“WHAT COLOR IS GOD?”
Point Pleasant Presbyterian Church
May 25, 2014; 6th Sunday of Easter, Year A
Acts 17:22-31; 1 Peter 3:13-22
“I found among them an altar with the inscription, ‘To an unknown god.’
What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you.”
When I was young, one of the coolest gifts any kid could receive was a box of Crayola crayons. (What can I say? It was a simpler era.) I’m not talking about one of those little boxes with 8 crayons. That was not the sort of thing that dreams were made of. No, it could only be the big one — 64 glorious colors to choose from (not to mention the built-in crayon sharpener).
There were colors in that box we’d never heard of: raw umber… periwinkle… magenta… sepia. There was a color called “flesh” that was actually kind of racist — though we didn’t know it at the time (as I’ve said, it was a different era). Crayola acknowledged, at last, that human flesh comes in all sorts of shades. And so, in 1962, they changed the color’s name to “peach.” It was the right thing to do.
Often in our Sunday School classes, the teacher would ask us to draw something with crayons. There was a large metal cookie tin in the middle of the table. Open the lid, and there were way more than 64 crayons to choose from.
We Sunday School kids drew plenty of palm trees and camels, and screaming hordes of Philistines with spears. One day the teacher really challenged us: “Draw a picture of God.”
Well, where do you even start? You start by picking a crayon — but what color? What color is God, anyway? It’s a nonsensical question — kind of like that famous koan, or riddle, of the Zen Buddhists: “listen for the sound of one hand clapping.”
Even in the days when the color was still called “flesh,” not “peach,” most of us knew God isn’t flesh-and-blood — apart from the earthly Jesus, of course, who’s a special case.
Maybe the white crayon is the one to choose. White crayon, white piece of paper — scribble to your heart’s content, nobody will see a thing. As good a way as any to sketch an invisible God!
I think, though, there’s a color even better than white: though you could question whether it’s even a color at all. You’ll never find this one in the crayon tin — not even deep down at the bottom.
I’m talking about the color “clear” — like window glass. You could also say God is “transparent.”
And where did I get that highly-speculative idea? Not from any book of theology, I’ll tell you. I got it from a comic book, when I was a kid.
A Classics Illustrated comic, to be exact. (Are they even publishing those things anymore?) Classics Illustrated — for those who may not be familiar with the genre — delivers great works of Western literature in a dozen or so colorful pages.
Classics Illustrated comic books were the only ones our mothers had no problem with. Not that we never saw comics like Batman or Spiderman or Superman. It’s just that those ones were likely to call forth the classic parental response: “Why did you waste your allowance on that?”
I have a very specific memory of the comic book that gave me that idea. Our family was on vacation in the Poconos. We were staying at one of those grand old resort hotels, and great-uncle Bill (who was a stockbroker, and not hurting for cash) gave my brother Jim and me the princely sum of two dollars in walking-around money. We headed straight for the gift shop.
A 25-cent Classics Illustrated comic caught my eye — or, rather, the cover illustration did. Guys brandishing swords: always a crowd-pleaser for the under-12 set!
The title of the comic was not at all familiar to me. It was called The Iliad.
Inside were guys with swords and shields, hellbent on hacking each other to pieces. What’s more, they had gods for allies. A god is way cooler than a superhero.
So, how did the Classics Illustrated artist solve the conundrum of what color to use for a god? Easy: just outline the figures of Athena or Zeus or Apollo in dotted lines, and have them floating a few feet off the ground. Inside those lines you could see the background scenery, right through them. Way cool!
The unique virtues of the color “clear” show up in other places as well. Such as your kitchen cabinets or refrigerator. Clear is the color of at least one item you’re likely to find there: a ketchup bottle.
The quintessential ketchup bottle is manufactured by the H.J. Heinz company of Pittsburgh. Most of us are so used to seeing ketchup come in clear bottles, we never imagined it could be any other way. (Today, the bottles are more likely to be squeezeable plastic, but still, it’s clear plastic.
I learned recently that when H.J. Heinz set out to market his brand of ketchup, he encountered an obstacle. Ketchup had a terrible reputation. Descended from an ancient Chinese recipe, this concoction of vegetables, vinegar and a whole lot of other things was notorious for going bad quickly. The Chinese made it like the Koreans make kimchi: they buried it in a jar in the ground and let it ferment.
The first Heinz ketchup bottles were brown. But consumers didn’t like it. The American public wanted to see the ketchup they were buying.
As soon as the Heinz Company started selling their ketchup in clear glass bottles, sales began to pick up. Customers could see that this brand of ketchup was of consistent quality, and always a uniform, deep red color. That gave them confidence it wouldn’t make them sick. The Heinz bottles might say “57 Varieties,” but in fact there wasn’t much variation from one batch to the next, and that’s the whole point. Each bottle was meant to taste pretty much the same — and the clear glass was Mr. Heinz’ way of making sure his customers knew it.
So, what do clear ketchup bottles have to do with a clear God?
Think about those clear gods from my Iliad comic-book — immense, dotted-lined figures, floating a few feet off the ground. You could see them, but you could also see straight through them.
In the same way, God is present for us to encounter, in a spiritual way — but God doesn’t block out the world. You could say the world appears clearer to us, when we view it through what we know of God.
A ketchup bottle, of course, is a container. It holds something — an all-purpose sauce. In the case of God, the container holds something else altogether.
The Psalmist says God “holds all souls in life.” Colossians 3:3 says, “You have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God.” You see, our very lives are contained in God. This benevolent Lord is the one in whom we “live and move and have our being” — as it says in our first lesson this morning, Acts 17:28.
Speaking of that lesson, let’s take a closer look at it now. It’s the apostle Paul’s famous speech at the Areopagus — also known as Mars Hill — in the great city of Athens.
The Areopagus is where the pagan temples are located. The Greeks, as you know, worshiped many gods, and each one had his or her own temple. If you were going to make a sacrifice, you chose the temple of the god most likely to help you.
As he visited the Areopagus, Paul happened to notice a small, open-air altar, tucked off to the side, lost amidst the massive temples. Carved into the side of this altar was a simple inscription: “To an unknown god.”
The Greeks were in the habit of sacrificing to their most-favored god, but as they did so, a lingering thought plagued them: What if they had chosen the wrong god?
The little altar “To an unknown god” was a sort of religious insurance policy, a way of hedging their spiritual bets. It was like the familiar option on a multiple-choice exam that says, “None of the above” — or, maybe it should be “All of the above.”
Now, in trying to bring the Christian faith to the cosmopolitan city of Athens, Paul has been on the lookout for some entrée into the Athenians’ way of thinking, a foundation on which he can build his message. The altar To an Unknown God provides just such an opportunity:
“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…”
Paul goes on to teach that the only true God is the God of Israel, the God they can come to know intimately through Jesus Christ. No sacrifice is necessary to invoke his power, because Christ himself is the sacrifice.
All the deities in the Athenian religious marketplace stop their worshipers’ vision at the idol of stone or metal that dominates their temples. Only the humble altar to an unknown god moves the worshipers’ attention through and beyond these lesser things.
Our impression of God is so often formed and shaped by the cultural and religious traditions we’ve inherited. Yet, what if those traditions are not themselves the object of our worship? What if they are merely a container that holds the reality of God, a reality we could never encounter any other way? What if they are like the ketchup bottle, in other words — a container that is not so significant in itself, but which preserves and delivers the truth that is beyond all truth?
Sometimes we get all caught up in comparing one variety of Christianity to another, assessing which one is closest to the true faith. The inscription, “To an unknown God,” suggests that any human understanding of God is bound to be deficient in some way.
Our beliefs, in that way of thinking, are like a drinking-glass. A thirsty traveler who happens upon a desert oasis may see a pool of cool, refreshing water, but will have a hard time drinking it without a container.
Maybe a great deal of the religious disputes that trouble the various branches of Christianity aren’t about the deep, spiritual reality of God at all. Maybe they have more to do with the glass, the container — the “temples” and practices constructed by human beings. These means of worship may beckon us into God’s presence, but let us never confuse them with the divine presence itself.
Do we pray sitting or kneeling? When saying the Lord’s Prayer, do we use “debts” or “trespasses” or “sins”? Do we celebrate communion once a month, or each and every time we gather for worship?
As Paul said to the Athenians of old, trying to depict God in one color or another is a futile enterprise, because God has no color. God is clear, transparent, invisible — the lens through which we see everything else. Religious practices belonging to one tradition or another are a way of conveying you and me into the presence of the divine, who is incapable of being captured by human artifice. At the end of the day, that’s all that matters.
And so, let us sing together of the one, true God — immortal, invisible, the only wise one. And let us always be humble and open to discovering traces of our God in the most unlikely places.