Acts 4:5-12, 1 John 3:16-24
April 29, 2012
It just so happens that I preached the on Good Shepherd Sunday last year; so I’ll admit that instead of writing another sermon on the 23rd Psalm, I decided to look elsewhere in our passages for the week and pick up with Isaac’s closing words from last week about resentment and reconciliation. “The Easter gospel,” he noted, “… is about the undoing of resentment, the hope that is born in us as we learn how to forgive, to open ourselves to the possibility of communion with the people we never want to see again, in this life or the next.”
This quote made me think of a story I know—the story of Jake and Hans. These two men were like brothers, living together with their families, but they had come to a disagreement. Jake felt the extended family was drifting apart and wanted everyone to come together more often. He also felt like if any person in the family broke the rules, they should freely reconcile themselves or else leave the family land and strike out on their own.
Total accountability, Jake argued, no resentment allowed! His brother Hans thought it was just fine if someone in the family has some issues that might cause resentment, they should stay—as long as people are kind-hearted and helpful, they were welcome. One afternoon Hans and Jake were together with their buddies, they started to argue about these issues, and things got a little nasty. The resentment between these two men grew a little deeper.
After cooling off a bit, Jake decided it would be prudent to call for a proper meeting with the whole family to settle things. They picked a neutral place, but when the day came, Hans and his buddies were a no-show.
Everyone took a deep breath and the meeting was scheduled again for two weeks later. A long fourteen days filled with gossip and backroom conversations passed. When the two weeks were up, Jake and his friends waited for Hans, but once again he was a no-show. He sent along a message that said he was suuuuuper busy with work on the farm and could not be bothered to come argue with his brother.
Well, Jake had been looking to come to some sort of agreement, to affirm a reconciliation, and as you can imagine, he was pissed; he stood up right there and claimed that Hans was now kicked out of the family altogether and anyone who agreed with Hans had to go to. Harsh words were said, everyone was shocked—his own brethren became those people he never wanted to see again, in this life or the next. In a matter of minutes he tore the family in two and forced everyone to take sides. It was so apparent that he was serious about such secession, their brother Peter could do nothing but stand up and say “There you have it.”
This is where I struggle with overcoming resentment; this is where I struggle with reconciliation. What do we do when the other party won’t appear, or maybe that person is physically or mentally unable show up to the meeting? How do we move forward after someone storms out of our interactions or our lives and widens the rifts so deep that they can be summed up by no more than a “There you have it”? What if we were the ones who did the storming? What about those we’ve never even met, but their actions touch our lives and we deeply resent them anyway? (that last one I’ll come back to)
I think I agree with Isaac’s message—that the Easter gospel may be about the undoing of resentment and the hope that is born in us as we learn how to forgive—but how is that operationalized when the world around us does not have the time or even the desire to participate in that forgiveness? Certainly there are scholars and practitioners of peace and reconciliation struggling with these often-intractable questions all the time. And certainly I can’t answer them here in a short sermon.
While it feels like this is where I say that learning how to forgive and being open for forgiveness is all any one person can do—and while that is not always easy to truly accomplish, it still feels thin to me.
Cornerstones and Metaphors
One of the myriad ways that Anthropologists try and get at how humans interpret, participate in, and create the worlds around them is to pay attention to metaphors. Metaphorical language is used so extensively as a cultural tool that many of us don’t even realize we’re speaking in them. But in scripture, many of them are much more direct—meant to be illustrative and allegorical. Reading the passages for this week, I kept coming back to Jesus as the cornerstone.
Here we have Peter quoting a line from Psalm 118, the same line that Jesus quotes in the 20th chapter of Luke. This “stone that was rejected by the builders has become the cornerstone.”
I’ve often heard and understood this metaphor to be one about foundations; the cornerstone metaphor gets conflated with one of Christ as the foundation of the church, as the rock on which it is built.[i]
But there is subtlety in the architectural function of a cornerstone. It’s not the stable rock on which a building, the church, or the faith is built. A cornerstone does not support, a structure, it determines the positions of its members. In masonry, the cornerstone is the first one you put down-it does not need to be prettiest one, it does not actually need to be all that strong—it needs to be square; because the cornerstone determines the proper placement of every stone that gets laid after it. Jesus may have been rejected and may still be rejected for the pleasantly decorative or the interminably strong, but his mission was to align the people so they would construct the faith.
I’ve sometimes seen this translated as “capstone” or “keystone” instead of cornerstone. A keystone, of course, has its own architectural function—it’s that stone in the top most position of an arch. It’s the last stone that is placed and it creates the physical counter pressure that allows an arch to stay upright. So I consulted one of our in-house biblical scholars, Mr. Villegas, and he confirmed that the Greek can be translated as cornerstone or keystone.
This double meaning, if not intentional, is at least interesting—in our metaphor we have Jesus at the beginning, in the first stone set and at the end in the last. Here he is as we’ll hear next week, the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end. This double meaning is even present in Jesus’ explanation of the quote as he taught in the temple, recorded in Luke—“Everyone who falls on that stone will be broken into pieces,” he says, “and it will crush anyone on whom it falls.” This stone that the builders rejected is both underfoot and above.
Story Reveal and self-excommunications
So, let me flip back to Jake and Hans with their world divided in two. Some of you out there may recognize this story, or may be able to make an educated guess as to its origin. Anyone?
It is, unsurprisingly, the genesis of the Amish church—Jake, the young leader with a zeal for traditionalism was Jakob Amman, and Hans was one Hans Reist, a Mennonite elder who had—like many of his day—been repeatedly persecuted by state authorities for being Anabaptist.[ii] We actually know very little about these two gentlemen; their presence in the historical record exists almost entirely as a record of their dispute. We don’t even know the birth or death dates of Amman, the church father from which the Amish derive their name.
It was the early 1690s, and we all pretty much know how the story ends—an Anabaptist schism that led to separation of the Amish from their Mennonite brothers. But there is another interesting detail in light of a conversation about reconciliation. One of the two major issues between Amman and Reist was shunning—how to handle and socially manage those with whom we hold resentment or those who break our trust and need to be reconciled. The Amish stuck to a strict social shunning of all those who would not reconcile themselves to and with the community of believers. But they began to question their own severance from the Mennonites a few years after the split, mainly because the Amish leaders made these decisions without the input of their congregations. They returned to the Mennonite elders and they asked for full reconciliation—Amish leaders, and even Jakob Amman himself—excommunicated themselves from the Amish church in an act of public self-humiliation in order to show their loyalty and attempt reconciliation with the Mennonites. The group around Hans Reist rebuffed the Amish, using the Amish own interest in social avoidance of the excommunicated against them and furthering the division by stating disapproval of the Amish practices of twice yearly communion and foot-washing.
How do we avoid ending up in a place like Hans Reist and Jakob Amman—brethren estranged and stubbornly spurned? What do we do “when our hearts condemn us”?
Tonight’s scripture tells us to “love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action.” Don’t just say you love, do it, act it, be it. Don’t just preach about how you follow Christ, take up your cross and start walking.
Once again, the lectionary is quoting Jesus here—back in the Gospel of Matthew[iii] when Jesus tells the Pharisees the most important commandments are to
“ love the Lord God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind” and to “… love your neighbor as yourself.”
Jesus preaches the commandment, but it is not up to him to enact it.
The cornerstone sets the course; the keystone completes the force that holds it together. He sets us on this way, to weather this life with the stones placed all around us—those that fit snuggly nearby, those that block our path, those that menacingly loom close, those whom we slight, or ignore, or throw aside.
“love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action.”
I went to a breakout discussion at a church retreat a few years ago and one of the things we discussed was fear and resentment. I remember one of the discussion leaders asking all of us to think for a minute and write down who we fear most.
Who do you fear most? Who do you resent the most?
Without much of a second glance, I used my golf pencil and scribbled down “Christians” on my index card. I, of course, was not trying to be subversive or ironic by putting “Christians” in the hot seat at a Mennonite church retreat. Because, you know, its those other Christians. Those ones who do Christianity different than I do. I fear the control they have in our governments; I fear the affects of their decisions on my children’s futures; I resent their “cultural wars;” I resent their slick-mega-rockout-online-24/7-java-enabled Christ-cams; I resent their interest and involvement in my choices as a woman; I resent their hatred of my family, friends, and neighbors that don’t fit into their English speaking, often white, hetero-normative, born-again reality.
And I resent it most because they speak SO loudly and they do it in the name of Jesus. They speak and use Jesus as a reason, even a motivation, for warmongering, for armaments, for blind nationalism, and torture, death, for racism, and sexism, and hatred.
These are the people I never want to see again, in this life or the next.
Would they come meet me at a meeting of reconciliation? Would I go and meet them? Or would I just send a note along about how suuuuuuper busy I am with work—too busy to talk to a bunch of people I will never see eye to eye with.
Jakob Amman and Hans Reist also fashioned their church practices after what they both saw as the proper interpretation of Jesus’ actions. Reist felt it was proper to extend hospitality to even those non-anabaptists who had shown kindness to the persecuted because Jesus also dined at the table with sinners—and those who slight the church should simply be held from taking yearly communion. Amman felt offenders should be excommunicated because of a conviction to Jesus’ words in Matthew 18 to “tell it to the church; and if the offender refuses to listen even to the church, let such a one be to you as a Gentile.” Reist felt like yearly communion was all that was really called for by scripture; it’s thought that one of the reasons Amman moved to make it more often was to bring women more fully into the life of the church[iv] just as Jesus was willing to fellowship with women. Who had the right Jesus? Reist or Amman? Me or Captain Mega-Church?
This is another one of those obdurate questions, of course. Literal interpretation of scripture? Or maybe just which verses you choose to follow and who decides the dividing line between them. Who picks?—that it’s okay for a woman to cut her hair and she’s no longer obliged to marry her brother in law if her husband dies, but NOT okay for her to raise a family with another woman.
Which rules matter most?
Well, as I noted earlier, Jesus was asked that very question by the Pharisees (at least about the commandments) and he gave them an answer. So I am going to stick my neck out here and make a personal political stand from the pulpit—it may not be yours, it may not be the stand of those I resent, but I’m going with Jesus on this one and hold on to love your neighbor.
And I for one don’t think that is what “they,” some of those other Christians are doing.
As some of you may know, the religious right in NC, including the Christian public policy organization representing conservative evangelicals called the “Christian Action League” have declared today to be “Marriage Sunday” in advance of the upcoming primary vote to amend the North Carolina constitution. Amendment One renders heterosexual marriage the only legal domestic union in the state—potentially removing the legal rights from the approximately 22,000 homosexual couples and 200,000 heterosexual couples in this state with a form of civil union.
One thing that these groups have been offering is a free kit for any church to use this Sunday, so I got a hold of one and checked it out. They state 5 goals[v] that provide a, quote “easy and efficient way your church can aid in the protection and preservation of God’s first institution.” Goal number two is to preach a marriage related sermon and they give a number of resources where you can go read, hear, or download “good” examples containing all the key points denouncing our civilly-unioned neighbors. Other documentation available includes pre-written calls to worship, sermon starters, suggested praise songs, and drafted prayers—all condemning the lives of our queer brothers and sisters, the families of their innocent children. They use a heap of scripture references, many coming back to the creation of one man and one woman in Genesis… oddly echoing sermons preached all over the Jim Crow south using Genesis to claim that God created the non-white races on the 5th day as members of the “beasts of the earth.”
It is hatred veiled in the status quo, it is hatred veiled in semantic designations between marriage and union, it is anything but loving your neighbor.
Frequently in this literature I saw quoted—“God designed the cornerstone of society to be the family, beginning with the marriage of one man to one woman.”
I think they’ve lost sight of the beginning and the end, of the Alpha and the Omega—they get caught up in all the rubble.
The call to love one another is the stone that they seem to be rejecting.
Instead, they choose a cornerstone,
They choose a Jesus that they find pleasantly decorative
Or a Jesus that is interminably strong,
But his mission was to align the people so they would construct the faith squarely. To align them with love—“not in word or speech, but in truth and action … And by this we will know that we are from the truth and will re-assure our hearts before him whenever our hearts condemn us …
And this is his commandment, that we should believe in the name of his Son Jesus Christ and love one another, just as he has commanded us. All who obey his commandments abide in him …”
All the neighbors, all the conservative and progressive Christians, all the whites, all the blacks, all the colors in between, the married, the unmarried, the straight and the gay;
ALL who obey his commandment to love one another “abide in him, and he abides in them.”
[i] Indeed, in Isaiah 28, God refers to both a cornerstone and a firm foundation in one.
[ii] A more thorough (and well composed) version of the split can be found in Amish Studies literatures. I recommend one of the following:
Nolt, Steven M. 1992. The History of the Amish. Intercourse PA: Good Books.
Hostetler, John A. 1993(1963). Amish Society. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press.
[iii] Matthew 22:37-38 (Jesus to the Pharisees)
He said to him, “you shall love the Lord God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the greatest and first commandment,
And a second is like it; You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”
[iv] (due to travel limitations and social customs around pregnancy, women would frequently miss annual communion and sometimes go years without participating—see Nolt referenced above).
[v] GOAL 1: Registering on our Grassroots Dashboard. •GOAL 2: Preaching a Marriage Related Sermon. •GOAL 3: Showcasing a Coalition Church Video. •GOAL 4: Hosting a Phone Bank. GOAL 5: Encouraging and Securing Early Voting.