Rev. Dr. Glenda Hollingshead; May 10, 2020
5th Sunday of Easter
1 Peter 2:2-10
When I traveled to the Holy Land on a pastoral pilgrimage several years ago, many things touched me on a deep, spiritual level. I can still close my eyes, for example, and imagine standing on the shore of the Sea of Galilee. What a wonder to dip my toes into the water upon which Jesus walked, into the water around which he trekked with his beloved disciples. Another treasure is the memory of walking the Via Delarosa, the Stations of the Cross in Jerusalem. The experience gave me a sense of the thousands upon thousands who have done so—walking the path of Jesus—sensing his presence—yearning to follow him more faithfully. Another gem that I still carry in my pocket is visiting the wall of the temple in Jerusalem. Also known as the Wailing Wall, it is all that is left of the Second Temple. People flock to it daily to pray. Often, seekers write down prayers and tuck them in between the crevices of the huge temple stones. I was one such seeker. With much prayer and pondering, I created my list, writing name after name after name. By the time the task was complete, there was hardly a speck of white paper still visible. Eagerly, I approached the wall to offer my prayers—prayers for my loved ones, prayers for the church to which I had been called, prayers for the desires of my heart. I can still feel the touch of the cool stones upon my fingers. I can still recall the tears streaming down my face. My soul recognized the sacredness of the space—not only for people of the Jewish faith—but also for those who have been chosen as God’s people to proclaim the mighty acts of Jesus to the world.
Stones—they speak to us, don’t they? Whether they are the stones of the temple wall or the stones of our own church building—stones have something to teach us if we will only listen. In the Bible, stones are used to help future generations remember—like the stone that Jacob uses for a pillow the night he dreams of the ladder going into heaven. In his dream, the Lord blesses him and promises that he will be with Jacob forever. The next morning Jacob rises, takes the stone, pours oil upon it, and names the place Bethel.
When Moses dies, Joshua leads the people into the Promised Land. Their journey is hard, but God is with them every step of the way. By the time it is finished, and the people are able to dwell in peace, Joshua is a man of many years. Before he dies, he calls all the rulers together to give them instructions for their future, to remind them to love the Lord their God and to never go after the foreign gods of the land. “Choose this day whom you will serve,” he says, “but for me and my household, we will serve the Lord.” After the people promise their allegiance to the Lord God, Joshua takes a large stone and sets it under an oak in the sanctuary of the Lord.
Of course, in Hebrew Scripture, stones of importance include those used to build the temple. Beautiful and massive as they are, though, they cannot last. One day when Jesus comes out of the temple, a disciple draws his attention to the large stones and large buildings. Jesus responds, “Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.” No, the stones cannot last because the stones of the temple cannot contain God. Our God cannot be confined in any edifice—be it a tabernacle, a temple, or a church.
As a result of a global pandemic, we are not yet able to gather safely in our church, in our sanctuary. No doubt, we miss the stones that create sacred space to worship, to sing, to pray, to confess our sins, to give our offerings, to partake of Holy Communion. But those stones—they are not really the church. They never have been. And though COVID-19 has wreaked havoc on our world and has broken our hearts into a million pieces, it has also offered an invitation for believers to re-think what it means to BE church. The church is and has always been the people.
Likely, Peter’s first letter is composed shortly before his martyrdom in Rome. With love in his heart, he reminds his readers that they are Christ’s traveling companions living in the midst of a power-hungry and violent world. Nevertheless, they can trust God to always be with them. Even so, the journey home requires new skills and new attitudes. Those who have tasted that the Lord is good require spiritual food and they can find it through Jesus Christ, the cornerstone.
Then Peter writes: “Like living stones, let yourselves be built into a spiritual house…” Notice, he does not instruct them to build themselves—but to allow themselves to be built—into a spiritual house. New converts to the faith wonder how they are to worship God without a temple. But the beauty of God’s plan is that all believers are to become a temple of living stones. We are not a random pile of rocks. We are part of a structure built on Christ—and it is God who does the building.
When we think of building a spiritual house, what probably comes to mind involves a building campaign, or renovating a space, or adding to an existing structure. But Peter has something else in mind. Christ’s church can only grow physically when Christ’s people grow spiritually. If we say yes to God—if we are faithful—we become what God says we are: a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people so that we may proclaim the mighty acts of the one who called us out of darkness into his marvelous light. And how do we proclaim those mighty acts? By BEING the church. We are the church when we enjoy a meal with our loved ones like Jesus did so often. We are the church when we appreciate God’s wondrous creation and do all that we can to protect it. We are the church when we look out for an elderly neighbor who cannot shop during a pandemic. We are the church when we use our talents for the good of others—like preparing food or sewing face masks or sharing from the bounty of our garden. We are the church when, out of our abundance, we donate to ongoing ministries of Jesus Christ. We are the church when we resist the powers of greed and racism and hatred that are infecting our nation. We are the church when we join our brothers and sisters in the faith to pray for those in need and to pray for a cure for COVID-19. We are the church when we send a card, text, or email, or make a phone call to encourage someone who is feeling lonely and isolated. We are the church and day by day, we are being formed into spiritual homes—sanctuaries of God—with or without a building. In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
*Cover Art by RaRa Schlitt, used by permission