What activities have you been doing during this time of sheltering in place and being at home? I know for many of us with kids, it’s definitely not a vacation as we teach them, take care of them, and keep them entertained. My daughters have been spending a lot of time outside. One of the things we do together is go alley hiking. What is alley hiking you ask? Well, for the first time in my kids’ lives they live in a city with alleys. And since we can’t really get out to the trails to hike, we put on our tennis shoes and walk for miles along the alleys of our neighborhood.
And in the alleys around our house are a lot of stones and rocks. On a recent ally hike, Annaleigh and I spent almost an hour kicking a round rock up and down each and every alley we traversed. That round stone was fun and gave us something to do as we walked and talked. Beatrice doesn’t want to kick the rocks as much as pick them up and take them home. Bea thinks rocks are beautiful: all rocks, every rock has character. Every rock has a story. Sometimes every pocket of hers is filled with stones from our hikes. Once she gets the rocks home, she empties her pockets outside and she and Annaleigh use the rocks and sticks to build intricate homes for fairies and bugs like a playground or a hospital. Rocks and stones have become foundational in Gregg family activities.
Stones are important. Stones stacked and staged, piled and positioned are important. Stones are built into the hymns that we sing – “Here I raise mine Ebenezer… On Christ the solid rock I stand!” Stones built the Bible. Jacob laid his head on a stone when he dreamed of the ladder going up into the heavens. Stones of remembrance were stacked in the Jordan River as a reminder of the exodus from Egypt. Joshua said about one of those stones, “See, this stone shall be a witness against us; for it has heard all of the words of the Lord that he spoke to us.” The stone was alive and listening. John the Baptist preached, “I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children of Abraham!” And we remember as Jesus entered Jerusalem before his crucifixion that if the people fell silent that the stones would cry out in praise… living stones.
And today, in our scripture reading, the stones are being beckoned to life in Asia Minor. The persecuted people there felt like stones, trod on by the powers of the day, stomped down under foot by the government, and thrown away and rejected by their neighbors. The early Christian communities in the provinces of Asia Minor were small in number, and in rural areas, their social status was marginal. They suffered at the hands of the local population and probably had scorn and shame heaped upon them from neighbors and even their own family because they followed the life and love of Jesus. Those early Christians might have been seen as the reason for natural disasters like floods and famines because they didn’t believe in the Roman gods. Since the early Jesus followers were outsiders, they needed belonging and to know there was meaning to their suffering. They needed to know that even though holy Temple was destroyed, that Jesus was now the cornerstone of their faith. The house of God was in them and among them and supporting them as a scattered people. Even though Jesus was not there, they could glimpse Jesus in one another, even if just a hint of him, just a taste to see that the Lord was good.
The church strived for an identity in the midst of their suffering and persecution. Peter’s letter spoke hope into the lives of the early Christians, letting them know that their suffering was not because they displeased God or that they had chosen the wrong god. No, the suffering they were experiencing was not because they were bad Christians, or did something wrong, or believed in something wrong. “Throughout the whole of 1 Peter, the author assures those suffering persecution that God loves them and that they have made the right choice.” Their love and faith and hope had set them against their own cities and governments and even families. And it was those characteristics, to stand against the Empire, that caused them to suffer. So, in their suffering, if they remained faithful, God would be with them, God would help them outlast their pain.
Do you remember when your parents always told you those aches and pains you felt when you were a child were simply growing pains? Pains come when we are growing. Pains and persecution came to a growing church. And pains and suffering come to us as a people of God, growing and building our spiritual lives and spiritual houses. Peter’s letter claims that if we follow Jesus through the pain, that we are indeed growing, growing into our salvation.
But we are not there yet. We haven’t reached the point where all people experience salvation, where all people a safe and know justice and find fairness and feel included. But we are growing, Church. We are growing into our salvation, putting down one stone at a time to build a spiritual house – a house that doesn’t have locks on the door, doesn’t have fence around the yard, has tea waiting for you beside a comfy chair – this house is open and welcoming to all.
You see, growing is a lifelong process. And it’s not something that simply happens when we are children. That’s not what this text is saying. It is saying that God is helping us grow, even when everything feels out of control. We are called to turn to God for strength and sustenance. We are asked to taste and see that the Lord is good. Just because we need milk doesn’t mean we are immature. Rather, the milk is purity, the milk is love, the milk is hope that God is the one who indeed helps us grow. And growing into our salvation is a lifelong process.
Psalm 34 shows God as a nursing mother and a sustaining parent. It says, “I sought the Lord, and he answered me, and delivered me from all my fears. Look to him, and be radiant; so, your faces shall never be ashamed. This poor soul cried, and was heard by the Lord, and was saved from every trouble. The angel of the Lord encamps around those who fear him, and delivers them. O taste and see that the Lord is good; happy are those who take refuge in him. O fear the Lord, you his holy ones, for those who fear him have no want. The young lions suffer want and hunger, but those who seek the Lord lack no good thing.”
Did you hear the words? God delivered me. My soul cried. Taste and see that the Lord is good. The baby lions suffer want and hunger but not the children of God. Did you hear all of that? God nurtures and cares for us. God nurtures and cares for us when we are under strain and stress. We are cradled by God when we are in crisis. We are swaddled in love when are afraid. We are held in warmth when are alone. On this Mother’s Day, God is our mother who helps us grow into our spiritual houses, a parent who nurtures us and comforts us in our suffering.
Being loved by God and being the children of God gives us an identity, one that reveals we are not lifeless or inanimate. We are alive! And if we alive and if we are strong and living stones, and if we are a strong spiritual house, we can know that no opposition, no oppression, no rejection, not even death, is as powerful as God’s determination to be with us, to love us, to help us grow and give us a future. Our identities as living stones is to imitate The Living Stone, The Keystone, The Cornerstone, the One who is with us, shoring us up and giving us a sure foundation. And on that foundation, we all play a part in the kin-dom of God. We all help build God’s house in this world, a world in which every single person can come under the shelter of the divine.
Kathleen Norris, the author of Amazing Grace: A Vocabulary of Faith tells the story of when she was the only guest one Sunday night at a female monastic community. She says, “The sisters invited me to join them in the community’s procession into church. I didn’t realize it at the time, but the sisters’ invitation was an uncommon act of hospitality, and not being able to amble into church on my own to find a choir stall pushed me into recognizing what the sisters already sensed, that Christ is actively present in their worshipping community. Not as a static idea or a principle, but a Word made flesh, a listening, active Christ who in the gospels tells us that he prays for us, and who promises to be with us always.”
“Walking slowly into church in that long line of women taught me much about liturgical time and space. I found to my surprise that the entire vespers service had more resonance for me because of the solemn way I had entered into it. Our process was also a reminder of the procession of life itself; the older sisters with their walkers and canes had set a pace that the younger women had to follow. The prioress was my partner; we brought up the rear. ‘We bow first to the Christ who is at the altar,’ she whispered to me, as the procession lurched along, “and then we turn to face our partner, and bow to the Christ in each other.’ ‘I see,’ I said, and I did.”
Can we bow to the Christ in each other, in our homes and online, young and old, rich and poor, weak and strong, black and white, citizen and immigrant and envision ourselves, all of us, as the beloved children of God, growing every day into our salvation? Can we envision ourselves as living stones, building the house of the divine, welcoming all people into our churches, our homes, and our lives? What is your identity today? Whatever is going on or however we feel, Peter is reminding us to be faithful, just as Christ was faithful even to the cross.
And since Jesus was the living stone that was rejected we too will experience persecution and pain. We will experience suffering and shame. We will experience lostness and loneliness. But where Jesus was rejected and thrown out, we will not be as long as we are together. We are living stones, formed together in community, to hold each other up, to stand side by side, to add to each other and not subtract from each other. We are no longer alone. We are no longer weak. We are no longer without purpose. We are a holy priesthood, a holy people who build structures of love, acceptance, justice, and care… together. Be living stones, people of God. Be living stones.