Texts: Psalm 51: 10
Create in me a clean heart, O God, and put a new and right spirit within me.
Acts 17: 16, 22-25, 28-29
16 While Paul was waiting for them in Athens, he was deeply distressed to see that the city was full of idols. 22 Then Paul stood in front of the Areopagus and said, “Athenians, I see how extremely religious you are in every way. 23 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. 24 The God who made the world and everything in it, he who is Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in shrines made by human hands, 25 nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mortals life and breath and all things. 28 For ‘In him we live and move and have our being’; as even some of your own poets have said,
‘For we too are his offspring.’
29 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.
If my math is right, I have just been through my fifth rummage sale here at the church. For many of you that is small potatoes, but five rummage sales is enough to be amazed at what happens each and every time. I am always amazed at the stuff that shows up; I’m even more amazed that each time the opportunity comes up we manage to find more stuff around our own house. One would think that eventually you would reach the bottom of the rummage pile, but it doesn’t seem to work that way. I guess we constantly add to it without fully realizing what we are doing. It could be that some of the stuff that was eligible this year wasn’t eligible a few years back. Sometimes we need to get used to the idea of letting something go before we actually let walk out the door.
You may have noticed that I used two different texts this morning. At first glance they may not seem to be related to each other, but I hope to be able to tie this together for you. The first text from the Psalms reminds us that we need to seek a clean heart before God. Most people would equate a clean heart to pure thoughts and actions, being a moral person and so forth. But what if a clean heart also means that we consciously clear out the stuff that is no longer relevant or useable or appealing. A little like we do with our garages and basements and storage sheds when it is rummage sale time again.
When we clean out the garage or the downstairs closet for the rummage sale, we don’t clear out the clutter because it is evil or bad or impure or immoral; we simply have no need for the items any longer. What we donate to the rummage sale generally has served its purpose for us and while it may still have some useful life left in it, and there isn’t anything really wrong with it, we just don’t use or need it any longer. What if we viewed the scripture about creating a clean heart in that context, that we create a clean heart by taking stock of what is no longer useful or relevant and making a concentrated effort to actual clean that stuff out? What would that look like? Do you think there might be anything in there that would qualify?
While you think about what it might look like to actually clean out your hearts, like we clean out a closet for a rummage sale, I wanted to give you just a little background history of the church and Christianity.
After the execution of Jesus, it took a couple hundred years for Christianity to get really organized. The Bible, as we know it, didn’t really come into existence until around the year 300. About 700-800 years after that, in round numbers, around the year 1054, there was a great schism. This divided Christianity into two different camps which some scholars identify simply as east and west. Our form of Christianity derives from the west camp.
The two camps went along for another 500 years until the year 1517, when most scholars date the beginning of the Protestant Reformation. This is probably familiar history to some of you, at least to a small degree, because it was in 1517 when Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses to the wooden door of the church in Wittenberg, Germany. In essence, Martin Luther was telling the Catholic Church at the time they needed to clean out their closets. He listed 95 items that needed to be updated, eliminated, reformed or simply gotten rid of. In a way, Martin Luther suggested to the Catholic Church they needed to have a rummage sale and clean out all of that stuff and begin again with a clean heart.
Now pay attention very closely. The first rummage sale was about 700 years in the making, which was the great schism. The second rummage sale took place about 500 years after that, which was the Protestant Reformation. Since that rummage sale, it has been 499 years. I’m wondering when the next rummage sale will take place and what we will seek to clean out of our closets and our hearts.
One of the items currently in the closet of Christianity which we will need to deal with somehow in the years to come is the inherent exclusive nature of the orthodox tradition. I think most of us have come to terms with some of this exclusivity, but the official Christian teaching is still very narrow and very exclusive. We don’t play well with others is another way of stating the obvious. In a world that grows smaller every day, Christianity simply cannot maintain a belief structure that it is the only true religion and the Christian God is the only true God.
I think it is safe to say that as Christians most of us believe that the earth and the universe and the people of the earth were all created by God. That means that the people of other faith traditions, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists and all the others were also created by God. Who else would have created them? And if they are created by God, are they not perfect in the eyes of God, just as we are?
Do we currently have room in our closets for other faith traditions or do we need to clean them out a little first?
I happen to believe that it is inevitable that at some point in the future we will discover life on other planets. Mathematically, it is almost a certainty that life exists elsewhere in the universe. Actually the mathematical probabilities indicate that there are millions of planets that would have other forms of life on them. How will we handle that information when it comes along? Did God create that planet as well? What will that faith tradition look like? Will we have room in our closets for that new information?
I want to return now to the second text that I read at the beginning of this sermon. The Apostle Paul was visiting Athens and he noticed a lot of different idols around the city. When Paul addressed the Athenians about this, I think he was suggesting to them it was time for a rummage sale. There were a lot of things around the city, which to Paul, no longer had any relevance to a more recent and modern image of the Divine. Paul explained that this new Divine image was possibly what one altar had declared was the unknown God. But Paul went on; he said that we are all offspring of God, all of us, not just some of us and that God is the creator of all that is, the world, the universe and all the dwells in it. Paul goes on to explain that it is God that gives us life and breath; Paul poetically states that it is God in whom we live and move and have our being. Paul defines God as not being defined by objects of gold or silver, or an image formed by artists, but rather the very breath of life in all beings and all things.
Paul was saying to the Athenians, it is time to create a clean heart, it is time to make room for some new thoughts and new ideas about God, it is time to hold a rummage sale!
It’s been 2,000 years since Paul suggested that to the Athenians, and it has been 499 years since Martin Luther suggested that to the Roman Catholic Church. How much stuff can we collect in 500 years? I’m wondering if it is time again. And that is food for thought, Amen.