Sermon at Saint Matthias’ Church, Killiney Parish on 27th April 2008
“For as I walked around and looked carefully at your objects of worship, I even found an altar with this inscription: TO AN UNKNOWN GOD. Now what you worship as something unknown I am going to proclaim to you. ”
The part of England where I grew up was full of legend and superstition. In centuries past it was a place of marshes, rivers and little islands. Even now, when the mists come down, it is easy to imagine that you saw all sorts of things.
At the centre of the district was the little town of Glastonbury with its many legends—the stories of Joseph of Arimathea and the Holy Grail, the stories of King Arthur and the Round Table. There was not a shred of historical evidence for most of them, but they brought a bit of interest into an area that was otherwise very unremarkable.
When I was young, Glastonbury was beginning to attract all sorts of other people. They had no interest in Joseph of Arimathea or King Arthur, or any of the old tales we had learned. They had ideas and ways of life that seemed strange to an old-fashioned farming community.
In more recent times, they would become known as New Age travellers, back in the 1960 and 70s they were called hippies. They drove battered old vans. They had long hair and brightly coloured clothes. They grew and smoked cannabis, most of the time without much attention from the police. They were altogether different from the people around about.
To be fair to them, most of them were innocent and harmless. They believed in love and peace, and, it appeared from watching them, they believed in the men sitting around while the women did everything (not much difference there, then!) and they thought our little corner of the country was the place to be.
But the hippies brought people’s attention to thoughts and ideas that were very different from the things we were taught in school. They had ideas we found very strange. Some of them had come to Glastonbury because they believed that Glastonbury Tor, the hill outside the town, was the centre of the Earth. They believed that there were things called “ley lines” which were supposed to be some sort of lines of power or force that went around the world and converged on Glastonbury. I could see Glastonbury Tor from my bedroom window and I could have told them it wasn’t the centre of the world!
The hippies believed in all sorts of things. They believed there was power in crystals and pyramids. They believed the future could be foretold; some of them believed you could tell a person’s future with tarot cards, others believed in astrology.
The people who gathered at Glastonbury believed in things we weren’t told about at our little Church of England primary school; they believed in spiritual powers very different from those talked about by the elderly rector who came into the school each Friday morning. The occult was very powerful for some of them. One man who got a house in our village was said to have moved house because someone painted a pentagram, a five pointed star, an occult symbol, on the door of his previous house.
The beliefs of the hippies in the 1960s and 1970s were a foreshadowing of the New Age movement today—people will pick and choose bits of religion and spirituality that suit them. There is no sense of things being true or untrue, more a sense that if something works for you, then that is alright.
Faith, spirituality, religion have become a marketplace. There are lots of alternative philosophies on offer, many of which seem far more exciting than a dull and dry church. People have no problem in picking up something here and something there and mixing them up—people will read astrology, and maybe believe that reincarnation is possible, and perhaps think it’s possible to communicate with the dead, and have a belief in angels very different from those in the Bible. Go into bookshops and see how many books on ‘mind, body and spirit’ there are. People are very religious.
People don’t change. Saint Paul says to the people in Athens, “I see that in every way you are very religious”. Paul walked around Athens and saw all sorts of objects of worship and altars and realized that there was a searching after something. Paul would not have been surprised by the hippies or the New Age movements, or the shelves on books on mind, body and spirit in our bookshops. He would ask us in his Tarsus accent, “Do you think it was any different in my time? Do you think it was any easier?” Paul had no organization to back him up, he had no history or tradition to which he could point, Paul had himself and he had the power of the message he was sharing and that was it. Paul depended on God to make an impact upon those who were listening.
Being honest, I find the idea of going out to meet the world, in the way that Saint Paul did, as something terrifying. I would not have the confidence to stand up and speak to a gathering that could become hostile and violent. For me, it would be like asking our old rector to go and talk to the hippies about religion, armed only with the black Book of Common Prayer he used to talk to the junior class about the catechism and his copy of “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe” by C.S. Lewis, from which he would read a few pages each week.
Paul talks to his listeners about walking around their city; he talks about their beliefs; he even quotes from writers they would have known. Paul is prepared to talk to people where they are and in a language they understand.
Whether we like it or not, we are in a market place, we have to compete with all that is out there and, if we don’t, we will fail as a church. People no longer believe we are right because we tell them we are. They are like the people in Athens in Paul’s time, they will listen to everything that comes along and will make up their own minds about what is right.
Our church must be prepared to be like Paul; we must be able to tell the best story. Just as Paul walked around Athens and noted all he saw, we have to look around in our own time and note all that we see, even the things that trouble us, and like Paul we must look for our opportunity. We must be prepared to compete for people’s attention.
“Now what you worship as something unknown I am going to proclaim to you”. Paul says to his listeners. Our task is to make known the unknown, to be more exciting than all the other things on offer, because we do indeed have the best story anyone could possibly hear.