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 I say “attributed” because many scholars agree that the style of language and historical references in these letters indicate that they were written after the Apostle Peter’s death, probably by one of his followers.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.