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A Stroll Through Athens – Sermon Text

Series: Being the Church: Lessons from the Book of Acts – Part 11
Text: Acts 17:16-34
Audio: Tri-Lakes UMC Sermon Podcasts (will post Tuesday, 8/6)

Springsteen and I

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As many of you know, I am a fan of Bruce Springsteen, which is a bit stereotypical of a 40-something from New Jersey. If you come into my office you will see my poster-sized rendering of the Born to Run album cover hanging on my wall. Upon further inspection you may also find, on the bookshelf at the other end of my office, a hardcover biography simply titled Bruce I read earlier this year. Sometimes Bruce even appears, more subtly than today, in my sermons. A couple of years ago I preached a sermon titled “My Hometown” during a series called Growing Up – both of which are titles of Springsteen songs.

Tuesday night my wife Diane surprised me with tickets to one of those Fathom events, the special concerts and Broadway shows you sometimes see advertised at the movies. All I knew was that it was a Springsteen event, so I thought I might be seeing a concert of his, which would be the closest I have ever come to seeing him live. So when the film Springsteen and I started with words appearing onscreen that said something like, “This film was made entirely by the fans of Bruce Springsteen,” I was a little disappointed. I had come thinking I was going to see him, not hear people talk about him.

Like the introduction stated, the film is entirely comprised of submissions by fans, interspersed with some rare concert footage. Many fans shared three words that come to mind when they think of Springsteen. A handful of others told stories of concerts where they were invited onstage with him and the band, including an Elvis impersonator in Philadelphia – the King met the Boss. Others shared what Bruce and his music meant to them – listening to his music in their car, as the soundtrack of their relationships, and how it had shaped their formative, teen years.

As I listened to their stories, some of which I could relate to, and some I thought were just nuts, my disappointment quickly turned to an appreciation for director Ridley Scott’s ingenious way of telling the story of an artist and the impact he has had on so many.

There were no experts, no biographers, no interviews with Bruce or any member of the E Street Band. Jan Wenner, music reviewer, rock historian, and founder and editor of Rolling Stone was not asked for his expert opinion. No songwriters were consulted to talk about their admiration for the structure Bruce gives his songs. Nor were any guitar players interviewed to talk about his technique. It was just fans telling stories.

Diane, who is not a Springsteen fan and has no interest in reading the more than 450 page biography in my office, said on the way home that the film gave her a new appreciation for him. She didn’t consult an expert to convince her. The stories of the fans had an impact.

In some ways evangelism ought to be more like Springsteen and I, and less like the defense of a doctoral dissertation. Our role ought not be trying to prove Jesus, but to tell the story of our experiences with him.

Paul in Athens

Mariano-Fortuny-St.-Paul-in-the-Areopagus SmallIn today’s reading, as we continue our summer series Being the Church: Lessons from the Book of Acts, we turn to Acts 17. There we find Paul killing time in Athens, a hub of intellectualism in the first century, while he waits for the rest of his team catch up with him. He is troubled by the number of idols he finds everywhere he turns, which makes sense given the size of the Greek pantheon. Luke, the author of Acts, writes, “[Paul] was deeply distressed to see that the city was full of idols. So,” Acts continues, “he argued in the synagogue with the Jews and the devout persons, and also in the marketplace every day with those who happened to be there” (Acts 17:16-17).

Paul’s first approach, arguing as one would a doctoral dissertation, doesn’t seem to have much of an effect on the people . A couple of sentences later we read how some of the people who heard Paul call him a “babbler,” which I guess is the ancient Greek equivalent of calling someone an airhead today. “What does this babbler want to say?”, they ask. “He seems to be a proclaimer of foreign divinities.” (vs 18).

These responses fall under the category of “So what?,” or “Who cares?” No one is convinced they need to change. They even seem a bit confused as to why Paul would tell others about his God. Living in a society with many gods, what is one more?  Everyone had a favorites god. A guy from another culture has his own God, that’s nice from him, but what does it have to do with me? So they dismiss him as a babbler, an airhead, an interesting foreigner.

Sound familiar? Many pastors and scholars are quick to point out the strong similarities between the religious culture of Athens in the first century and the religious culture of the United States in the twenty-first century. Both are made up of knowledgeable people, well-versed in science, philosophy, and even other religions. They have thought about the bigger questions of life, and enjoy debating them. Both are also highly individualized. I have my god, you have yours. Or, as we might hear it expressed today, “What’s true for you is not necessarily true for me.”

I heard someone describe the common religious culture in the US today as an a la carte spirituality. Many piece together their faith from an international menu of spiritual disciplines. Maybe one starts with good dose of Christianity, add a pinch of Buddhism, a dash of humanism, and a teaspoon of deism, let simmer for a couple of years and wallah, one has a spiritual system all his own.

Paul, of course, wants to tell people about Jesus, not as one among many, but as the one, true God. He knows these other gods are nothing compared to God made known through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. But his arguments fall on deaf ears. He is dismissed.

Like the Athenians, many today find talking about the one, true God offensive because it challenges their individualized spirituality. They quickly decide it as the “babbling” of the extreme right, the overly zealous, a liberal agenda, those who are out-of-touch with the “real” world. It is OK for you, but not for me. I have my own system, my personal idols that are working for me.

Paul’s “arguing” proves ineffective, so he takes another tack.

Paul_Preaching_on_the_Areopagus-for-webIn verse 22, Acts reports, “Paul stood in front of the Areopagus” (sometimes translated Mars Hill, and thus the name of several nationally known churches). There Paul begins to speak differently. Rather than arguing, he begins to share his experience. He says, “It is plain to see that you Athenians take your religion seriously. When I arrived here the other day, I was fascinated with all the shrines I came across” (Acts 17:22-23 Msg). The very thing the Bible originally told us “distressed” Paul, he now uses as a compliment. Immediately, the conversation shifts. Paul is being heard. Then he continues with something he found that gives him an opportunity to talk about Jesus.

“And then,” Paul continued, “I found one inscribed, to the god nobody knows. I’m here to introduce you to this God so you can worship intelligently, know who you’re dealing with” (ibid). Paul has their ear now.

Naming the Unknown God

CPEAs part of my seminary education I spent a summer serving as a chaplain at Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital in New Brunswick, NJ. Just a few miles from New York City, this urban community was filled with people from a variety of backgrounds, including different denominations, spiritualities, and even different religions. When we entered a room to visit with someone for the first time, to make sure their spiritual needs were being met during their hospital stay, we had no idea what to expect. I was sometimes called “Father,” sometimes asked to pray as a pastor, and sometimes told to leave the room immediately.

One of the first things we were taught as hospital chaplains was to meet each patient “where they are.” In other words, when we were first meeting someone we were not to argue with their theology, no matter how bad we thought it was. Often people said things we as seminary students knew was heresy, but quoting the Council of Nicea or our favorite theologian was not going to be helpful. We were told instead to find our point of contact. Paul’s visit on Mars Hill became our model.

My basic assumption as I enter a hospital room, a counseling session, or even a casual conversation at Serrano’s, is that Jesus is already there. He is in the operating room, the house filled with conflict, the workplace where the furloughs and downsizing are occurring. As Paul says in this passage, “indeed he is not far from each one of us. For ‘In him we live and move and have our being’” (Acts 17:27b-28a). I learned as a hospital chaplain to listen to the patient’s story with ears tuned to the presence of God, listening for where God is already at work, though as yet unknown, in their story. It is not my role to bring God into the room or into their situation. Jesus is already there. My job is to point him out.

The question people seemed to ask me most often in the hospital is, “Why?” Why did this happen? Why her? Why now? I have found those questions unanswerable. Finally, I became comfortable offering a phrase no seminary student, no pastor, no one really is comfortable with. I began to say, “I don’t know why this has happened to you.” Then as I asked them to tell me more of their story – the story of why they were in the hospital and the story of their lives. As I listened, I would point out some of the blessings I heard in their stories – skilled EMTs and doctors, caring and skillful nurses, amazing medicine and technology, great family and friends, and more. In essence I was finding the unknown god, and helping them name him. In the midst of idols shattering when the world doesn’t work as they believe it should.

Had I tried to answer their “Why?” questions, we would have had an interesting but ultimately unhelpful, theological conversation. Instead, by naming where I had seen God at work in their lives, their thinking started to shift. Often, they started to help, telling me other places in their lives where they had seen God’s hand at work.

by RaphaelPaul didn’t go through Athens with a baseball bat smashing idols. Instead, he examined, he observed, he listened to what the proliferation of idols said about the people living in Athens. It occurred to him the people must religious, seeking after God. Then, when he saw the shrine to the “unknown god,” he knew their faith was not satisfying. It was incomplete.

I find the same is true in the a la carte spirituality of many today. While much time, energy, and work have gone into building the system, ultimately many find it unsatisfying. Something is missing. Maybe our job isn’t so much to point out what is wrong as it is to name God in the midst of their lives already – there will always be time to correct bad theology later.

Understanding Today’s Youth Culture

Understanding Today's Youth Culture_1Many years ago, when I was a full-time youth pastor, I used to teach a class for parents based on the book Understanding Today’s Youth Culture. I had attended several seminars by author Walt Mueller, founder and director of the Center for Parent-Youth Understanding (CPYU), and read the book several times. I liked Mueller’s thinking because he encouraged parents and youth leaders to approach the culture much in the same way Paul approached the religious culture of the Athenians.

He wasn’t one who encouraged parents, as I had heard other parenting “experts” advise, to go through their kids rooms, find all of their non-Christian CDs (this was a while ago) and break them. Instead, he asked parents to take a stroll through Athens, borrowing the image from today’s scripture passage – to read lyrics to songs their kids were listening to, to record the shows they were watching and find out what they were about, and to get on the websites where they were spending a lot of time. The goal was to listen to the things with which our children were being filled, and to find our opening.

In his lectures, Mueller often spoke about the approach to parenting in the culture many moms and dads had used for generations. He would ask, “How many of us have stood in the hallway outside our children’s bedroom and shouted through their closed door, ‘Turn down that junk!’?” Then he would point out how rarely that actually worked.

Instead of trying to get them to turn it down, which he said was a losing battle anyway, Mueller told parents to turn up their own volume – not the volume of their voices, but the volume of the influence their kids were receiving from them. Make sure, he would say, that your message is being heard. Sure, some things were out of line, but rather than banning everything, maybe it was better to turn up the volume on your influence – by giving your kids your time, attention, some boundaries, family entertainment time, alternative ways to have fun, and more. In essence he tell parents to teach their children there are more voices than the ones they are hearing the culture. There are others whose opinions are better. Many of the solutions found in the media, are not solutions at all. Make sure they know that where they find gaps in the answers of the culture, they will find real answers in Christ.

This is true not only of youth, but also of our spouses, family members, friends, and others who need to hear the gospel of Jesus Christ. Oh, they may believe they have it all figured out, but the idols only go so far.

Jesus and I

It was odd on Tuesday night during Springsteen and I to learn so much about Bruce from a people who don’t really know him. All the people who spoke were just fans. Some were lucky enough to bump into him at a concert, or even go on stage. But most had simply heard a song that touched them, or were able to come up with three words to describe him.

jesus_and_i2Imagine how much greater the impact we can have when we are willing to share our story – Jesus and I. A story that names the God who is unknown to so many – the God in whom we live and move and have our being. God is all around us all the time. Maybe if we turned up the volume of Jesus’ love and compassion, there wouldn’t be any room left for all of those idols, no need for a la carte spirituality. Maybe when we start where people are, we can lead them someplace much, much better.


Unless otherwise noted, all quotations of Scripture are from the New Revised Standard Version available online at

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