Acts 17:22-31; Psalm 66:8-20; 1 Peter 3:13-22; John 14:15-21
This past week Minjing and I went to Southcenter Mall. This is one of those things I try to do as little as possible. I can think of many things I’d rather do than shop, especially on a nice day. But Friday is our day off; shopping had to be done so we went.
On top of being cut off from the outdoors, the thing I like least about malls is the noise. I don’t mean the sound of human conversation. I mean the loud music. From a recent article I learned that this is no coincidence. Storeowners know that loud music makes it more difficult to concentrate. The result is that shoppers are less likely to think clearly and more likely to buy on impulse.
It’s been said that malls are the temples of the 21st century. Previous generations gathered at churches for community and to remember the important values they held in common. Today those public gathering places are often shopping areas. We find that malls are not merely places to buy things but places for social interaction, as well.
Others have said that the true temples of our times are sports stadiums. People gather for soccer, baseball football (not basketball), sharing a common identity and a common purpose, which is to take pride in who we are, to defeat the opposition. And, like shopping malls, a place to gather with friends or meet new people.
Sports stadiums. Shopping malls. I’m not a big fan of either one. That being the case, today’s first reading makes me sit up and take notice. Paul the apostle, a man from Turkey, citizen of Rome, and a Jew, is a visitor to Athens, the center of Greek power, culture and values. Luke, the writer of Acts, reports in v.16 that as he walked through this great city Paul was greatly distressed to see that the city was full of idols.
In Paul’s day an idol was usually a statue of some kind, dedicated to one of many gods. Unfortunately, that’s the image that sticks in our heads 2000 years later. But an idol for 21st-century people is not likely to be a statue. An idol is anything that consumes our energy, passions and attention—anything for which we’d give our life. An idol is anything that distracts from or substitutes for God.
So I sympathize with Paul. Looking around our society I, too, see many idols. For example, material goods, money and sporting events claim a bit too much of our energy and resources, as I see it. I find that, like Paul, I get distressed by how our human hunger for God can so easily be diverted to things that have little power to satisfy that hunger.
On the other hand, while I sympathize with Paul, I’m also challenged by his response. In his distress Paul doesn’t simply nurse his resentment and spend his days griping about the way things are. No, Paul says, Athenians, I see how extremely religious you are in every way. 23For 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.
And then he says, As even some of your own poets have said, ‘For we too are his offspring.’ Here is a man who looks at what is different and even offensive in the practice of others and finds evidence of God’s presence. Paul finds common ground. He looks at the practice of worship around him and finds something to praise. Most of all, he cares enough to learn about what is different. He’s even able to quote Greek poetry to the local people and affirm the truth that all people and all nations are God’s children!
So Paul challenges me. When I’m tempted to gripe about the way things are Paul shows me a different way. Paul finds signs of God’s presence in the lives of those he meets, even though he doesn’t agree with their practice or even their values.
But how do we do that? How can we, in the time and place we find ourselves, be faithful to our own tradition while honoring the lives and traditions of those with whom we differ?
For hints at how to follow Paul’s example, we need look no further than our own God-given gifts. Paul gave his speech at the Areopagus, sometimes called Mars Hill. This was an ancient, sacred site which in classical times functioned as the high Court of Appeal for criminal and civil cases (Wikipedia). Now, think of that. Paul himself was a lawyer by training—not in criminal or civil but religious law. Although Paul was in foreign territory his training in law gave him common ground with the people to whom he spoke.
Think about that. To be faithful witnesses to God’s love in the world we don’t have to become somebody different. We have only to look at our gifts, passions and life experience, and believe that God can use our story to connect with others. For example, I may not be a big sports fan. But maybe you are. Great! I may find shopping malls a complete turn-off but you might enjoy that environment. Great! You can connect with people who value those things better than I! How can your interests connect you with people hungering for God? How might your story lead others with similar interests from distractions (idols) to something deeper, more satisfying and more enduring than what they presently know?
Paul says to his audience, I see how extremely religious you are in every way. Everyone is religious. We are all drawn to powers greater than ourselves. One of my great loves is hiking through forests and mountains. That’s actually a good fit with the Northwest. Many Northwesterners find beauty and the presence of God not in church institutions but in the beauty of God’s creation. I understand that! Some of my best thinking happens not in my office or in the church sanctuary but on hikes. The beauty of God’s creation fills me with awe and inspiration. Just as Paul as a lawyer felt at home in the Areopagus so I as a hiker feel at home in the mountains. This God-given gift is an opportunity to connect with others who also appreciate the beauty of creation but who may be hungering for something deeper. How can I use that common ground to explore their spirituality, learn something from them, and maybe even offer something in return?
Every human being is hard-wired with a religious impulse. Sometimes we become distracted and distanced from the One who created us and loves us. But all people, as Paul affirmed, are God’s offspring. Through our gifts, loves and experiences we have all we need to be ambassadors of God’s love to the world. What are your loves and passions? What people has God placed in your path, and how have you been placed in the paths of others? We can choose to be distressed about what we don’t like in the world. Or, we can ask that God might use our natural interests and life experiences to follow Paul’s example of helping connect others more deeply with the Living God.