“The Cross and the Lotus Flower”
Acts 17:22-31, John 14:15-21
April 27, 2008 (Sixth Sunday of Easter)
Lake Harriet Christian Church
I'm not a man of many words. I think I've inherited that from my dad. Mix in the fact that I went to college to be become a journalist, that means that I'm really a man of few words.
If I could sum up what the sermon today is about in less than five words, it would be this: spend time at Starbucks.
That's what this sermon is all about: getting out of the walls the church and spending time at the ubiquitous coffee chain, or some other coffeehouse. Why? Because that's where God is.
Let me explain. To do that, I have to go back to my trip to Hong Kong and mainland China when I was in seminary. While in Hong Kong, we stayed at the local Lutheran seminary. Next to the seminary, was an institute that dealt with how Christians could best engage the wider culture. In the chapel of this institute, was a cross. The thing is, it wasn't like any cross I had ever seen before. At the base of the cross was what looked like flower petals branching out from several directions. I learned that these were in fact petals and they were the lotus flower, a symbol of Buddhism. It is the symbol of enlightenment. In the middle of this flower is the cross, the main symbol of Christianity. This Buddhist-Christian cross was fascinating to me in that it conveyed several different meanings. One the one hand, it was showing the engagement of Christians in a culture that was influenced primarily by Buddhism. On the other, it was showing how the two faiths were different; one showing the highest state as one of enlightenment, the other showing the supreme sacrifice and suffering.
As I've read the texts for this week, I was fascinated by the passage from Acts. The Apostle Paul's discourse with the intellectuals in Athens, has always appealed to me because here was Paul trying to explain his faith with knowledge and respect of the culture he was in, and also sharing God's message to these men on Mars Hill. I kept wondering what these passages were saying to this faith community now. I kept wondering and wondering and wondering.
And then I came upon Starbucks. I was reading a pastors blog that had something about the coffeehouse giant and it something made sense. Our Mars Hills of today are in the coffeehouses.
Maybe it's a thing for my generation, but I spend time in coffeehouses. I get my Venti coffee of the day (with room for cream) before work. When I write my sermon, I usually do it at the coffeehouse nearby the church. I've also been known to meet friends there and catch up on their lives.
In the book of Acts, Paul goes from city to city in the Roman Empire to share the message of Christ. When he comes to Athens, he is given the chance to speak about this strange religion. He does in the public meeting place of his day. He speaks about how God initmately involved in creation and about a God that came in the form of man, lived, died and rose again. We didn't read this part of the passage, but it says that a few people sneered at what Paul had to say, while some believed.
So what's the point of this passage? Well, it has a lot to say about the church. Many of you here this morning who are long time members are wondering and longing for the days when the pews were full. I can tell you that there are many churches in the same position- they are dealing with dwindling church attendance and longing for the days when the churches were full of people. We want to know what we can do to turn things around. And we all think this way.
The thing is, we haven't realized or we are only just now figuring it out, that the culture around us has changed. Fifty years ago, we were a culture where Christianity was synonymous with being an American. Sunday was truly a holy day in that nothing was open. People went to church because that was what you did.
Somewhere along the way, things changed. The culture is not as predominantly Christian as it once was. Not everyone knows the old Bible stories. People have other things to do on Sundays than going to church. And many churches are wondering what to do in this changing culture.
It might be that the key of what to do lies in this text. It's something that in some cases, we have forgotten to do: go out into the world and share the message of Christ. Paul isn't waiting for people to come to him, he is going out to meet people. He tells the people of Athens that God created the world and everything in it, a God that claims us as God's children.
Paul isn't doing this in a chauvanistic way preaching the gospel and not respecting the culture around him. Sadly Christianity has a history of doing that. But he is well versed in the culture and uses points along the way to link it to his faith and persuade those gathered to consider another way- the way of Christ.
So, what would happen if we decided to actually engage the culture around us? What if we were willing to share about the God in whom we live and have our being in our places of work and in our social places? What if we went to where people are hurting- places where people are dealing with lack of food or housing and help them pursue those things in Christ's name?
That is what Paul's discussion on Mars Hill is all about. It's about getting out of our pews and sharing Christ's message with others by living our lives, by being Christ followers.
But to do that, we have to be empowered by the Spirit. In today's gospel, Jesus tells his disciples (and he tells us today) that we will not be left along. The Holy Spirit, our Advocate will come and be with us forever. If you read the book of Acts, you notice that more often than not, the Holy Spirit is the prime mover. It is the Spirit that is directing people hither and yon, preaching the good news of Jesus.
It was the Spirit that empowered Paul to share his message in Athens. He was open to God's leading and went where the Spirit lead.
And we today are called to do the same. We are to live a life filled in the Spirit , open to seeing where God leads us. The thing is, we might be surprised where God is taking us.
My friends, the church isn't a place we come to- we are the church and we are called to be church to a hurting world. I know that we worry about the church building and how best to keep it going when our budget is tight. I'm not saying we shouldn't be concerned about those things. But we need to not get the church building confused with the church. In many ways, we have forgotten what it means to be church. Our energies have been focused on soley keeping a building going, and not on being a gathered community that worships, prays and goes out into the daily, work-a-day world and be Christ to our friends and neighbors.
That's why I talked about Starbucks. When I go to coffeehouses, I see this is a place where people are social and talk about life. Shouldn't we be where life is happening, and sharing Christ? I don't mean that we hit people over the heads with Bibles, or tell them they are going to hell if they don't accept Jesus, I am saying that we share who we are as followers of Christ and love them as Christ love them.
So dear church. Get out of here. Go into the coffeehouses, bowling alleys, diners, cubicles and engage the culture around you. Be the church to those around you, friends and strangers, black and white, straight and gay. Know that your friend, the Spirit is with you, always. Amen.
Note: I couldn't find a picture of that cross, but this bell outside the chapel is close enough.