The following sermon was preached by Linda Johnson Seyenkulo, former Dean of the Community, in Augustana Chapel at the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago on Wednesday, April 30, 2008.
Grace to you and peace from God, creator, savior, and comforter….
Pray with me
"Is your all on the altar?" ----those are the words of a song that we sometimes sing at the church where I belong. Is your all on the altar? Have you given everything to God? But----that is not the question for us today----the question for us is different----it is------
What's on your altar? That's the question for today---What's on your altar?
One of the altars in the Acts text today had "to an unknown god" on it----but there were many altars in Athens---so many that Paul became disturbed by the plethora of god possibilities----and how that kept the Athenians from being able to recognize the "unknown god." They had statues and carvings and representations of all the different gods they worshipped. They had altars and symbols all over the place. So many that the one for God who created them ---in whom they were living and moving and having their being could be easily missed.
You see----It is easier to visualize a god represented by a statue or a carving or a symbol-----easier to recognize something tangible---something you can hold on to----I think that has been the way of humans for a long, long time. And it is still our way---so I come to you today and I say, "What's on your altar?'
I mean----I see we are religious----after all this is a seminary----a seminary that serves the unknown God and God's son Jesus Christ. But we----religious folks here ---different than the Athenians but still religious ----gather before the altar of the unknown god----but we also have other altars----in our hearts, in our minds----that shape and mold how we worship God. And so my question today is :What's on your altar?"
What is it that is most important to you? What are you "religious" about? What comes first in your life?
You see---religious ones---we all have things we put our trust in. We all have things that are vital to our lives---things of faith---and things that are not so much of faith and those things can start to take over----they can be what is on our altar.
Take me for example---in matters of worship---on my altar you will find good music. I recently told someone that I cannot worship if I don't find the music good. Music is what makes the worship service for me. I said, "I don't feel as though I have worshipped if I have not sung at least one good song." (I need to add here that I know what a good song is and sometimes the ones chosen just don't measure up for me.) So I go to preach at a church where the first service is a service of word only------and at first I found it hard to worship----because on my altar is the importance of at least one good song---but hopefully a whole service of beautiful music.
Or take me again for example on my altar you will find the great out doors------I feel that if I cannot get to the woods at least once a week, I dry up spiritually because I find God in the woods. Well----I live in a part of the city that is a ways from the woods and the lakes-----I've had to adjust my "woods" altar or risk not being in touch with God in whom I live and move and have my being.
The thing is, we often don't know what's on our altar until we run into an experience that puts it out front and center. For me---no music at a service----for you????????
We need to know what's on our altar. What are those things, religious folk though you are, that form and shape your experience of God-----and what are those things that take first place in your life?
We need to know what's on our altar because when the stuff on the altar becomes so big or so high or so important----it can get in the way of being able to know God's movement in our lives in new and different ways. It's not that it isn't good stuff----but it is the place that it takes in faith and life that make it get in the way.
We need to know what's on our altars because, brothers and sisters, it is the stuff on the altar that keeps us apart from brothers and sisters in the faith who also worship God but do it differently. You see we can get so busy focusing on how "they do it differently from us" that we forget to focus on what it is that we have in common. We all do it---and it's not new----but what's really important that together we serve and love the God in whom we live and move and have our being.
We need to know what's on your altar-----I would venture a guess that this is also important today as we gather to send you interns to new places of ministry. Places where folks will have their own ideas ---their own altars if you will-----of how to worship God and live the life of faith.. And you come with your own ideas---your own altars----and both are significant in the formation of faith and life-----it's important to know what is essential ---and what is not. Or you can get so caught up in trying to "make it right" that you miss the grace and goodness of community life where you share in the presence of God in whom you live and move and have your being.
It's important for seniors graduating and others moving to new places----to know what's on our altar.
It's important for those staying here in this place-----what's on your altar.
You see when you know that---you can begin to see clearly
And to know----what is ---as they say adiaphora-----extra stuff not the essential of life lived in God-----to know what needs to come second and third and fourth in our lives----and to know what is vitally and unmistakenly God's presence in our lives, in our worship, in our life together as the people of God.
It's time to look and see, What do you have on your altar? I was reading Eugene Peterson's interpretation of the Bible, The Message Remix (interesting, I don't think of him as a hip hop artist---but there it is—REMIX.) It's the Bible paraphrased in some interesting ways---I find it good to read with a translation (that's one of my altars—authenticity.) Peterson writes for verse 29 of this text (Please excuse the lack of inclusive language--- which by the way is another thing on my altar), "He (God) doesn't play hide and seek with us. He's not remote, he's near. We live and move in him and can't get away from him. One of your poets said it well, "We're the God-created. Well if we are God-created, it doesn't make a lot of sense to think we could hire a sculptor to chisel a god out of stone for us, does it?"
Brothers and sisters, on this sending day, we gather together to worship and be, as we always are, in the presence of God who created us and is near to us at all times. God who has called us and named us. God who has given us life and breath. We gather to praise God in whom we live and move and have our being. It's as simple and as difficult to understand as that. Put it on your altar----put that first.