Today’s passage from 1 Peter opens with “Like newborn infants, long for the pure, spiritual milk, so that by it you may grow into salvation—if indeed you have tasted that the Lord is good.”
Peter, clearly, with no problem mixing metaphors, continues “Come to him, a living stone, though rejected by mortals yet chosen and precious in God’s sight, and, 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.”
Peter continues with several quotes from the Septuagint, the ancient Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures. Our author primarily draws from Isaiah, but some Psalms and Exodus are mixed in as well.
Peter is playing with these ideas of building a spiritual house and what elements might be appropriate in it. Spiritual sacrifices, not burnt offerings and animal sacrifices as would still be offered in Roman temples of the time, and which some of his readers might remember making in the Jerusalem temple before it was destroyed.
Then, Peter turns to a metaphor of stones and develops something of a paradox: “’The stone that the builders rejected has become the very head of the corner’ and ‘A stone that makes them stumble, and a rock that makes them fall.’”
In our Bible Study this week, someone asked “how can a cornerstone also be a stumbling block.” How can we trip over something so essential?
Almost six years ago, when I moved from Richmond to Arlington, I had a revelation. When I lived in Richmond, I lived close enough to campus that I could walk there, but just far enough away that…I didn’t. The part of Richmond that housed both me and the seminary campus was a very car-focused area. If I was going anywhere, I was probably driving, so, as it probably does for most of you, it just made sense to keep my car and house keys together. That, combined with the fact that the jobs I held in seminary never required me to have more than one key, made it very easy to just keep them all together.
When I moved to Arlington though, I quickly found a job in a church that required I carry a few more keys. My revelation was that I did not need to carry all of this, at least not all the time. I realized I could break my keys up into three parts. One set for the church that I only needed to carry when I was headed there. Then I realized that, in Arlington, there were many more places I could get to on foot or bike, or by taking the bus or metro…so I didn’t need my car keys to stay attached to my house keys.
Since moving to Romney, I’ve put some thought into it, and I think this same division can still work here. I mean, I don’t drive to the church. With Katherine here, working remotely, and practicing social distancing and isolation, I usually don’t even need the house keys.
Honestly, the set of keys I most frequently carry now are the church keys since I’m coming in nearly every day to check the answering machine and the mail.
The problem, such as it is, is that I haven’t yet found the proper place for my keys, and so I keep having to spend time searching for them. My three-part division means that they aren’t always together, which is a problem because while I did think ahead enough to put a tracker on my house keys…that does me no good when I’m looking for the church keys and they aren’t together.
I need to find the right place to put them, whether they are all together, or when I leave one or two rings behind.
I know, I’m being flippant, comparing Jesus to my keys. Sure, both are essential to the way I lead my life, but only one of them is being regularly swapped in and out as I replace St. Stephen’s with Romney and one house for another, for an apartment, for the Manse.
Let’s try something different.
One of my favorite theologians is Paul Tillich, and while we are on the theme of spiritual milk, I often suggest his book Dynamics of Faith to people looking to start reading academic theology. One of Tillich’s key points is his definition of religion, of faith. Faith, Tillich writes, is the “object of ultimate concern.” Or, to put it in Peter’s terms, the object of our faith is our cornerstone.
Tillich is writing, in part about idolatry. I know, we hear that word, and we think about things like the sacrifices in the Roman Temples that Peter and other early Christians were dealing with. Tillich expands that.
While God has marked and chosen Jesus to be our spiritual cornerstone, our object of “ultimate concern,” we often try to put anything else there.
We put money there, sometimes in the form of consumerism, the drive to always have and buy more. I think we’ve all engaged in one form of this, retail therapy, at some point or another. If you haven’t, retail therapy is the idea that the thing that is missing, the thing that will make us feel better, is something we can buy—for some, it might be a new pair of shoes. For me, it is often a gadget…though it has also been shoes. For others, the idol may not be spending, but just the accumulation. We live in a world and economic system that can seem designed to make the size of our bank accounts or the amount of cash in our wallet into a score board.
We put comfort there. I have been thinking about this one a lot when I see stories of people protesting social-distancing measures. I worked in a grocery store until not too long ago, and I’m still in touch with my colleagues there, both in my former stores and with the wider community through Facebook and Reddit, so I hear stories about a woman in California who pulled out her phone and recorded herself berating employees for asking her to wear a mask, in accordance with local regulations. I did not watch the full video, but it lasted more than 20 minutes. The mask is not really about protecting yourself, I mean, yes, you are slightly better off wearing it than not, it is really about protecting everyone else in case you are one of the people who can carry and spread this disease without knowing. The mask slightly reduces how much virus a person can inhale, but it hugely reduces the amount they breathe out into the world. It is a discomfort, but it is a small one to keep our neighbors safe.
We center comfort in our lives in other ways too. A full list would, I’m sure, exceed the length of time you are comfortable listening to me, so I will self-censor rather than risk looking over at the screen and watching the number of connections plummet.
There are many other idols in our modern lives, all of which are fighting to occupy the cornerstone space where Jesus should be.
And this brings us to the back half of the metaphor: “’A stone that makes them stumble and a rock that makes them fall.’ They stumble because they disobey the word…”
Thank God for that.
Thanks be to God for knowing us. For knowing that we will, each of us, inevitably, even repeatedly, put something else in that space where God should be. For knowing that we will stumble, “as [we] were destined to do.”
And for making Jesus also be a stumbling block.
We don’t like to trip. I know, but tripping has its value. Tripping forces us to slow down. It forces us to recognize that something is not in its place. When we find ourselves tripping over Jesus, tripping over the Word, it is our reminder that none of us are living in a completed spiritual home. We are all works in progress, and unless we are careful, things can fall out of place. I can forget where I put my keys, or can start thinking that what I really need to do is not to finish my sermon, but to search online for a TV stand that is only 9 inches deep (yes, that happened last night. No, I did not succeed). We can convince ourselves that the real problem is everyone else asking us to do something that makes us uncomfortable.
This is why Peter calls it stumbling and falling. It is not pleasant, but it is the way we learn. It’s the thing that forces us to look to see what is out of place, that pushes us to do the work to repair that breach, pulling out idol we have tried to build ourselves around so that we can again place God in that space.
So, let us give thanks for those things which make us stumble and fall, for those things which push us, however reluctantly, to examine ourselves to learn why we are uncomfortable. Give thanks to the God who does not make it easy to walk away, but instead chooses us over and over and over again. Let us give thanks remembering the way our passage from I Peter ends:
“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.”
God’s mercy is what allows us to get back up and to find a new way even if it takes us multiple tries.
Thanks be to God.