There he is, Paul standing on the steps of the Areopagis--a place that served administrative, religious and educational function for the Greeks--addressing an extremely well educated group of Greek Gentiles.
Using philosophical terms that his hearers would have understood, Paul praises the Athenians piety and shows respect for their customs. He references famous Greek writers in his explication of the nature of our relationship with God. He does all this because he is introducing a new vocabulary to a new congregation. He takes a language with which they are familiar--that of the Greek writers and philosophers--and uses it to bring the good news of God in Christ. He identifies a spiritual desire in the Athenians and using the kind of words and language with which they were most comfortable, sought to give them something tangible as “they searched and groped for God”.
Searched and groped for God--what a wonderful phrase. Isn’t much of what we do here in this community meant to help us see God made manifest in the midst of our searching and groping. A God who is not far off, but near. A God in whom we live and move and have our being?
Which causes me to wonder--does what we do here accomplish this goal?
A couple of weeks ago Sally, who teaches and conducts our children’s choirs, e-mailed me some questions that the children had about the music they were studying.
“In hymn #518 (which they think is really cool that we’re singing it on 5/18), they wonder why is the church a “she”? And why is Church capitalized? And what or who is Zion?
In hymn #525 (the final hymn for that day), what is this “holy bride” stuff? And what about “with his own blood he bought her”?
I wonder how many of us, when confronted with these questions out of the blue, would be able to give an answer. And, not just any answer, but one that a child of 10 or so could understand and relate to.
Now, I don’t ask this to put anyone on the spot, but because much of the religious vocabulary with which we are familiar (IF we have been raised in the church or pursued faith formation as an adult) is so utterly foreign to the language that is spoken in the day to day lives most of us lead.
I was an English Major (and I’m sure there is some Garrison Keiler joke about English Majors becoming priests, I think it’s right after the joke about English Majors becoming baristas) and one of the lamentations of my professors in undergrad was that many of their students were simply incapable of understanding the religious and metaphoric symbolism in the texts we read. The truth of the matter is, that we do not live in a society that is biblically literate. And, one of our challenges as a church is how to introduce an entirely new language to newcomers.
The language of scripture, a language we take for granted. But, not just the language of scripture, but the language of our liturgy and the language of our hymns.
Verger, sursum coda, acolyte, creed, cassock alb, crescendo...
What does it mean when auto-correct does not recognize our vocabulary of faith?
How many of you have been in a country where you did not speak the language or at the most had a rudimentary understanding of the language? Just enough to inquire about the location of the “facilities” and order a coffee.
For many visitors, we are that country. A foreign land with unusual customs where the native inhabitants speak too quickly for ears that are just beginning to learn the rudimentary vocabulary of the place...
Some visitors will be enchanted by the sheer strangeness of the language we speak. They will be open to the stumblings and misunderstandings of the learning process--and eventually will find themselves comfortable in the pews as they gaze at the rood screen and watch the verger pass by with the virges.
Other visitors will feel awkward and uncomfortable. The pew will feel hard and they will feel self conscious as they attempt to navigate their way up to the communion rail. I have seen those faces--anxious lines drawn across foreheads as I administer the bread and whisper quick instruction. People whose only experience of community singing was the last birthday party they attended. People who are far more familiar with the media’s presentation of the Christian Right than with the actions of love we derive from our life of faith.
Those are usually folk, who if by some miracle have made it through our doors, don’t come back. They made the trip, they had an uncomfortable experience and the next time they take a vacation they’ll pick Disneyland over Paris.
I am currently wrestling with how we might better prepare and welcome newcomers to our services and our tradition. This question is important to me because our tradition is important to me. I love our Prayer Book, the sacred rituals which frame our worship and the poetry of our prayer. But, part of what I love is the comfort I find in the familiar. I find it hard to worship when I don’t know what I’m doing. But, is the most important thing in this space my own comfort with what we do?
As the season of the church year change, we make changes to the liturgy. We try on different “languages” in order to try and create a space that is accessible to everyone. Sometimes, this means that I find myself longing for the beauty and familiarity of the Prayer Book. But, I work hard to set aside my personal preference for what “sounds right” in order to be open to the encounter with God in a new language (and sometimes that just means we’ve gone from Prayer B to Prayer C in our prayer book!).
Attempts to make the language of “church” accessible are not new to our time or this place. When I was researching the hymn “The Church’s One Foundation”, written by Samuel John Stone in 1860, I was surprised to learn that it was written to explain the ninth article of the Apostle’s Creed--”The holy Catholic Church; The Communion of Saints.” The author used imagery he thought people could more easily understand...like “blood he bought her” and “holy bride”
I guess that in the 1860’s people would have heard the hymn and thought, oh, holy Bride, I get it now! But, in today’s world, this hymn ends up needing a fairly thorough explication of the symbols used in order for the richness of its meaning to come through.
So, in answer to the very specific questions posed by our young people:
one way we try to understand our relationship with God is through our own human experiences and relationships. Thus, when texts refer to the Church as a bride or wife it is to invoke the sense of the deep commitment we seek to uphold in marriage and apply that same deep sense of commitment to our relationship with God--this metaphor of wife runs fairly consistently through much of scripture. Church is capitalized because it operates as a singular, proper noun. It is the collective body of the people that is the Church, the body of Christ. Zion refers to both Israel as it exists in scripture, the temple mount, and the kind of city on a hill which we hear described as God’s kingdom. The phrase “his own blood he bought her” emerges out of the sense that Christ’s death on the cross in some way redeemed us all (“her” the church) from sin.
Just as Paul used language that would have been familiar to the Athenians, we too are called to speak in words that promote an understanding of God in a world searching and groping for God.
So, here we are sitting in the pews of St. Clement’s--a place that serves administrative, religious and educational function for the Clemites--addressing an extremely well educated group of Minnesotans of diverse and interesting backgrounds. Using cultural references that our hearers will understood, we praise the gathered people for their piety and show respect for their customs...
A respect that reveals the love of God to all of God’s children. A respect that makes manifest the Spirit of Truth that Jesus promises will remain in a world that neither sees or knows God.
God’s spirit of truth lives within us.
How then will we show that truth to the world?