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 I say “attributed” because many scholars agree that the style of language and historical references in these letters indicate that they were written after the Apostle Peter’s death, probably by one of his followers.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

Roll Call

HolyLentThe Sunday before Ash Wednesday is one of my favorites of the church year. It’s called Transfiguration Sunday because it marks a critical turning point in the life and ministry of Jesus. The Gospel lesson that day is the story of Jesus taking 3 of his closest disciples with him up a mountain where they have a vision of Jesus transfigured before them talking to Moses and Elijah. It’s such a beautiful mountain top moment that Peter suggests they should build 3 booths there to commemorate the occasion.

Just then God breaks into the silence and says, “This is my beloved Son, listen to him.” This moment is so central to the Christian story that all three Synoptic Gospels tell it almost verbatim. (Matthew 17:1-8, Mark 9:2-8, Luke 9:28-36) In other words the church knew this was important stuff and we too need to listen to what Jesus says.

And what he must have said to them, although we aren’t told, is that it’s time to go back down the mountain and be about the work of the Kingdom of God. The story always reminds me of another mountain top encounter that Elijah had in I Kings 19:9. In that story Elijah has fled to Mt. Horeb for fear of his life. Queen Jezebel has threatened him, and her threats could not be taken lightly. God sustains Elijah on the journey and gives him some needed alone time, but then, just as on the Mt. of Transfiguration, God says, “Yes, you need time to refresh, but you can’t homestead in a state of perpetual retreat.” Actually what I Kings says is that God says to Elijah straight out and to the point, “Elijah, what are you doing here?” Not once but twice.

As we begin the season of Lent again this year God is asking us the same question? Lent is a time for reflection and prayer and meditation. It is a time to recharge our spiritual batteries. But that is a means to an end. It is a time for spiritual discipline to ask ourselves again, “What are we doing here?” What is our purpose for being? What is God calling us to do? What does it mean for you and me in 2017 to listen to Jesus? I mean really listen. It may be some tough love we hear, and if we really listen we will be transfigured.

Here’s how one author who wrestled with those hard questions all his life described what that experience was like for him:
“My prayer is not the whimpering of a beggar nor a confession of love. Nor is it the trivial reckoning of a small tradesman: Give me and I shall give you.
My prayer is the report of a soldier to his general: This is what I did today, this is how I fought to save the entire battle in my own sector, these are the obstacles I found, this is how I plan to fight tomorrow.” (Nikos Kazantzakis, “Saviors of God: Spiritual Exercises”)

What are you doing here? What’s your plan to serve Jesus today?

Giving Up ALGAE for Lent

HolyLentThere are plenty of things I could give up for Lent this year that would improve my health and well-being, both physically and spiritually, but the one I have chosen to focus on is anger and frustration. This is a life-long struggle for me as a highly competitive and perfectionistic person. Those qualities are not all bad and even useful when trying to achieve some goals in life, but when it comes to being at peace and satisfied with my life, not so much. Maybe it’s an age thing, but being at peace has become much more important to me than winning a golf game or achieving economic or academic “success.”

I’ve done a pretty good job of concealing my angry side from most people. My professional persona is one of a caring, compassionate pastor and teacher. But my family and close friends have seen me break golf clubs in frustration, chase referees down the court at a high-school basketball game, or pitch temper tantrums when the difficulty of a home improvement project exceeds my limited skills or problem-solving ability far more often than I would like. So for all the times I have embarrassed any of you, my sincere apologies.

My decision to focus on anger as a barrier to peace this Lent is in large part because of an excellent course I am participating in called “Peace Ambassador Training 2.0.” Sponsored by the Shift Network, this is a 12-week web-based series of seminars focused on Mindfulness Meditation as a way to achieving more inner peace that can lead to peacemaking in the world. We are almost half way through the 12 weeks, and I had a breakthrough aha while meditating this morning as some things from our classes came together for me in a powerful way.

Last week’s class, led by Colin Tipping, was about radical forgiveness as a necessary ingredient in the recipe for peace. My insight this morning was how well forgiveness fits into the overall framework of this class. In our very first session Sister Jenna shared a helpful way to remember some basic shifts that are necessary to achieve a more peaceful state of being. She says we need to remove the ALGAE from our lives. ALGAE is an acronym that stands for Anger, Lust, Greed, Attachment and Ego. The quick, easier-said-than-done version of Sister Jenna’s teaching is that we need to replace Anger with Peace, Lust with Innocence/Purity, Greed with Satisfaction/ Joy, Attachment with Love, and Ego with Self-respect.

That’s obviously a God-sized transformation, but in my meditation today I saw more clearly how other the parts of that ALGAE formula contribute to anger for me: ego – not ever wanting to be wrong or out of control – being disrespected for my opinion or actions and not having “all my wisdom” given its due. If I replace ego with self-respect then I am not dependent on the praise or respect of others. To have self-respect I have to let go of regrets and painful memories, i.e. forgive myself and others. If I have self-respect I don’t need things I am attached to that feed my ego an unhealthy diet. There is also no need to lust after others or things if I’m at peace with myself, and therefore no need to be angry about not getting what I want/deserve, i.e. what I think I am entitled to. I love how that all comes together – now to just learn to live it and get it out of my head and into my being. “I believe Lord, help my unbelief.” (Mark 9:24)

Footnote: I was reminded how challenging this can be even as I was writing this piece. In a hurry to capture my thoughts before they left me and dealing with competing family commitments that were impinging on my consciousness as I wrote, I made numerous spelling errors as my brain tried to rush faster than my fingers could type. My old default reaction of frustration and anger quickly kicked in, only making the typing that much worse. New habits take time. The experts in self-help say it takes 21 days to change a behavior pattern. My personal experience is that it takes longer to teach old dogs like me new tricks. And the bigger the changes, the more time and the more spiritual help I need. That’s why the 40 days of Lent are a great time for me to ask for God’s help in giving up the ALGAE in my life.

To that end I draw hope and inspiration from “Guide My Feet,” a wonderful African American spiritual we sang at a recent worship service:

Guide my feet while I run this race.
Guide my feet while I run this race.
Guide my feet while I run this race,
for I don’t want to run this race in vain!

Search my heart while I run this race.
Search my heart while I run this race.
Search my heart while I run this race,
for I don’t want to run this race in vain!

Amen!