NRSV 1 PETER 2:2-10
2 Like newborn infants, long for the pure, spiritual milk, so that by it you may grow into salvation – 3 if indeed you have tasted that the Lord is good.
4 Come to him, a living stone, though rejected by mortals yet chosen and precious in God’s sight, and 5 like 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. 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.”
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,”
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.
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.
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.
Down the hill from our new place there is a small stream. It hardly has any water in it, except when it rains hard, like it did the other night. Even then we can’t see it, obscured as it is by the trees. But we know that it flows into Six Mile Creek, which then flows into the Catawba River. Like many of the tributaries for Buffalo Creek, our little stream doesn’t look like much, and it is dry more often than not. But just as the Buffalo flows into the Appomattox, and the Appomattox into the James in that beautiful estuary at Hopewell, and then the two flow together into the Atlantic, our little, often waterless stream is part of a majestic whole. It is connected with other bodies of water which flow relentlessly to the wide ocean that beckons beyond.
In the process of doing that, our little stream is part of an ecosystem of support. The waters contained in those rivulets are the home for countless water life, and those waters support other forms of wildlife along its banks. Including us humans. We are all connected. Little steam, big river, wide ocean; little human, big women and men, wide communities, we are all in relationship.
Today we mark a confluence of special days which celebrate and honor relationships, those special human ties that hold us all together. Last week was a celebration for both nurses and teachers. They both had special days on Wednesday. Those of us who are intimately connected with nurses and teachers (and personally I have a whole bunch of both in my family) had a chance to lift them up for special praise for the work they do; work which especially in these days of social distancing is highly valued. It’s nice to see nurses receiving the recognition they deserve as they change shifts with the banging of pots, the sirens of fire trucks and the applause of those who respect the hard and potentially deadly work they do these days. And for the ways teachers have had to adapt and adjust the way they teach the future of our society is nothing short of amazing.
These days of celebration, recognition and honor flow into this day – Mother’s Day. Maybe they are lined up like that because once upon a time women made up most, if not all, of the work force of nurses and teachers. We may know cognitively the importance of the work mothers do, but do we really appreciate it? Years ago child psychiatrist Erik Erikson noted that the primary relationship in every human life is between that of a newborn and their mother; the mother’s attention to the issue of trust, or mistrust, impacts the life of every human.
Over the years the church has had mixed results with the way it celebrates Mother’s Day; like giving out flowers to those who have children or giving special praise to those who have had the most offspring, while turning a blind eye to the pain such honors can do to those women unable to conceive, or those whose relationships with their children is torn either by past hurts or a child’s death. It’s a tricky thing to be a Mom, and to celebrate mothers in a way that respects all those who fulfill that cherished and honored role.
But some celebration is due, especially in the church. I cannot think of one group of people who have done more to further the mission of Jesus Christ and the building up of the church than women. And not just because they made a lot of trips to the maternity ward. Women through the years have been the backbone of the church, with their various mission efforts, teaching Sunday School classes and staffing the kitchen for fellowship events.
But what any woman – and really any man for that matter, but it’s Mothers’ Day so let’s give the women their due – does best in our lives is to call forth the best that we have within us. I can remember that when my world fell apart at various times in my life that a word of comfort from my Mom was enough to set things right, at least for a little while, and to give me enough courage to go out and try again. When we have been at our lowest, it is our mothers, or those who fulfilled the mothering role for us, who encouraged us to tap into the better angels of our natures and dare to be that change the world needed. They remind us that we are not rugged individualists off doing our own thing. We are connected, joined with others in the journey of life and faith; and we need to support each other, correct each other, comfort each other. Because that journey is not easy. Especially these days.
We do all of this celebrating and honoring in a time wrapped up by the ongoing covid-19 pandemic that threatens not only our lives but our ties of relationship. Our efforts to contain this bug have caused us to distance ourselves, to close us off to others. No handshakes, no hugging, no gathering together so we can hear each other’s stories. Even singing is deemed a threat; scientists tell us that the air projected when we sing goes farther than when we talk, so even the act of joyful singing is dangerous these days. But threats to relationships are nothing new. The texts we have before us remind us that God is actively involved in keeping us together, for God alone is that ocean to which we flow. The grace God gives us is wrapped up in each other as we support and encourage one another in that relentless push of love that beckons us.
The world of the writer of First Peter was not friendly toward the early church. Those first century Christians were deemed a threat to the Empire. They challenged the worship of Caesar, they took on the old established ways of doing things and went another way. They made other people and the powers that be uncomfortable. The church wasn’t actively being persecuted yet, but it would come, and those early Christians needed a reminder that they were not alone, and that the stream they were following would support them.
These beautiful and powerful words from the second chapter served as the inspiration for the Reformation of the 16th century with its emphasis on “The Priesthood of All Believers.” That is, the thought that we are all ministers to each other; everyone can serve as a guide, a mentor for others into the Kingdom of God.
But a closer look at these words point out that this is more than another call to look for a leader to solve all their ills. For one thing, in the fourth verse the writer calls on this community to let the One who is chosen and precious in God’s sight as a Living Stone – that is, Jesus the Christ – lead them not just anywhere; but to that point where they become “a spiritual house.” That is, they become a family of faith, a community of believers, those who put their trust in God’s work and words through Jesus Christ, and who support and sustain each other.
Remember who these people probably were: they were not the elite. They were people who had been marginalized by their societies, maybe thrown out of the synagogue if they were Jewish, or challenged and ostracized by their friends and family if they were Greeks. To these people who felt like they were no people without a community, First Peter tells them that they are flowing into that stream of love which is relentless. They are connected. The stream of love that is the Christ gives mercy where there was none, creates a community out of ragtag, hopeless people. Jesus makes this relationship possible. It is not something they manufacture on their own. They do not achieve it, but they do need to support it and each other. That is why at the start of this the writer invites them to grow into their salvation. That salvation, that wholeness, that oneness with God, is not a one-and-done deal, something they can brag about later. It is a process, a movement into a relationship of love and trust in the living God, who has made the way known through the suffering and crucified Christ. It’s a rough ride sometimes; there are rapids and dangerous currents all the way; there are flash floods of pandemics and fights and disputes. But the flow is relentless because it is the flow of God’s love. There is no cancelling of that love, no damming it up.
But if we think we can dam it up, Beverly Roberts Gaventa gives us a warning: “Given the historical setting in which I Peter wrote, the language of this passage serves as an important pastoral need. That need continues in every Christian generation, for the church constantly requires the recollection that God created it to be a single household, taking its identity from Jesus Christ and set apart from the world. Given the intractable human temptation to convert a gift into a possession, however, Christians have too often read passages such as this one to mean that their standing before God came as a result of their own goodness and permitted them to exclude others from membership in the same household. The text grants no such license for exclusivity or condescension. The householder, God, has sole authority over admission at the doorway.”
Two stories take that image from an academic exercise into real living. One was given by Jill Duffield about a situation in New Orleans, one of the earlier covid-19 hotspots. She wrote, “The leader of the band (called) the Brass-a-Holics detailed the cumulative grief of hearing about death, after death, after death. He talked with a friend whose mother had died. His friend lamented the inability to have a funeral, to bring family and friends in town. He said normally they would be at the church, ‘ready to bring her home.’ Winston ‘Trombone’ Turner couldn’t bear the circumstances anymore, so he decided to get his bandmates together, outside, at a safe distance. He instructed them to dress like they would for church and ‘bring her home.’ They played and sang, ‘I’ll Fly Away.’ As they did, Turner said people started to gather and cry. He said, ‘They knew what they were doing.’”
Another came from the Rev. Andre Johnson, talking about preaching and leading worship at a women’s prison in Tennessee. He gives the sermon but the inmates write their own liturgy and lead most of the service. He wondered how could these women in such dire circumstances still lift up their voices in such heart-felt praise? He answered: “Maybe they understand what Peter was trying to get his hearers to understand: 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 God’s marvelous light. Maybe, despite where they are and what others think of them, they understand – some maybe for the first time – that God still cares. God still loves them. God hears their prayers, and God has given them grace and mercy.”
What, them? Prison inmates? Yes, them – some of whom are mothers; some of whom left children behind. The love of God still claims us no matter how high the walls, how vicious the virus, how long the distance. God’s love touches us – not behind prison walls, but in the midst of our quarantines. We are connected. We are in relationship. It is a relationship given by the maternal love of God, whose very being is a relationship of love, inviting us to be a part of that compassionate flow. Amen.