Sunday, May 18, 2014

Rockiness - Easter 5 Sermon

The Audio can be found at [ ]
The Text follows:

What is a living stone?  Is it something worth desiring to have?  [How many of You remember the Pet rock fad?]  How does one become a living stone?  Do you want to be one?

In today's second reading, Peter refers to Christ as the "Living Stone" which has become the cornerstone of the church.  What does he mean by this phrase "a living stone"?  After all, a stone by its very nature is an inanimate object, that is, one that does not have life. 

Well there are a few exceptions.  We think of coral as a stone.  It is when we see it in someone’s home on a shelf or a mantel.  It can be a beautiful rock hard decoration that someone uses to accent their home.  Yet prior to being broken away from the sea floor, this was a living element of the universe.  Extremely slow growing, affected by other elements in the water which affects color and shape, we know that pollution can even kill the coral.

In some of the old construction around St. Croix, the builders used almost anything they could get their hands on to build walls and stairs.  The bricks used for ballast in the holds of sailing vessels were generally thrown overboard when the ships arrived in port.  For the casks of rum would provide the ballast for the return trip to Europe.  Builder’s helpers would dive into the harbor and pull up usable items to build the walls and stairwells in this island community.  Along the way they might gather in some of the coral and discarded bottles from rum that never made it to Europe.  So living stones are not necessarily inanimate objects, and they are not always carefully chosen.

Webster defines a stone as a rock which is used for a specific purpose, such as a building block, a paving block, a grindstone or a gravestone.  Occasionally in television commercials that celebrate the longevity of companies or cities, filmmakers will use old film footage of the construction of trademark buildings in NYC or Philadelphia.  These films generally start with scenes of the foundation stones being quarried.  These stones are cut and lifted into place for use in the building of skyscrapers.  Even this week we saw the same evidence of the bedrock of Manhattan being the foundation of the new World Trade Center. 

If stone is used for these specific purposes, then we must next ask why it is used for these purposes.  Obviously, a stone is known for its permanence, its imperviousness to change or to things like the weather.  It is also not easily moved from one place to another, especially if it is a large stone.  Once placed in a specific spot, it will stay there unless a greater force is exerted upon it.  We have witnessed that in the reconstruction of the stairway into the Upper Darby Township Building at Garrett and Long Lane.

It is no wonder that contractors use stone for the walls in foundations.  It is built to keep out the soil that has been carved into for a basement.  The stone keeps out the dirt and the water, and the roots of other intrusive living things.  That’s why the builders of this church first planted a stone basement on this site at 7240 Walnut.  Often times in Philadelphia I have seen churches that worshipped in there basements before they began to make plans for finishing the building.  Sometimes they never built the upper structure of the church. 
If and when they finished it they did not build a frame structure to fit on top of the stone foundation.  They wanted something with permanence.  They wanted a fortress to fight against sin.  They wanted a safe haven for the gathered community of believers.  They wanted shelter for those who were lost, but by the grace of God could be found.  They finished building this church with stone.

Now what Peter (who himself was named "the Rock" by none other than Christ) is doing in this second reading is attributing the qualities of a stone to a living person, Jesus Christ.  This is someone who can sleep through storms that toss a ship and frighten the entire crew.  This is someone who can speak to stormy waters and calm them down.  This is someone who can do verbal battle with lawyers and judges, and even the leaders of his church.  This is someone who when confronted with the choice of living and dying, chose death so that others might live, and live abundantly.  Someone who is "a stone" exhibits the qualities of bravery, courage and loyalty in the face of danger, but who is also willing to pay the ultimate price, to lay down their life for others.

In his definition of the word "live", Webster points out that it can describe someone who has attained eternal life.  Thus, someone who is said to be "living" has attained eternal life through Christ, by following the model of self-sacrifice which Christ provided.  Most of us do not come into situations that call for that kind of sacrificial giving.

2:6 For 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."
2:7 To 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,"
2:8 and "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.

Not everyone hears on the first reading.  We are fortunate that God knows that our senses continually need to be tested.  God is asking us today and every day, how are you witnessing to your faith for those who walk by my planting.  Are you continuing to be a fortress for those seeking safety?  I don’t find it any wonder that that there are significant crowds in our stone building on any day of the week. People who come to this stone building know that they need the support of one another.  They need the reinforcement of gathering together in community.  They seek personal support in their beginning a new life in a new country with a new language.  They seek support in caring for their children after school while they are still at work.  They seek a save place for their children to learn and play during a summer of vacation. They seek support in sustaining life in a time of food insufficiency on a weekly or monthly basis. They need the spiritual support of the stories of the power of God that has kept others on a path where they can be a foundation stone and not a tumbling rock.

Our challenge is to see if we can identify ourselves as stoned Christians, who are ready to share our space and place of support that is based on the Rock of our Faith.  It is not just for other, for we too need the support of one another.  We need the reinforcement of gathering together in community.  We need the spiritual support of the stories of the power of God.  When we gather to study scripture, when we gather to teach scripture to others, it is our own Christian story as a disciple of Jesus that helps us focus on the path set before us by Jesus and his disciples.  It is our own Christian journey that keeps us on a path where we can be a foundation stone and not a tumbling rock.  It is our own consecration and dedication to the mission of Christ to go into the entire world baptizing in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit that defines our reason for being here.

2:9 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.
2:10 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.


My thanks to the following colleagues: MARK STAHLHUT, SILVERIUS F. GALVAN

Monday, May 12, 2014

Fourth Sunday after Easter or Mother's Day or Good Shepherd Sunday

With a trifecta in the works for this past Sunday, my thoughts are really in my sermon.
The audio can be found at: [ ].
The text Follows:

We have three lessons that focus on the Good Shepherd.  Often we speak of Jesus as the Good Shepherd.  There are times when people look at me, sometimes out loud, but often in thoughts, their eyes seem to say that I am the shepherd.  Recently, I asked one of our members if another member could be a closer contact for them, so in essence I was asking them to be a shepherd.  Our confirmation students recently wrote letters asking for members of the congregation to serve as their mentors for the coming year.  These mentors are being asked to shepherd these young members in our midst.  In many ways we all share in our roles shepherds in the body of Christ. 

We have several persons who are in new member’s class.  They have chosen to join this congregation, this flock.  For in our midst, they feel that they hear the voice of the shepherd and it is with this flock that they want to travel and follow the shepherd.

Acts 2:42 They devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. 2:43 Awe came upon everyone, because many wonders and signs were being done by the apostles. 2:44 All who believed were together and had all things in common; 2:45 they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need. 2:46 Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, 2:47 praising God and having the goodwill of all the people.  And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved.

I must admit that it seems like every week is a tough week, when it comes to living together in community.  For over a month, families in Northern Nigeria have been seeking the return of their daughters, who have been kidnapped.  Violence attributed to religious differences seems to be overpowering common sense.  Religious leaders of all faiths have condemned this taking of young girls from a school and then stating that they are to be sold as wives.  And that does not account for the villages and towns that have been decimated.  Sin still happens, even when there is a shepherd in Town. Perhaps that is the place of the church, to be a safe place, a sanctuary, where shepherds and sheep dogs are available.

We may already be meeting the challenge to this church and others to be one of the places of safety (another meaning of "saved" in v. 9), and, perhaps, places for the grieving to lament before God.  Perhaps the church is a pasture for the feeding of the flock, as we come and hear the words of God and share in the meal that is presented at the table.  For those joining the congregation, they have chosen this place to be a place of salvation and grace.  They will publicly announce that they want to continue in their lives as people saved by the grace of God through the loving act of Jesus Christ upon a cross. 

1 Peter 2:19 For it is a credit to you if, being aware of God, you endure pain while suffering unjustly. 2:20 If you endure when you are beaten for doing wrong, what credit is that? But if you endure when you do right and suffer for it, you have God's approval. 2:21 For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you should follow in his steps. 2:22 "He committed no sin, and no deceit was found in his mouth." 2:23 When he was abused, he did not return abuse; when he suffered, he did not threaten; but he entrusted himself to the one who judges justly. 2:24 He himself bore our sins in his body on the cross, so that, free from sins, we might live for righteousness; by his wounds you have been healed. 2:25 For you were going astray like sheep, but now you have returned to the shepherd and guardian of your souls.

There are others in our midst, who come faithfully.  They too are a part of God’s enduring plan.  They lead, they teach, they clean, they sing, they read, they study, they work, they are the people of God who find their support in this flock.  This is not unlike a small town. This congregation serves as a well that continually offers a cup of water to the thirsty and a morsel of food to the hungry.  As I have looked at the directory of the church, it is clearly a place that has been at the center of this community. Many of you have lived within 10 blocks of the church.  That is a significant number.  This neighborhood is like your flock’s village, your grazing ground.  This is home turf.  This is comfortable turf.  This is a place you know and love, even those of you who now live beyond that 10 block target.

We lift up the caring hand of the shepherd who knows the sheep and says that the flock is larger than you imagined.  The grazing land is broader than the eye can see or the feet can walk.  Our hope is that we can find leaders in our congregation that can continue to reach out and support those who are new to the community.  An even greater challenge is to let go of those who have been in our midst who find new places to work and live that are no longer a commuting distance form Christ Lutheran Church.  In the past year a number of our members have relocated out of the neighborhood, or out of the state.  Our task is to share with them the pain of leaving and the guidance to find a new community who will meet their needs.

John10:1 "Very truly, I tell you, anyone who does not enter the sheepfold  by the gate but climbs in by another way is a thief and  a bandit. 10:2 The one who enters by the gate is the shepherd of the sheep. 10:3 The gatekeeper opens the gate for him, and the sheep hear  his voice. He calls his own sheep by name and leads them  out. 10:4 When he has brought out all his own, he goes ahead of them,  and the sheep follow him because they know his voice. 10:5 They will not follow a stranger, but they will run from  him because they do not know the voice of strangers." 10:6 Jesus used this figure of speech with them, but they did  not understand what he was saying to them. 10:7 So again Jesus said to them, "Very truly, I tell you, I  am the gate for the sheep. 10:8 All who came before me are thieves and bandits; but the  sheep did not listen to them. 10:9 I am the gate. Whoever enters by me will be saved, and will  come in and go out and find pasture. 10:10 The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came  that they may have life, and have it abundantly.

How do sheep hear and what do they hear when they are noted to respond to the voice of the shepherd.  The ambiguity of "phone" as "sound" or "voice" may be intentional. Somewhere I remember hearing that each shepherd had a special whistle or sound that called his own sheep. While the sheep were grazing on the hillside, different flocks would mingle together. When it was time to return to the fold, the shepherds made their sounds and their own sheep knew that sound and went to it.

However, I know (from watching National Geographic specials) that there is often a sound (and smell?) connection between young animals and their mothers.  The offspring recognize their mother's call and follow it, but not that of another. Perhaps that is why on this day we remember the household shepherd who seems to be the rock to who many of us turn for guidance and support. That image, as well as the shepherd calling his own sheep by name, denotes a close intimate relationship between shepherd and sheep, not unlike mother and children.

We have tended to see our Christian life as that which happens in the sheepfold (i.e., in church) -- when we can all be huddled together in the safety of the enclosure.  In sports, the purpose of the huddle is to inform and encourage each member of the team on how we plan to win a victory.  If they only stayed in the huddle talking about what they are going to do, holding hands, slapping each other on the butts, etc., nothing will get accomplished.  That is avoiding the contest which can take a lot of effort and cause a lot of pain, but which God has guaranteed we will win.  Note that the shepherd leads the sheep *out* of the fold in v. 3. V. 9 talks about coming in and going *out*.  We need to discover better ways of helping our people live Christ centered lives in this sinful, difficult world.  Perhaps a start would be not to degrade any human being, yet, at the same time, be aware of the reality of evil that can exist in individuals.

Maybe as we seek to dedicate our lives to Christ, as we seek to consecrate our ministries to the Lord, maybe we need to repeat again the psalm that seems to give strength in all times that seem illogical, at all times it defies explanation, Yet at all times when we need to recognize the identity of the shepherd, we say Psalm 23.