From Rocks to a Growing PlaceÂ
Acts 7: 55-60;Â 1Peter 2:2-10
Delivered by Rev. Elisabeth R. Jones
Have you ever felt like a nobody?Â
Maybe it was in high schoolâ€¦
the â€œinâ€ crowd did not include you, and they let you know it.
Perhaps it was in your workplace,
where the decision making happened without you.
Most of us end up feeling like a nobody,
particularly with Government offices or telephone companies
when we are no longer a human being but a â€˜file numberâ€™â€¦
And which of us feels like a â€˜somebodyâ€™
when weâ€™re wearing one of those ridiculous hospital gowns,
guaranteed to strip dignity, identity and self-worth to shreds.
Weâ€™ve all had at least one moment in our lives
when we felt like nothing, nameless, numberless, nobodies.
The New Testament letter commonly referred to as â€œFirst Peterâ€
was written to a small group of nobodies. Â
Now these nobodies were not down and out destitute nobodies,
cast off to the margins of society,
like the groups of nobodies that make their homes in the downtown Metro stations.
Nor yet were they a beleaguered band of zealous Christians staring down the armoured tanks of Roman oppression, hiding from soldiers looking for lion fodder for the Roman ColiseumÂ – that would be to Tabloid press over-dramatize their situation. They were your common or garden religious minority nobodies in a pluralist but not particularly generous spirited culture, living in the late first century somewhere in Asia Minor (where modern day Greece and Macedonia and Turkey are).
How can I help you imagine what this group of nobodies was like?
Letâ€™s seeâ€¦ religious minorities in a pluralist but not particularly generous spirited cultureâ€¦.? Well, they were rather like a group of liberal/progressive affirming Christians trying to be a voice of welcome and acceptance in a society that is at best indifferent, or mildly derisive, or at worst verbally antagonistic to their attempts to â€œ keep Jesusâ€™ message relevant and real in a complex world.â€
I guess they are kind of like us.
But why the letter? Who writes to nobodies? And for what purpose? The writer knows what itâ€™s like to feel like a nobody. Knows first hand how disheartening it can be to be ignored, or ridiculed, or to face those few yet tense moments when the cross causes conflict. The writer, also knows that this particular group is getting weary. Perhaps their numbers are slowly dwindling as the older generationÂ – the ones who may have known Jesus or his apostles first hand, die off, and with them the halcyon days of packed gatherings.
This writer is hearing the inevitable rumbling question: Why bother?
Why bother with this meeting and sharing and caring, and avoiding the sins of the flesh, and being nice to awkward and sometimes unlovable people, andÂ giving money away to others when thereâ€™s barely enough to keep, andâ€¦ andâ€¦all those other things Jesus and the apostles taught them to do and be. Why keep going? Is it going to amount to anything? Is it worth the effort?
Thatâ€™s why the letter.
You might find this letter in the Carlton or the Hallmark store in the section marked â€˜encouragementâ€™ -you know the ones-those cards that have a frogÂ on the front hanging on to a twig by one leg with the words inside saying â€œhang in there!â€Â or, more likely the cards with a placid lake scene on the front, and some carefully calligraphed poem that inspires us to keep on keeping on. This letter called â€œFirst Peterâ€ is a Hallmark card/letter of encouragement.
The envelope is addressed â€“not very encouragingly â€“ â€œTo the Nobodies, out there in the backwaters of Empire, miles from the centre, out on the margins.â€
You open the envelope and inside is a card. The picture on the front isnâ€™tÂ of a frog, or of a Lake Massawippi summer sunset, but of Jesus, the Jesus who once walked the dusty roads of Palestine and who was crucified, but who is now Risen. Under the picture of Jesus is a single word. â€œRemember!â€
And then, you open up the card and inside is this beautiful verse:
Once you were nobodies,
But through the Love of God in Jesus the Incarnate One,
You are somebody!
You have a name, an identity, a purpose,
and you have a special place in the world and in heaven!
Because of the Love of God
You are like royalty!
God cheers you on as if you were a rock band!
Delights in you and calls you Godâ€™s own!
â€œYou are a chosen race, and royal priesthood, a holy Nation,
Godâ€™s own people, set on the earth to
proclaim the mighty acts of God who called you out
of nothing and nobody-ness into this glorious place in brilliant sunshine.â€
After 2000 years, many Christians have some difficulty in getting excited about such a poem and its promise and encouragement. Perhaps we donâ€™t feel quite so much like nobodies, at least not in our everyday lives of work and family. Perhaps, as liberal minded progressive Christians we are more at home with â€˜living the questionsâ€™ than we are with dogmatic certainties. Far from being the cornerstone which First Peter describes, Jesus, who he was or is, may be for some of us, the biggest question of all. For a good portion of the 20th century, churches like the United Church of Canada, among many, tried to live without the certainty of just how important Jesus is to who we are; we created communities of care, justice seeking, social outreach, affirmation. And like the community who received this letter, after a generation or so, we watched people burn out, drift away, find other things to do with their time, talent and treasure. And we began to ask ourselves again, Why bother? What is there to keep us going? What strategy, what foolproof building or education or mission plan will turn this around?
Our denomination, and sister denominations like the UCC in the US, and the Uniting Churches in New Zealand and Australia, the communities like Taize and Iona, have come to a conclusion not dissimilar to that of the writer of this encouragement letter:
Jesus does matter.
We may come to various conclusions about him, for some he is Saviour of the soul,
for others he is Guide for daily living,
for others he is Liberator,
for yet others he is the challenger of our human tendency to self-serving,
and for this writer,
Jesus is the one who lived the Spirit-filled life of embodying the infinite compassion, the relentless world turning love of God to the extent that he paid the price for this world-turning with his life.
Jesus, to our card/letter writer is a cornerstone for the construction of abundant life in the midst of the fullness of life.
To this writer, Jesus, who lived and died and rose from death in order to transform all our puny human attempts to be nice, into holy, healing, transforming compassion for the world God loves.
The same could be said for the other nobody we encountered today, Stephen.Â
We canâ€™t leave that brutal story sitting over there in the shadows.
He bothers us, does Stephen. Heâ€™s the epitome of religious enthusiasm, and in our day and age, weâ€™ve become desperately afraid of the consequences of ecstatic allegiances to anyone, evenÂ – or especially God.
For Stephen, his who-only-knows-why decision to suddenly stand in the town square and preach the life-changing story of Jesus Christ, resulted not in a day of jubilation but one of unleashed fury from a mob who stoned him to death.
Known as the first Christian martyr, his story has been echoed in every century including our own; ordinary nobody people caught up in the God-lifeÂ of compassion and justice so much that they end up paying a price few of us can countenance.
Surely there has to be another faithful way to â€œseek to make Jesusâ€™ message relevant and realâ€ in our world? Are we, if we call ourselves disciples, destined for stoning? This was the question writer of our letter of encouragement pursues in the verses we read today, and in the following chapters.
Far from encouraging the religious enthusiasm that ends in martyrdom, this letter encourages the community of nobodies to concentrate on growing and living into the fullness of everything it means to be Godâ€™s people. â€Come to Jesus, make his life the cornerstone of your own,â€ he says. â€œCome to Jesus not as victims to be stoned, but as living stones, Let yourselves be built into a spirit-filled household, living lives that proclaim in their actions the compassion, the love, the forgiveness and the healing of God in the world.
For you are not nobodies, You are Godâ€™s bodies in the world.â€
Instead of me saying more about what that looks like, letâ€™s end this sermon together, encouraging one another with a hymn that could have been written by our letter writerâ€¦.(singing MV #1 Let us Build a House.)