Preacher: The Rev. Doyt Conn
“Come to God a living stone.” That is the title of my sermon this morning. It’s not too original given the reading from first Peter today. But I’m drawn to it, maybe because I have a bowl of stones sitting on my desk at home. Occasionally when I’m somewhere else I pick up a stone, bring it home, and put it in the bowl. From time to time I’ll take one out and roll it through my fingers. I suppose if I did that long enough it would get smoother. I suppose if I did that often enough it would change shape. As I rolled one through my fingers the other day I noticed they were getting wrinkled… not the rock, my fingers. My desk at home faces a window. I get up before the sun, and in the darkness the window pretends to be a mirror. I can see the wrinkles dimly on my face. (1 Cor 13:12) Living stones change. My dad used to say, “You see this wrinkle right here (pointing to his forehead), this one is from you.” I think about that every once in a while. I have one of those as well that I often attribute to one of my children, depending on who is around and what they are doing. Living stones change, because they are rubbed all of the time. Peter in his letter writes, “Come to God, a living stone, though rejected by mortals yet chosen and precious in God’s sight. And like a living stone, let yourselves be built into a spiritual house.” Living stones build spiritual houses. That is what they are good for.
Peter, the friend of Jesus, the brother of Andrew, the son of John, formerly known as Simon, renamed Cephas (which means the rock), is writing this letter to the Christians of the diaspora. They are the Christians who left Jerusalem, and now live in a community that has no Christian cultural context. That is what I am referring to this morning when I use the word diaspora. It is shorthand for living as a Christian in a non-Christian culture. Peter could be writing to you and me. Peter addresses the diaspora as living stones as I address you as living stones.
Peter’s letter is to encourage them as my sermon is to encourage you. The word encourage comes from the word courage, derived from the Latin root word cor, which means heart. The heart is the core, and when we are encouraged our heart is filled with spirit and power and hope. To be a person of courage is to be intrepid, bold, brave, valiant and fearless. Sometimes we need encouragement to be these things, particularly when we are living in the diaspora.
Living stones Peter writes “believe in God and will not be put to shame.” Yet in the diaspora believing in God can be uncomfortable. Shame is a powerful emotion that pressures towards cultural compliance. Living in the diaspora can provoke feelings of shame. I know what that feels like. I know how it feels to be asked about my Christianity and find myself in that awkward place between strong emotions and limited vocabulary. This feeling is more easily provoked when we reside in a community that has little cultural context for Christianity, no common Christian vocabulary, and the historical value of what Christianity has brought to the community has in many ways been undermined, if not erased. That is OK. That is the world as it is. And it is where we are. But it does mean that we are stuck having to build a framework for our explanation of Christianity before we can lead a person into the vaulting space that Christianity creates at our core, in our heart. That is a lot to ask in response to the cocktail party question: “You’re a Christian? Really? Tell me about that?”
I was having lunch with a committed atheist and a few other folks the other day. We were comparing notes about what we believe. Connection seemed the most important function of our conversation, and we found much in common. Then the committed atheist said, “It seems like we believe a lot of the same things. So why do you hold onto Christianity”? That seemed like a softball to me, so I stepped into the elevator to make my elevator speech. I spoke on living in the Kingdom of God, and how that liberates me, and how this freedom comes from Jesus. I was in my sweet zone, and I could see conversion coming! In 60 seconds this man’s whole life would change….but that didn’t happen. “Well,” he replied, pausing, “Well, you need a better elevator speech, you know, something people can understand.” I thought: are you kidding? Didn’t you just hear me? I was tempted to repeat myself, until I realized that would be like speaking English louder when talking to someone who speaks Chinese. There was nothing I could say that was going to reorder the steel beams of the house the atheist was committed to living in. Anyway, the conversion wasn’t for him, it was for me. When he left the table, a few others from the Christian diaspora remained. One said, “That was an elegant Christian defense.” Another said, “I had no idea what you were talking about.” The conversion was for me. One more wrinkle rubbed into this living stone. I don’t believe in elevator speeches any more. Christianity is about being living stones, not using them to beat someone over the head with.
If you take one thing home from today’s sermon, I hope it is to let go of any thought that a one liner can convince anyone to be a Christian or, more to the point, that a one liner can convince anyone that your Christian faith is reasonable. There are no one liners in the kingdom of God. It is too rich, deep, more textured, and complex than that. Christianity is not a stone edifice that you can measure; it is a way of life continuously built from living stones. It can feel shameful to profess a belief in Jesus and not be able to defend it. It can be embarrassing. So it is tempting to hide it, or deny it, or ignore it, but there is an easier option: OWN IT! I use to think that people didn’t bring up Christianity around me because I am an expert Christian and I would overwhelm them with the preponderance of evidence proving beyond a shadow of a doubt the efficacy of the Christian way of life, and the reality that Jesus Christ is the son of God. But now I’m not so sure. I suspect it is something else.
Maybe people don’t challenge my Christianity because they realize it is the core of my being, and my heart’s delight. I am a Christian. I admit it and I will courageously honor it by my actions, even if I can’t defend it with my words. In the same way that I wouldn’t mock an Orthodox Jew for his lifestyle and practices; he believes and stands for something. While I don’t know exactly what it is, and if I did, I might not agree with it all, I still respect his authenticity. It takes courage to believe something that is counter to the culture in which we live.
Here is a precept of the Kingdom of God: people honor what people they respect honor, even if they don’t understand it. If they don’t honor what you honor they don’t respect you, and more likely than not they are mean. Love them even as you back away from them. Here is the tip for living in the diaspora: it is better to take an authentic stand for your faith by owning it and living it, than to be outed at a cocktail party and put to shame. Secrets cause shame, and there is no shame in being a Christian. I would like to encourage you to universally own your Christianity all of the time. I would encourage you to state that it is a part of who you are, honor it by how you live, move, have your being in the world, and to set it as your priority. Know this: you do not have to defend Christianity, apologize for it, or even be able to completely articulate how it moves your soul. It is enough to courageously follow the call of God that draws you from darkness into the marvelous light.
Living stones are the building blocks for the spiritual house that is you. The cornerstone is critical. It determines the design and the orientation of a house. Peter encourages you to make that cornerstone Jesus, and so do I! As the apostle Paul says, “Do not lose heart. Though our outer nature is wasting away, our inner nature is being renewed day by day. For this momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison.” (2Cor 4:16-17) So, own the mighty acts of him who calls you out of darkness into his marvelous light. Don’t imagine your light will shine brightest under a bushel basket, or in an elevator. For the light of Christ shines brightest through the day in and day out living that brings wrinkles to our hands and our faces as Christians being rubbed up against by the world. That is what our neighbors will see, and they’ll wonder, I pray, what it’s like to be a Christian?