I am in my father and you in me and I in you.
Those who have my commandments and keep them are those who love me.
I am in my father and you in me and I in you.
Those who have my commandments and keep them are those who love me.
For as long as I remember, I’ve collected rocks. I don’t mean rocks that I identify, polish, and put into a case, but rocks that I pick up along the beach or while hiking in the desert. Often they aren’t particularly beautiful or really worthy of being kept but they are a connection to a particular place or time, and they make me imagine places and times I haven’t explored yet. I’ve been doing a bunch of sorting and purging at home and I keep coming across rocks: rocks on my windowsill, rocks in little dishes in the kitchen, rocks in jewelry boxes. I can’t bring myself to just throw them away; perhaps someday they’ll make their way into a landscaping project. There’s something about rock that always speaks to me of God. So I’m grateful this morning for the wonderful image from today’s letter of Peter, of living stones.
Stones make their way into scripture in many ways. Jacob used a stone for a pillow and while he slept he had a miraculous encounter with an angel. When the people of Israel were delivered from Egypt and finally cross the Jordan river, they piled stones as a memorial to what God had done for them. The prophets wrote of cities laid waste, made into rubble. Jesus said to Peter: “You are a rock, and on this rock I will build my church” (causing no end of confusion to people who mistook Peter for the first pope). When Jesus entered Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, the Pharisees were anxious about the unruly crowds shouting “Hosanna,” and said to Jesus “Teacher, order your disciples to stop.” Jesus’ reply was “I tell you, if my disciples were silent, the stones would shout out.” Living stones.
As living stones, the scripture tells us we are to let ourselves be built into a spiritual house. We don’t do the building, we are built.
Think for a moment about what it might mean to be a spiritual house. I don’t mean being part of a spiritual household, and I don’t mean coming to a spiritual building like this one each week. I’m talking about being a spiritual house. In the letter to the Corinthians, Paul writes: “You are God’s building.” What might that mean?
Each one of us is the place where God resides. We are God’s house. Because of God’s ridiculous extravagance and generosity, evidenced by all of creation, and by the resurrection, we know that God is not confined to one person, but is in all of us. The Good News of the Kingdom is ours to inhabit and ours to proclaim. Saying that God’s house is a place—for example, this place—lets us off the hook for thinking about what it means for each one of us to be God’s building, to be a spiritual house made of living stones. On the other hand, realizing that we are a spiritual house made of living stones also puts us on the hook: no longer can we think that only when we’re inside these four walls are we supposed to act like Christians.
So what does it mean to be God’s building, God’s spiritual house?
There was a priest at St. David’s from 1956-1972 named Louis Livingston. I thought of him this morning of course because of his name, but also because he so embodies the “living stones” of today’s reading. Fr. Livingston presided over the completion of this building and subsequently the burning of its mortgage. He led this parish through the church’s heyday of the 1960s. He was controversial and much loved. He was far more socially liberal than his peers among the Episcopal clergy and many of his parishioners here at St. David’s in that era. He was a legend in his own time. His love of Jesus caused him to vigorously oppose the Viet Nam War at a time when this was a divisive issue in some of our churches. He was part of the World Council of Churches’ international peace group and visited the then-Soviet Union in 1965, to learn about faith behind the Iron Curtain. He is credited with turning this parish outward beyond itself, developing programs to serve low-income children, and actively participating in the work of local service agencies like William Temple House and Fish Emergency Services.
I think Fr. Livingston would’ve preferred to think of himself as an activist priest than a spiritual house. But I think it safe to say that he lived up to his name. He was a living stone, God’s building where God resides. God’s rock.
But we do not need to be a larger-than-life 60s radical Episcopal priest to be a living stone.
What does it mean to be God’s spiritual house, God’s building?
The author of today’s letter of Peter tells us:
Once you were not a people,
but now you are God’s people;
once you had not received mercy,
but now you have received mercy.
In the light of the resurrection we are a new creation, a royal priesthood, and our priesthood is to carry on the work of Jesus, the work of justice and healing and reconciliation. We who have received mercy are commissioned to carry on, as living stones, the work of mercy.
We who receive sustenance at this table are commissioned to carry on, as living stones, the work of feeding, wherever we come across someone who is hungry. We who have received strength through the experience of community are to carry on, as living stones, the work of community, in whatever community we find ourselves. We who have received forgiveness are to carry on the work of forgiveness, wherever we find ourselves.
You are living stones. Let yourselves be built into a spiritual house.
We love the familiarity of our sacred space and our worship, but that particular love has proven, in church after church all over this country and in Europe, not to be enough to keep churches thriving and faithful to the incredible message of hope and transformation that Jesus came to proclaim.
Two years ago we began, together, an adventure in building a church that would not be church as usual. We didn’t embark on this adventure solely for the sake of novelty, but to return to the call of Jesus to be on the move, to move beyond preservation to proclamation, beyond management to mission, beyond survival to celebration.
Ed Koch, former Mayor of New York City, was famous for going up to strangers on the street and asking: “How’m I doing?” So, as we circle around again to this year’s selection from the Good Shepherd story, two years into the mission, I want to ask: how are we doing? How are we doing at exploring ways to be church that is not business as usual? Are we spending our energy in the right ways? As a community of faith, are we open to hearing Jesus call us by name? What would we hear, if we went up to strangers in this neighborhood and said “Hi, I’m from St. David’s. How’re we doing?”
In the selection we heard this morning from Acts, we get a window into the church that the earliest disciples thought Jesus had in mind: people gathering as often as they could to share meals, care for one another, be a community of prayer and support, and share everything in common. These disciples were purposeful and intentional about building community that proclaimed a new way of being in the world. How are we doing with that?
The Acts church devoted themselves to the Apostles’ teaching. They paid attention to what those who had gone before them said about Jesus and they tried to figure out what it meant for them. How are we doing with that? This morning’s gospel is not an easy one to unpack—the English major in me wishes Jesus spent a little more time polishing his use of metaphor. Is Jesus the gate? Is he the gatekeeper? Is he the shepherd? What we do know from this passage is that Jesus leads his sheep out of the gate.
The author of this Good Shepherd gospel, wrote to a Christian community under attack; he wrote to be sure they understood they would be safe in the care of Jesus even as the existing religious leaders excluded them and threatened them. Hence all the language about theives, bandits, and strangers. We, however, are not in that position. Although it would be an interesting challenge to see what we could do to get today’s authorities mad at us!
Our challenge from today’s mesasge is two-fold:
First, we need to strive not to be the religious structure that rejects new ideas and excludes new ways of proclaiming the kingdom and living into the gospel.
Second, we need to resist the urge to hide out in a sheepfold. Our task is to hear Jesus’ voice calling us out, and to follow where he leads. Sometimes “out” is out to the margins to sit with people who live on the edge. “Out” can also be here in this place, outside of our comfort zone.
I’d like to suggest that the sheepfold is “church as usual.” It’s a great metaphor we could take in a bunch of different directions.
The sheepfold the shepherd watches over is warm and familiar and safe, but if you’ve ever spent time with a bunch of sheep in close quarters, you know it’s no way to live full-time.
So what does not-church-as-usual-look like? It looks like aspects of this church. (And as we get ready for the Village Building Convergence in a few weeks, we’re going to look less and less like church-as-usual.) Not-church-as-usual looks like the Acts church, a church where people think nothing of sharing all that they have, where they worship together with glad and generous hearts, and where all are devoted to adding to their numbers, not for the sake of survival, but because they are so excited about Jesus. They are excited about re-membering Jesus by sharing his body in bread and wine, themselves becoming the body of Christ and being Jesus’ hands and feet in the world. They are excited about proclaiming the Good News of forgiveness, reconciliation, and a kindgom where all are welcome and all are fed at a banquet that never ends.
How are we doing?
With the choir preparing fun, interesting anthems for the Easter season, I could not help but program something but Calvin Hampton. You may not recognize his name, but you know who he is and how his music sounds. He is best known at St. David’s for making you wonder if you read the hymn board correctly since he often sets traditional texts to creative music – There’s a wideness in God’s mercy and O master let me walk with thee come to mind.
His music is challenging and accessible; ancient and modern; beautiful and dissonant all at the same time. Sometimes, it’s just what we need. This week, I learned is also a very interesting character and extremely diverse musician (as well as a talented basketball player at OSU?). Read on to learn more about this fascinating composer. Continue reading
Some of you may remember that in the early 1990s, Portland had a basketball team that made it through multiple rounds of the NBA play-offs year after year, and even made it to the championship round several years in a row. I remember one year, I think 1992, on a lovely Saturday in early June, driving through a nearly deserted city to get home to my television set. I was listening to a local station on the car radio and the announcer said: “unless you’ve just this minute arrived from Mars, you know that the Portland Trailblazers are about to play the Chicago Bulls in the NBA Finals.”
Whenever I hear this story about the disciples on the road to Emmaus, I think about that radio announcer. The two disciples think Jesus is the guy who has just arrived from Mars. Are you the only stranger in Jerusalem who does not know the things that have taken place there in these days? Where have you been? How can you be from around here and not get what’s going on? So this week—now that the Blazers are safely out of the playoffs in what has become their customary one round—I have been wondering what the disciples would be talking about along the road. If it happened this week, that Jesus appeared as a stranger to two of his followers as they walked and talked, what would they be talking about? I’m pretty sure they’d be talking about the death of Osama bin Laden.
If the conversations I’ve heard and had this past week are any indication, the discussion might go something like this. The first disciple might say: did you hear what happened? They found Osama bin Laden and killed him. The second one—the one called Cleopas—might say: Did they really find him? Like, are there pictures of his body?
“Yup. They really found him. No pictures, but they did find him. I know they did.”
Cleopas might say “I heard he had a big gun and aimed it right at those Navy Seals. They had no choice but to do it right there.”
“Nope. They said that first, then they said he was unarmed. But so were all the people in the World Trade Center on September 11.”
“What happened to the plan to bring him to trial?”
“He doesn’t need a trial! Everyone knows he’s guilty and deserves to die! Think of those poor families of the victims. They need to have him brought to justice.”
“Hm. I’m not sure what I think about that. And won’t Al Qaida be mad at us all over again? Does this make things better, or worse?”
“Of course it makes things better in the long run. We had to do this. Even if you don’t like it and I don’t like it, we had to do it.”
“People keep posting stuff on Facebook about how we’re supposed to love our enemies and pray for them. I’ll never forget: back when 9/11 happened, my preacher asked us: ‘Isn’t that what it means to be a Christian county? To forgive our enemies’ People walked out of the church.”
Do you trust everything you read on Facebook?
“No. I just am not sure whether revenge is the same thing as justice. But maybe there are times when justice—and certainly the bible—has to take a back seat to national security.”
“What if bin Laden had killed your daughter? That’s what my son asked me the other day. He looked at me and said ‘Dad,’ how would you feel if someone had killed me?’”
“I know. I mean, I don’t know. I don’t know how I’d answer that question.”
“My neighbor, his nephew is a firefighter in New York, and he feels downright excited about this. He was over the other day, the nephew was. When I hear him talk about his experiences over the past ten years, I get it, I totally get it.”
“I get that it’s complicated. Our country is such a….the whole world we live in is a total—”
Right about now, a stranger joins the conversation. What are you two discussing? Who are you talking about?
The two guys turn toward him incredulously. Where have you been? Did you just get here from Mars? They then recount the events of the past ten years and of the past week. He listens patiently to them and then he says:
Oh, how foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have declared! Then, going all the way back to Moses, he interprets to them all the scriptures, the whole story of creation, redemption, and everything in between. They’re all part of the story. Eventually two roads diverge, and the stranger is about to go. The other two pipe up in unison: “Stay with us. It’s late. Let’s share a meal together. We’ll make room.” A little later, they sit down to eat. Even though he was the guest—this guy who seems to know nothing and everything about them and the world they live in—even though he’s the guest he takes the bread, gives thanks, breaks it, and gives it to them.
Something about the way he did that, the way he sat at the table, blessed the bread, broke it open and shared it reminds them of something. Things they had forgotten, they know all over again. They remember love, love that is stronger than the powers and principalities all around them. They remember peace, not peace that is brokered or negotiated, but peace that passes all understanding. They remember hope, not hope as a political slogan but hope for things not seen.
They know Jesus all over again. And in knowing Jesus, they know themselves. They remember that they belong to God. Their “discussions” of a few hours ago seem not to matter so much. All they can think of is that they invited a stranger to break bread with them and he opened their eyes and they saw that he was Jesus. They let him into their conversation and he transformed it into a story of remembering who they are and whose they are. They let him into their evening meal, and he transformed it into a feast of reconciliation and promise. Then he disappeared, so that they could encounter other strangers on the road, and talk with them, and invite them, and share the feast with them again and again and again.
Risen Lord, be known to us in the breaking of the bread.