May 29, 2011 (Sixth Sunday of Easter)
6 Easter, Year A
Pop Culture and Paul’s Excellent Athenian Adventure
The Rev. Elizabeth “Betsy” Tesi
When I first started looking at these readings after getting home from Connecticut, I did as I often do: I plugged in my iPod to update with the latest music I’d bought (I’ve been on a Beatles and a Hey Monday kick lately), and let my computer sing to me as I considered the readings. A little later, I joined my husband downstairs with my laptop and we watched some mainstream TV. Just yesterday, the youth on Urban Adventure introduced me to Portland. We went to see things like the Beverly Cleary statues in Grant Park, the Portlandia statue, the Pioneer Place, Powell’s Books, and Saturday Market (which is definitely not as good as our Saturday Market here)- all the standard Portland stuff. We watched and commented on a few of the street preachers who were preaching at Saturday Market, near the plastic bucket drummers. Pop culture surrounds my life and my thinking.
This is actually excellent news, as the apostle Paul seems to share my journey this week. Look at what happens in the Acts reading today: he goes for a stroll throughout the city of Athens, checking out their statues and reading the inscriptions. Finally, he stands on the Aeropagus, a big piece of rock where elders met and spoke, and speaks to a gathered crowd. In so many ways, Paul’s journey to the Aeropagus is so much like our journey today.
He’s a man within a culture. He doesn’t just throw out a random message of Jesus and salvation into a new place, but he takes the time to get to know the culture. He explores. He takes in the sights. How many of you, when you’ve traveled, have taken the opportunity to go to visit other churches and cultural sites? I’ve heard from some of you who’ve visited St. Peter’s in the Vatican. St. Paul’s in London. I’ve been to see the Chapel of the Miraculous Staircase when in Santa Fe. But we also all go to explore other parts of the town, don’t we? We go to see things like the Coliseum, or the Tower of London. I liked taking people on a walk to see the Circus in Bath. When I lived in DC, I usually took out of town visitors to the National Cathedral, and then straight to the Hirschhorn. Getting to know the culture- the religion, the poetry- is a normal part of how we humans learn about and interact with each other.
And you might want to mark your bulletins, because I’m going to do something unique today. I don’t usually agree with Paul or even like Paul very much- I actually argue with poor Paul a great deal, but this time, I think he was right on the nail. He went for a real visit in Athens before he began speaking of the story of God as he had heard it. That takes the message of God’s amazing grace to humanity to a new level: instead of this great story becoming just another piece of beat poetry in a jammed cultural landscape, being in conversation with the culture helps make it relevant and real. I love that Paul is actually quoting the poets of Athens when he quotes “in him we live and move and have our being” and “we too are his offspring”. It’s the same difference as “liking” an event or cause of the day on Facebook, and getting involved in real life. Paul has become comfortable enough with the culture of the Athenians to remain in a real, full, intellectual conversation with them. He makes it real.
To me, it’s incredibly exciting to hear a biblical character, an apostle, speak fluently in popular culture, and then work to consider the story of God moving over the chaos of the waters of human life… because it makes sense to me as a Christian in this modern day and age. I don’t live my life in here (even though I work here!). I live out there in that world. We all do. We all live in the world outside with all its pain and loss and joy and schedule conflicts and excitement. In this church, we do not check our brains at the door. One of my seminary professors had a poster proclaiming, “Jesus came to take away your sins… not your mind”. I said yesterday to one of my co-leaders that I was an Episcopalian because this is how I hear the story of God’s work in humanity, even though I know that everyone else may hear different stories. For me, one of the great gifts of the Episcopal Church is our ongoing conversation with scripture, intellect, and tradition. Our entire person comes to church here.
And this is going to be essential to us, as we live into the future of what our church is becoming. God is not static as God continues to love humanity. Who we are is going to keep becoming what it is becoming, which is to say we will always be changing. When Paul stands on that Aeropagus and speaks to the Athenians, he speaks of their culture. He doesn’t just hit “Like” on Facebook and limit his interaction- he puts his whole self where his mouth is. Paul gives us this image of a person who can be a Christian while being fluently part of the real world out there. Our brains come to church with us. God is able to be present and real in all parts of our life. The person we are on Sunday in this place can be the same person who comes home from work on Wednesdays. Our total life matters here, in the presence of God.
Naturally, what do we do? We explore each week one of the great mysteries of all time- the radical concept of a God who came and died and rose again so that we might be wiped clean of sins and free to live into full community and love. This is an insane story whispering hope into a full world. Sometimes, that world out there is chaotic- people die, tornadoes devastate towns, planes are delayed, the debt ceiling spirals out of control. And sometimes, that world out there is gorgeous, like a Saturday in Portland washed clean by the rain, and the green rolling hills and mountains I watched from the train. Sometimes, my friends write to let me know their new baby was born healthy, and sometimes, I play songs like “If I Fell” or “Running to Stand Still” over and over because I can’t get enough of the harmony and rhythm because it is just too gorgeous. Paul gives us the story of a God who is present in our every day culture and life. This worship we do isn’t just lip service. We worship because your whole person matters to God.
The apostle Paul (and this might be the only time in the bible I give Paul his props) gives us the unique gift of this idea of a religion where our brains matter. Our culture matters. You matter. Your ideas and your feelings matter. Christ crucified and risen to redeem us matters to us just as we are now. You- just as you are- are exactly what we want and need to be in a real community in this church.