Thursday, June 02, 2011

Lady Gaga, Paul in Athens and Bad Romance!

St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Delray Beach, Florida
6 Easter - Year A (RCL) - May 28/29, 2011
Acts 17:22 - 31; Ps. 66:7-18; John 14:15-21
Preacher; The Reverend Canon William H. Stokes, Rector

Lady Gaga, Paul in Athens and Bad Romance!
(A sermon preached at St. Paul's Episcopal Church, Delray Beach)           
Any Good Morning America fans here?  Did you catch GMA on Friday morning?  It’s the beginning of the GMA’s Summer Concert series and they scored a major coupe in entertainment circles; they got Lady Gaga to kick-off the series...She made a grand entrance in outrageous fashion coming down out of the trees in Central Park on a zip-line which whisked her to the concert stage.[1] 
There was something of an awkward moment as they disconnected her and got her out of the harness so that she could perform her opening number “Bad Romance.”   Thousands of people were at the concert.  Lady Gaga calls her fans her “little monsters.” According to the GMA website, some of these “little monsters” had been camping out at the Concert Stage area of Central Park since Tuesday morning waiting for to see their idol.[2]  Lady Gaga is huge!
            Earlier this month,  she hit the 10 million “follower” mark on Twitter....That’s a record number of followers for that social media site....She’s just ahead of Justin Beiber. Lady Gaga’s tweet to her followers upon hitting the record? "10 MillionMonsters! I'm speechless, we did it! It’s an illness how I love you."[3]  The bigger illness, I think, is how much they love her...
            Lady Gaga, the latest manifestation of the so-called “Glam Rock” stars, symbolizes the apex of the cult of celebrity today...Forbes Magazine designated her #1 on their list of the “world’s most powerful celebrities.”  Forbe’s criteria for this?  Income, Google hits, fan base, press clips and magazine covers.[4]
            The Los Angeles blog “Ministry of Gossip” the self-designated “Gospel on Celebrity and Pop Culture” had to say about Lady Gaga’s GMA stint on Friday: “The petite blond mother monster quite literally flew onto "Good Morning America's" Central Park stage, kicking off its summer-long concert series to promote her new record, "Born This Way."  Sailing on a wire through a crowd of little monsters, as her fans are called, to perform "Bad Romance," her ladyship followed up the song by chatting with Robin Roberts and George Stephanopoulos.   "You love to make an entrance," Roberts told a breathless Gaga.  "I live halfway between reality and theater at all times," she said.[5]
            Lady Gaga is an intriguing and controversial figure....She has done a lot of philanthropic work, including major financial contributions:  She held a benefit concert for Haiti following the earthquake which raised $500,000.   She joined forces with a company that made prayer bracelets for Japan following the Tsunami and raised $1.5 million for the victims of that disaster.  In June she is appearing in a concert in Japan for Japan Red Cross, all benefits will go to those still suffering the effects of the Earthquake and Tsunami…She is a strong advocate and voice for LGBT issues in the world.[6] 
            During the GMA interview with Roberts and Stephanopoulos, Lady Gaga fielded questions from the audience that came in via Twitter.  One fan asked what she’d do if she ever had a day off.  Her answer, "I would like to hang out with my fans and have it not be me…I'd just be one of them."[7] 
Lady Gaga does a lot of things to shock, surprise and delight and offend.... More than anything, I think, Lady Gaga is capitalizing on contemporary culture’s obsession with celebrity...Celebrity is one of our modern day forms of idolatry.  People quite literally worship the ground their chosen celebrities walk on…And just think of the name of this country’s #1 most viewed television program – “American Idol.”[8]   I love a good show and a good performer as much as the next person, but there are, or should be limits to our adoration.
            Today’s reading from Acts of the Apostles is one of my favorites.[9]  We heard it on Easter Day this year and I referred to it in my Easter sermon...It’s about Paul in Athens…Actually, the story of Paul in Athens begins a few verses before this morning’s reading...
            To set it up, we need to know that Paul had been in Thessalonica where he stirred up trouble by telling people about Jesus and proclaiming the resurrection (Acts 17:1 – 9).  He then went to Beroea, also in Greece to do the same (Acts 17:10).  According to Acts, the people he had offended in Thessalonica found out he was in Beroea continuing to cause trouble, at least from their perspective, and so they went to Berea and incited the crowd against him (Acts 17:10 – 14).  
            Local Christian believers, concerned about Paul’s welfare, conducted him safely to Athens, where they left him to wait for his colleagues Timothy and Silas (Acts 17:15).  Acts tells us, “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”  (Acts 17:16 – 17).  Paul just can’t help himself! 
            Acts informs us that “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’” (Acts 17:18)
            Acts explains that “this was because he was telling the good news about Jesus and the resurrection” (Acts 17:18).  “So they took him and brought him to the Areopagus” (Acts 17:19).  The Areopagus....or “hills of Ares” is very near the Parthenon up on the acropolis. The criminal and civil courts were held at the Areopagus and it was also a place where people who were teaching might be brought so that the content of their teaching could be questioned by local officials...That’s apparently what’s going in here with Paul.  
            They 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" (Acts 17:20).  The author of Acts makes a side comment that could be made today about New York, or London or Paris or any of a host of places in our world today, perhaps even Delray Beach and Boca Raton.  The author of Acts says, “Now all the Athenians and the foreigners living there would spend their time in nothing but telling or hearing something new”  (Acts 17:21).
            And it’s right at that point that our reading for today begins... “Then Paul stood in front of the Areopagus and said, ‘Athenians, I see how extremely religious you are in every way” (Acts 17:22).  [Do we detect some sarcasm here?  Very likely!] He continues, “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”  (Acts 17:23 – 24).   
            I’m always captivated by this verse with its notion of “an unknown God.”   It’s clear that the Athenians had lots of shrines and temples for its pantheon of Gods - Apollo, Zeus, Dionysius, Athena to whom the Parthenon was dedicated.  But apparently, they also had a shrine dedicated to the so-called unknown God; that is, they were mindful that there might be a God with which they were unfamiliar to them, one who remained a mystery, who was not revealed to them, and so they kept a shrine to this -unknown God “just in case.”
            With no small degree of shrewdness, Paul sees this as an opportunity, not only to make this unknown God, known to them, but also to challenge them about their idolatry.  He preaches a sermon about “The God who made the world and everything in it, the Lord of heaven and earth, who does not live in shrines made by human hands, nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything…” (Acts 17:24 – 25).
            In a none-too-veiled reference to Abraham, he tells them that “From one ancestor [this God] made all nations to inhabit the whole earth [allotting] 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 him and find him, though,” Quoting one of the own poets, Paul informs them “he is not far from each one of us….For 'In him we live and move and have our being'… for we too are his offspring’” (Acts 17:26 – 28).   
            With this statement, with this recognition, Paul’s thought is very much in keeping with that of Jesus himself as he addresses his disciples at the Last Supper in today’s Gospel reading[10].  “If you love me you will keep my commandments.  And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate, to be with you forever.  This is the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him. You know him, because he abides with you, and he will be in you” (John 14:15 – 17).  
            Set, as it is in John’s Gospel, during the Last Supper (cf John 13:1), Jesus is anticipating both his imminent death…But he is also anticipating the gift of the Holy Spirit, which will be given to his disciples after his death to abide with them and in them!
            John scholar and commentator D. Moody Smith informs us what this word “advocate,” (in Greek parakleto) means and what the implications of its use are, writing: “parakleto means literally one called to the side of, an advocate or attorney....This parakleto does not function so much to advocate the disciples cause before God as to mediate the presence of Jesus to the disciples...As Jesus successor among the disciples...the Spirit-Paraclete is portrayed as having the same provenance and role as Jesus except that its stay among the disciples will not be temporary but permanent.”[11]    
            "I will not leave you orphaned, “Jesus says to that gathered group of his disciples at the Last Supper… I am coming to you.  In a little while the world will no longer see me, but you will see me; because I live, you also will live.  On that day you will know that I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you.  They who have my commandments and keep them are those who love me; and those who love me will be loved by my Father, and I will love them and reveal myself to them" (John 14:18 – 21).
            And as I indicated in my sermon last week, when I called into the question the distortions and aberration of the “rapture theology” that seems to have captured the minds and imaginations of too many people today,[12] it is essential to recognize that this revealing of Jesus is not so that we can be grabbed midair and taken up into heaven….Rather, it is so that we can be co-workers with and in God in trying to bring heaven to earth…
            In his classic work De Trinitate, St. Augustine of Hippo, perhaps the greatest theologian in the history of the western church wrote, “ is the Holy Spirit, of whom He has given us, who makes us dwell in God, and God in us.  But that is the effect of love.  The Holy Spirit himself therefore is the God who is love...God the Holy Spirit who proceeds from God is the one who, when given to us, sets us on fire with the love of God and of our neighbour, and is himself, love.”[13]
            Professor John Maquarrie, a modern theologian who is very much in the mainstream of Anglican thought and theology, gives expression to this when he writes about the work of the Holy Spirit in his book Principles of Christian Theology         “The highest workings of the Spirit are to be seen not in bizarre forms of ecstasy but in personal and ethical qualities which can be considered truly ‘ecstatic’ in so far as they draw human beings out of themselves and their narrow self-interests.” “[T]he work of the Holy Spirit,” Maquarrie writes “is simply another aspect of the reconciling work of God, and so, another aspect of the work of Christ...”[14]  It is about Christ dwelling in us, and through us, about Christ continuing to dwell in the world.
            It is Memorial Day weekend….a time when we are to recall those who, in our history, exemplified the depths and dearest costs of love and service for the sake of others…In too many ways and too many instances, this observance will be overshadowed and obscured by other things….It will be shouted down by the other dominant form of American idolatry which walks hand in hand with the cult of celebrity and that is the religion of consumerism….During this Memorial Day weekend, we might want to shop for a new car,  or go to Walmarts, or Disneyworld and that’s okay; but let’s try to remember what this observance is really about.
Today is also the 6th Sunday of Easter…We are a people waiting; waiting like those first disciples…We are two weeks away from Pentecost, when we celebrate the gift of the Holy Spirit….What a profound gift this is; the gift of God dwelling with us and in us, calling us a ministry of love and reconciliation in the world in Christ’s name…Our world desperately needs this love…It desperately needs this love to live in us and through us to serve the world…Christ and his love living in us have so much more to offer us than the false idols, religions and values that vie for our attention and affection each and every day in what can be described as an ill-fated and bad romance!.

[1]   See “Lady Gaga wows crowd, Ziplines onto ‘Good Morning America’ concert stage at
[2]   See “Lady Gaga wows crowd…”
[3]   See “Lady Gaga wows crowd…”
[4]   See Wikipedia “Forbes Celebrity 100” at
[5]   “Lady Gaga Ziplines into ‘Good Morning America’ summer concert series” from the Los Angeles Times Blog Site “Ministry of Gossip” at
[6]  See Wikipedia “Lady Gaga” at
[7]   See ‘Lady Gaga wows crowd…”
[8]    Neilsen Ratings for May 23, 2011 – see
[9]  Acts 17:22 - 31
[10] John 14:15- 21
[11]  Smith Jr., D. Moody  Abingdon New Testament Commentaries:  John (Nashville:  Abingdon Press, 1999),  p. 274
[12]  Stokes, William H.  “After the Rapture, what now?” Sermon preached at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Delray Beach, Florida may 23, 2011 
[13]  See “Augustine on the Holy Spirit” in The Christian Theology Reader edited by Alister E. McGrath (Oxford UK and Cambridge, USA:  Blackwell Publishers Inc, 1995) p. 107
[14]   Macquarrie, John Principles of Christian Theology, Second Edition (New York:  Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1977), pp.  328 – 329.

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