May 14, 2017
Fifth Sunday of Easter
Donna G. Joy
Acts 7:55-60; Psalm 31:1-5, 15-16; 1 Peter 2:2-10; John 14:1-14
Each of our readings this morning teaches us something about our identity as Disciples of Christ. In this culture in which we live, where people all-too-often base their identity on more surface things (like position, life style, possessions, etc.), there is - I think - a deeply rooted longing for an identity that is built on something deeper and more solid. Many of us will recall Alex Haley's book 'Roots: The Saga of an American Family' which was first published in the 1970's, where the author discovers a sense of his own ancestral identity as he recaptures the history of his own family. With the publication of this book, he has helped countless people recognize the need to dig deep into our ancestral roots.
I am also reminded of Melba Pattillo Beals who also has helped countless people discover a deeply rooted sense of identity. She made history as a member of the Little Rock Nine; that is, the nine African-American students involved in the desegregation of Little Rock Central High School in 1957. The world watched as they braved constant intimidation and threats from those who opposed desegregation of the formerly all-white high school. Indeed, stories such the stoning of Stephen continue, as faithful, courageous people speak the truth to power in order to build a better world. She later recounted this harrowing year in her book titled 'Warriors Don’t Cry: A Searing Memoir of the Battle to Desegregate Little Rock’s Central High School.'
In her book she talks about segregationists, who attempted to put a stop to integration. These nine 17 or 18 year-old, courageous students experienced devastating and cruel adversity in their quest for acceptance by the white majority. She says, though, that she was motivated to continue the fight for integration by her wise grandmother who said, "We are... God's ideas [and] you must strive to be the best of what God made you." And in saying this, a grandmother gave her granddaughter the gift of identity. She affirmed that, as a young black woman, she was "God's idea" and had a responsibility to follow her inclination to help make the world a fair and just place.
Imagine that. Each and every one of you exists because you are God's idea. Every single person you know: those you like, and those you don't... every single one exists because they - too - are God's idea.
So, what this wise grandmother is offering us here, is an opportunity to recognize that something deep within us longs to discover our roots, and while searching our family ancestry is (I think) a rewarding and important, as a people of faith there is an ever deeper identity that exists within each of us. Augustine: "The heart is restless until it rests in thee."
And with this in mind, I turn to our epistle this morning, where the author is telling his audience - not simply - what to do or how to do it. He is, instead, reshaping their identity in line with something much deeper; that is, that each one exists because they are God's idea, and are therefore part of God's plan to become followers/disciples of Christ. This reading offers a series of images with which new Christians - and the church as a whole - could be defined. A powerful image here is that of stone...
Here I need to refer to our first reading from the Book of Acts where we recalled the story of the stoning of Stephen. Much of this text is intentionally linking Stephen's execution to the death of Jesus. Clearly, Stephen's primary identity would be defined as a follower/disciple of Christ. This stoning comes at the end of a sermon where he concludes with remarks that launch a penetrating criticism of Solomon's temple. He regards Solomon's decision to build a temple for God as a major step backward, siding instead with the prophetic sentiment that God's presence cannot be confined to sacred buildings.
And clearly, the audience is enraged to the point of gritting their teeth (an image very common throughout Hebrew Scripture); they force him out of the city (a move reminiscent of Jesus' eviction from Nazareth after his inaugural sermon in Luke’s Gospel); and they stone him to death which throughout H.S. is a form of agonizing punishment used for certain serious offences. Again, throughout this reading, it is clear that Stephen's primary identity is rooted in Christ; his primary identity is found in his willingness to sacrifice everything - even to the point of death - for the sake of witnessing to his faith. Peter, Stephen, Paul... each of these pivotal N.T. characters find their primary identity in Christ... in carrying out the work of Christ in word, deed, sacrifice, life, and if necessary... even death. God had an idea that this world needed a Peter, a Stephen, and a Paul; and that idea blossomed as they followed the call - and the way - of Christ.
Now, back to the image of stones... In our epistle, Christ is described as the small, insignificant stone that has been rejected. Stephen is put to death by stoning. However, that seemingly insignificant stone has risen to new life through the resurrection and has become the cornerstone upon which the whole rest of God's house will be built. Stephen, even in death, has become part of God's expansive house.
And this is where Stephen's message about God not being confined to a building begins to make sense, because suddenly with this imagery, God really, truly is NOT confined to a building. This building in which we worship and through which we share ministry, is not actually 'the church.' We are the church. Marva Dawn in her book 'Keeping the Sabbath Wholly: Ceasing. Resting. Embracing.
Feasting' is making this point when she says, "To say 'I am going to church' both reveals and promotes bad theology." Please don't feel embarrassed that you say this, because we all do. When people asked, "What did you do today?" Our response is often, "Well, I went to church... But if we take this message from our epistle to heart, we have to come to terms with the fact that this is not the right thing to say. We have come here today to worship in order to allow Jesus - the cornerstone - to help build us (these living stones) into the holy temple that we are called to be.
Elsewhere in the N.T. in Ephesians, we are told that Jesus Christ is the chief cornerstone; the apostles and prophets are foundation stones; and the whole building of the living stones (the church) - that is, each of us - is a holy temple. Each of us here today, joins together with the whole communion of the saints on earth and heaven, and we are reminded that we are God's idea - hand-picked - and called to be one of the precious stones that builds God's holy temple.
And finally, of course, we cannot speak of the building of God's house without referring to our Gospel this morning where Jesus says, "In my Father's house there are many dwelling places... and I am going to prepare a place for you... so that where I am, there you may be also." Through Jesus, God continues to nurture us... (God’s great ideas). We all know that it is one thing to come up with a good idea; but it is another thing to leave that idea to flourish on its own.
When David and I were finished our house renovation, we got the idea to create a perennial border garden in our tiny front yard. We created the plan. Chose what we thought would do well. Prepared the soil. And got busy planting. We know, however, that if we failed to tend it, care for it, trim it - love it - in time it would become unkempt and its chances of flourishing would be impossible. So when God has an idea to create a Margaret, or a Marian, or a Vera, or any one of us, God never leaves us to fend for ourselves.
As Lissa pointed out a couple of weeks ago, during this post resurrection time, the storms within our own personal lives, throughout the church universal, and the world still exist... that illness that we now have to live with... that broken relationship that continues to cause such pain and suffering... that job loss that is devastating... all these heart aches still exist today as they did on Good Friday. But with the resurrection, we are reminded that we have not been abandoned.
The risen Christ is here with us in Word (such as these rich stories this morning), and in Sacrament as we are invited at the Eucharist to encounter and be nourished by the risen Christ, and this ever-faithful God (through Jesus) - through worship - feeds us and gives us strength along the way. And as we receive this sustenance and strength, we become ready to leave this place of worship to go out and be - living stones - to be the church in the world... to change the world in whatever small or large ways we may make a difference.
In John's Gospel this morning, Jesus is telling his disciples that he is not going to be with them for much longer; but the Good News is that wherever we may be - in life or in death - we may discover that the risen Christ has prepared a place for us. Of course, this passage offers hope and Good News in life after death, which tends to often be a rather narrow focus for this text. But this text is also profoundly good news in this life, because it means that the risen Christ has prepared a place for us to be with him in the midst of all the storms and turmoil we can ever know; Christ has prepared a place for us to be with him in the midst of our sadness, or pain, or disappointment; Christ has prepared a place for us to be with him in the midst of our sin... so that through it all we can continue to be cared for and nurtured, and become the very stones that build God's holy temple.
As I look around me today, I am reminded that the God we worship is full of good ideas, and nurtures those good ideas - one living stone at a time...