22 Then Paul stood in front of the Areopagus and said, “Athenians, I see how extremely spiritual 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. 26 From one ancestor he made all peoples to inhabit the whole earth, and he allotted the times of their existence and the boundaries of the places where they would live, 27 so that they would search for God and perhaps fumble about for him and find him—though indeed he is not far from each one of us. 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.’
Let us pray. Oh God in whom we live and move and have our being, in our fumbling about, in all the unknowns, may we be fully known in you. Amen.
In today’s text, Paul is noticing how religious the people of Athens are. I remember learning about Greek gods in elementary school, do you? I can still rattle it off. Zeus, king of the gods. Poseidon, god of the sea. Aphrodite, goddess on the mountain top, burning like a silver flame, summit of beauty and love, and Venus was her name. I remember feeling rather sorry for Demeter, who was goddess of wheat. That’s a disappointing superpower. Zeus hurled lightning bolts, Poseidon wielded the trident, other gods shot flaming arrows, and she poured cereal, I suppose.
And whether I realized this in elementary school or not, these mythologies were an attempt to explain what mattered to people, all that they depended on but couldn’t control, couldn’t explain. Sun and moon, waves and storms, but also love and war, fertility and death, the hunt, and yes, wheat. In his stroll through Athens, Paul noticed a culture that was religious in every way, and yet, in their pantheon of marble and gold, something surprised him. There was a statue “to an unknown god.” He noticed that for all they could and did try to name, there was something they couldn’t. They even made a statue for that yearning, that mystery, that their organized religion had not captured. That ache or hope or presence that was somewhere beyond all names and statues and stories.
If you were to go around our country and look around at the objects of our worship, you might come to the same conclusion Paul did. Our culture is extremely spiritual in every way. A Pew study shows that a large majority of American adults believe in God, 89% and pray daily, 67%. We have our saints and statues, of course. There are towns like the one in which I grew up where the skyline is full of steeples. There are cities like DC with towering granite monoliths of economy and justice, the bronze statue of freedom atop the Capitol, but also spin classes that actually involve something like a sermon. There are podcasters who are being called modern day revivalists. There are therapists plumbing the depths of the mind. There are yoga studios next to every coffee shop. Even Wegmans has a steeple on it!
And even though trust in religious institutions has fallen a lot in recent decades, I still experience times when someone pulls me aside on the sidelines of soccer fields, or at the busstop, saying something like, “I haven’t been to church in a long time but …” and out comes a story about weeping by the ocean, or being in the hospital room with a dying friend, or something sublime their child said at night, and suddenly they are fanning their face, “I don’t know what it is. But it felt holy. Anyway, I thought you might appreciate that.”
Another thing that strikes me about this story of Paul in Athens is his approach. Paul had done more than his fair share of arguing in other towns. He debated rabbis and rumbled with religious leaders. A bull in a china shop. In Thessalonica, for example, just before this story, he’d sparred with the synagogue leaders so much that they ran him out of town. So, by the time he arrived in Athens, I wonder if Paul was winded, chastened. And as he walked around the city, his style was notably different. He paused. He listened. He observed. He noticed things. He appreciated instead of argued. And from there, he was able to offer the Athenians, gently even poetically, a connection to the God he knew and they did not yet. He had listened closely enough to detect a spiritual hunger in them and instead of shoving answers down their throats, he offered them a morsel from what nourished him.
Just like teachers who have made the biggest mark on my life, Paul met people on their terms, quoted their poets, behaved like a guest in their holy places, certainly not the zealous disrupter he had been just a few verses before. This slow conversion was more a conversation, respectful in tone and admiring in energy. And so then, when he talked about resurrection a few verses after today’s text, yes – some people sneered, because there are always people who do that, but many people said to Paul, “we want to hear from you again about this subject.”
You may not agree with me on this, but I have to think that Paul had been humbled before coming to Athens. I imagine he had been knocked off his high horse, and this time not by the risen Christ on the Damascus Road but by a stubborn zeal that had always gotten in his way. I find it refreshing to imagine Paul the preacher as a work in progress, someone starting to practice what he preached, someone who believed that God might be in a place before he himself arrived, someone who stood beside people rather than over them. Someone whose past stumbles didn’t make him bitter. They made him better. And, I think Paul’s shift is important for the church in our day to notice.
Several years ago, I heard someone describe the different ways the church has engaged culture throughout history, from the most hostile to the most open. And it is handy because all the words begin with the letter C. Brace yourself. I am sucker for a pneumonic device.
Posture number 1: the church condemns culture. The church assumes the world is just a bag of vice and Christians must either dominate or leave on the rescue helicopter to heaven. Colonizing. Conquering. Combative. Conflicted. Sadly, when the church adopts this posture, she often finds herself coopted, by another agenda and complicit with some truly awful things.
Posture number 2: the church criticizes culture. Seeing the world full of slippery slopes and stumbling blocks. The Bible is applied like yellow caution tape to keep you from plummeting into sin or losing your soul.
Number 3: the church copies culture. Creates Christian rock bands or Christian video games. The church presents herself as a healthy alternative in the marketplace, like Catholic Crunch on the cereal shelf.
Number 4: the church consumes culture. The church starts to give people only what they want, health and wealth, easily digestible sermons, comfort and convenience. People might call her St. Arbucks. People flock in, but it is hard to please everyone, so over time, this consumption can bend toward corruption or raw capitalism, or cowardice when courage is needed.
Each of those postures falls short of the God to whom the steeples point. So what posture should the church take in this world? What should Paul do in a place like Athens that is no stranger to religion?
Throughout the Bible, there are other powerful words about how we are to interact with our world. Like the word cultivate, we are called to learn the way of seeds and yeast and salt and light, how a little goes a long way. Like the word conversation, faith as a long conversation with God, God who shows up in unexpected places, from burning bushes to complete strangers. Like the word curiosity, Jesus asks beautiful questions inside and outside of the normal holy buildings, on walks, at home, at work that open people up to the love he has. And of course there is compassion and creativity. Jesus got up close to what was already there and declared it holy and beloved because God made it. The stone no one wanted. A person who was rejected. A meal that fed more people than anyone thought it would.
And finally, there is the cross, that is the simple word that holds it all together, and is powerful enough to spin the globe on the axis of grace.
Fredrich Buechner said, the cross is how we learn…. “that the worst thing is not the last thing. It’s the next to the last thing. The last thing is the best. It’s the power from on high that comes down into the world, that wells up from the rock-bottom worst of the world like a hidden spring. Can you believe it? The last, best thing is the laughing deep in the hearts of the saints, sometimes our hearts even. Yes. You are terribly loved and forgiven. Yes. You are healed. All is well.”
I have to think that Paul’s conversion and those folks he met in Athens was an ongoing one, like it is for all of us. Paul was unfinished. He was a tool in the hand of God not the other way around. And that means the church in our time is unfinished. We are clay in the hands of a potter, a house not built with hands that is under renovation, the body of Christ with all the growth and pain and change and awkward realness of everybody.
Truth be told, I don’t love unfinished things. Anyone who has ever worked with me has gotten an email that talks about “closing the loop.” “Checking things off the list.” But there was a day when my aunt and cousin came by my office to give me an unfinished thing that I have now come to cherish. It was a needlepoint canvas on a frame. In the center was a pink flower that had been stitched by my grandmother, which must have been more than 40 years ago. It’s threads were a bit duller and thick. But then all around it, there were green shoots and a giant purple iris, the whole pattern filled in by my mother with shinier thread. All that was left undone was the entire white background. I wasn’t sure why this old needlepoint of all the things was so important to my mom that from the twilight of her cancer bed she enlisted my aunt to deliver it to me, especially since I am famously poor in the area of handicrafts. My aunt said, “Your mom thought you could get some people to help you finish this. Becca, I’d be glad to.” My aunt sat down and added a few stitches. I pretended to completely understand how stitchery or whatever you call it worked. For a while, I felt the pressure of trying to finish it, fill it all in. But now, I am enjoying it as it is. Unfinished. White space that I might fill in at some point, possibly leaving some room for those who come after me. Thankfully, I have plenty of time to figure that out because based on how slow those flowers bloomed, those ladies were pacing themselves too.
So I will end with this. Bless all those things that are unfinished. Paul the preacher trying a new way of connecting. The church trying to cultivate instead of conquer. Everyone here, a work in progress, we add our stitches and give the rest to the future beyond us, trusting that it is all held together on the frame of grace.