Living Stones

Proper 18C-22

Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

Clarence Jordan was the author of the “Cotton Patch” translation of the New Testament, and founder of the inter-racial Koinonia farm in Americus, Georgia.  As he tells it, one day, he was getting the red-carpet tour of another pastor’s church.  The pastor pointed out the rich, imported pews and luxurious decoration.  As they stepped outside, darkness was falling.  A spotlight turned on that shone on a huge cross atop the steeple. “That cross alone cost us ten thousand dollars,” the pastor said with a satisfied smile.  Jordan replied, “You got cheated. Times were when Christians could get them for free.”

According to Martin Luther, “A religion that gives nothing, costs nothing, and suffers nothing is worth nothing.”  Today we are challenged by the call of Jesus’ gospel.  We are not called to leave the world and join the church.  Rather, we are called to enter the world and be the church.  Today’s gospel would be much simpler if only it called upon us to build a temple rather than to become a temple.  We are called to be the body of Christ, a temple of living stones, dedicated to our mission, striving to be a living sanctuary of hope and grace.

Our lives, as followers of Jesus, are played out between the gift of grace, and the costly call of discipleship.  Like piano wire, or the strings of an instrument, the music of faith arises in us from this tension.  The pull of the divine lure summons out our response as we commit what we have: our life, our love, our family, our wealth, our energies, and our soul into making the music for which we are specially prepared and gifted, by which the wounded are healed, the prisoner is set free, and the world is restored, according to the demands of God’s peace and justice. ‘Take up the cross and follow me,’ Jesus said (Luke 14:27).

This week, we were told once again, there is a battle being waged for the soul of the nation. Can nations have souls?  Some labor with the notion that God intends for America to be Christian or Judeo-Christian nation and no one else.  Their goal, therefore, is to weed out those who live by a different covenant. Others labor with the notion that the constitution and our form of government is Divinely inspired. Their goal, too, is often to impose their narrow version of the faith into laws that affect us all. Churches, let alone governments, often have a very difficult time distinguishing God’s purposes from human ones. To believe a political community is also a religious body is one of the most egregious and often repeated mistakes of western history.

Misunderstanding soul as somehow special for only certain people and nations is, perhaps, the source of our deepest sadness and most profound divisions. It will help resolve our conflict to recognize a different message found in scripture, that God creates all, dwells in and with all, and everything dwells in God. “In effect, everything is chosen, everything is soulful, everything bears the imprint of the divine, and the holiness of spirit gives life to all. Perhaps it is time to end — not continue — the battle for the American soul. Instead, it is time to envision the shared soulfulness we inhabit.” (Diana Butler Bass, The Cottage, “Do Nations Have Souls,” 9/02/22) Could this be the song rising up in our hearts which we are called to sing? A song to hold both heaven and earth in a single peace. A song to shine on the waste of our wraths and sorrows, and give peace in our church, peace among nations, peace in our city, peace in our homes, and peace in our hearts, through our savior Jesus Christ.

Many people do not see the tension.  So, they are apt either to worship a loving Jesus who makes no demands, or to worship religious correctness and without grace.  Both kinds of religion seem to abound in America today.  Many see no tension between the way of Jesus and the common everyday aspirations of American middle-class selfishness and self-centeredness.

The Buddha is supposed to have taught, “attachment is the root of all suffering.”  Today, we read something similar in the challenging words of Jesus, “none of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions” (Luke 14:33).  Child psychologists know that a secure emotional attachment between primary caregiver and infant is a fundamental key to setting children up for the happiness and success they will experience in adulthood. Not all of us had such good and loving parenting. Yet here we have a good and loving parent in Christ Jesus and a secure attachment to the living God through faith in Christ Jesus.  It is the one possession we cannot do without.  It is the indelible mark of identity and dignity that gives us courage and confidence now to be the church in the suffering world and to sing the song of God’s amazing grace even when all else appears lost. This is how we walk the way into the abundant life of God and follow the way of Jesus’ cross.

You can pat yourself on the back and congratulations are due all around, because today, we read all but three verses of one entire book of the bible.  Paul’s letter to his friend and co-worker, Philemon, on behalf of Onesimus, Philemon’s slave, is testimony to the sibling solidarity we all now share in Christ.  In today’s gospel and elsewhere in scripture, Jesus redefined family life, rejecting blood ties in favor of the faith-based sibling-like bond of found-family the Holy Spirit creates among everything and everyone with soul.

Paul profoundly affirmed and implemented Jesus’ vision of a society based on the surrogate kinship of faith-related siblings. Paul’s basic model for the new communities he founded was a family of such “brothers and sisters,” without any person in the group, including himself, enjoying the traditional authority and privileges of an earthly parent. The Greek words for “sister” (adelphe) and “brother” (adelphos) share the same root: delphys, meaning “womb.” In the most literal sense, persons of faith are born from the same mother. As Paul wrote to the Christians in Galatia, “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28). Once Onesimus became a believer and follower of Christ that made him an equal part of the family. He could no longer be treated as a slave but must now be an equal.  Such radical social consequences of the gospel stare us in the face and are met serious resistance and willful blindness among Jesus’ converts. Why?

Jesus’ invitation to follow him is a summons to a whole new orientation to life, where life is seen, not in our possessions or accomplishments, nor in our family connections, but in emptying ourselves to be filled with God’s power and purpose.  We are filled with a new song. With God as our mother and father, we are brothers and sisters now with all creation. As St. Francis of Assisi proclaimed, we are one family with sister sky, and brother earth, and including all people.  Oh, what peace there is walking in the way of Christ! See you become a royal priesthood. You have a message to preach and a song to sing rising within you. It rises from the tension between the gift and call of grace. We are a temple not made with hands, a temple of living stones moving into the world. Together.