Checking Our Vital Signs

When I was in elementary school the Lebanon Church of the Brethren built a large, beautiful education wing on to their building.  They added a nice chapel and a some nice, roomy Sunday School classrooms.  I have very vague memories of that time, but I do remember standing on Pershing Avenue at the back of the education wing for the laying of the cornerstone.  I didn’t even know what a cornerstone was at that point in life. But based on the number of people there and the importance that was given to the event, I could tell it was a significant stone. Today I know that a cornerstone is the first stone laid in the construction of a masonry foundation.  The cornerstone is really important, because every other stone in the foundation and in the building is set in relation to the cornerstone. So if the cornerstone is not set straight, the building will be crooked. And if the cornerstone is poor quality, the building may not last. Most cornerstones today are just decorative and include the date of the construction of the building.  The cornerstone of this building is just to the right of the main entrance on Clay Street.

The author of 1 Peter uses this concept of a cornerstone to help the early Christians understand their role in the world.  Jesus is the cornerstone of a new type of church, he explains.  Before Jesus, the Jews believed that God could be found and worshiped only in the temple.  But after the resurrection of Jesus there is a new way of understanding what the temple is. 1 Peter tells us God will be found in the church—not a stone building, but in a temple built with followers of Jesus. God considers each one of us as precious and as one of God’s children. So God has made us part of a royal priesthood. And each priest, each one of us, is a living stone in the spiritual house where Jesus Christ is worshiped. Jesus is the cornerstone on which this new spiritual house of worship rests. The foundation of who we are is set in relation to our cornerstone, Jesus Christ.

There’s been a lot of chatter in recent years about whether the church is dying.  Whether the living stones that form the church are really alive. Years ago in science classes, I remember memorizing the qualities that all living things have in common. By looking for these qualities one can tell whether anything—a tree, moss, mold, a rock is alive. So we can determine whether the church and we building blocks of the church are alive by looking for those same qualities of living things in us.

All living things are made of cells, the tiniest form of a living thing. Each of us represents a cell or a stone of the church.  And it takes all of us to be the church. When I was a little girl, I learned the poem and finger-play, “this is the church; this is the steeple. Open the doors and see all the people.” I was taught to wiggle my fingers so the people looked alive and active. So the church looked alive and active. If only one or two fingers moves, the church doesn’t look vital. The church is only alive when each of us is a stone that is full of vitality. Jesus has called each one of us with our unique talents, wisdom, experience, and perspective on things to be a living stone in this living body.  To be a church that is alive we need each one of us and all of us to be wiggling with life and an active part of this spiritual house.

The second thing living things do is grow and develop. So stones that are alive will demonstrate growth. The verses that we heard read are actually part of a longer section on how to become holy—in other words how to grow to be more like Jesus. The author of the letter encourages us to prove we are alive by growing more and more loving. To love one another as if our lives depend on it. We can prove we are alive by growing in the ways we handle anger. By getting rid of nastiness and spite. By growing in honesty and truth-telling.  By growing less envious and more grateful each day.

Living things obtain and use energy.  For humans our energy comes from food, water and oxygen.  Plants get their energy from water, carbon dioxide, and the sun. But living stones need a different kind of energy to live. Living stones need some of that spiritual milk the author of 1 Peter mentions. We living cells of the Spirit need to tap into the source of our life to get energy. Our spiritual energy comes from time spent with God—whether that’s in quiet prayer and meditation, study of scripture, worship or a combination of several.  We can’t eat of God’s power bars by living a crazy, hectic, busy life that allows no Sabbath. We can’t drink the living water Jesus offers if we never take the time to go to the well. The living stones that form this church must take the time to ingest the energy God provides.

Living things respond to their environment.  When a parasite makes its way inside the shell of an oyster, the oyster responds. The oyster responds by producing a milky substance called nacre that coats the irritating foreign body. This living thing, the oyster, responds to its environment and creates a pearl. If the stones in a church are alive, they respond to their environment. A living church looks out of these beautiful windows to see what’s happening in the world and what needs our neighbors have.  And then a living church reaches out and responds with the love of Christ and the message of the gospel.  We looked out our windows and saw that there are homeless folks in our environment in Columbia. We responded by volunteering at the Columbia Winter Shelter.  As living stones in a living church we are called to respond to the problems in our world and community. We are called to respond when we see hatred being directed toward folks from different cultures, races and religions. We are called to respond to a growing culture of dishonesty with a renewed commitment to honesty and integrity. As living stones built on the cornerstone of Jesus, we are called to respond to violence and anger by being peacemakers, reconcilers, and by loving those who are different, just as Jesus did.

Scientists tell us that living things adapt to their environment. The first Brethren

believed strongly that they should be separate from the world. They wanted to be the church, but not be part of or be influenced by the world. That stance required no adapting. But as generations passed, the Brethren began to see things differently. They began to understand that we can have more impact on the world if we are in the world. They began to wrestle with how to remain true to who we are and what we believe about Jesus and also to be a real presence in the world.  In the early 1900’s the Church of the Brethren began to adapt to the world around them. They began colleges and a seminary, established a publishing company, developed retirement communities, and created service organizations like BVS and Heifer Project that address real world problems.  And a more recent example: Bethany Seminary has adapted to the world by designing a program in which one can earn a seminary degree by taking many courses on line. Their adapting to the environment in which we live provides more opportunities for more people to obtain a seminary education.

There are a number of innovative churches who have adapted to the environment in which we live by offering the profound message of God’s love and grace but in ways that meet the needs of people who don’t fit into the traditional model of church. At the Festival of Homiletics a couple weeks ago, one speaker was Nadia Bolz Weber who started a church called the House for All Sinners and Saints in a “grungy, hipster neighborhood in Denver. “House,” as it’s often called, is part of the ELCA.  House is made up of about 1/3 GLBT members and includes former addicts, current users, folks with depression, anxiety, and compulsions and even some unbelievers. Nadia is untraditional in her lifestyle and appearance –she has sleeve tattoos that mark the liturgical year and parts of the gospel story. Many say her language is often foul, but it’s always honest. But as untraditional as Nadia and her congregation are, they offer a very traditional message of Jesus’ saving love and forgiveness to people who really need to hear it. Nadia says, “”My job is to point to Christ and to preach the Gospel and to remind people that they’re absolutely loved … and all of their mess-ups are not more powerful than God’s mercy and God’s ability to sort of redeem us and to bring good out of bad” (Gross).  Bolz-Weber has adapted to the environment while maintaining the core message of the gospel.

Living stones reproduce. They make new stones. On Youth Sunday we heard from the youth how we are helping to make new stones. And then two weeks ago on Mothers’ Day we talked about our responsibility to pass the gift of faith to the next generations.  The best way to pass on our faith is to be living stones ourselves. Because really who would ever want to become a dull, dead-looking, non-energetic follower of Jesus. The way to pass on our faith is to show those around us that we are fully alive, vital followers of Jesus. That we continue to grow in faith and love. That we receive our energy through a close relationship with Jesus. That we are willing to respond to the environment and meet the needs around us. That we will adapt as needed to our environment so that the good news of Jesus can be heard by those who need to hear it.  We reproduce by being living stones and a living church.

We live in a world that in so many ways is dead. The world is full of people who stumble and fall because they are not living in the light of Christ.  People are filled with anger and hatred. They have lost the willingness to compromise and consider the opinions of others. Violence is how people express their frustration and anger.  So more than ever, we need to be a life force in the world. A living breathing bunch of cells who share the grace and forgiveness of Jesus with others. A living breathing bunch of stones who proclaim the mighty acts of God who shines light into our darkness. Who proclaim the abundant life that comes from being a growing, adapting, responding, reproducing living stone built on the foundation of Jesus Christ.

Works cited

Bartlett, David L. “The First Letter of Peter.” New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary, Volume XII.

Nashville:Abingdon, 1998. 227-319.

Donelson, Lewis R. From Hebrews to Revelation. Louisville: John Knox, 2001.

Gross, Terry. “ Lutheran Minister Preaches A Gospel Of Love To Junkies, Drag Queens And Outsiders.” Interview on NPR Fresh Air. September 17, 2015.

Lundblad, Barbara. “Homiletical Perspective on 1 Peter 2:2-10.” Feasting on the Word, Year A Volume 2. Bartlett, David L. & Taylor, Barbara Brown, Eds. Louisville: Westminster JohnKnox, 2010. 460-465.