"Everyone needs a place"

May 2, 1999 message
Long Green Valley Church of the Brethren
Glen Arm, Maryland  USA
based upon 1 Peter 2:1-10

The summer before I was to enter 10th grade, my family moved from suburban Washington, D.C. to rural Bridgewater, VA. From this, and other subsequent relocations, I learned the value of finding a place to fit in. There are pluses and minuses to such moves. For me, this change allowed a chance to play with my image. Much to my motherís chagrin, I ceased being "Peter" and instead chose "Pete" as my preferred name. A small thing, I know, but itís better to experiment little by little rather than in big strokes at first, just in case you donít like whatís happening. Itís hard to back out of a new image once it takes over.

There were other shifts I made in that school, where I was the new kid, without all the nerdish history from precious schools weighing me down. I started associating with a different kind of crowd than I had before. Of course, as they didnít know my past, I also wasnít aware of their history. How did I know at that point that they were in the process of becoming the druggies? Like my sister before me, I think I helped improve my parentís prayer life. When youíre terrified about whatís happening with your child, where else do you go except down on your knees?

It was an invitation from a youth in the Bridgewater Church of the Brethren that gave me a real place to fit in. I probably would not be a Brethren minister today had he not. His name was Eric, and he just showed up one day and welcomed me in. His home and extended family soon became my second home, his mother my second "Mom." I can still hear the advice she gave me at a later point in life. "Wherever you end up, Pete" she told me, "make sure you have a solid small group of people with whom to connect."

Everybody needs a place to fit in. Iím glad we were here for Brian and Kathy Friend when they moved east of the mountains to "Baltimore." This church has provided a welcoming place to fit in for a great many people over the years, many of whom were only here for a short time, like the Friends. We pray that this has been and will continue to be a place of growth, where persons can "taste and see that the Lord is good," where they can "grow into salvation," where their life in Christ can be like a "living stone" that rests upon a solid foundation and is able to uphold others with love.

Everybody needs a place to fit in. Again, we donít know the demons that plagued those two misguided young men out in Littleton, Colorado, but we have heard stories of teenage cruelty that stuffs individuals into boxes of ridicule and taunting. A lesson not to be learned from Columbine is the stereotyping of persons into potential nerdish, gun-totting killers. Iíve heard that in the aftermath of these shootings, youth so stereotyped around the country are being further ostracized by their peers. Thatís a recipe for disaster, if you ask me.

Everybody needs a place to fit in. Some places are much better than others. Those boys in Littleton found a community in which to belong, didnít they? Of course, the "trench coat mafia" left a lot to be desired as such a place. There they tasted and thought they saw that revenge is sweet, that death is a mighty equalizer, that the best thing to be done with a stone is to throw it back with much greater and less discriminate force.

A troubling part of this story is that at least one of those boys was connected to a church. I know this because I caught the interview of Dylan Kleboldís pastor the day after his funeral. How difficult that must have been. No television cameras were at that service, as far as I saw. What a struggle it must have been to find words of mercy to speak over a young man who did not extend it to his victims. From what I gather, Eric Harris was the really disturbed leader who befriended this somewhat shy boy named Dylan, and drew him into his nightmare.

Everybody needs a place to fit in. Schools canít carry such a load. Weíve come to depend upon our schools to provide what they cannot. Yes, a school can be a community, but it is part of a much bigger picture. Families and churches play a very important role. Without them, school becomes a place locked into one stage of life where hormones rule, and the repercussions of actions and the bigger picture of things are almost impossible to see.

Everybody needs a place to fit in, and the church needs to be such a place - now more than ever... This morningís scripture text provides a wonderful view of what such a place can look like, if we allow God to fashion and to form it.

These words were written to people in the middle of change. They were moving from one location to another, so to speak. While some may have been raised in the Jewish faith, and were familiar with the Law of Moses, the poetry of the Psalmist, the words of the prophets, the majority probably were not. They were relatively new to all this "One true God" stuff. For the most part, they were Gentiles, that is "non-Jews" who had discovered and come to follow Jesus. They had tasted the goodness of God but were still growing when it came to knowing what all this meant. Whereas those who knew the scriptures in and out were struggling to make connections between the old and the new, these newcomers were beginning with the new and trying to look backward and forward at the same time.

Whatís interesting is that Peter, if in fact it was Peter who wrote this letter, quotes extensively from the Hebrew Bible (at least 6 times in 10 verses). Now, youíd think if he was writing to outsiders who had only recently been welcomed inside the new community of Jesus, that he would be careful about using so much "in house" language for fear of losing these newcomers. I mean, all these quotes and allusions would just fly over the head of these folks. They wouldnít be responding, "Oh yeah, thatís what the Psalmist said," or "preach it, Isaiah!" or "Go, Moses!" or "Didnít Hosea say that?" At most they might say, to borrow a phrase, "Cool!"

What Peter was doing was not preaching over peopleís heads, as if they "ought" to know this stuff cause it would be on the test. No, rather he was including them in the wider picture. They might not have seen all the connections, but they could catch a glimpse of the vision, which was big enough to include them. Furthermore, Peter was showing how scripture can influence your life - not through proof-texting, that is, nit-picking Bible verses to say just about whatever you want them to say - but through absorbing the Word and allowing it to transform you.

I marvel at the images this text brings to mind. Forget the individual words for a moment and see. It begins with a picture of a baby at her motherís breast. Elsewhere in the New Testament, this image of feeding on breast milk is used in a somewhat negative way. Writing to the Corinthians, Paul was frustrated over their immaturity, and said, "I fed you with milk, not solid food, for you were not ready for solid food. Even now you are still not ready." (1 Cor 3:2 NRSV) The writer to the Hebrews also shared this put-down, "though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you the elementary truths of God's word all over again. You need milk, not solid food! Anyone who lives on milk, being still an infant, is not acquainted with the teaching about righteousness." (Heb 5:12-13 NIV)

In a very different way, Peter shifted to the positive with this breast milk image, an encouragement that addresses all stages of life. "Like newborn infants, long for the pure, spiritual milk, so that by it you may grow into salvation." Are we supposed to give up longing for Godís pure, spiritual milk once weíve reached maturity? No way! This is a taste tested relationship that lasts a lifetime and beyond. Like King David, who found in God a refuge and strength in lifeís darkest hours, we can "taste and see that the Lord is good." (Ps. 34:8)

From this picture of Godís goodness as like a mother with child, Peter jumps to another image, of living stones. The very metaphor is an oxymoron. A rock canít "live." A stone is an inanimate object. With it you can hurt someone, knock them down, kill them. Or you can build with it: a wall, a house, a Temple. Even so, stones arenít "alive." Everyone knows that. Just like everyone knows that dead people donít come back to life, that things never really change, that a nerd is a nerd, and a jock is a jock - or a black is only a black, and a white is a white, and never the two shall meet.

"Come to Christ, a living stone," Peter wrote, "...and like living stones let yourselves be built..." What is he doing with these images? Opening up the imagination to Godís work, what else? How are we like living stones? Not unchangeable, but growing into salvation. Not fixed in place, but being built into Godís Temple, which is not an inanimate building with four walls but a living sanctuary made of people who love the Lord with every breath, every beat of the heart, every thought. Not immobile, but offering up spiritual sacrifices that are pleasing to God, who is not only far beyond us but also within us.

Pulling from the prophet Isaiah and the Psalmist, Peter shifts the image again, ever so slightly, to speak of a cornerstone. A cornerstone is the very first stone laid in place when a building is constructed. It sets the standard. Everything else is built upon it. Like other New Testament writers, Peter identified Jesus as that cornerstone. If we are not resting upon him, if weíre not in line with him, seeing in him our pattern for living, the building will fall. But remember, he is a "living stone," not just a brick sitting there. He is alive, ever to surprise. He is at the junction, the corner, at every turn along the way. Of course, we may find him to be an obstacle, a stumbling block: when we think we have it all together; when we think weíre all grown and mature and not needing God anymore; when weíre so enamored by the beauty of our building that we donít see the cracks that persons can fall through and become lost. Then the cornerstone can be a stumbling block.

The final shift of imagery, if your imagination is up to it, is a move back to human. Recall the first picture, of a baby. Then there was all this "stone" business. Peter returns to what he is really speaking about. You see, everybody needs a place to belong. That place, however, is not a building - at least not a building as we normally think of the term. That "place" involves flesh and blood. People. Not perfect people, mind you. Rather - people who are growing into salvation. People who are in the process of being built into a spiritual house. People who are struggling to make of their lives - how they treat others as much as how they treat God - a sacrifice of praise. People who in Christ have tasted and now know the goodness and mercy of God, and how through the eyes of God in Christ, they can see themselves as precious, and worth something, and chosen.

Oh, that we would allow these images to transform us.

©1999Peter L. Haynes

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