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Who Are YOU?

Sermon - 4/20/08
Daniel E. H. Bryant
First Christian Church, Eugene, Oregon

1 Peter 2:4-10

Our text this morning is continuing in the first letter of Peter, in chapter 2, verses 4 through 10 (we began a study of Peter last Sunday, and will continue it for a couple more Sundays, so I invite you to be reading 1 Peter through the week):

Come to him, a living stone, though rejected by mortals yet chosen and precious in God’s sight, and 5like 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. 6For it stands in scripture:
‘See, I am laying in Zion a stone,
   a cornerstone chosen and precious;
and whoever believes in him will not be put to shame.’
7To you then who believe, he is precious; but for those who do not believe,
‘The stone that the builders rejected
   has become the very head of the corner’,
8and
‘A stone that makes them stumble,
   and a rock that makes them fall.’
They stumble because they disobey the word, as they were destined to do.

9 But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people, in order that you may proclaim the mighty acts of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light.
10Once you were not a people,
   but now you are God’s people;
once you had not received mercy,
   but now you have received mercy.

 

There is a scene from the Disney version of “Alice in Wonderland”, a movie our children used to watch more than a few years ago, in which Alice is confronted by that caterpillar sitting on a mushroom smoking some kind of water pipe--a rather suggestive image that I am not all to sure is appropriate for young children--she says to the caterpillar, “Who are you?” To which the caterpillar responds, “The question is, who are YOU?”
It is an important question for us to consider, “Who - are - you?” No matter who you are, from the top executive to the janitor who cleans the floor, knowing who you are is important in order to live with a sense of integrity and purpose.

Sociological studies of the first century as well as evidence within the New Testament suggest that the first Christians were people largely displaced and dispossessed, and not just religiously. Socially, economically, politically, the outcasts of society, the lepers, the tax collectors, the slaves, the peasants, were the people who responded first and foremost to that message of God’s love.

As I suggested last Sunday, 1 Peter is a letter written with such a group in mind, filled with references to exiles, aliens and slaves, who knew what it meant to say, once you were not a people, once you had not received mercy. The text expresses the reality of peoples lives, who were no people, who were nobody. Just as Jesus was rejected, so too were they.

The question of identity thus is not an academic one, an intellectual pursuit, rather it is critical to our self understanding and especially to that identity of the early church. Peter asserts that in Christ God has created a new identity for this people, a new place for a people who had none. Don’t let anyone tell you that you are a nobody, because God has made you a somebody. Don’t let anyone point to someone else and call them a nobody because they are different, because of the way they dress, because of their funny accent or different skin color, they are somebody in God’s eyes.

Peter offers that message of hope to these people. The portrait of this rather raggedy band that Peter paints is not the heart warming portrait of gentle tones and mild pastels, a soft light of an Olan Mills church directory. Rather it is bold, it’s big, its a stunning picture of bright, royal colors that present such grandeur that it takes our breath away like a Van Gogh’s Starry Night or a Rembrandt’s Madonna. YOU are a chosen people, a holy nation, a royal priesthood, God’s own people. You see, how incredible this is? How grandiose? How this plain, ordinary group of folk, largely powerless in the eyes of the world, can be elevated to such a level?

Why is that? How is it possible? Is it because of their enormous sacrifices to build great edifices in which to worship? Is it because of their personal achievements overcoming all the odds? Is it because of their high moral character and the great deeds they do for others? No, says Peter. Rather it is solely because of that stone that holds everything else together, the keystone, the cap to that arch that keeps the whole thing standing, the foundation of faith, the cornerstone on which our faith was built, the stone that was rejected, just as these people felt rejected. The stone that God had made as the most important piece of the whole structure. In other words, it is not anything that the people do, it is not anything that we do, it is what God has done that makes us this royal nation.

We think of stones as being rather cold, inanimate objects impersonal. But Peter calls this stone a living stone. it is rather an odd image. It makes us stop and think, what is this?

Peter pulls out every scriptural reference he can find to explain what this living stone is about. The notion of a stone rejected by the builders which becomes the cornerstone or in some translations the keystone at the top of an arch, is taken from Psalm 118 and Isaiah 28. The stone that causes people to stumble is taken from Isaiah 8. The idea of a holy nation and a royal priesthood comes from Exodus. And the final quote, “Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people...” is taken directly from Hosea. Christ is this living stone. The image ultimately is about that power of God that gives life to inanimate objects, that brings life out of death. Peter builds on this image, suggesting that those who follow Jesus are also living stones.
Recall too that Peter means what, rock. The rock on which the church is founded, is the confession of Peter, “You are the Christ, the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” We also are those rocks, living stones, the house of faith.

Three strike me about this image of house of living stones. First, Peter does not refer to hous-es, to chosen nation-s, to royal priesthood-s, to race-s. Rather it is singular: house, nation, priesthood, race, people. The disunity of the body of Christ today is a travesty that serves no one save those that would destroy the church. Just as we pledge allegiance to one nation under God, we as Christian people are one people under God, united in Christ.

Every ten years we have an opportunity to participate in a census, mandated by Congress since 1790. Every time you are asked to check off a little box to indicate your race or ethnic origin. Every time it seems like the list of options keeps getting longer: Caucasian, African-American, Asian-American, Native American, Hispanic, Pacific Islander, etc. Every time I fill one of those out, I wonder, why don’t they have a box that says, “same as last year”. All the data our government is constantly collecting about us to make sure none of us are terrorists and you are telling me they don’t know the color of my skin? Are they just checking to see if any of us have changed?

Of course at the end of that long list is the final catch-all category: “other.” Who wants to be “other”? If you’ve watched the suspense drama “Lost”, you know it’s not good to be one of “the others.” But what if, all the 2 billion Christians of the world, whenever we are asked that question, checked that box, “other”, and wrote in “Christian”? Isn’t that the message? “There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave or free, male or female, all are one in Christ Jesus.” When will be identified primarily not by our color of skin, not by what divides us but by what unites us. “Whether red, yellow, black or white, all are precious in God’s sight, Jesus loves the little children of the world,” isn’t that what it’s about? Not just one nation, but one people under God.

A second thing that strikes me about this house of living stones is the furnishing. Did you note the furnishings? There are no chairs of malice in the house of living stones. No tables of guile, no cupboards of insincerity, no beds of envy, no TVs of obscenity--now that's redundant. Show me a house without any of these things and I will show a house of living stones, a house of God. So with what shall this house be furnished? Rugs of responsibility, appliances of accountability and portraits of faith. Responsibility, because without each one of us, the living stones, the house is incomplete, each person has a place in it, each is given a responsibility.

Accountability because we are accountable to each other. That’s why I have a problem with those who say, ‘Well, I do my own thing, you know, faith is a personal thing, I worship in my own way, it’s between me and God.” The Christian community is just that, it is a community. You cannot be a Christian alone.

Faith--the difference between Christians and non-Christians is not that some see Jesus and some do not, rather it is what we see in Jesus. Some see just an odd shaped piece that does not fit in their world. A stumbling block. And others see the keystone, the cornerstone, the foundation of our faith.

The third thing that strikes me about this house of living stones is its location. Did you note its location in the text? This is not a retreat house up in the mountains or on the beach, a place where we go to get away from it all. Rather it is located on that prime real estate downtown, the corner of Main and Broadway, the most visible place where you best can proclaim the mighty act of the One who called you out of darkness and into the marvelous light of God.

And if we are to be such a house of living stones, a light to the world in the heart of Eugene, then we must be in the world but not of it. We must be living stones not inanimate objects. We must truly be different, shining with the presence of the Divine, living with the confidence that we are wholly God’s, and with this confidence, we must as Captain James T. Kirk, my favorite theologian, says, “Go boldly” into the universe to proclaim the mighty acts of God.

In this house of God we feast at the table of the Lord, we find comfort and rest, we receive encouragement and love. It is therefore tempting to do as Psalm 23 proclaims, to dwell in the house of the Lord forever. The heck with the world out there, it’s safe and warm in here. Of course that is not the intent of Psalm 23 nor would that fit very well with the Great Commission to go and make disciples of all nations.

Our preacher on Friday at the regional assembly, Gay Reese, told us in the afternoon workshop that when they asked pastors in their research project on growing churches what the hardest thing was for them to do, the number one hardest thing they heard from almost all of these pastors was to keep their focus on the outside of the church. There are so many needs inside the church, people who need attention, committees that need attention, people in committees who need attention, it is hard, they said, to remember that our primary calling is outside, not inside the church.

Then she told us a story about the power of prayer to break down those walls that keep us isolated from the rest of the world:

There was a church, an older church -- a church of old people -- and she emphasized that many times.  OLD people.  Not like any of us J.  These are really old people.  And they felt they needed youth -- some young people.  From their perspective, anyone that wasn't living on social security J.  And so they prayed.  A group of 8 elderly women got together for prayer every week, and they would pray for young people.  And they would pray every day at home, they would pray at the church.  They would pray for other things, but mostly they would pray youth and new life in the church.

After a year of prayer, they checked back with the pastor and asked how it was going.  He said "Well, it's going OK".  "Any new youth?"  "No, no new youth".

So they kept praying.  On the 13th month, the pastor, an Episcopalian (and like most Episcopalian's, he wore a collar, easy to spot), was sitting in a Starbucks when a young person off the street, long baggy pants, dreadlocks, tattoos, metal hanging from his belt, metal hanging from his hip picket, metal hanging from his ears, metal hanging from his nose, metal hanging from his lip, this unsightly youth that probably wouldn't feel comfortable in most of our churches, came up to him and said:

"Do you have to have a body for a funeral?"

The pastor said "What?".  Not exactly the conversation starter that you're used to.

"Do you have to have a body for a funeral?"

The pastor, God bless him, said:  "Why don't you sit down and talk to me about what's going on".  The kid sat down and told a story of a friend who died on the street.  Might have been suicide, maybe an accidental drug overdose, who knows.  But he and a dozen or so friends never had an opportunity to grieve.  The family came in claimed the body, whisked him away for a service somewhere else.  They wanted to have a service for their friend, and didn't know how to do it.

So the pastor said: "Why don't you come to my office and we'll talk more about it.  Tell your friends that we'll hold a service on Friday afternoon".

So he called up Gertrude on that prayer committee, and says:  "Guess what, we've got some youth coming J.  About a dozen of them are coming for this memorial service.  Can you prepare some food?"  They're used to doing that, they know how to do that.

Well, when they were praying, they kept having this image of home.  They didn't know why.  They looked at this church, this old Episcopal stone church, inanimate, cold, stone church.  They thought 'we need to do something to make it look like home'.  So they brought in doilies, and bowls of M&M's.  You know, to make it like Grandma's house.  Making kids feel comfortable.  They made home-made soup, and filled up the church with the aroma.  Get ready for these dozen kids.

50 more came.  The call went out that they needed more food.  They noticed the kids had holes in their shoes, and holes in their jackets.  They opened up the cupboards and brought out clothes.  The kids stayed for 4 hours.

Gay told us that if you go to any Starbucks, coffee shops, or stores in that community, you'll see a poster of Gertrude bending over a big pot of soup.  And the poster says "Come to Grandma's House".

Now two or three times every week, the youth come to that church, off the streets.   A place where they're warm, safe, and fed.

“Come to Grandma’s House.”  What a wonderful image of the church, Grandma’s house, a place where you are accepted, loved, treasured and treated to bowls of goodies and plates of soul-nourishing food. What I love about that story is not only what it says about the power of prayer and of accepting those youth without judging them, but also that the congregation, a church of old people, did not try to be something they were not, but instead found their calling in claiming their identity for who they were, grandmas and grandpas called by God to be a house of living stones, a spiritual house where the presence of God was alive and palatable.

The author of 1 Peter seems to think that if the people of God have a strong grounding in their identity and unity in Christ, it doesn’t matter where they come from or what language they speak, it doesn’t matter how they dress or how they look, it doesn’t matter if they are slaves, exiles or foreigners, it doesn’t matter how old or how young they are, they can be someone special, they can do something spectacular.

Who are you?

You are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people.

Proclaim the mighty acts of the One who has called you out of darkness into God’s marvelous light.

 


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