What is one of your favorite things to do when you arrive in a new-to-you city or place? Kate Micucci, an American actress, remarked that her favorite thing to do in a new city “is find new fast food.” She says, “I seek it out. I’ll tweet and ask people what their favorite local place is, and if I get four or five with the same answer, then I’ll check it out.” It’s the kind of thing that many of us, I suppose, do when we have a bit of discretionary income and we are on vacation, or traveling to a new and interesting place. We check out the food—whether it is the fast food trucks at a festival, or a Zagat rated restaurant, or a bustling place where the locals gather.
Paul was in Athens traveling. He wasn’t checking out the local food primarily, but the local gods. Athens was a thriving metropolis and Paul was there as he passed from place to place spreading the gospel. No doubt, he was struck by the teeming city and the cultural differences between his own Jewish, monotheistic background and the sights, sounds, flavors and smells of the ancient city. One of the things that struck Paul, as recorded in our scripture, was the religiosity of the Athenians. Athenians were known for their religiosity. In Greece at the time, there were a plethora of gods and goddesses. It was commonly believed in ancient times that the well-being of the city depended upon pleasing the local gods who resided there. Create displeasure and a plague could happen. Fail to stroke the ego of a god and havoc could ensue. Appeasing the gods/goddesses was a matter of national security.
So, the Athenians had a clever way of appeasing the gods and helping to stave off plagues, invasion, famine, and other unfortunate circumstances: they built a tomb to the unknown god. In this way, they would cover their bases; if they accidentally “left out” one of the gods for whom appeasement was necessary, then they could point to the edifice inscribed “to the unknown god” and all things would be made good.
Actually, their rationale is understandable. We like to hedge our bets in spiritual matters and in life. I haven’t met anyone facing a serious illness or difficult pregnancy who has said to another person, “Oh, don’t pray for me unless you are going to pray to my God only.” We would likely consider that rude. We generally like to accept the prayers and good wishes of another, regardless of faith, if not for the god invoked, then for the kindness conveyed. Such prayers are less about God and more about our human connection to each other, but it certainly doesn’t hurt if the prayer request has a favorable reply regardless of deity invoked. We also tend to become a bit superstitious at different times in our lives, and that is also a fairly common and human thing to do. We may not consider ourselves superstitious, but “less than 10 percent of Manhattan condominiums with 13 or more stories actually label a floor with the number 13.” And that isn’t just Manhattan!
Paul visits Athens and is actually personally provoked by the sheer number of gods and goddesses worshiped by the Athenians. He is provoked by the number of idols. Not that gods and idols are the same thing, but what Paul saw as an Athenian object of worship, he also saw as an idol. We have gods and idols too…and we confuse them as well. I wonder what Paul would have thought of the way we relate to money in this country or the way our culture worships violence and a gun culture. Some have made Christianity into an idol, idolizing the form and not following the substance.
While Paul is waiting to continue on his journey, he visits the marketplace and synagogue in Athens every day, not to make new friends, but to argue and debate with those willing to lend an ear. Arguing and debating matters of religion do not often win converts; people tend to dig themselves into truculent positions.
Some Epicurean and Stoic philosophers were intrigued by the newcomer Paul and they wonder what he is “babbling” about. Our text actually says that some of the philosophers questioned, “What does this babbler want to say?” which are not exactly complimentary words. Lots of words can turn people off to any god, so if you are planning to preach or teach, your possible “babble score” with the locals is important to note ahead of time.
Paul is invited to stand and speak in one of the highest places, the Areopagus, or Hill of Ares, or where the administrative council met. It is a great invitation to be asked to speak to a broad audience of those who may certainly believe differently from you. It can also be a great potential forum for embarrassment or harm.
However, Paul does not disappoint. He accepts their invitation. The philosophers asked him to speak because they could see that he was proclaiming foreign divinities and they were, at best, curious…and at worst, possibly looking to ridicule him. We don’t know.
What we do know that Paul accepted the invitation and his message was received with mixed results. Some scoffed, we are told, and others said, “We will hear you again about this,” which has a bit of an ominous ring to it. Still others accepted Paul’s message and joined with him.
And what was Paul’s message? He preached to the crowd about the resurrection of the dead (a ludicrous idea to these philosophers) and the idea of one God, the Creator of all, the Lord of heaven and earth who does not live in shrines made by human hands and who gives to all mortals life and breath and all things.
Paul also preached about Jesus, but he did so in a way that recognized the religiosity of the Athenians and their human desire to know and to understand God. He tells them that he has noticed that they have this altar inscribed “To the Unknown God,” and then proceeds to describe for them a God that can be known, experienced, and found—not simply sought after.
We humans are made to seek the Divine and the holy in our lives. We strive both to know and to be known and to have a sense of human belonging—not just to families and to communities, but to this life and life itself. In Eternal Echoes, John O’Donohue writes, “Our hunger to belong is the longing to find a bridge across the distance from isolation to intimacy.” Whether we call that longing a hunger for a sense of “home” or “groundedness” or “wholeness” or “belovedness,” the spirit of meaning is essentially the same. Like Paul says, “God is not far from each one of us. For ‘in God, we live and move and have our being.’”
After recognizing and honoring the Athenians’ religiosity and desire to look high and low for God, Paul also recognizes the truth of their own poets by quoting a line likely taken from poet-philosopher Epimenides. In this way, by recognizing both their religiosity and their own poetical ideas, Paul warms himself to his hosts and helps to set the stage for sharing his experiences and good news with them.
Sometimes when we talk about God with those who may believe differently from us, we tend to focus on the names for God or the particular religious rituals or codes of conduct that differentiate us. Perhaps it would be more helpful to share less about our names for God and more about the character of God and how our own human character is shaped by engagement with that God. For instance, what is it about loving God and following Jesus Christ that informs and shapes your character or your choices? What is it about being part of the church that helps you to make decisions, or to parent your child, or to become the person that you believe God intended you to be? These conversations are different than the kind of conversation that we have when we ask what someone’s faith requires, whether he must keep kosher, or whether she prays several times a day or not at all. Another kind of conversation happens when we ask how one’s faith helps one to regain one’s balance after a metaphorical fall or how it helps us to cope with the trials and drama of our life chapters. Another kind of conversation happens when we inquire how God’s character helps to strengthen our own character and how our faith community helps to make God manifest to others within the larger community.
On this Mental Health Awareness Sunday, we might consider how our God helps us to combat the isolation that is endemic to so many mental health conditions, as well as the stresses and strains of everyday living. When we are struggling, it is human nature to want to isolate ourselves, yet it is that same isolation that can create further stress and increasing problems with re-connecting with others. In other words, isolation can feed upon itself. Yet it is understandable why so many people may find it difficult to reach out when they are feeling disconnected from life due to misfortune, or tragedy, illness, or loss. Participation in a faith community is one way to combat this tendency towards isolation and to weather the storms of life in close relationship with others. But only if those faith communities are supportive of human difference and honest about the daily realities that people—the faithful included—face.
According to a Gallup study, those folks who identify as most religious and who attend religious services once or more per week have greater well-being. That doesn’t mean that church people do not suffer from mental distress, illness, or suffering. It simply means that, according to studies, people who participate in religious community are reaping some overall benefits to their well-being and life-satifaction.
As one article stated, “Religious service attendance promotes social interaction and friendship with others, and Gallup analyses have clearly shown that time spent socially and social networks themselves are positively associated with high wellbeing. Religion generally involves more meditative states and faith in a higher power, both of which have been widely used as methods to lower stress, reduce depression, and promote happiness. Religion provides mechanisms for coping with setbacks and life’s problems, which in turn may reduce stress, worry, and anger. Many religions, including Christianity… embody tenets of positive relationships with one’s neighbors and charitable acts, which may lead to a more positive mental outlook.
I do wonder if Paul discussed the idea of spiritual well-being with his interlocutors and the relationship between the individual and the community in terms of that well-being. I wonder if he also told his philosopher acquaintances that we are not the only ones doing the seeking in this equation. Instead, God seeks and calls to us in all of our mental, physical and spiritual states. We are sought out by God—sought out by Love for Love’s sake. Which is another way of saying that while we may temporarily lose ourselves and our way from time to time, we are not lost to God. And similarly, we should not be lost to the church and faith communities founded and speaking in Christ’s name.
 : https://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/quotes/k/katemicucc750577.html
 Patrick Clark, “Why are we still making buildings without a 13th floor?” February 13, 2015. Bloomberg. https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2015-02-13/why-are-we-still-making-buildings-without-a-13th-floor-
 Frank Newport, Dan Witters, and Sangeeta Agrawal. “Religious Americans Enjoy Higher Wellbeing,” February 16, 2012. http://www.gallup.com/poll/152723/religious-americans-enjoy-higher-wellbeing.aspx