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Where Sheep & Cretans Lie
The Reverend Krystal Leedy
May 17, 2020
John 14:15-21; Acts 17:22-31
A Reading from the Gospel of John
‘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 for ever. 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.
‘I will not leave you orphaned; 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.’
A Reading from the Acts of the Apostles
Then Paul stood in front of the Areopagus and said, ‘Athenians, I see how extremely religious you are in every way. 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. 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, 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. From one ancestor he made all nations to inhabit the whole earth, and he allotted 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 indeed he is not far from each one of us. 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.”
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. While God has overlooked the times of human ignorance, now he commands all people everywhere to repent, because he has fixed a day on which he will have the world judged in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed, and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead.’
The Greeks had a pretty extensive collection of gods. They had a god for everything: war, love, the sea, marriage, land, war, fire, the moon, hunting, agriculture, did I mention war? I heard my entire life that Grecians really knew how to cover their bases with gods. Every aspect of their lives involved the spirituality of that thing. So this idea that their altars written “to an unknown god” could mean that the Greeks were just trying to cover even the bases they couldn’t think of. But, curiosity struck me. Altars that read, “To an unknown god” sitting the midst of a public square in an ancient Grecian city fascinated me, like a white rabbit. So, like Alice, I began my trip down the rabbit hole.
Legend goes: In the 6th century BCE, the Athenians in Greece were struggling with an epidemic. People were dying and they didn’t know why. They struggled to understand and felt as though they had tried everything. I imagine that some even tried to drink bleach to get rid of the disease, but that would be insane. So, the Athenians sought the counsel of the Oracle of Delphi, which is a process not written about because it’s obviously common knowledge about how you consult the Oracle of Delphi. So, after receiving advice, some Athenians got on a ship to talk to a man named Epimenides from the isle of Crete, who was known for taking a really long nap, and then became a priest in the cult of Zeus. This was of course different from the way that Sparta had chosen to deal with their epidemic, when they invited Thaletes to come and sing them songs, but the Athenians wanted the epidemic gone. The Athenians invited Epimenides who was known for being a prophet and a poet. Epimenides agreed to go to the disease-ridden Athens and brought some black and white sheep with him to the Areopagus, the public square where religion and government coexisted. The Aeropagus was a large rock where many religious ceremonies but also court proceedings would take place. Sheep were released there, and they were sacrificed in the spot where they lay. Then, altars were erected to gods who were unknown to the people, so there became altars to unknown gods as a result of the epidemic. The Athenians were released of their pestilence, and they revered Epimenides as a god. Now, I’m not sure that this guy was actually trustworthy, considering that one of his more famous quote is when he said, “All Cretans are liars,” and with him being from Crete, a Cretan, the paradox is puzzling to many still today, but nonetheless, his usage of sheep and sacrifice and altars seemed to work.
Thus, altars to an unknown god were left after the epidemic, just waiting for Paul to point to them centuries later.
I think it’s not all that surprising that altars were built to an unknown god in the midst of a time of crisis, especially in a time where germs were confusing and hygiene was not advanced. I think it must have been difficult if not impossible for people to understand why their friends and family and caregivers were dying from something unseen. I think it’s not at all surprising that there were altars built to unknown gods and people were following sheep around during this time because I‘m in the midst of a pandemic, and I’m kind of at that point.
I’m letting that sheep wander around and just waiting for him to lie down. “Come on, dude, just lay down so I can sacrifice you, build a building the name of the god that found the cure, and move on.” Every news headline that blinks upon my phone, I just keep thinking, “Please let it be a cure.” I’m just waiting for that sheep to lie down so that we can all get back together.
And I’d never really heard of some of these public health officials until this point, but I don’t know if Epimenides was a household name until the epidemic either. But now, I hang on Dr. Anthony Fauci’s every word. Like if Dr. Fauci was like, “I need all of us to release sheep into a government building or houses of worship and kill the sheep and then we will be free of this disease, I’d be like “Sign me up!” I’ve put a lot of faith in science these days, and I think that’s probably good. But medicine and science are still tapping into the unknown. Each time that we move closer to the moon or Mars. Each time we dive deeper into cells and viruses, we find more that we don’t know. We find more that is unknown. And sure, let’s name the vaccine after the team that discovers it. Let’s have a big parade for them. I want their names and faces plastered on every wall. I want them treated like Epimenides.
But, the waiting for that moment of deliverance, the wandering sheep moment, is not exactly where anyone wants to be. The death tolls rising of our fellow Athenians, the fear of the unknown, the deep grief we feel over missing hugs and handshakes, the losses in our schedules—it all leads us to a common goal: find the cure and find it now.
And our sheep are wandering in different directions. Some are going toward the vaccine because they can work on that. Some sheep are wandering toward the economy because they are watching the data on that as well and becoming nervous. Some are wandering after TV and movies because they can’t even. Some sheep are wandering toward literally getting their houses in order with projects that have collected dust. And some are just wandering toward the horizon, not laying down, just trying to keep moving forward with schedules and Zoom calls and trying to act like nothing is different.
And it was really great when the epidemic of Athens in the 6th century BCE was cured by sheep wandering, but it turns out that for all that Greeks brought us in philosophy and art, germs caught up with them again and again.
The Great Plague of Athens ended up coming through Athens almost 2 centuries later, killing over 100,000 people. It was recorded that many were dying alone because those caring for them were afraid of getting sick, and many caregivers also died. This actually led to the city becoming so weak that it was conquered in the Peloponnesian War.
During the Peloponnesian War, a general from that war, Thucydides, was ousted at the time and after surviving the plague, wrote the immortal History of the Peloponnesian War where he exposed the public health concerns of the city, particularly for the poor. He wrote about the lack of hygiene and a terrible housing crisis. He wrote about the heaps of bodies that were not given proper funerals and said this: “For the violence of the calamity was such that men, not knowing where to turn, grew reckless of all law, human and divine.”
I was not the first to point out these parallels between about the Great Plague of Athens. Katharine Kelaidis, in her article written in March for the Atlantic, did the work of drawing these conclusions. She brought up that Thucydides was making notes of places where people were gravitating toward selfishness and cowardice. She goes on: “It is clear that, for Thucydides at least, the death and suffering of a great epidemic (just like war) test the moral health of individuals and of societies. And a people who are not morally strong, when they become afraid, quickly slip into lawlessness and sacrilege: ‘For the violence of the calamity was such that men, not knowing where to turn, grew reckless of all law, human and divine.’ What is also clear is that Thucydides does not think this collapse into immorality is simply a result of the Plague; rather, ‘Men who had hitherto concealed what they took pleasure in, now grew bolder.’ To paraphrase Michelle Obama, pandemics don’t make your character; they reveal your character.” 
It’s too bad that history doesn’t repeat itself so that we could learn some lessons from these plagues.
“Then Paul stood in front of the Areopagus and said, ‘Athenians, I see how extremely religious you are in every way. 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.”
I don’t know how much of this history Paul knew. I don’t know how far he had gotten down the rabbit hole of the epidemics of Athens, but he doesn’t smash those altars. He doesn’t say that the people that went in these different directions, following sheep, were idiots. He just says, “If you’re concerned about the things you don’t know, I know someone who knows.”
The God who created everything and who needs nothing from you, who can’t be built out of stone, the one who gives us all breath, and in whom we live and move and have our being, that’s the God that invites us to seek after Godself.
And that seeking after God, the scrabble for God, the fumbling toward God, happens in the places of worshiping God. The people of Sparta may have had a point by inviting Thaletes to come and teach them songs. The songs, the poetry, the Scripture, the prayer—it’s all just that seeking after God, trying to understand God more fully, and God working to build up our character. And our character comes out in the love that we show to one another, in the ways we fumble through empathy, and just try our hardest to see places where the Kingdom has come, and God’s will is done.
And we find that in the seeking after God, it’s hard not to find God. God is so near, as near as our breath or our heartbeat. God draws near, especially when things are unknown, but doesn’t seem to say much until after the fact.
So, if we were to take a lesson from history, maybe it’s that this time was set aside for us to have a moment to seek after God, to do a deep dive into our own moral character, to ask ourselves about the morality of our city and our state, to stop and pray, not as if our religion were just another sheep to chase and conquer. But as if we were in relationship with a God that is both very near and very far, and who embodies love, who’s asking us to turn away from the world for a moment and look inward into the place where God now dwells.
Making a determination about what God is speaking to us during this time is difficult and probably borderline crazy because we still aren’t always thinking clearly. The Bible was, for the most part, written in hindsight, not in the midst of a crisis. It’s called theological reflection for a reason.
But I know that the Greeks were in crisis, they sought the insight of prophets and poets, and they held their loved ones until they couldn’t anymore. It’s hard to be home, but it could be the very place where God draws near.
So I know that for Eastertide or pandemic-tide, we have been inviting you to look for signs of life—to capture them if you can, and to bring them to us all via social media and email. And I also want to invite you to now begin to look for signs of love too. To turn away from the sheep chasing for a bit and look to our families, our homes, to share stories of gifts, to share moments where God has drawn near. I want us to point to others and note how they have shown us love, how they have embodied the Spirit of God, how they have shown us who God is when we were fumbling toward God.
God has been made known to us in this season in beautiful spring days, in songs and hymns, in people reaching out, in drive-by graduations, in poetry, in sidewalk chalk, in smiles from behind masks, in the worship of God in new mediums, in hugs from family, in all God’s creatures, in phone calls, in story, in our church that is still living, in our character—built with love.
In the name of the immanent and transcendent, the unknown and the revelatory, the one who will lead us to lie in green pastures and teaches us to always tell the truth, in the name of that God, Amen.
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