Rev. Dr. Scott Herr
Please Read: John 14:1-14, I Peter 2:4-10
The AICEME pastors and spouses conference was a great success. It reminded me of the story about an agreement a pastor had made with his wife 30 years ago when they were first married that their relationship would be based on openness and trust from the very beginning. His wife had one stipulation, though. She said that he was not allowed to open or see inside a little shoe-box which she kept under the kitchen sink. It was just a shoe box, and so he had no problem agreeing to her request for the first 30 years of their marriage. But then curiosity got the better of him. Finally one day he could stand it no longer, and he went to look in the shoe box. To his surprise, he found there about a thousand euros worth of cash, and one egg. How wonderful, he thought, that his wife would put away some extra cash for a rainy day! But guilt moved him to tell his wife what he had done, and he asked her forgiveness. He asked, “What’s the egg for?”
"When we first got married," she said, "I determined that every time you preached a sermon that was boring, irrelevant, contrived, humorless, without passion or imagination, or just plain irritating, I would put an egg in that little box.”
“Well,” the pastor feeling rather proud, said, "That's great, there's only one egg in that box after 30 years!!
"The thing is," his wife replied slowly, "I always wait till I have a dozen eggs, and then I sell them for a euro!" J
I couldn't resist ... because we’re back to normal preaching here after Mark Labberton last week, and I don’t know whether to laugh or cry after all of the sordid news of this past week: Dominique Strauss-Kahn’s arrest, Arnold Schwarzeneger’s announcement about fathering a child with his domestic worker, and then Sugar Ray Leonard’s revelation of sexual abuse by his Olympic trainer… Indeed, we are living in a world of darkness, full of pain and suffering and surprises that are often disappointing…
The two lessons we have today are a source of great encouragement and promise, however, and we need to hear these texts in order to remember who we are, and what our purpose is in this life. As Jesus was about to enter into his passion, he made a promise to his disciples: "...Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me. In my Father’s house are many dwelling places… I go to prepare a place for you. I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also..." In the letter of First Peter we read that we are to be "like living stones,” letting ourselves to “be built into a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood." We are, “a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people, in order that you may proclaim the mighty acts of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light. Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people; once you have not received mercy, but now you have received mercy...”
Jesus was a realist. He did not say, do not let your lives be troubled. That would be completely unrealistic. We all have troubles in this life… But he said, do not let your hearts be troubled… Jesus was speaking to his disciples just before their world was about to be completely changed forever. He was speaking just before his passion and crucifixion. And later they remembered his words to them, that no matter what happened, at the core of their being they can be at peace. Why? Because he would never leave them or abandon them. He promised to prepare a place for them in his father’s house… A typical middle eastern home at the time would be houses built together around a courtyard, and as generations came and went, they would add rooms for family members as needed. There was always room for additions. Jesus was affirming that in his kingdom, there is always room for more and he personally welcomes those who come to him.
It’s important to consider Jesus statement, “I am the way, the truth and the life, no one comes to the Father but through me…” It is not a threat, but a gracious invitation! Jesus offers us a unique relationship with God as a loving parent, and through Christ we can experience a way of life that opens us up to the fullness of God’s love and life-giving Spirit. As all of the great spiritual leaders of the faith have affirmed, the truth of the gospel will always lead to increased love of God and neighbor… let me also say this: We know what it takes to be saved, but we do not know what it takes to be damned. So let’s not use this verse as a proof-text to write off the billions of people in the world who do not know and love Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior…
Our identity as a healing community is rooted in the Gospel of Jesus Christ. As Peter in his epistle exhorts, "Come to him, a living stone..." We are invited to come to Christ and give our lives again and again to him. He is the chief architect and cornerstone of our faith and life together. We are to respect other peoples' faith, surely, but we confess Jesus is Lord. He is the head of the church, Paul writes in Ephesians. Jesus said, “I will build my church…” Note Peter makes it clear that we are not the builders. We are to let ourselves be built into a spiritual house!! Whatever we are and whatever we will be is ultimately a gracious gift of God. Look around you. You are a diverse band of disciples here, bound together not because of your race or education or income culture, or preferences, but because of your rebirth by baptism into the body of Christ. We are brothers and sisters because God has called us, chosen us, to be his people.
As we consider Peter’s invitation to come to Christ, as ones chosen and precious in God’s sight, that we are to be “like living stones” built into a spiritual house, we need to first of all remember that this is very good news to be known as God’s beloved children, already welcome in God’s household. Do you remember each day that you are “precious” in God’s sight? This word (timh in the Greek, the basis for the name Timothy!) means honored or valuable. As we confess every Sunday, that we are made righteous (by what Christ has done for us that we could not do for ourselves), God sees us as precious. We are chosen, honored and infinitely valuable in God’s sight!
As Woody Allen once said, “I know that we’re the chosen people, but couldn’t God choose somebody else once in a while?” Indeed, being chosen comes with responsibilities! We are like stones which are being built into a spiritual house, a living community. In our men’s group this past week we talked about how real stones are odd shaped, completely irregular. We rather like the idea that God is an architect and can use the strange shapes, the cracked and rough hewn edges of who we are to fit us together carefully in a beautiful way. God is the builder, the architect who sees each of us, our unique strengths and weaknesses and calls us and forms us together into a beautiful community. In other words, it takes all kinds in the kingdom of God.
Many of us love Paris because of the amazing architecture all around us. And while there is a certain efficiency to Bauhaus or New Brutalism architectural schools of design, I prefer classical, romantic, gothic and neo-gothic, and even art nouveau which moves beyond functionality to expressions of beauty and glory. When Jesus talks about many rooms or many mansions in God’s kingdom, I imagine a tremendous diversity of architectural styles, expressing varied beauty of artistic creation and imagination. Did you know that each building here in France has the architect’s signature on the building somewhere? And that you are not allowed to sell a photograph of a building until 70 years after the architect’s death, because the building itself is considered a piece of art?
Yes, you are a piece of artwork! But we are also called to be “living stones.” I suppose simply that means we are not to be dead stones. Of course all stones are dead, but Peter writes about “living stones.” It’s the same root in the Greek that Jesus uses when he says “I am the life.” Zwh. Zoo! Think wild diversity here…
One of the things I loved most about Mark Labberton’s was when he shared his own faith journey. He grew up in a non-religious home. His father warned him that the church was full of narrow and small-minded people. But the way, the truth and the life of the gospel does not shrink our world. Rather, the gospel opens and expands our view and understanding. There is a wideness in God’s mercy! God knows our religion can become ridiculously narrow. But we are to contemplate not how many angels can dance on the head of a pin. We contemplate the expanse of the cosmos, of eternity, of God’s mercy!
Remember when Jesus said, "even the stones would shout out..." The phrase “living stones” might also refer to what was called “witness stones.” In Isaiah 28 we read, “See how I lay in Zion a stone of witness, a precious cornerstone, a foundation stone: The believer shall not stumble. And I will make justice the measure, integrity the plumb line” (Is. 28:16-17). In ancient times, people would put stones in front of their towns to let visitors know with whom the village was related, and by whom the community was protected. The stone would declare whose they were and in whom they sought security. As living stones, we are to give witness to the One who is the world’s hope of peace, healing and reconciliation. As we are formed together into a community, we are to be a household where all experience the reality of God’s welcome, mercy and peace.
After all, Peter implies that all of the tribal categories we use to divide ourselves are dissolved in Christ. We are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation!
If we would dare talk about Christ's peace for the world, we had better be about giving witness to his peace and love in our own relationships. I once heard Emilio Castro tell a humbling story about when he was in South Africa with a delegation from the world council of churches. The delegation was there to greet Nelson Mandela after his first election victory. They urged him to form a quick unity with the various factions and ethnic groups within South Africa - the ANC, the Zulus, etc. Nelson quietly turned around to them and said, "When you pastors get all of the churches here in South Africa to take communion together, as president I promise to unite all of the political parties!"
Our prayer might well be that we would be a church that values faith more than dogma, people more than politics, and service more than status, that we would be a community where people are not only tolerant of differences, but open to truth seeking encounters with one another, a church where people see diversity not as a threat but an asset; giving, not as an obligation but an opportunity; and learning as a lifelong journey... where people take the gospel more seriously than they take themselves, where people are not afraid of intimacy, where folks liberally enjoy the gift of laughter, and where the community knows how to find joy in simply being together in Christ...
Perhaps another egg will go in a shoe box today, but I thank God for all of you and your continuing desire and struggle to be living stones, witnesses to the Living Lord. May we continue being built into a spiritual house, leaving a legacy that will bear witness in generations to come to the mercies of God our cornerstone…
In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.