Sunday, May 14, 2017

The Fifth Sunday of Easter [Year A] - May 14, 2017 (1 Peter 2:1-10 and John 14:1-14)

Our younger daughter likes rocks, and any little pebble or stone, no matter how nondescript, has the potential to wind up in her collection. She’ll just be walking along the street or in the backyard or often just in a parking lot or here at church and she’ll bend down and grab one that fits into her hand. Usually she’ll bring them into the house and hold onto them until she finds a little place to squirrel each of them away, and to this day you can come over to our place and find little rocks in random places: on the cabinet in front of the TV, on the bathroom counter…the other day I found one (it was like a mommy-baby combo, actually) behind a picture frame in the family room. They are all little-ish rocks of no particular beauty or form, mostly ones that have been kicked underfoot by untold numbers of people, but somehow special and meaningful to Laura.

One day we decided enough of these little rocks everywhere and be bought her a box that she could put them all in. It was one of those clear plastic sewing boxes with little different-sized compartments. Laura went around through the house and picked up every little rock and pebble and brought them together into that plastic box. They had a home. The amazing thing is that for a while she could tell you where each of those rocks came from.

I remember one time when she was just in first grade and we were standing at the bus stop She had bent down and was picking around through the gravel at the spot where they stand. She settled on one little light gray rock and when the bus came she turned around and handed it to me and said, “Dad, here. Keep this rock for me.” I’m embarrassed to say that as soon as the bus rolled away I just tossed it back into the gravel because she had dozens of them just like it already. That afternoon she came plowing into the front door, furious. Believe it or not, she had that exact rock in her hand. “Daddy!” she fumed, “Why is this rock still at the bus stop? I told you to keep it for me!”

I had rejected it. She had redeemed it.

In his letter meant to encourage what appears to have been a newly-baptized group of Christians, the apostle Peter says, “Come to him, a living stone, though rejected by mortals yet chosen and precious in God’s sight, and like living stones, let yourselves be built into a spiritual house, a holy priesthood.” We are all rocks in Laura’s hands, Peter might say. Once we were no people, but now we are God’s people. Though each of us is surely unique and gifted and special, we do not know our value until we have been spotted and chosen by the God who loves us and knows we count.

God chooses what is going to be valuable. God chooses what He wants to work with. And though we can feel quite alone in this world, we exist to be brought together. We have been selected for a fine collection where our stories can be told and shared, where our redemption can be celebrated and marveled at. We are living stones, small and broken but still important pieces of building material who find their purpose in being connected through faith to the Living Stone that was rejected. That stone was sneered at, deemed worthless, tossed back into the gravel pile, beaten and nailed to the cross. But God has found it again, selected it from the grave of death and raised it up to be the cornerstone of the entire universe.

That is the message that Peter has for his disciples. As it happens, they are not feeling particularly cared for and cherished by the world. We can’t tell for sure exactly what they were enduring, but it sounds like from the whole of the letter of 1 Peter that followers of Christ were suffering some kind of persecutions for their faith.

This was a common feature of early Christian life, just as it is still common in many areas of the world today. We can forget that sometimes, but the fact of the matter is that professing a belief in God—and a God that identifies with the weakness of the cross, at that—is liable to get you laughed at, if not worse. But God has a strong love for the ones who are laughed at, the ones who feel like no people. And he brings them together and lays them down with holy purpose in relationship to the cornerstone of Jesus Christ.

In construction, the cornerstone is the first block laid. In the time when Peter wrote this letter, it was common for there to be great ceremony at the laying of a new building’s cornerstone. Often it was engraved with the mark or symbol of the person who was paying for the building. It is placed right where the first two walls come together, and its position and evenness determines the strength and shape of the entire structure. All other blocks and stones find their position and placement in relation to that cornerstone. Maybe Peter just liked rocks a lot because that’s what his name means in Greek, but the point is clear: all who have been formed by the Creator (and that’s everyone) and redeemed by him (and that’s everyone, too) find their true identity and purpose insofar as they show forth Jesus and point to him.

Jesus, on the night before his death, made clear the importance of their working together, of the communal aspect of their discipleship. He tells them that their life of faith together would be a way to show the world the glory of God the Father. With the help of the Holy Spirit, they would be able to carry on the witness of Jesus himself. In fact, they would be able to do greater works than even Jesus did. It is for this reason that living stones are meant to be together, not just laid around the house by themselves, tucked here and there, squirreled away for some special point in the future. This is a message most important for today, for we live in a time that can glorify the individual to a fault. We hear things like “Be your own person,” and “Stand apart,” and “You do You,” and while living stones do each bear unique attributes and intricacies that need to be nurtured and perhaps even celebrated, the fact is we were never meant just to be our own, solitary rock.

In her book entitled, Another Country: Navigating the Emotional Terrain of our Elders, sociologist Mary Pipher discusses how much today’s culture can feel like a foreign land to senior citizens, people who grew up in the era of the Great Depression, World War II, and the Korean War. She explains that the concept of personal maturity has changed over the last couple of generations. Nowadays, she discerns that the sign of true maturity seems to lie in realizing some aspect of your individuality and selfhood or in learning how to express one’s utter dependence and uniqueness. But for earlier generations, personal maturity involved the integration of everyone into a whole. It was found in recognizing each one’s gifts and their need for interdependence, and seeing how each person in a community needed to play their part. I think those who are called living stones would have a hard time arguing against her.

The church, when at its best, becomes the way for people to learn this and embody this lifegiving togetherness. We are little pieces of gravel, seemingly unrelated, but by the power of Christ the cornerstone, we form a whole. Here a community is brought together, much like squares on a quilt. We are fed together, empowered for service to the community together. We are collected from any old place and then Jesus’ forgiveness situates us in our proper place, and we are built into a holy dwelling place for God on earth just as one day we will inhabit the dwelling places Jesus prepares for us on high.

As it happens, the church occasionally needs a physical building too, as even the earliest followers of Christ discovered. Suburban congregations like this one—ones that serve a wide metropolitan area—find it especially helpful to bring together real stones and bricks to form a space that enables them to gather and do God’s works of mercy and justice even better. We are a congregation with living stones that are spread over a six county and one city area. Richmond City, Henrico, Hanover, Chesterfield, Powhatan, Goochland, New Kent, and Caroline Counties are all represented here on most Sundays. We have service outreach in at least 4 of those areas on a regular basis. That is truly amazing.

As you know by now, Council has formed a Building Team that has been working hard to implement some of Epiphany’s own goals from its Vision 2020 plan, a long-range vision that was adopted by vote of the congregation back in November. That plan identified the need to expand and renovate some of our physical building in order to better equip and house current ministries and staff and so that we might grow and reach out even deeper into our ministry area. The Building Team will be presenting some initial ideas in this plan next Sunday, and drawings for Vision 2020 will be on display over the summer.

As we all chew on these concepts, it is important to remember that things like gathering areas and welcoming areas are vital to the life of the church, especially in today’s world, because they provide the space for conversations to take place and for relationships to be built. In the old days and in more rural areas, members of a congregation could count on overlapping with each other in meaningful ways over the course of the whole week. Nowadays our living stones are strewn quite wide. We’ve grown, and it has become apparent we may need our physical spaces here to grow too.

As we all pray about this next step of the congregation together, let us think about Christ the cornerstone, and the ways our works in his name can be a cornerstone of this region.

As each of you living stones ponder your own meaning and worth, may you be reminded that Christ was rejected but is now the base of all that is good and right and true.

And as you walk the journey and witness with joy remember that Jesus has bent down and grabbed you in baptism, looks at his Father and says, “Daddy, I want you to hold this rock for me. It belongs to me.”

Thanks be to God!

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.