The Palm Sunday Road Less Traveled


Most anyone who’s ever been to Sunday School knows the shortest verse in the Bible is John 11:35, “Jesus Wept.” In that case they are tears of grief over the death of Jesus’ friend Lazarus. But I realized at our Palm Sunday service today that there is another time when Jesus weeps. We sang our Hosannas and the cute kids paraded with their palms as usual, but when the Gospel lesson from Luke was read my ears perked up when I heard something that only Luke records:

“As he approached Jerusalem and saw the city, he wept over it and said, “If you, even you, had only known on this day what would bring you peace—but now it is hidden from your eyes. The days will come upon you when your enemies will build an embankment against you and encircle you and hem you in on every side. They will dash you to the ground, you and the children within your walls. They will not leave one stone on another, because you did not recognize the time of God’s coming to you.” (Luke 19:41-44).

With this week’s missile attack on Syria much on my mind, this warning that failure to know “what would bring you peace” leads to total destruction struck me as ominous indeed. The Syrian situation has been catastrophic for years, and no one has come up with a way to end the suffering and devastation. We have seen the refugees and the victims of chemical weapons. The suffering has gone on so long I’m not sure anyone remembers what they are fighting about. But for the US to launch an attack that risks confrontation with Russia raises the stakes to a new level of anxiety.

Once again we have gone down the road of military force even though it has never led to lasting peace. Thinking about the Syrian capital of Damascus as we approached Palm Sunday got me to thinking about the choices we make about the roads we travel. The most dramatic conversion ever occurred on the road to Damascus (Acts 9:1-19) when Saul was literally struck down by the power of God’s spirit and transformed from being the most violent tormentor of Christians to the greatest evangelist for the very Christ he had been persecuting.
It feels to me like the world needs to be knocked off its high horse the way Saul was. What else but a Taser-like blast from God’s Holy Spirit can bring an end to our warring madness? Jesus wept over Jerusalem because his people had rejected again the way of peace. He weeps even as he showed us for one last time that God’s ways are not those of conquering heroes on mighty steeds but those of humble servant leaders who choose the road less traveled, the narrow path that leads to salvation.

Jesus’ way is the road that conquers death not by use of cruise missiles or poison gas, but the way that leads through death to eternal life. Jesus taught his followers that those who lose their lives for his sake will find them, and now he’s on the road into Jerusalem to put his life where his mouth was. Jesus’ road is not an easy road to follow. His best friends bailed out on him when things got really tough, but on Easter morning we will learn again that he is indeed the way, the truth and the life.

We have watered down (pun intended) the significance and the way we do baptism in our churches to the point that we have forgotten what it signifies about the paths we choose to travel. I can’t remember the source of this story about how serious Christian baptism and discipleship really are, but I’ll never forget the story. It’s told about a priest in a Roman Catholic Church in Latin America. A young couple presents their infant to the priest for baptism and the Padre submerges the child briefly in the baptismal water and says, “I kill you in the name of Jesus.” The American visitor witnessing this sacrament is aghast, and then the priest lifts the child above his head and proclaims, “And I resurrect you in the name of the living Christ!”

Life changing conversion kills us to our worldly selves and raises us up as new creations in Christ. Maybe it’s just my cowardice, but I’ve always been a bit skeptical of dramatic conversion experiences. My own conversion from a rigid, judgmental brand of Christianity to one I believe to be more authentic was a slow gradual process, and I suspect the conversion of a nation to the ways of peace is also one that takes place over a long period of time.
As hard as that road of death to self is to follow for individuals, it is much harder for societies and nations. But I wonder if it isn’t just as necessary on the national level as it is for individuals? The current lack of morality at all levels of our nation, the way greed and gain run roughshod over ethics, the increase in hate crimes and systemic oppression of marginalized people, and the short-sighted refusal to take stewardship of the earth seriously have all raised questions in my mind about the future of the United States as a viable nation. All empires throughout history have risen and then eventually fallen, usually from corruption within and a lack of sustaining values worthy of survival. All of that has had me wondering lately if the United States is beginning to travel down that slippery slope?

I hope it’s not too late to turn back, but I honestly believe we are dangerously close to that point. Close enough I think that it is well worth praying very hard about which road we’re on during this Holy Week as we consider the passion of Christ for God’s people. Let’s honestly ask ourselves if Jesus is weeping over us and saying, “If you, even you, had only known on this day what would bring you peace.”

Be Still and Know

This is usually my favorite season of the year. New life breaking forth after a long winter’s nap, some days nice enough to get outside to work and play, and my favorite sports—golf and baseball—on the TV to distract me from all the bad news in the world. The latter isn’t working well this week as the news from Syria, N. Korea, and Washington DC just keeps going from bad to worse. As I pray hard for wisdom and reason to steer our nation and world through very troubled waters I am reminded by ancient Scripture that we are not the first to experience such times as these, and for just a moment my soul is still and knows the tumult of humankind will not have the final word.

“God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble.
Therefore we will not fear, though the earth should change, though the mountains shake in the heart of the sea;
Though its waters roar and foam, though the mountains tremble with its tumult.
There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God, the holy habitation of the Most High.
God is in the midst of the city; it shall not be moved; God will help it when the morning dawns.
The nations are in an uproar, the kingdoms totter; God utters his voice, the earth melts.
The LORD of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob (and Rebekah) is our refuge.
Come, behold the works of the Lord; see what desolations God has brought on the earth.
God makes wars cease to the end of the earth; God breaks the bow, and shatters the spear; he burns the shields with fire.
“Be still, and know that I am God! I am exalted among the nations; I am exalted in the earth.”
The Lord of hosts is with us; the God of (Rebekah and) Jacob is our refuge.” (Psalm 46)

“Set in Stone: Rock Solid,” Matthew 16:13-20

One of the curiosities in my family is that previous generations had a real thing for nicknames. My paternal grandmother’s name was Vesta Verola and that’s no April fool! If anyone ever needed a nickname she did, and hers was Dottie. My maternal grandfather was Alma Webster, and he too qualified; but I’m not sure that his nickname, Hooker, was any better than Alma! Maybe his unusual names explain why 4 of his sons all went by different handles than their given Christian names. My uncle Carl was Bud, Forest became Frog, John Franklin always went by Hank, and the youngest Gary was Butch. Why Uncle Bill was always just Bill I do not know.

I bring that up not to confirm that I come by my weirdness honestly, but because in our Scripture for this morning Matthew tells us how Jesus’ disciple Simon got his nickname. Jesus says, “Simon, son of Jonah….. You are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church.” The Aramaic word Cephas that we translate as ‘Peter’ is very similar to the word for ‘rock;’ so saying Peter is the rock on which the church will be founded is a clever play on words that is lost in the English translation. At least one commentator suggests that it would be better if we just called Simon “Rock” instead of “Peter” so we remember this life-changing moment in Simon Peter’s life.

It’s like the Hebrew Scriptures telling us that when Abram and Sarai accepted God’s covenant to be the parents of God’s chosen people they were given new names, Abraham and Sarah. Or when Jacob became Israel, which means something like “one who has wrestled with God.” These change of names mark critical turning points, just like marriage when one or both partners takes a new name to signify a sacred transition after which we are never the same.

Jesus didn’t ask Simon if he wanted to be the Rock, he just says, “Simon, you are the Rock,” and that’s the end of discussion. But why did Jesus pick Simon to be the Rock? I’m glad you asked since that is what I want to talk about today! Simon was always a larger than life character, an extrovert, always ready with an answer to any question, even if it was wrong. He was like the kid in class who no matter what the teacher asked, she always was waving her hand in the air the highest to say, “Pick me, teacher. I know! I know!” Simon was the only one of the disciples brave enough to get out of the boat and try to walk on water to Jesus, until he sank like a rock! Maybe that’s where Jesus got the idea? Simon was chosen first when Jesus was picking his disciples; so maybe he had seniority. He was certainly one of the inner circle, along with James and John, who were with Jesus at the most critical moments of his ministry.

At any rate I’m pretty sure Simon the Rock was flattered to be chosen. I can see a bumper sticker on Simon’s parents’ camel that said, “Our son is an honor student chosen to be The Rock.” Simon is the one when Jesus asks, “Who do you say that I am?” who correctly identifies Jesus as “the Messiah, the Son of the Living God.” Jesus’ could have just given him a gold star or a pat on the head. After all God had given the answer to that question at Jesus’ baptism and several of the disciples had already proclaimed that Jesus was the Messiah back in chapter 14. But Jesus asks again here because this is final exam time. Jesus knows the jig is about up. He’s very soon heading to Jerusalem for the last time and he wants to know if his motley crew of disciples is ready to take over when he’s gone. So he asks for assurance that they get it. And Simon offers the correct answer and he’s the chosen keeper of the keys to the Kingdom.

But when we look closely at Simon’s full resume we have to scratch our heads a bit at this choice for rockhood. And we don’t have to go far. In the very next paragraph after the words we read this morning we begin to see that Simon the Rock may not be as rock solid as we’d hope. He and the others know who Jesus is, but they still don’t’ really know. Verse 21, the very next verse after our text for today says, “From that time on, Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and undergo great suffering at the hands of the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised.And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him, saying, ‘God forbid it, Lord! This must never happen to you.’ But he turned and said to Peter, ‘Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling-block to me; for you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.’”

You think Jesus is having a little buyers’ remorse? His chosen rock is suddenly called a “stumbling-block” because his mind is set on human things – like staying alive—and not on doing God’s will no matter what. And we know this is just a preview of bigger failures to come. But this lack of faith immediately after he gets his new name is enough to make us wonder, Why Simon? Were there no other candidates? Was he the least of 12 evils?
Before we come down too hard on Peter, let’s remember last week’s sermon. I was impressed that Mebane was willing to preach to a whole congregation armed with stones, but then I guess she was pretty confident that no one without sin was going to cast the first stone. The point is we are all fallible human beings. There’s no other choice for Jesus to pick rock solid disciples except from the likes of us!!!!

Remember none of the 12 disciples had impressive resumes. The Gospels don’t tell us how or why Jesus picked the group he did. In most cases we are just told he saw them, fishermen, tax collector, and a bunch who are not identified by profession, and, perhaps here’s the key, these are the ones were immediately are willing to leave their nets, their parents, their tax office and follow Jesus.

Anybody play follow the leader as a kid? What’s the only thing you have to know to play that game – to follow the leader, right? And your position to do so is behind the leader. I used to think that when Jesus told Simon the Rock to “get behind me, Satan,” that it was like being told to go stand in the corner. But I’ve come to realize that Jesus was just telling Peter that in order to follow he had to get behind Jesus, both literally and figuratively. He needed the disciples to have his back because they were going into very dangerous territory. And right up to the bitter end they all swore they were able to follow him anywhere, until they didn’t.
They were plain ordinary folks without degrees or pedigrees, just like you and me, and that’s exactly why they were chosen to be the foundation of the church. Someone once asked Jesus why he ate with sinners, and the answer is that if he didn’t he would always be eating alone.

This story is not just about Simon the Rock. It’s about you and me. If we claim to believe in Christ as the Messiah, the son of the living God, then we are signing up to be the rocks on which Christ’s church is built.
But let’s remember than even the strongest rocks can erode. That big gaping hole in the ground we call the Grand Canyon was carved out of solid rock over centuries by something as soft as the water of the Colorado River.
Church rocks can be worn down by the constant forces of evil that invent new and improved ways to entice us all the time. Like the mortar between rocks our faith needs to be rebuilt in each generation so we can do church in ways that are relevant to current cultural situations.

That takes a team effort. There is a plaque on a large boulder along the 13th fairway at the TPC Scottsdale golf course that commemorates the day in 2011 when Tiger Woods hit a wayward tee shot that ended up right behind that large boulder. Commentators estimated the rock weighs close to a ton, and with his ball lying perhaps 3 feet from the rock there was no way even for Tiger to hit the ball over the rock. That would mean taking a one-stroke penalty for almost every golfer in the world.

But Tiger had two things going for him that most of us don’t. He knew the rules of golf very well.
Rule 6-7: “Stones of any size (not solidly embedded) are loose impediments and may be removed, provided removal does not unduly delay play.”

The rules official determined that the big rock was not “solidly embedded” in the Arizona desert and could therefore be moved legally. But remember the boulder weighed 2000 pounds. Enter ruling #23-1/3: “Spectators, caddies, fellow-competitors, etc., may assist a player in removing a large loose impediment.”
Now many serious golfers might have known about those rules, but very few of us have a large and strong enough group of friends to move a 2000 lb. impediment! Tiger of course always has a large gallery following him around the course, and several fans volunteered to help.

That may seem like a trivial example to non-golfers, but the point is that we all face big problems at times, and we need to know what all of our options are and not just surrender when something unexpected blocks our way. Secondly, none of us are equipped to figure out a solution to every problem, and that means being humble enough to ask for help. Tiger had a resource that I’m glad I don’t have on the golf course—a whole mob of people watching him, and with their help his obstacle was rolled away.

The church is like our gallery –our crowd of fans, people ready and willing to pray for us and help us when we have problems. But guess what? Being a mind reader is not required for church membership or ordination. To get help we have to be humble enough and brave enough to ask. That doesn’t mean every problem can be easily fixed or even quickly prayed away; but the love and support of other people and the assurance of God’s presence with us through dark days can help make any suffering a whole lot easier to bear.

But sometimes we think we’re too far gone or feel God’s too far away to help. And that’s when our troubles double. The temptation to withdraw from others when we need them most is a common human weakness. We don’t want to be a burden or inflict our pain on others, or we’re too embarrassed to admit we have a problem. Another Simon, as in Simon and Garfunkel, wrote a very sad song about that back in the 1960’s, and guess what? It just happens to be called “I Am a Rock.” The chorus to that song says, “I am a rock, I am an island; and a rock feels no pain, and an island never cries.”

That’s a pretty bleak picture of life, but we all feel that way sometimes when we just don’t want to risk being hurt again by letting anyone into our hearts. But that’s not really living is it? There’s an alternative to that lonely approach to life from a much older source. John Donne wrote 400 years ago: “No one is an island, Entire of itself, Every one is a piece of the continent, A part of the main….And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; It tolls for thee.”

We usually think of that bell tolling in funereal terms, but when we are in community together we also share the joyous bells of celebration. We are all part of the main, and the super glue that holds all of us together is the almighty power of God’s Holy Spirit.

We need each other because Jesus doesn’t promise his followers a rose garden. Following him leads to the Garden of Gethsemane and he’s not looking for fans but cross-taker-uppers. And God knows we will all stumble and fall just like old Rocky Simon Peter.

The church has not always been rock solid for Jesus and the temptation to follow an easier path has to be faced every day. The church in 2017 is not immune to the political divisions of the world. We Christians too often choose up sides to debate controversial issues and sometimes think winning a theological argument is more important than lining up to play follow the leader with Jesus.

That means simply to live like Christ even when that’s very hard. And it’s especially hard to do when personal problems and failures become boulders that seem too heavy to carry. When intimate relationships shatter, when jobs feel like prison sentences, or when there’s no job to be had. When school work seems impossible, or taking care of loved ones exhausting; when chronic illnesses rob us of our strength to carry on. When the world seems to be getting crueler and addictions seems the only way to escape—we all struggle and fail just like not so rock solid Simon.

So when all seems lost and hopeless, please know that you are not alone. All of us feel like our faith is anything but rock solid at times. Don’t be afraid to ask for help from God and from others. No matter how shaky our rocks feel, please hear Jesus’ assurance which he speaks to us just as he did to Peter “I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it.” The victory of good over evil is guaranteed because it’s not our church; it’s not Simon the Rock’s church; it’s Christ’s Church.

Simon’s faith wasn’t always rock solid. Our faith is not always rock solid. But God’s promise is rock solid—solid enough to build a church on, to build your life on, and the gates of hell will never prevail against it.

Preached at Northwest UMC, Columbus, Ohio, April 2, 2017 as part of a Lenten series, “Set in Stone.”

Rejoicing when God says No

Pity party alert. I am having a medical procedure next week that requires me to be off some of the meds I take for arthritic pain, and therefore I am experiencing more discomfort that usual. The result is that I’ve been a bigger pain than usual for my poor wife. I don’t like myself when I’m in this kind of state, and the fact that I know I’m making everything worse when I dwell on my problems doesn’t help.

As a student of communication I know very well how powerful words are, especially the self-talk kind. I went to the thesaurus to find another word for “pain” while writing the paragraph above so I didn’t keep repeating myself. The first three choices my Microsoft Word thesaurus gave me were a real revelation: “discomfort, agony and aching.” What a difference a simple word choice makes in describing the same sensation. To be in “agony” is certainly a whole different ball game than having “discomfort” or “aching.” The good news is I get to choose how I want to label what I’m feeling.

Mornings are the worst for my discomfort; so when I went back to my Lenten devotion of reading Psalm 90 sure enough there was relevant wisdom awaiting me: “Turn, O LORD! How long? Have compassion on your servants! Satisfy us in the morning with your steadfast love, so that we may rejoice and be glad all our days.” (vs. 13-14).
Pity-party Steve gravitates to the phrase “How long, O Lord? Have compassion on your servants. Satisfy us in the morning…” Yes, Lord, especially in the morning. But the compassion I’m asking for isn’t what I really need or what God provides. I want to feel like a 30 year-old again. I want the pain, ache, discomfort, agony to all go away with a Holy abracadabra!

But the Psalmist has a much more realistic and deeper request that we need at every age and stage of life. “Satisfy us in the morning with your steadfast love, so that we may rejoice and be glad all our days.” The pain meds modern science offers are never more than a temporary fix, and God knows we’re seeing an opioid epidemic that can lead to horrific addiction and death. There’s a reason we don’t say “In Big Pharma We Trust.” God’s solution to pain is as simple and illusive as unconditional steadfast love, and it doesn’t just last for a morning. It enables us to rejoice all our days because unconditional love doesn’t say “I love you if you are faithful and brave or if you don’t complain.” Steadfast love says, “I love you, period.”

These are not new thoughts for me or in Scripture, but they are words we need to really hear on a regular basis. I wrote about these same issues for me two years ago (May 2015) in a post entitled “Encouraged and Inspired: Signs of Resurrection Living” where I reflected on St. Paul’s request in II Corinthians for God to remove his “thorn in the flesh.” God’s answer to Paul not once but three times was “no” because like me Paul was praying for the wrong thing. He was asking for physical healing, but the answer Paul got was God’s reply that “My grace is sufficient for you.” (II Cor. 12:9). God’s grace is another way of talking about God’s steadfast love.

The words from the Psalm and from Paul are similar because they are trustworthy and true. Even though they were written in totally different circumstances about very different kinds of suffering some 600 years apart, the truth is the same then and now and forever. It is the truth we all need to hear early and often because God’s steadfast, unconditional love and grace are the only things that can truly sustain us and even empower us to rejoice in difficult times.

Thanks be to God.

Stumbling Block or Cornerstone? Sermon on I Peter 2:1-10


I saw a great T-shirt for baby boomers like me on Facebook this week. It says, “Built in the ‘40’s; some parts still in working order.” In our crazy throw-away world where planned obsolescence is part of every marketing plan, this text from I Peter about a cornerstone in a rock solid foundation has a lot of appeal. We live in a whirlwind information age where knowledge and beliefs seem to shift under our feet like desert sands.

When my children were young our go-to vacation place every year was Myrtle Beach, South Carolina. And every year we built sand castles on that beach. Ours never quite looked like this one, but you’ll notice this one was built in a shelter where it was protected from the elements; so I don’t think it counts as a real sand castle. This one was at a national sand sculpture contest Diana and I visited at Virginia Beach a few years ago, and it was obviously built to last several days while this impressive contest went on.

The average life expectancy of our sandcastles was always less than 12 hours because that’s how often the high tide rolls in and washes away the most elaborate and the simplest of sand creations. The score is always high tide several hundred, sand castles zero.

I don’t know if Jesus built sand castles on the shore of the Sea of Galilee, but he knew about foundations. He told a parable once about those who failed to heed his words were like people who built their house on sand, and those who built on solid rock were like those who took the Gospel seriously.

I Peter picks up on that foundation theme. It says Jesus, the rock rejected by the good religious leaders of his day was made by God into the very cornerstone, the most important piece of the foundation of God’s kingdom; and no high tide, tsunami, tornado or earthquake is going to every knock that foundation down.

That’s the good news Christ offers us in our dizzy, foundation-shaking world. Two pieces of background about these three letters attributed to Peter in our New Testament. I say “attributed” because many scholars agree that the style of language and historical references in these letters indicate that they were written after the Apostle Peter’s death, probably by one of his followers. While we would consider it unethical to claim someone else’s authorship of our work, it was a common practice in biblical times to attach the name of a famous person to a document in order to give it more authority. I share that for information, and to let you know I will refer to this text as something Peter wrote because it is easier to say that than “the author of I Peter.” And if “the author of the Epistles of Peter” comes up on Jeopardy you will be in the know.

The other important background Peter gives us at the outset is that this letter is addressed to several churches in Asia Minor or what is modern day Turkey. The people in those churches were Gentile Christians living in a pagan land where they had no pre-existing faith foundation to build on. Chapter 2 of this letter, which we read this morning, begins with a plea to these newborn Christians to “Rid yourselves, therefore, of all malice, and all guile, insincerity, envy, and all slander.” It goes on to promise them pure, spiritual milk so they can “grow into salvation.” Peter meets them where they are on their faith journey and offers advice on how to mature in their faith in a setting that is hostile to the ways of Christ.

Peter knew how important a strong foundation was for whatever challenges any of us face. All humans have to deal with pain and suffering personally and as a community. We need a strong foundation when those problems happen, but you can’t build a strong foundation in the middle of a hurricane. Our faith roots need to be deep before adversity strikes, and that firm foundation begins with a solid, trustworthy cornerstone.

Let’s take a look at that first verse again. “Rid yourselves, therefore, of all malice, and all guile, insincerity, envy, and all slander.” That would be a pretty good list of things to give up for Lent, don’t you think? And it’s not too late. Feel free to pick any or all off that list and start now. We’ve got 4 weeks left, and self-help experts say it only takes 21 days to change a habit. I like to think of fasting from something during Lent as a way to do Spiritual spring cleaning. One problem with that practice is we often give up things for lent that we should give up forever, but we’re lucky if we make it to Easter. I shouldn’t say this if you don’t know it already but there’s another problem. The 40 days of Lent don’t include Sundays, and some people take that to mean that when it comes to giving up something Sundays don’t count; so we really only have to make it 6 days before we get a cheat day! Really? If it takes 21 days to establish a new habit that plan is doomed to failure.

The more serious issue here is that to make any really lasting changes to rid ourselves of sin like malice, insincerity, envy and slander will only work if have a firm foundation to start with. Faith and values can’t be invented on the fly; they have to already be part of our repertoire or we will come up empty-handed when temptation or tragedy strikes.

“Letters to a Young Muslim” by Omar Saif Ghobash is a very good book that can promote interfaith understanding. One thing that struck me in particular was a section in that book that dealt with what happens to young Muslims who move away from the strictest and most fundamental expressions of Islam. Many are not able to handle their newfound freedom and responsibility for their own actions because they have been controlled by unquestioned external authority for so long and are not prepared to think for themselves. In other words they don’t have a firm foundation of values and beliefs they have tested and claimed for themselves. So when the siren songs of worldly sins and pleasures confront them, many lack the life skills to help them cope. They either rebel against all authority, often with disastrous results; or at the other extreme become vulnerable to some other form of authoritarian leadership that offers a false foundation.

That situation is not unique for Muslims. Moral development for all of us requires room for doubt and dialogue to build foundations that have time to set and hold in a safe and open environment. That’s why Peter says newborns in faith need spiritual milk to grow strong foundations. They aren’t ready yet for solid food.

I was blessed this week to attend the Schooler Institute on Preaching at the Methodist Theological School in Ohio. The leader for that two-day event was The Rev. Dr. Anna Carter Florence who teaches preaching at Columbia Seminary in Georgia. The key thing she taught us was to pay special attention to the verbs in a biblical text. She said that too often we are distracted by nouns that we have to look up or try to explain or figure out how to pronounce. I Peter 1:1 is a good example. It says, “To the exiles of the Dispersion in Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia, and Bithynia,” and the first thing I had to do was go scrambling to a biblical map to try and figure out where in the world those places were. It’s interesting information to know, but has little real value or relevance to our daily lives today.

But when we approach a text verbs first we usually find words that we all know immediately what they mean. When I did that with our text for today here’s what I discovered. The verbs that belong to the group Peter describes as mortals or others, i.e. non-believers, include “rejected, stumble, fall, disobey, have not received (mercy), and are not (God’s people).” By contrast the verbs attributed to believers include “long for, grow, tasted, come, chosen (as God’s own people), built, to be (a royal priesthood), proclaim, and have received (mercy).”

Not too hard to figure out which group we’d like to be in is it? We can stumble, fall, and not be God’s people by rejecting Christ, or we can believe and be chosen to be God’s own people, a royal priesthood. But here’s the other thing about those verbs. It’s pretty easy to see how a stone can make me stumble and fall, but how can a stone long for, grow, taste, come, offer, proclaim or be chosen as God’s own people?

Notice what Peter says about Christ in verses 4 and 5: “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, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.” Ever since “The Sound of Music” we’ve known that “the hills are alive,” but now we find out stones can be too.

The Holy Spirit can make stones come to life like Elijah’s valley of dry bones or like God blew breath into Adam and Eve or into frightened disciples on the Day of Pentecost. Living stones are not static– but moving, adapting, rearranging themselves into new patterns as situations around us change. Having a solid foundation allows us to dare to believe and trust in the true rock of our faith when everything else around us seems to be collapsing, be it a personal tragedy or a larger cultural one. When our faith foundation is solid we have the strength to rid ourselves of envy, guile and malice that can undermine the best of us because they are common practice in the workplace, on Wall Street and Main Street. When we are firmly anchored in Christ and his ways we can stand fast against the strongest of head winds to be the church even when no one is looking.

Those who believe receive God’s mercy, but it comes with a responsibility to be living stones in Christ and to proclaim and live the Gospel of truth, justice and love. If we fail to do so the house of God collapses like the walls of Jericho. Christ’s living stones don’t listen to the false prophets of prosperity and power. Those who put their faith in those will stumble and fall. Christ is a huge stumbling block for those who follow that path. To non-believers Jesus’ way of mercy and love looks weak, wimpy and dead, and the winner-take-all ways of the world seem victorious. Worldly power and success are very strong temptations, but Peter reminds us that those stones build a road that leads to destruction.

So knowing all that, why would anyone reject Christ and turn him into a stumbling block instead of a cornerstone? Part of the answer is that the people who rejected Jesus by killing him didn’t want him challenging the foundations their faith was built on. They wanted the certainty they thought a concrete set of laws would provide, giving them a handbook for life that had only two chapters–one on what was allowed and a second on what was forbidden—with no room for messy ambiguity. But Christ’s reign is built on a foundation of living stones which means we have to take responsibility for figuring out together what it means to follow God’s laws.

When Jesus was asked to pick the greatest commandment he didn’t pick a specific law. He said “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength. The second is this, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’” (Mark 12:30-31) Those are living laws, foundational principles to live by, but we have to use our own God-given abilities to figure out how to operationalize those principles in real life situations. Neither the Bible nor any set of laws can cover every situation we may be confronted with. If that were the case we’d just need an app for that. Ask Siri, “Ok, in this situation what do I do?” and he or she would tell us. But in the real world God has entrusted us with the free will to choose wisely how we treat ourselves and each other. Our faith journey is a process, constantly unfolding as we learn and grow like living stones in the body of Christ.

But following Christ is not an easy journey. We also can become stumbling blocks for others if our behavior sets a bad example of what God’s living stones should be and do. Our failure to live the grace and mercy we proclaim becomes a huge stumbling block for others who are searching for a solid faith foundation.

A couple of dangerous stumbling blocks even show up in this text from I Peter. Verse 9 says, “You are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation.” Lots of good people have stumbled over that verse by interpreting it to mean, “Look at us! We’re special! God likes us better than you!” How many people do you think are going to want to join any church with that kind of holier-than-thou attitude? The best way to remove that stumbling block is to take an honest hard look at our history as a church and a nation. Too much oppression and conquest of other people has been done in the name of our God to give us an A+ rating on the living stone scale. So if we aren’t special what does it mean to say we are God’s chosen people? It means we are chosen, not for special privilege, but to be God’s servants.

The phrase “a chosen race” is an especially dangerous stone to trip over for Americans. Racism is an insidious disease that is so clever it sometimes fools even those who have been infected with it to think we are immune. Any use of Scripture to justify exclusion of any group of people from God’s grace and mercy is contrary to Christ’s message of love for all. God chooses to redeem only one race, and that is the human race. I know people who when they are asked to indicate their race on a medical form or job application kick the race stone aside and write the word “human” in that blank.

The fact that this epistle bears Peter’s name is a little ironic. Peter is a translation of the Aramaic word Cephas which means “rock.” At one point in the Gospel accounts Jesus changes his disciple Simon’s name to Cephas or Peter, and says to Peter, “Upon this rock I will build my church.” If you know the embarrassing role Peter is going to play when we get to Holy Week, you know his faith proved to be very shaky when Jesus needed him most. So too, we’ve all had moments or years when we have denied Christ by our words or actions. And that’s OK because just as he did for Peter in their post-Easter encounter, Christ calls forth strength from us that we didn’t know we had. He strikes the rock within us just as Moses struck the rock in our Exodus story last week, and through us the Holy Spirit pours streams of mercy, grace and forgiveness that enable us to live as faithful aliens in a world full of stumbling blocks.

For that to happen we have to make a choice –cornerstone or stumbling block? We are living in turbulent times that require a firm faith foundation. Wherever you fall on the political spectrum we can all see that changes are coming for our nation. And if the government is getting out of the human services business, guess who is in the on-deck circle? The church. In addition to all the good ministries we are doing now, more is going to be needed from us to meet the needs of our sisters and brothers. We’re going to need a firm faith foundation. Lent is the perfect time to examine our foundations, get down in the crawl space where the spiders and other creepy things live and see if our foundations are built on sand or rock. We can’t call the basement doctor to shore up our faith foundation; we need to get a piece of the rock,” the living stone rejected by mortals yet chosen and precious in God’s sight” to be the very cornerstone of our faith.

Spiritual Cardiology


After I wrote my meditation on “A Wise Heart” earlier this week it very quickly became apparent that Psalm 90:12 isn’t finished with me. That verse says, “So teach us to count our days that we may gain a wise heart,” and the focus of my earlier post was on having a compassionate and caring heart. It occurred to me shortly after I posted that piece that the heart is also the seat of courage. While head knowledge is incomplete without heart knowledge, neither is adequate without courage.

The hymn “God of Grace and God of Glory” points that out when it says, “Grant us wisdom, grant us courage for the living of these days,” and the turbulent early weeks of 2017 certainly seem like the kinds of days the great preacher Harry Fosdick had in mind when he penned those words. In fact Fosdick wrote that hymn in 1930 just as the Great Depression was beginning and the Nazis were coming to power. I am praying the parallel ends there, but given the political instability and unrest here and around the world present days certainly qualify as those that require wise and brave hearts.

So if we really want wisdom and courage for facing trying hours and days, be they personal or corporate, maybe what we need for Lent is a heart transplant. A few years ago a good friend of mine was scheduled for open heart surgery. I had not been able to visit him in the hospital because I had a cold at the time and my germs were persona non grata. The night before the surgery my friend called me and we talked a few minutes. I don’t remember the content of the conversation, but he told me after the surgery that I was one of many calls he made that night. He understandably had trouble sleeping knowing surgeons were going to cut his chest open the next morning. He was nervous and felt a need to reach out and talk to people who were important in his life not knowing if it might be his last chance to do so.

It seems to me that the act of asking God to give me a new heart is also pretty risky business. My peers remind me often of the wisdom of Mae West who once said, “Aging is not for sissies.” Neither is following Jesus. We are in denial; at least I often am, when I tell myself that when Jesus said, “Take up your cross and follow me” he was just speaking metaphorically. Living faithfully as Jesus followers in a world gone crazy over materialism, militarism, fear-inspired violence, and self-centered hedonism is not for the faint of heart. To offer the prayer of Psalm 51 asking “Create in me a clean heart, O God, and put a new and right spirit within me” is a radical prayer and should not be uttered by rote or taken lightly. It’s asking for a spiritual heart transplant.

I always enjoy March Madness of the basketball variety, but this year it is an especially welcome diversion from the madness going on in the world. As I was browsing at our public library this week I came upon a timely and enjoyable audio book about three legendary basketball coaches who all coached in the Atlantic Coast Conference in the 1980’s. The book is appropriately entitled “The Legends” by John Feinstein and is about Dean Smith (UNC), Jimmy Valvano (NC State), and Mike Krzyzewski (Duke). One story early in the book struck me as an excellent example of a brave heart. Dean Smith was one of the greatest coaches in the history of college hoops, but long before he was a legend with a basketball arena named after him, when he was a young, unknown assistant coach at the University of North Carolina in the late 1950’s he put his job and career on the line off the court. He and his pastor took an African American divinity student with them into a segregated restaurant where his basketball team ate frequently and quietly broke down one small racial barrier. When John Feinstein heard about that incident when he was writing his book decades later he asked Coach Smith why he had never heard that story. Feinstein said, “You must have been very proud of doing that.” But Coach Smith said, “You should never be proud of doing the right thing. Just do the right thing.”

Brave and humble hearts don’t need to boast about acting justly, they just do it. Actions speak louder than words about the kind of heart one has. One of my favorite more recent hymns describes how a spiritual heart transplant works. I can’t sing “Here I Am” by Dan Schutte without feeling my heart and faith grow stronger. In one verse Schutte has God say, “I will break their hearts of stone, give them hearts for love alone.” The courage to live boldly and take the narrow unpopular road that leads to salvation and justice comes from hearts filled with so much love that there is no room for fear and doubt.

The journey from fear to faith is often like the one Dorothy and her friends take in “The Wizard of Oz.” Those four pilgrims on the yellow brick road are looking for a heart, for courage, for a brain and a way to go home. Isn’t that a great metaphor for the human condition? Aren’t’ those the things we all long for to live a full and satisfying life?

Dorothy, the tin man, the scarecrow and the lion think they are on an external journey to the promised land of Oz to find themselves. What they discover is that the faith journey is first an internal journey. The Wizard can’t give them what they are seeking, but the pilgrimage they take to the Emerald City provides them a much more transformative trip inward where they all discover that they already have courage, heart, and wisdom; and Dorothy’s red shoes are her ticket back to Kansas.

So the good news is that we don’t need to undergo an actual heart transplant to find our brave voices. Our factory equipment hearts provided by God are full of wisdom, love and courage. But like our physical hearts our spiritual cardio-vascular system can also get clogged up by fear and weakened by lack of use. But no matter how weak or spiritually dead we think we are, no matter how long or how often we have failed to walk the walk of courageous and compassionate faith, Lent is another opportunity to take the inward journey to rediscover the depths of wisdom and courage God provides for the living of this day and every day.

To pray to God for a wise and brave heart is a first step on the journey, like when we realize we need to see a health care provider and live a more heart-healthy lifestyle. And even if we feel spiritually dead with a heart of stone, God is always ready and willing to do CPR or jolt us back to life with a defibrillator. God has an impressive record of bringing people back from both spiritual and physical death.

God nurtured Elijah back to health and courage on Mt. Horeb; gave Jesus the strength he needed to carry on in the Garden of Gethsemane; and turned that bunch of cowering fishermen hiding in the upper room into a band of leaders who turned the world upside down. God gave Ruth the courage to stay with Naomi; helped the Samaritan woman at the well bare her soul to Jesus, and blessed Mary Magdalene with a whole new demon-free life. Brave hearts pray “Not my will but thy will be done. Brave hearts beat to the rhythm of Isaiah’s response to God’s call in the year that King Uzziah died (Isaiah 6) or Mary’s brave response to God’s most incredible request to bear his son. The brave peasant girl said: “I am the Lord’s servant. May your word to me be fulfilled.” (Luke 1:38).

And in Lent 2017 God still asks, “Whom shall I send?” and brave hearts sing (and mean it) the chorus to “Here I am Lord:”

“Here I am Lord! Is it I Lord? I have heard you calling in the night. I will go Lord, if you lead me. I will hold your people in my heart.”

Do we mean it? Do I mean it? Our actions and lives will show the world what kind of hearts we have.