This week's sacred story comes from Acts 17:16-31 - Read the full text here.
So +KINDRED shares our building with a number of different organizations and groups. It’s the heart of how we live out our life as a collaborative community. Only one of these groups is another community of faith (Canvas) and the rest are things like the farmers market Central City Co-op, occupational therapy practices, Botts LGBT archive, support groups, Montrose Grace Place which is the homeless youth program, Zumba classes, all kinds of things.
Now, some of the people who run those organizations are Christian, some are Jewish, some are Pagan, some maybe used to be Christian but wouldn’t call themselves that now, and some people want nothing to do with any like that at all.
One day, as I was running around the building setting up for Holy Week, someone saw me as asked what I was doing. Oh, me? Oh, I’m just getting things ready for Holy Week.
“What’s that?” they asked.
I had to stop and think for a second. Often we who have some experience in the church and the traditions of Christianity use language that we assume everyone knows. I’m sure this probably sounds like babbling to many and I do it too. So I had to think, how do I answer this question without using a bunch of assumptions or code words that would still mean nothing to this person? I can’t just respond with “well, it’s the week that begins with Palm Sunday, and then goes to Maundy Thursday and so on….”
And it obviously wouldn’t be helpful for me to get all judgey and say “bless you heart.”
Rather, I have the opportunity to see this question as a remarkable and genuine gift of curiosity and discovery that we get to share together.
When Paul is hanging around Athens, heis brought to the Areopagus, what is also called Mars Hill…(Mars being the Roman God of War). And it is called Mars Hill because this was the place where they said that the God Mars stood trial in front of the other Gods. And so this was now the place where people gathered to hear cases and settle disputes.
Today, this hill is still a sort of gathering place where people climb up to enjoy their picnics and just hang out. It actually reminds me a bit of the hill at Miller Outdoor Theater here in Houston.
And here the people try to connect what Paul is saying with what they already know and understand, but they also notice that there’s something different or novel about what he’s saying. And so they ask, with genuine curiosity, “‘May we know what this new teaching is that you are presenting? 20It sounds rather strange to us, so we would like to know what it means.”
And what does Paul do? He meets them where they’re at – spiritually AND physically. He’s out and about talking with people in the synagogues, in the marketplaces, with the philosophers, and in the place of Roman Pagan court. He’s in grocery store aisles, the local coffee shop and watering holes, the drag bar and the stadium seats of the local ball game. And when they ask questions, he doesn’t condemn them for asking and not already seeing the world as he does. He takes in their questions, their cynicism, and even their zeal. Paul recognizes that judgment is not his to dole out. He is not insulting or demeaning, not even silently judging someone else’s life or values. He speaks to them not using the church-y language of tradition, but in words they already understand. He acknowledges and lifts up the good things that are already there: “I see how extremely religious you are in every way.”
Meeting people where they’re at isn’t a way to manipulate people, to woo them in with kindness and then “catching” them or getting them to come to worship with us. We are called to meet people where they are because God is there. That’s the story Christians have to tell.
And so Paul points to a depth of meaning that already exists. He makes a connection between what they already know and celebrate and experience, and their Creator who is reflected in those things. He says, “that breath in your chest, that fills your lungs with oxygen and animates your bones…that’s God; this yearning within you for something beyond the easy answers…that’s God.” He’s not pointing to some object or building, some other place or people and saying “God is that way, over there, why don’t you come over.” And this was RADICAL in a culture where people would go to extremes to travel and chase the best new thing that would bring them wholeness. Rather, he’s pointing to how God and God’s promises and blessing are revealed and experienced where we stand right this second. And this isn’t just something “non-believers” need help with; we all need help with this. We need reminders to see the divine in the daily, resurrection within our routine, the sacred in the shuffle.
That’s the unique story that Christians have a distinct story to tell. Paul still differentiates how the significance of this story is distinct from other ad campaigns and shallow promises. But it is still a story that can make a connection of meaning across traditions. It recognizes that our stories and our lives are more alike than they are different. It gives us the eyes to see that, oh, the pillars of your Muslim faith are the oneness of God, prayer, charity, fasting and pilgrimage? Then we can certainly have a conversation there. Oh, you’ve seen the church be hypocritical and exclusionary but you volunteer every month to help our city and its people? We can talk about what gives us courage and hope.
We hear the call to repentance which is translated from the Greek word, metanoia which literally means….think bigger.
As Christians, we care about the freedom and safety of others to worship and connect with God or not, even across religions, even without any affiliation at all, even to doubt and question the very existence of God because we have the promise that pieces of God’s persistent love are evident in ways and experiences that might not be our own, and in ways that are beyond our knowing. I am reminded of Jacob, dreaming in the desert with a rock for a pillow, who wakes up after an experience of the closeness of God and says, “surely God was in this place and I didn’t even know it.” May we have eyes to see and ears to hear, to be reminded and to remind each other, of God’s presence and promise among us. May you, in this moment, with whatever is going on in you life, be intimately aware that God is with you and God is for you. Amen.
CHALLENGE PRACTICES: Visit the places of other faiths and different traditions LIKE The Islamic Dawah Center downtown - https://islamicdawahcenter.org/ OR The Bahai Center - http://www.bahaihouston.com/home.html