He had a full beard. He was a Hasidic Jew.

And he started to speak. He laid out his vision of what this school might become, what their children might become, in a different kind of Junior High School 22. He spoke with hope and even with love for these children, so often discarded by the system, so often dead in this neighborhood by the age of 21. He spoke of possibilities these parents and teachers had not even imagined. Magnet high schools. Scholarships. College. No one had spoken to them this way before, and some of the teachers sighed, thinking, “How na├»ve.”

This was a stirring speech, beautiful words. But the new principal wasn’t done yet. He repeated the whole speech, all those beautiful words, this time in fluent Spanish. Shimon Waronker had been raised in Chile. He knew how to speak their language.

And those parents and teachers began to forget the yarmulke, forget the beard, forget the tassels hanging down. No longer were they looking skeptically at a Hasidic Jew who was as different as can be. They saw a man who was willing to speak their language, in the literal and figurative sense. They saw a man who reached out to them, on their turf, in their language, to share the hope and love he felt for their children.

He was willing to engage these strangers by becoming less of a stranger himself to them.
Shimon Waronker bears more than a passing resemblance to the Apostle Paul, in the story we heard in today’s reading from the Acts of the Apostles.

Paul is preaching to the Gentiles – no surprise there. In this case, he’s preaching to Greek philosophers. He’s preaching to them on their turf, the Areopagus, or Mars Hill, in Athens. This hill is a special place. In the Greek religious tradition, it is where a supreme council of the gods meet; it is also a place where the city council meets. It is a place where the philosophers regularly gather to discuss topics of interest and to share local gossip. It is the quintessential Athenian power spot. Paul is preaching to the philosophers on their turf. He’s doing it in Greek. And he’s using a rhetorical style that is familiar to them – remember, he was raised in Hellenistic Tarsus, and although he was a Jew he learned in the Greek tradition.

Paul uses a technique that most schoolteachers know well – “Go from the known to the unknown.” You can only bring students to new material if the starting point is the things they already know. So Paul lays out his case by talking about the deep religious tradition he sees in the city of Athens. He praises the Athenians’ religiosity. He notes the many statues of gods, and one monument in particular catches his attention. An altar, on which is carved the dedication “To an unknown god.”

He’s taking a radical tack. If you’re trying to convince people to follow your God, and not their god, it seems more than passing strange to talk about their altar to their god.

But Paul is wise. He knows that you go from the known to the unknown, from the familiar and acceptable to something new and different. This going from the known to the unknown involves building a bridge, a relationship, between the known and the unknown. You get to engage in a relationship with a stranger by building familiarity, by starting with something known and familiar, and then you can stretch that relationship into something new and unfamiliar.

So when Paul talks about that altar, he uses it to make his case. He talks about it as a monument made by human hands, to a god no one knows. Then he starts telling the Athenian philosophers about a different God, his God, our God, who uses His own hands to create humankind, and everything else. This God is a known God, an immanent God, who is our Father as well as our judge, and who has sent Jesus as our savior. Our God doesn’t need monuments made by human hands, since He is the creator of all. Paul even makes his case by quoting Greek poets: the line “for we too are his offspring” comes from the Stoic poet Aratus.

Paul teaches by using what is already known to his listeners. He shares what he knows of our God by showing them how his message even resonates with their own respected sources. And in his method of making his case, Paul demonstrates that close and caring relationship between humankind and the caring God that he is describing by reaching out in a bid for relationship with these Greek philosophers, these strangers. A God who makes us all and everything in the world with His own hands, grabbing the mud and shaping us out of it, and breathing life into us. A God who is such an intimate partner that we grope for Him in the dark, that’s the God of whom Paul speaks. The relationship that Paul is trying to forge in this sermon is modeled on the very relationship that God has made with us in His act of Creation. This intimate, immanent God couldn’t be less like the indifferent, distant unknown god of that altar. How could the Greeks resist the call?

The interesting thing here is that in many ways, this doesn’t sound like the apostle Paul we’ve heard from in other stories. Paul often comes across as argumentative, even cranky. Think about him berating the Corinthians about the disputes among them. He’s heard about it from Chloe’s people. He’s harsh with them, telling them to get their act together. And how about what can only be described as a diatribe in his letter to the Galatians, who have been following another gospel than the one Paul taught them. He even acknowledges his sometimes strong temper himself : “If I were still pleasing people, I would not be a servant of Christ” (Gal 1:10).

Contrast this, now, with Paul talking to these Epicurean and Stoic philosophers on the Mars Hill. His language is respectful, instructive, not harsh. He doesn’t disparage their pagan ways, he uses those ways to show them a different way, the right way, the way of the one true God. Paul preaches to the stranger by making himself a little less of a stranger to them. And in his story, Paul reminds his listeners that God Himself has done that by giving us Jesus, that “appointed man,” the one whose incarnation makes God Himself less a stranger to humanity, more comprehensible, more real.

This message in the story, to approach those whom we want to know the Gospel with respect and love, starting on their turf, in their language, is a powerful one. In our work, as we build this church, how do we bring new people to faith? Do we tell them how empty their lives are without God? Even though it may be true, it’s guaranteed to turn them away. Do we confuse them with two or three different books in front of them, when they haven’t a clue which book to use when, and which page to turn to? Suddenly, church seems like a secret club, where if you don’t know the password, you’re shut out. Who would feel like anything but a stranger in such a place?

No, the path is the one that Paul has shown us, that Shimon Waronker showed the parents and teachers of Junior High School 22. We are called to welcome people into this community of faith through love and respect. We use their language, not language that excludes or confuses. We show them a vision of God’s transformative love, one that we know from our Lord Jesus Christ, by imagery that resonates, not by grand theological statements that are not grounded in their world. We preach not just by becoming less of a stranger to them, but by helping them recognize that our God is not a stranger to them, either.

There are no guarantees, however, of complete success.

In Shimon Waronker’s case, the story thus far has been a moderately successful one. Attendance is up to 93 percent. Waronker has used his skills in tactical intelligence, learned in the Israeli army, to effectively end violence in the school. Test scores have risen to the point that the school earned an “A” rating compared to other New York schools. But it hasn’t been a total success. Some children are still failing or in trouble. Some teachers have left, finding him too controlling. But the children feel his caring and his love. They also know they can’t pull the wool over his eyes. The parents see the difference in the school and in their children. Being willing to speak their language, to treat the children and parents with love and respect, has made them open to a new vision, a transformative one.

And what of Paul? Did he meet with success on the Mars Hill? He, too got mixed reviews. In the next few verses, we learn that some who were there followed Paul. Some did not.
So too it may be with us. Some may join us, some may not. But the seeds of our love, and the seeds of God’s great love incarnate in Christ will be planted, and will bear fruit in their own time. A good welcome can only help. Sometimes the best way to preach to a stranger is to make ourselves a little less of a stranger to them first.

Amen.

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