Do you, in these days of sheltering-in-place, find yourselves looking longingly at travel photos or foreign cities or places unknown to you?
Do you ever imagine yourself walking the village streets of Portugal, visiting the faraway ruins of Egypt, or browsing the markets of the Mediterranean?
I’ve been thumbing some of those large coffee table books with photos of far-flung places, wondering how they are faring in this global pandemic. And I am also longing for someplace other than my house, I suppose. Perhaps your dreams are located closer to home, but with seasonal vacation time on hold and travel suspended, I suspect we all have cabin fever, or at least the desire to go someplace untouched by Covid– 19, or back in time to the moments when we could blissfully walk in crowds or in a marketplace without so much as a thought about contagion or a random sneeze. Oh, I love where I live, but after a while, one craves a change of scenery and a change of culture, if only to know how it is that other people live and work and play.
The Apostle Paul is in Greece. He has been traveling quite a bit in the stories that precede ours today. Ever the evangelist, he has been teaching and preaching in synagogues and has been run out of a few, including Thessalonica and Berea. I wonder if, previously, Paul came across as arrogant in his teaching or overbearing. Many times, my son refuses to listen if I am not careful with my tone, no matter what I say. If I make my tone less confrontational and more invitational and curious, I have greater success, especially when my son is involved solving the dilemma or asked about the problem at hand.
In any case, Paul has travelled now to Greece, specifically Athens, and he is there waiting for his companions to arrive. While waiting, he decides to look around their marketplace, synagogues, and landmarks, and to engage with some of the philosophers there. He must have talked quite a bit and annoyed some folks because our bible says he got the reputation for being quite the talker; some apparently asked, “What is this chatterbox trying to say?”
While checking out the local scenery, Paul becomes disturbed by all the idols that he sees. Athens is a cosmopolitan place and it seems as if every god has a shrine – we would say that Athens was both multifaith and multifaceted. There are a plethora of gods and goddesses. Along comes Paul preaching about Jesus and soon the philosophers invite him to the Council of the Areopagus—or Mars Hill– to discuss, explain, and clarify this new teaching he was peddling. The Athenians were curious—they loved listening to the latest ideas and debating the newest information. So the talkative Paul is given a hearing.
Perhaps Paul learned a lesson from his previous encounter with Thessalonica, but instead of starting with his belief in Christ, he begins with the Athenians themselves. It is a good place to begin with strangers—you are at a party, instead of talking about what interests you, ask instead what interests your host or your new acquaintance. We all know people who come across as colossal bores because they talk about themselves too much.
Instead Paul begins by acknowledging that the Athenians are deeply religious and seekers after the heart of God. He describes for them some of their special religious landmarks, including an altar inscribed, “To an Unknown God.” The Athenians covered all their bases; they realized that the God that they did not even know yet deserved their worship—and so, this unknown God also had a holy place, like the others.
After establishing some rapport, Paul goes on to tell the Athenians what he has discovered—the God who is the One who gave us life and breath and all things. He tells them that his God does not live in shrines or sanctuaries and is not made of gold or silver or any image that humans can imagine.
Here we might pause. Many of us are wondering when or, even if, it will be safe to return to our church building and worship as we have experienced it in the past. And this pandemic, this sheltering-in-place, might help us to reconsider how and where we experience God right now, absent the usual things that we think that we need to worship with each other. In this pivotal moment, how do we communicate to others the universal God that we have found speaking through Jesus Christ? Take away the accoutrements of our faith, the props and the decorations, the images and the communal sounds of singing and gathering, take away the bells and whistles, and what can we still share? What is important enough to share, so much that we would try to enshrine it if we were to begin again or begin anew? It is a question that will confront us as we celebrate the birthday of the church at Pentecost two Sundays from now.
Unlike Paul, I find glimpses of God in the various images and art of mortals. They are not God, but they help to center myself and transcend my smaller concerns at the same time. They point to the God in which I believe. Looking at a piece of art or listening to a particular song and I am transported in the same way that those coffee table books provoke my curiosity about places far and wide.
However, Paul tries to show the Athenians that they are missing the part of God’s character that is revealed in the righteousness of this appointed man named Jesus. I find it interesting that Paul points to God and next to Jesus, the human being, who reveals the Divine Nature for him. Perhaps, today, we should ask ourselves what human characteristics reveal the Divine Nature for us? If someone were to look at us, what part of the Divine Nature do we hope our actions will reveal?
In all of this, the shrines that we build should not be worshipped as the end all, be all. They are important, but only as they assist us to point to the Way that Jesus lived and died. Our human shrines are as plentiful as the Athenians. We have both communal shrines and personal shrines. Human beings are good at creating (and maintaining) shrines, some of which are necessary and some of which are unnecessary or devoid of meaning. What do I mean? The shrine of freedom means nothing without responsibility. The shrine of democracy is perverted without equality. The shrine of governance means little without the means to confront corruption and dishonesty.
In our home, our living room is like a sanctuary to me, which is one of the reasons why I use this space to share worship with you. Paul may have been deeply disturbed by the number of shrines that he saw in Athens, but such diversity should not trouble those today who admire a Creator who created humans to be diverse and creative. The larger question is whether we remain on the surface of our expressions of God or do we strive to embody the characteristics of a God who is loving, compassionate, justice-seeking, and worthy of our worship? Like Athens’s marketplace of gods, some of what we see just doesn’t lead anywhere healthy–but instead leads to harming others, idolizing gold and silver, and denigrating or denying the holy in others through white supremacy and fear, and elevates a dismissal of the poor and devaluing of the vulnerable. So, in the end, we might ask one another, “What does your favorite shrine say about you and the God that you serve?”
Of course, I am straying purposely from Paul here. He would say that the God in whom we live and move and have our being is not served by human hands and doesn’t need anything…but I can think of a lot of things that would improve our relationship with God and would help God’s love to grow among mortals. Shrines can be frozen in the past—empty shells of what they once were—or distorted by human pain, human sins, and human greed. The wonderful thing about an “unknown God” is that it acknowledges that God is greater than our human imagination and deficits. The terrible thing about an “unknown God” is that it often leaves a vacuum where lesser things—more dangerous things—claim our undue reverence, attention, and ultimately our lives. Perhaps that is something that Paul could see in the Athenians as they evidently widened the possibilities for who God was to them.
In any case, as we livestream worship and as we gather electronically, rather than physically, we might ask ourselves who we are without the shrines that we have created and maintained, perhaps uncritically, in the past. What are the “shrines” that are evident in our marketplace and in our homes? What altars are we creating and to what end? And how do we share the good news that we have found collectively in Jesus when all of our “props” and plans have been turned upside down? We might, after reading Paul, ask ourselves why it is we worship and what we are hoping for in the experience?
In her book, An Altar in the World, Barbara Brown Taylor writes,
“As important as it is to mark the places where we meet God, I worry about what happens when we build a house for God. I am speaking no longer of the temple in Jerusalem but of the house of worship on the corner, where people of faith meet to say their prayers, because saying them together reminds them of who they are better than saying them alone. This is good, and all good things cast shadows. Do we build God a house so that we can choose when to go see God? Do we build God a house in lieu of having God stay at ours? Plus, what happens to the rest of the world when we build four walls — even four gorgeous walls — cap them with a steepled roof, and designate that the House of God? What happens to the riverbanks, the mountaintops, the deserts and the trees? What happens to the people who never show up in our houses of God?”1
Sisters and brothers, the great rabbi, Abraham Joshua Heschel, once said that “faith is not the clinging to a shrine but an endless pilgrimage of the heart.” May the shrines at which you worship this week give you peace and help you to continue your pilgrimage. May they reveal something true about the Divine Nature of the God you love. And may you, like the Athenians, discover new ways to honor the holy both within your homes and in your hearts. Be safe and be well.