Sermon Preached at First Congregational Church, Loveland UCC www.lovelanducc.org
By Rev. Thandiwe Dale-Ferguson
Scripture Passages: Acts 17:22-28
Kalimpong, India — nestled into the foothills of the Himalayas — was my home twice each time for about 5 months. The first time, I was a junior in college studying abroad and the second time, some 3 years later, I was the Program Assistant for that same program. Kalimpong is less well known than its close-by neighbor, Darjeeling — yes, as in the tea — but it is no less beautiful. And on a clear spring morning, you can see the snow-covered Himalayan peaks in the distance. The tallest mountains in the world.
It is on one such spring morning that I go into my host mother, my aamaa’s room carrying her mid-morning chiyaa or tea. Leaving my flip-flops by the door, I pad over and place the tea on the table beside aamaa’s bed where she is sitting watching a day-time Hindi soap opera. She turns the TV off and pats the bed beside her. “Baasnus, chhori.” Sit down daughter. I sit.
For whatever reason, this tiny gray-haired woman — she can’t be taller than 4’8” — intimidates me. Perhaps it is that she is so clearly the matriarch of the family, the maker of the rules. Perhaps it is because I spend so much less time with her than I do with my bhauju, my sister-in-law, who teaches me how to cook and clean and wash my clothes, who takes me to market with her and talks with me and listens as I use whatever little Nepali I have to ask questions and share thoughts, experiences, ideas.
Aamaa is quieter. I’m not always sure what to talk to her about. But today, she wants to know about my family — my brother and parents. Yes, just one brother. “Sukhi pariwaar” she says “that’s what we call a happy/blessed family — one daughter. One son.” I smile — my family has always felt happy and blessed. We get talking about what my parents do — they are ministers. Both of them. My family is Christian. Very.
I feel my hands get sweaty as I tell her this. I have already learned that Christians here do not participate in pujas (Hindu worship) or attend events at the Buddhist temple up the hill from where we live. As a student, a religious studies student, no less, engaging with the spiritual richness of this area and culture is a huge part of my learning. And Kalimpong lives up to India’s reputation of being a spiritual place. Every shop and home has its own sacred space, its own altar where daily offerings are made, candles and incense lit, prayers lifted.
Learning about and participating in religious activities is central to my study here. Central to being immersed culturally; central to fully participating in the life of my host family. And yet I am a Christian, and the practice of Christianity here generally forbids such cross-religious engagement. How can I explain to my Hindu aamaa that my participation in the rituals that mark her faith make mine no less real? No less potent? I realize I’ve been silent for a while, studying my hands. See? She’s intimidating.
My aamaa must pick up on my discomfort, because she puts her hand on mine. “Chhori,” she says gently, “bhaguwaan eutai.” “Daughter, God is one.”
And those simple words — that simple phrase — somehow sets me at ease. This is not my aamaa’s way of demeaning her understanding of the divine or mine. It is not her way of saying that our faith, our religion, our beliefs are the same. But somehow she is telling me that God has room for both of us. God is bigger than either of our traditions, than either of our sacred texts, than either of our rituals or practices. God holds both. God is in both. The divine is one.
“People of Athens, I see that you are very religious in every way. As I was walking through town and carefully observing your objects of worship, I even found an altar with this inscription: ‘To an unknown God.’”
I imagine Athens a little bit like Kalimpong, with places of worship tucked into every back alley, rising around every bend in the road. The people of Athens, like the people of Kalimpong, religious in every way. And there, in Athens, Paul finds an altar inscribed to an unknown God. And Paul finds an opening to share about the God he has come to know — the creator of all things. He tells the people: “God made the nations so they would seek God, perhaps even reach out to God and find God.”
God made the nations so they would seek God — all the nations! And they do. They do seek God.
India and Nepal live Nepal love up to their reputations as spiritual lands with altars in almost every home, god and goddess figures dangling from rearview mirrors in public buses, and layers of prayer flags flapping in the breeze on suspension bridges, roof-tops and mountain passes. The Christian pilgrimage site that I visited in south India was frequented by people of a multiple religious backgrounds — all seeking the Holy Spirit. All seeking God’s presence and help and blessing.
In southern Africa, there are holy places set out for the ancestors — who consume the offerings left them and intercede on behalf of their worshipful descendants. And in Europe, the cathedrals and abbeys seek to touch the heavens with their spires. Their architecture inspires awe and their acoustics amplify every voice raised in praise within.
We are to seek God. But not only in the places that we think we ought to find the Spirit — not only in the beautiful, sacred, sanctified spaces of cathedrals, temples, synagogues, mosques and other holy buildings made by human hands.
We are to seek God everywhere. We are to reach out to God and find God. For God is closer to us than we can know.
And the truth is, so often, the place that we find the God of mystery is in that unfamiliar, unnamed place.
Paul goes to Athens and in the midst of idols, from within Athenian culture, Paul finds evidence of the Spirit. Not only in the altar to an unnamed God but in the words that speak to me most powerfully from this text. Not Paul’s words. Not words belonging to the writer of Acts. But the words of a pagan poet Aratus, from his poem Phaenomena, written around 270 BCE in Athens. He writes: “In [God], through [God] we live and move and have our being: for we are [God’s] family.”
The God of mystery wants to be sought and found and known. And so the ways to God are many. Not just one. Let me say that again — the ways to God are many. For God does indeed want us to seek , perhaps even to reach out and find God.
If we look, if we look with open hearts and open minds, we find God where we least expect to.
In a strange city filled with temples, altars and unfamiliar names God.
In an anatomy text book.
In the words of a pop song playing on the radio.
Among the spectators at a sporting event.
In our opponent. Even, if we are open, our enemy.
In the homeless veteran panhandling on a street corner.
In a stray cat or the racoons that come round to be fed.
In a poem translated from a foreign tongue.
A documentary about women changing the world.
In a painting of the Holy Family that brings us up short.
In the news of a refugee family drowned on the English channel.
In the wisdom of the ages and the wise ones of many faiths — Thich Nhat Hanh, the Dalai Lama, Mahatma Gandhi, Rabindranath Tagore, the Buddha, Mohammed, Moses, Rumi, Rabbi Heschel, Isaiah, Baha’ulla, Hargobind, Sai Baba, and yes, of course: John the Baptist, Mary mother of Jesus, the apostle Paul, Mary and Martha, Jesus Christ and so many more whose names and whose words we will never know.
In the simple words of a tiny elderly woman seeking to comfort the foreign exchange student whom she calls daughter: “God is one.”
God made the nations so they would seek God, perhaps even reach out to God and find God. God is not far away from any of us. God is right here. In everything that we see and hear and touch and smell and taste.
For it is in God that we live and move and exist. We are God’s children. All of us.
Will you pray with me? Holy God, you have created us to seek you. And you choose to be found again and again and again. Open our hearts to those who find you in other ways, by other paths. Give us the wisdom, courage and love to find you in unexpected places and people. And affirm for us again that by this path, too, by following your son Jesus, we can reach out and find you. For you are not far from any of us, and we are indeed your children. Amen.
© 2020 Thandiwe Dale-Ferguson, all rights reserved. Please contact email@example.com for permission to reprint, which will typically be granted for non-profit uses.
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