Of all the places where Paul makes a speech, this is probably the most like Towson. Athens is a university town, a place where ideas and philosophies are a big part of the cultural landscape. This is the town of Plato and Pericles….the cultural center for people who like to entertain big questions. It’s a town for sophisticated sorts who appreciate art and beauty, drama and music.
Paul goes to the Barnes and Nobel’s coffee bar. Well, not really, but the closest thing they had to that in the first century. The Areopagus is where the intellectual class liked to hang out and relieve their boredom by searching for new ideas. It was an open air kind of setting where people could come and go freely, rather like the speakers corner near Hyde Park in London where every Sunday for several centuries anyone can stand up and exercise his or her right to free speech. So Paul is at a place in Athens like Hyde Park and Barnes & Nobel and Starbucks and Belvedere Square woven together making a speech to the elite class about God. (This is now beginning to sound like a Woody Allen movie but bear with me).
People gather around. The Pantheon of statues to the Greek gods is just down the street. And the people that have gathered are, as Paul notices, spiritual….though not, heaven forbid, religious. They are seekers…aware on some level that there is something deeper flowing through life than they’ve been able to name. So they put up a statue to an unknown God and live with a kind of longing that they probably don’t share with many people and are quite adept at forgetting about. Just like so many do today. Again, this is sounding very contemporary.
The architecture of Athens may not be much like ours but the culture is surprisingly similar….spiritual but not religious, having a vague sense of something more that remains unnamed. And for many that’s about as far as they go, both then and now….and more and more people are OK with that. And they are fine people.
Which would make a place like this irrelevant, wouldn’t it? Why do we need a church? And why would we need a sanctuary, a place to gather, in a time and ethos that is increasingly secular? Why not just let nature speak to us of the wonders and mystery of the divine? It is all Holy Ground. and let’s be honest, there are those times when we can feel closer to God on a mountain or beach than we can sitting in a pew. If a sense of wonder in the beauty of nature isn’t enough… if our intellectual curiosity about the God questions continues to be an itch that needs scratching, aren’t there are plenty of books and blogs to challenge us and even lead to new insights. For sheer inspiration you can find a good movie, or concert, that uses the latest in sight and sound effects to draw people together in a shared emotional experience. And we can even keep in touch with each other in this technological age without the bother of actually being present together in a building.
This is something I think about a lot. Why bother with this? Why put planning and thought and money into this space, making it not only utilitarian but beautiful? Most of us could argue that God isn’t any more present here than on the beach or at a concert or in your kitchen as you linger over your coffee and listen to Krista Tippet interviewing the Dali Lama. So why is this something we value?
Here’s what I’ve come to recognize: That this place and in other places of worship like it are the one space in this crazy world where the most important thing that happens isn’t anything you can quantify of readily document. You can’t buy anything here to stuff in your closet. You won’t get a show on a par with a concert at Merriweather Post. You won’t get your picture in the paper to showcase your social or political networking skills, and (and this is a surprise to many) you won’t get easy answers to life’s biggest questions. What happens in such a place as this is that we are invited to open ourselves to a bigger reality, to affirm that there is more going on in our lives than can be reduced to economic statistics, political demographics, or the latest advice column or how to article. And, through telling our stories and engaging in the practices of our tradition we can begin to know and name this God who is the source of our lives.
We begin to recognize (and this will sound positively 21st century) that the central reality of our lives is not some abstract, nameless, deity that has little to do with the day in and out of our lives but rather is, as Paul says, the infinitely compassionate and continuously challenging matrix with and within which our lives unfold. And in places like this, in communities like this, we affirm that life is not a game. It’s a journey and we are invited to be transformed at every point along the way. But this is not something easily discovered on one’s own because ultimately it can’t be explained or even proved. It is and always has been discovered in communities like this that are grounded in memory and hope.
For all the holiness we encounter in a rainbow, or a Mary Oliver poem, or the hand of someone we love reaching out to us, or the kindness of a stranger or a really good piece of chocolate anything, we come to know and name God primarily in and through the sharing of the stories of our lives and the stories of those who have gone before us. In this place and gathered as community our sacred stories open our eyes and imaginations to a vision of life that is far richer and infinitely more interesting than the next shopping trip or football game although those things can be good as well…just not the be all and end all. In this place we are able to name the source of that wonder and amazement that seems to be hardwired into the human experience, even while we admit that we will never be able to understand or explain it fully.
From the stories of the Bible to the stories we tell each other about the places, people and events through which we personally have felt God’s presence in our lives, we learn and affirm that there really is more going on in with and among us than we might have thought. We do not learn to live this way automatically. It takes others to show us how to pay attention and recognize what otherwise might be hidden. The church is at its best, not when it asks us to check our brains at the door and tries to offer simple answers to complex questions but when we encourage each other to pay attention for the glimpses of the Holy that weave through our days giving a dignity and purpose to our lives.
Paul didn’t try to offer the Athenians proof of God. Instead, he told them stories about his encounters with Jesus and his life in community and how each had transformed his life and then he invited them to be part of it and discover for themselves and be part of this “becoming.”
The church is at its best when we offer a place where questions are honored. We are at our best when we bring science and current events into our conversations and search for meaning that is not superficial, searching for insights into how to go forward in ways that are honest and just and compassionate, and ponder a deeper purpose and a bigger hope for human life than the individualist, market driven messages all around us.
In this place we find that our lives are part of a larger story that helps us see beyond some of the pettiness and muck of modern living. Here we learn the deeper practices that connect us to our neighbors in powerful and life changing ways, practices like forgiveness, and a robust commitment to social justice and to creating an environmentally sustainable future. We learn in this community that we are most content and joyful when we are working together for the common good…the hallmark of every legitimate spiritual tradition….a mutual commitment to a life that is bigger than just ourselves. And in these practices and commitments we begin to learn how to know and name God.
And in places such as this, in communities such as this, we learn that to be fully human is to recognize that we are spiritual creatures. We learn to open ourselves to the Spirit of God because it is through us that God works. And every day we live with mystery that we cannot grasp and a hope that assures us that life is more than what we see or can measure in weight or distance or time. And something in us wants to say “thank you” and to be with others who are also saying “thank you.”
Where else do all these things come together? Where else except in communities of faith like this one, can we tell the stories and open ourselves to mystery, and be intellectually and socially challenged, and find a transcendent hope. And so we build chapels and cathedrals and worship spaces and invest in them so that they are beautiful. Because, in making them beautiful we honor what we do here. This space is not sacred because we call it a church. It is sacred…set apart…because we ARE a church….a community of imperfect people who are learning together to know and name God.
This sanctuary has gone through several phases since it was constructed fifty years ago. There were the days when it was utilitarian but versatile and people loved that those metal chairs could be moved around to fit different events and seasons. Then in the mid-eighties there was a big transformation: pews, stained glass widow, carpet and woodwork. And people loved that it was beautiful and reflected a sense of permanency and commitment. And today we celebrate a new look with colors and patterns that are not just beautiful but are modern. And people love that in making these changes we have shown a commitment to the future.
Over the next decades a new generation may worship in a different style. Maybe less organ and more candles. Maybe more Friday nights and fewer Sunday mornings. It will be up to them to develop those forms that work for them. But whatever forms the next generations develop, they will still be asking the questions and sharing the stories, shaping a community that practices justice and compassion, and coming together to say thank you, and to get in touch with mystery, and to be people who know they are part of something bigger and deeper and holier than they could ever have otherwise imagined. And our hope is that we have bequeathed a place of beauty that they will value as they go about being and becoming the next church in this place.