What shall we build?
What shall we build
A sermon by the Rev. H. Paul Canady III
Rector of Christ Church, New Bern, NC, on the Fifth Sunday of Easter, 2020
May the Words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts be ever pleasing to you O Lord, our Rock, and our redeemer. Amen.
Deep down, I really like building stuff. I always have. When I was younger, I had model airplanes and model ships neatly placed all over my bedroom and even in some strategic places around the house. I had roughly half a zillion Legos at one time or another. And as I was building it the way the instructions said, I was also thinking about how I could make modifications to make it look a little different, give it a different twist, its own personality, if you will. Very rarely did that creativity explode into what I was doing. It was part of a bubbling up, a constant process of seeing what is and visualizing what could be.
The New Testament Scriptures during the season of Easter are a lot like that creative process. During the seven weeks of this season, we are graced with a set of readings that put us on a trajectory from a moment to a movement. In place of readings from Hebrew Scripture, we hear from the Acts of the Apostles and the early days of the Jesus movement after Jesus’ ascension. In the Gospels, we hear several moments of Jesus and his disciples after his Resurrection and before his Ascension followed by some reminders of his earlier teachings about his identity and his calling. We also get readings from some other New Testament letters that we don’t hear very often. Last year it was the Book of Revelation, next year it is the First Letter of John. This year, we hear a collection of readings from the First Letter of Peter. All of these together move us down the road through the Great 50 Days of Easter to Pentecost; from celebrating the awe and wonder of the Resurrection to getting down to the business of what it means to be the people who actively proclaim *that* resurrection not only with our lips but in our lives. Each lesson and set of lessons builds upon the other. If you’ve ever read the book of Acts, or any of the Apostle Paul’s writings, or even the writings we have from Peter and John, you’ll know that the road wasn’t easy. Nothing worth having ever is.
Today’s Acts reading reminds us that speaking up for Jesus can cost us our very lives. The passage from John’s Gospel reminds us that even the closest followers of Jesus, his disciples, can fail to see the bigger picture of who and what is right in front of them. And today’s passage from First Peter is a reminder that building the Kingdom of God and the Jesus movement requires all of us to find ourselves in the story of God’s people. The whole of First Peter is written to encourage Gentile followers of Jesus in the early days of the Church. It was most likely written in the early 60s, about 30 years after Jesus’ life and ministry. It encourages Gentile followers to remember that Jesus’ story is rooted in the stories of Israel found in Hebrew scripture, and that Gentile converts to the Jesus movement should find their identity in the same stories. That’s why he uses the images of a chosen race, royal priesthood, and holy nation. He envokes the prophet Hosea when he says,
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.
He’s recalling that moment when God’s people had wandered away from God and began to turn back. They didn't turn back because of wrath or punishment, but out of Love for God, because God loved them first. Peter is reminding his flock, especially those who had not been part of the Jewish tradition before following Jesus, that they are part of a bigger story and a bigger picture. AND he’s reminding them that as followers of Jesus, they have a chance to build up something that will continue to change the world. Jesus is the cornerstone, the point in the structure from which all the walls and doors and windows and the roof are measured. By the way, who better to talk about stones and buildings than Peter, whose very name in Greek means Stone. He's the one to whom Jesus said in the Gospel of Matthew, "You are Peter and on this rock I will build my church."
What does it mean if we are to be the living stones that help build that spiritual house? Peter calls his flock “living stones” because the movement of Jesus and the Church was not meant to just sit around. The call is to do something in the name of Jesus to change the lives of people we encounter and to allow our lives to be changed by it, too.
As I was pondering the “living stones” metaphor, I thought about coral reefs. They are strong and hard (you do not want to scrape against them), they are anchored, and they also give life. They contribute to the health of the ocean and are the home for many, many creatures. Just watch Finding Nemo to learn more!
When I was in college, I had a roommate, Dan Westman, who liked to tinker with things. He was more adept at fixing stuff than I was, but I learned a great deal about problem-solving from him. Not every fix is universal. Not everything we build works in all situations. Sometimes we just have to do the very best we can with what we have. Dan also had a great phrase whenever he was finished fixing whatever needed fixing. He’d say, “OK. It works. But now it has rules. This shelf will hold everything that we need it to hold. BUT! Things have to go in this particular order or it will all fall down.”
Unlike Legos, sometimes, things cannot get put back together exactly the way they were before. COVID-19 has broken a lot of systems and has revealed terrible flaws in many things. It also presents challenges for faith communities. Where there are challenges, there are opportunities. And ours is a God who does not quit. The stories of the Hebrew scripture tell us that, and the Cross and Empty tomb tell us that. We have a chance to be the living stones, looking to Christ as our cornerstone, to rebuild and reimagine so many things. What will it mean to be the Body of Christ as a worshiping community, an online community, and serving in our community? Time will tell, but I believe that through prayer, work, and discernment, God will not only use each and every one of us to build up the Jesus movement, but our world and our faith will be stronger for it.
I'm committed to prayer for what God is calling us to do and how God is calling us to be in this new age, knowing that prayer leads to action. I hope you will join me and so many others in listening and looking for how God is going to take these Living Stones, you and me, and build something amazing.