Living Stones

Sunday, May 14, 2017

It’s fun to mix metaphors.  Here are some of my favorites:  “Espresso is the barista’s cup of tea.”  “The bald eagle is the canary in the coal mine of our ecosystem.”  And for Mother’s Day: “Women are the founding fathers of feminism.” 

 

The writer of 1 Peter gives us some mixed metaphors at the start of today’s reading of scripture.  He says, “Like newborn infants, long for pure, spiritual milk.”  And then in the next breath, he adds “Like living stones, let yourselves be built into a spiritual house.”  Milk and rocks don’t usually go together, but in this case both are metaphors for who we are as spiritual beings and how we can grow to reach our potential.

 

Many people believe that the author of 1 Peter is the disciple of Jesus by that name.  The reason they believe that is that it says so in the first verse of the first chapter.  The vocabulary and hints within the text about when the book was written, however, suggest that an admirer of the apostle used Peter’s name to add credence to his own words.  That was a common practice at the time and was not considered a form of impersonation, as it might be today.  What is clear is that the book was written to people scattered to distant places in a time of persecution.  The writer was encouraging them to stay strong in their faith and not be afraid of opposing forces. 

 

 I have a friend whose maiden name was “Bean” and whose mother said to her whenever she left the house as a child, “Remember who you are.  Remember that you are a Bean.”  That’s sort of what the author of 1 Peter says to the recipients of his letter: “Remember who you are.  Remember that you are chosen; you are royal; you are holy; you are God’s own people.”  In other words, you are shaped and defined in powerful ways by your spiritual family.

 

When I was in Portland last week, I picked up a book by a local author named Ruth Wariner.  Her memoir, tiled “The Sound of Gravel” details her life growing up in Mexico within a polygamous family.  Ruth’s father founded a colony of fundamentalist Mormons who fled what they perceived to be persecution and evil within the United States.  Ruth was the thirty-ninth of her father’s children.  When she was three months old, her father was killed by his brother in a power struggle over colony leadership.  Ruth’s mother then married a man who eventually took three other wives or “sister wives” as they were called.  Many children were born on the compound where they all lived, and much of the book is a description of hardship and deep poverty.  Ruth was subjected to sexual abuse by her step-father for many years, and although she told her mother about the abuse, her mother remained in denial as she coped with her own significant struggles.  Ruth was removed from school after eighth grade to care for her younger siblings.  She grew up feeling mostly unloved by the people she knew should protect her but did not.  At age fifteen, she ran away, taking her younger siblings with her.  She ultimately earned a GED and a college degree.  She raised her younger brother and sisters, and she became a Spanish teacher in the Pacific Northwest.  It’s a happy ending of sorts, but there is an acknowledgment that family paranoia and abuse and poverty did not provide the kind of foundation that Ruth and her many siblings needed for success in life. 

 

Remember who you are.  What did your family look like when you were a child, and how has that shaped you?  Families certainly don’t all look alike.  My family adhered closely to the norm of the post-war, baby-boomer model of a working father, stay at home mother, and several children.  We were solidly middle-class and we had many opportunities for education and recreation.  That didn’t stop mental illness and drug abuse from claiming the potential of two of my siblings.  The shiny selves that we show to those outside of our families don’t always tell the whole story.

 

Two of my friends in New York are lesbian women who have been a couple for almost three decades.  Several years ago they adopted a special needs child who had been in the foster system for most of his ten years.  A few years later they adopted an African American boy with physical handicaps requiring many surgeries.  Recently, they welcomed a third hard-to-adopt child into their home.  All three boys are thriving, and I get a lump in my throat when I look at their photos online and think of the love these two women have shared with three children, all with great needs.  A while back, I let myself get engaged in a debate about same-sex adoption.  I told the story of my friends and was astonished that the only response was the assertion that my friends were selfish.  They allowed their own desire to be mothers to become more important than the children’s need for a father.  I was horrified that anyone would rather see children in a series of foster homes than in a stable environment with two loving mothers.

 

What is the foundation for a healthy home?  What elements make it a healthy place where individuals of any age can be nurtured?  The author of 1 Peter wrote, “Like living stones, let yourselves be built into a spiritual house.”  What metaphorical stones are part of your spiritual home, whether you have a traditional family structure or whether it is unique and beautiful in its own way?

 

Since the writer of our text is a follower in the way of Jesus, it’s not surprising that he says that Jesus as the cornerstone of a spiritual house.  The United Church of Christ states in its foundational documents that Jesus is the head of the church.  That’s one way of saying that we do not have a hierarchy that elevates any living person to a place of ultimate spiritual authority.  As a progressive Christian church, we tend to use words like this: “We have found a path to God through the life and teachings of Jesus.”  Jesus is the path, or the head, or the cornerstone.  These are all metaphors, though somewhat mixed, that attempt to describe who Jesus is to his followers.

 

Last week I attended an event called the Embrace Festival in Portland, Oregon.  It was the first formal gathering and conference created by the Center for Progressive Christianity.  The speaker I was most eager to hear was Matthew Fox.  Matthew Fox was a Dominican priest who was expelled from the Catholic Church for denying the historic doctrine of Original Sin.  That, plus he told Cardinal Ratzinger, later to become pope, that the church was like a really big dysfunctional family.  His work in the area of Creation Spirituality has formed the basis for much of what we call progressive Christianity.  In Portland, the rather lengthy title of his address was “The Struggle for a Return of the Sacred in the Time of a Neo-fascist Resurgence.”  Fox never minces words in his analyses of current events in light of what he understand to be a healthy spirituality.  He called for us in Portland to resist the current political climate that puts all of creation at peril.  Doing so is spiritual work since the end will be a nation and a world not manipulated into serving the needs of a few rather than the needs of all. 

 

This past week was like no other in our nation’s capital.  I had the sensation of vertigo at times while trying to keep up with statements and clarifications and corrections and even threats.  When leaders are unbalanced and without clear direction and the ability to maintain a calm demeanor, everyone who tries to follow is left without steady ground to walk on.  In some ways, a nation is not much different from a family.  There is a need for a large measure of trust that the parent – or the president – can be trusted to love and protect the vulnerable who depend on the one in charge.  Abuse of children in a family is despicable.  Abuse of power and the risk that poses to citizens is no less abhorrent

 

Yesterday, Liberty University welcomed the president as commencement speaker.  It reminded me of my graduation on Mother’s Day weekend thirty-four years ago at a college that was small but shared Liberty’s conservative posture.  The speaker was Charles Colson who was Special Counsel to the president during the Nixon administration.  Colson was one of the “Watergate Seven” and was charged and imprisoned for obstruction of justice.  During his years in prison, he had a conversion experience and dedicated this rest of his life to ministry with prisoners as well as political activism for conservative causes.   In the years prior to his death, Colson increasing used his voice to champion “moral values” which came in the form of suppressing rights of women and LGBT citizens.

 

So often, it is assumed by people that to be Christian means to be anti-women, anti-immigrant, anti-gay, anti-Muslim, etc.  Prominent figures like Jerry Falwell of Liberty and Franklin Graham and Charles Colson have been the face of Christianity for the masses who do not distinguish between public figures and those who hold to progressive faith.  There is no such nuance for those who look from the outside and are repelled by what they believe is Christian morality.  We know that morality is much more than personal choices about individual behavior.  It encompasses our actions for justice, our commitment to truth, and our advocacy for those who are abused or oppressed in any manner.

 

 Matthew Fox reminded me this week to stay vigilant and to see our struggles for justice and peace as a spiritual act.  I’m also reminded on a day when we honor women that the voices of strong women are often the means through which we hear and act on needed truth.  The words read earlier by Lisel Mueller speak of that.  She is a Pulitzer Prize who fled Nazi Germany with her family when she was fifteen years old.  Her poems contain social commentary as they probe at the line between our public and private selves.  Here those words again:

 

The laughter of women sets fire

to the Halls of Injustice

and the false evidence burns

to a beautiful white lightness

 

It rattles the Chambers of Congress

And forces the windows wide open

So the fatuous speeches can fly out

 

What language it is, the laughter of women,

High-flying and subversive.

 

All of our voices and our laughter are needed in a time when too many voices are silenced and laughter is diminished by fear. 

 

Keep building a spiritual house on a foundation of truthfulness.  Be the living stones that will be joined together with the mortar of love to rise up and shelter those in search of peace.  Don’t grow weary in this spiritual building project, knowing that the construction season is long, but that a better future depends on our faithfulness now.  Amen.

 

 

 

 

 

           

 

 

 

           

 

           

           

 

 

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