December 4, 2011
I Peter 2:1-10
“The Promise for a Lifetime”
Rev. Dr. David A. Davis
The elders and deacons of the congregation were sharing in a service of evening prayer in Niles Chapel just a few weeks ago. Worship in the setting of Niles Chapel is particularly meaningful; the smaller room, seating in the round, the acoustics, being able to see and hear one another. Lauren McFeaters and Noel Werner were leading worship that night. The text read was this passage from I Peter, chapter 2; living stones, a spiritual house, a royal priesthood, God’s own people. At the end of the service we shared in a symbolic action that involved each one having a small stone. Lauren told all of us about cairns. Cairns; those intentional human made piles of rocks found all over the world to mark sacred spots, to direct pilgrims, to set the path. AS we sang together, we were invited to build a cairn with our stones there on the table in the middle of Niles Chapel; remembering our baptism, our call to leadership, our identity as God’s people.
As you would expect, there was a hesitation when the music started, as if no one wanted to be first. So I figured as pastor, I should plop my stone down there first. What that meant was that I could then watch everyone else place their stones. The table was at about eye level when I sat back down. So I could focus on the hands and the stones and the pile. We were all singing, 40 maybe 50 of us, building a cairn. The truth is, it wasn’t all that easy, making the cairn. The stones were so smooth, I watched one roll from the top of the pile almost off the table. Just when a bit of form was taking shape to the pile, someone would add a stone, and the whole pile sort of squished out. Some hands tried to find the perfect spot for their stone, only to watch it tumble to a place of its own choosing. Eventually, something took shape but it looked less like a lasting memorial and more like a lingering leaf pile down at the curb.
This living stone stuff is hard. It’s not all that clear what it even means, living stone, let alone being it. Living stones. To the informed reader of I Peter, it would seem that Jesus as the Living Stone is the more palatable image to digest. Drawing upon the Hebrew scripture, the writer adeptly portrays Christ himself as the living stone, a corner stone, the very foundation upon which the enterprise of God’s salvation history is brought to bear. This Jesus Christ, the One who is both called and precious in God’s sight, he is also the one rejected by humanity; a rejection exemplified in his suffering and crucifixion. Christ Jesus, a stumbling block to any who lust for the world’s darkness, shielding their own eyes from the bright shining light of the promised coming kingdom of God breaking on earth as it is in heaven. Come to him, a living stone!
Living stone? Him? Okay….Living stones, us??? Like living stones, you yourselves are being built, being built into a spiritual house. Being built. Let yourselves be built. Not you yourselves build. The promise here is that someone else is doing the building. God is building the house. Living stones are together, one after another, built, shaped, placed. Not by human hand lest we roll or crumble or squish into a rather formless pile. No, God’s people called, crafted, shaped by the very hand of God. Stone upon stone. Year after year. From generation to generation. Built to last.
When you first approach the Western Wall at the base of the Temple Mount in the Old City of Jerusalem, the sense of the sacred, the sense of the spiritual, the sense of history, it is all so very palpable. It’s in the air. You can feel it. You know the scene, people praying there at the wall; men to the left, women to the right. Some with prayer books, others with hands on the wall. All in a posture of prayer. When you get a bit closer, the eye is drawn to the incredible stones; ancient stones; huge stones, the stones that form the Temple Wall. Layer upon layer. When you stand there, you become a part of this lasting history. With your face right next to the stones, you see the prayer notes on paper; folded tucked; stuffed, jammed into the joints between the stones; in every crack, in every crevasse, in every space. Millions of prayers. The prayers are so sacred that the paper is never thrown away. The rabbis take them once a year and bury them in a cemetery at the Mt. of Olives. Year after year, the living prayers of the people of God. There at the Western Wall, stones built into a holy temple, built to last forever, and yet the most sacred part is what lies in between the stones.
There is no such thing as a solitary living stone. According to I Peter, the only solitary Living Stone is Christ himself. All the other living stones come only in plural form. Not just in the grammar of the text where the plural form is abundant. But even more, in the guts of the metaphor. The promise here isn’t to one stone, or to this stone or that stone. You can’t be a living stone by yourself. When you’re not the builder, when you’re part of something greater than yourself, when the most sacred part comes in between, when the lasting strength comes with stones put together, you can’t be a living stone all by yourself. It’s not a spiritual house of one. The spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ don’t come from the one, but from the many. It’s not “eat, pray, love” for one! It’s the proclamation of the mighty acts of God by all; by God’s people, God’s own people….you living stones.
In order that you may proclaim the mighty acts of the One who called you out of darkness into God’s marvelous light. So that you might proclaim. You are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people in order to proclaim. It’s who you are. Your identity. Once no people, now God’s people. That you may proclaim. All of it, all of this, that you may proclaim. You living stones, built into a spiritual house, offering spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God, in order that you may proclaim. Living stones, a spiritual house, a royal priesthood, God’s own people, in order to proclaim. The purpose of the promise here is proclamation. That you may proclaim. And you don’t need to major in the Greek here. The 2nd person plural drips from the page. “YOU” The collective, corporate, plural nature of the people of God. That you may proclaim the mighty acts of God!
The seminary choir was singing from the loft back there a few weeks ago during the memorial service for Tom Gillespie. The soloist was Pastor Willie Heard. Martin Tel’s choir was doing a gospel arrangement of Psalm 27 ; the Lord is my Light. I was moved by the music and at one point as the piece swelled with beauty and emotion, I stood up here in the chancel. In a traditional African American worship setting, others would have stood long before I did. But certainly when the pastor stood, others would have risen too. I stood up and no one moved. This was a very diverse group, including some friends and colleagues who are Baptist and AME pastors who heard from me later; they left me hanging there. I know it was a memorial service, mostly Presbyterian, but come on! I stood here by myself for what seemed like the longest time. I couldn’t sit back down. One Presbyterian pastor told me he thought I just couldn’t see from behind the pulpit.
I stood there. Anybody? Anybody else? It was like going for a high five and hitting nothing but air, like being in the choir and being the only one to burst through that break at the very end of Hallelujah Chorus (solo voce), like going in to see the boss to raise a concern mistakenly assuming your colleagues are right behind you, like rising to preach the gospel to a congregation that thinks they only have to sit there and listen. In the tradition entrusted to us, one person might rise to speak the words of the sermon, but Gospel proclamation, the proclamation of the mighty acts of God, well, that comes from nothing less and nothing other than the faithfulness of our life together as the people of God, and our ability, only by grace, to point to the one who calls us out of darkness into God’s marvelous light.
The same flowers are here again. The wreath is back. The tree down the street is lit. it it must be Advent again. Advent again in the life of the people of God. The voice of John the Baptist can be heard, “In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.” John cries out. The wreath gets lit. The choir sings. The preacher stands to speak. And the second grade teacher tells her Sunday School class about Mary. And the little ones, they make their own Christmas cards to give and luminaries to light. Food is delivered for Crisis Ministry. The deacon goes to visit at the hospital. The choir member stops to see a grieving friend. A college student talks long into the night with a friend who is struggling. A family dinner with neighbors ends with a robust table conversation with little consensus started by the younger voices about the Occupy Movement, civil disobedience, and faith; a wrongly imprisoned man in Montana has a conviction overturned after 12 years of tireless faith-filled, faith-inspired work on his behalf; visitors from Guatemala receive hospitality after ten years of offering to folks from Princeton. Plans pick up for volunteering at the Get Set AfterSchool Program in Trenton. A young couple fills out their first pledge to the church in Stewardship. A member stops to ask for comfort for his mother and his family after his father died the night before. That’s just one week of life among you living stones….that’s not even half of it. It must be Advent again….and the church just keeps on preaching.
Most folks who write about I Peter come to the conclusion that it is all about trying to figure what it means to live a faith-filled life in the world that surrounds you; trying to get a handle on living a Christian life out in the world, as the writer strives to describe it for the church in antiquity, you and I, informed and inspired by the text, try to figure it all out here and now; what it means to live for Christ Jesus in this world. And I, for one, stand before you to acknowledge that it is not all that easy. But the promise here is that our life together is being shaped, built by the very hand of God. Does anyone here think it is all plain as day, when you get in the morning, that it’s a slam dunk when it comes to how you’re going work for the kingdom in your family, at your work, in your school? The promise here isn’t to just you, or you, or you. You can’t do this by yourself. This living stone stuff is hard. I don’t know about you, but I can’t do it without you!
Proclaiming the mighty acts of the One who has called you out of darkness into God’s marvelous light. You can’t do that by yourself because it’s the proclamation of God’s people!
It must be Advent again!
So how’s your sermon coming?
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