May 21, 2017
Paul, the main character in our reading from Acts today, is often not my favorite. I have trouble getting past his judgy moralizing and his ridiculous run-on sentences. And yet, as someone engaged in this profession, I have to admit that Paul was a bold preacher. He knew how to argue, and he turned heads. When he entered a new city, he’d make his way to the synagogue, set up camp, and immediately begin to hold forth on the scriptures with anyone who happened to be there. Now, sometimes - and to be honest, I am glad that I have never had this happen to me - sometimes his preaching was so fiery, so uncompromising, so bold, that he offended people to the point of mob rampage. And in such instances, it was helpful for him to be ready to escape quickly. That is where we find him in our reading today. Paul had to rush quickly away from Thessalonica, where he’d been preaching until the crowd started to look a little too menacing. And so he came to Athens as a place to hide out for a while and wait for his companions to join him.
Now, Paul’s first impression of the place wasn’t great. Athens was full of idols. There were revered statues to the gods of wisdom and beauty, the gods of war and fire. This provoked Paul and sent him marching indignant and self-righteous to the synagogue and the marketplace to argue and preach at the Athenians. They weren’t interested, unsurprisingly. Judgy people yelling at you usually aren’t very effective. And maybe Paul realized that if he didn’t change his arguments, maybe lower his voice a bit, become a little less judgmental, his message would go nowhere. And so, for a time, he stopped talking and started looking around. He started paying attention, looking at and listening to the place and the people.
And kudos to Paul for that. Because it can be hard for us to let go of our first impressions, to admit that maybe people are more complicated and well-intentioned than we give them credit for. To admit that there is more nuance to a situation than we might first realize. It can be hard to take a deep breath and allow ourselves to be surprised.
But Paul managed it, if only briefly. And when he paused and looked around him, what he saw looked less like mindless, heretical idol-worship, and more like a kind of heart-felt searching by the Athenians. He saw that along with the monuments dedicated to the gods of wisdom and beauty and war and fire there was also an altar dedicated to an unknown god. It was a hint of the longing of the people of Athens, a whisper of their search for deeper meaning. An indication that the sophisticated, educated people of that great city might still be open to something more. If Paul hadn’t stopped to look and to listen, he probably wouldn’t have noticed.
And then Paul wouldn’t have been able to share this beautiful invitation for the people of Athens, an invitation to search along with him for the God “who made the world and everything in it” and who “gives to all mortals life and breath” and “who is not far from each one of us. For ‘In him we live and move and have our being.’”
Paul preaches, as he has realized in his time of looking and noticing, that God is there to be found in our human experience. Our context matters.
He might not have put it this way, but it looks like Paul was doing lectio divina in the world.
Lectio divina, which means “divine reading,” is a kind of prayer, usually with scripture. This kind of prayer assumes that God speaks through scripture to each of us in different and ever-changing ways. In lectio, you slowly read a passage and see what jumps out — what shimmers or grabs or intrigues you. Then you sit with that word or phrase for a while. What do you hear God saying to you through that little piece that captured your attention?
Less well-known than lectio divina with scripture is the idea of using lectio as prayer out in the world. Since, as Paul preaches to the Athenians, God is the maker of all things and is in all things, we can find God by looking closely at God’s creation. So just as we can read scripture and sit with a word or phrase that calls to us and listen for God in that piece, we can also live in the world and look for something that calls to us - maybe something in nature, maybe a detail from our own experience - and anticipate that God has something to say to us in that moment as well when we stop and pay attention.
For sermon illustration purposes, I made lectio in the world my prayer method this week, and here’s what happened.
Day 1: One of the pre-bed semi-routines with my son has become listening to a short meditation together. So I was lying next to him listening to a meditation on the app Calm.
The particular meditation led us through lots of silence and concentration on our breath. The woman leading it instructed us (in her very zen-like voice) to concentrate on our breath. To notice our breathing in and breathing out and maybe even hear our voice in our head as we did it, saying: “Breathe in. Breathe out.” Then there was more silence. As I was breathing in and out, I tacked on my own little Christian add-on, asking the Holy Spirit to come and be with us. And just then, I heard a door open and the hall lights went on and there was the pitter patter of little feet, and the sweet voice of my youngest daughter Maya (who had been tucked into bed a while ago) telling my husband that she desperately needed her toenails cut. At first I was annoyed by the noise and the light and the absurd interruption coming in the midst of this very quiet and prayerful time, but then it made me giggle a little. Because it felt like a gentle reminder from God not to take myself (or God) so seriously but to remember that the Holy Spirit is with us in all of the ordinary moments just as surely as She is with us in the intentionally holy ones.
Day 2: I was taking a walk on the trail along the parkway and listening to a podcast. It was a brisk exercise walk until a breath in brought the sweet small of honeysuckle.
I stopped in my tracks, enchanted back to the vague memories of happy freedom and endless time to explore from summer adventures of my childhood. I spent the rest of my walk sniffing the air with deep breaths wondering what it is that brings me such tangible peace and joy right now.
Day 3: Another walk, but this one through the backwoods of Fort Hunt Park. I was crossing a patch of grass to reach one of the dirt trails and it was nothing but beautiful glossy buttercups.
I felt terrible trodding on their lovely golden faces and so I found myself gently tiptoeing, trying to avoid smashing them as much as possible. And I began to wonder why I was feeling guilty about walking on the buttercups, when I don’t feel that way about grass or any other natural ground cover or even the bugs scuttling around that are equally part of God’s creation. Did I respect those buttercups more just because they were beautiful? Which started me wondering whether I do that with people too, appreciating and treating with more respect the people that are more beautiful, or more powerful, or more wealthy, or more healthy.
Day 4: I went out to get the mail and noticed my next door neighbor had just finished mowing his lawn. There isn’t anything physical that separates our front lawns but now there was a line demarcating our two spaces, his grass now shorter and more manicured than ours, making clear whose was whose.
Day 5: I was reading an article in my Christian Century magazine about a monastery that has been seeing a surge in visitors lately. The friar was explaining that the visitors’ time in the monastery wasn’t “about escaping ordinary life” but “about coming back to ordinary life and realizing God was in this place, too, and I just didn’t see it before.” And I spent some time thinking about some of the places in my ordinary life where I’d been feeling like I needed some escape and wondering how I could begin to feel a new sense of God’s presence in them.
Day 6: My daughters had a piano recital yesterday.
They’d worked hard learning songs and were a little jittery to play in front of the gathered families of the other 17 piano students. As other children were playing I smiled and held my breath a little, inwardly cheering for them to do well and feel good about their performance, and clapping with gusto after each relieved kiddo stepped away from the piano and back to their seat. And then, in the midst of my oldest daughter’s turn near the end of the recital, I looked around and saw those same feelings reflected on the faces of each person in that room — they were all smiling at my child, all wishing the best for her, all hoping for her playing to be as good as possible. And I thought, “Why can’t we always be like this for each other?”
I think that what Paul discovered and what he wanted to invite the Athenians into was a different way of seeing and being in the world. God was in that place, even though the Athenians couldn’t name God. And God is in this place, and every place in which we find ourselves, ours for the noticing. Amen.