Isaiah 51:1-6, Matthew 16:13-20, Racism, Sermons, Uncategorized

To the Quarry

“Listen to me, you that pursue righteousness, you that seek the LORD. Look to the rock from which you were hewn, and to the quarry from which you were dug.”

My quarry was the American South of the mid-20th century, a racially-mixed city where I grew up in a neighborhood so oddly quaint that it felt more like the setting for a 19th century novel written by a maiden lady with keen skills of social observation. My childhood memories skew to the excessively genteel. I can see my mother sitting at her desk, writing thank you notes, and have few memories of my father not wearing a necktie, unless he was playing tennis or in his pajamas. We lived in an old city, and both sides of the family had been there for many generations. One of my grandmothers was President of the Historical Association and an avid preservationist. Therefore I almost cannot help looking back and pondering how we all got to where we are.

There are a lot of influences in each of our lives that form us.

  • Location – where were you born, and how did the climate and the environment impact you?
  • Ethnicity and Nationality – what are the cultural influences that mattered in your early life?
  • Religion – what stream of faith formed you?

Isaiah wrote these verses for a people returned from exile in Babylon to take up living in Jerusalem again. Their faith tied them to a location their ancestors had left behind unwillingly, but by this time not only had that place been changed by years of occupation, the people coming back were not the ones who left in the first place. “Returned” is a term that applies to their race, but not to the individuals making the trip. They went back to the location of the Temple, the place where God could assuredly be found – but the occupying forces had destroyed the Temple, too.

Look to the rock from which you were hewn – look to the ancestors, says Isaiah, and to the way God dealt with them. Abraham was only one person, but from him came many. The heritage of the returned exiles included many people who felt like they lived at the end of the line, but God delivered them. Isaiah wrote a word of encouragement:

This land may feel unfamiliar, but no matter how complicated things seem, God is with you.

Look to the Rock.

Peter, the gospels tell us, grew up by the Sea of Galilee. He worked beside his brother, Andrew, casting the nets and supporting their families. He grew up in a family-oriented time, but he left both boat and family to follow Jesus. All the gospels suggest he had a strong, impulsive personality. When Jesus asked the question, “Who do you say that I am?” Peter never hesitated. “You are the Messiah, the Son of God.” Jesus called him the Rock; “On this rock,” he said, “I will build my church.” We remember Peter for his denial on the night of Jesus’ arrest, but we also remember that he went on to lead the early church, preaching and teaching and eventually being crucified himself.

Look to the rock from which we are hewn, to the quarry from which we were dug.

My childhood home may have been quaint and genteel, but it was also segregated. The African-American women I knew were all maids in our neighborhood. The one I remember best took care of my brother and me. No one thought it was strange for me to call her by her first name, Catherine. The one man of color I knew worked at my church; he was the janitor. No one thought it was odd for a very little girl to call him by his last name without a “Mr.” in front of it.

That’s been on my mind the past few weeks, as we’ve watched some terrible scenes unfold on television, scenes of armored vehicles on the streets, cell phone video of what amounted to an execution. I don’t like to see these things when they take place in Syria. I hate to see these things when they take place in our country.

I wish that scenes of violent oppression and stories of racial prejudice were ancient history, or at least as far away as my childhood. I was sheltered from the violent reaction to the Civil Rights movement – the violent reaction of white people, my people. I could hide behind the memory of the times we made sure to visit with Catherine after we moved away, because it’s a true story, and I could tell you about how my mother was one of a minority of white women employing help who bothered to do the Social Security paperwork, but the truth is we lived in a segregated and oppressive time and place, where the drug store counters and the water fountains had signs saying who could use them and who could not.

And what do we have now, fifty years later?

We have armored vehicles on the streets, deployed against our citizens. We have flash-bangs and tear gas canisters being used on our citizens. We have a church being raided in an American city – an AMERICAN city – for the sin of offering protestors first aid and water bottles and a place to gather.

We see scenes that look like the gates of Hell.

Jesus said, “And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it.” It’s too easy to read the gospel lesson this morning and pretend it refers to some far-off confrontation between metaphysical powers or imagine it as an apocalyptic IMAX summer blockbuster with Biblical figures instead of comic book characters.

The truth of these past two weeks has been a grindingly every-day hell. It’s as horribly ordinary as the delay of the first day of school, or a trip to the convenience store interrupted by a shooting, or a deadly walk home on a residential street. In big cities and middle class suburbs and small towns there is hatred and fear and cruelty. Mistrust feeds on mistrust. People get righteously angry. People speak painful truths. People do things we wish they wouldn’t. People on all sides do all these things. We – collectively – commit the sin of treating God’s beloved children as “other.”

Even without the tear gas, it’s hellish.

If it feels unmanageable to you, you’re in good company.

Listen to these ancient words, from Psalm 138:

Though I walk in the midst of trouble, you preserve me against the wrath of my enemies; you stretch out your hand, and your right hand delivers me.

The LORD will fulfill his purpose for me; your steadfast love, O LORD, endures forever. Do not forsake the work of your hands. (Psalm 138:7-8, NRSV)

The Israelites coming back from Babylon didn’t know how they were going to manage in Jerusalem. Peter had no idea how to be the person Jesus claimed he would be. I grew up and through many awkward relationships with African-American classmates and co-workers before I could be a real friend to any of them. I’m pretty sure most of the faithful sitting in churches this Sunday morning have a feeling we ought to be doing something about racism, but just don’t know where to start.

I don’t like to use “we” here. I want to say “they” and make it someone else’s responsibility, someone else’s problem. We are afraid we don’t know what to say, or what to do, or we tell ourselves these things only happen far away from us. We could turn our heads away, but the trouble is, we read Isaiah this morning.

“Listen to me, you that pursue righteousness, you that seek the LORD. Look to the rock from which you were hewn, and to the quarry from which you were dug.”

We want to be those people, don’t we, to have that kind of persistent faith? That quarry from which I was dug had some pretty faithful people in it. They couldn’t shield me entirely from the unconscious racism of our culture, but they could point me to the rock from which we were all hewn. God is that rock, a God of steadfast and enduring love for all people. God is that rock, who loves all people *so* much that God became one of us to make sure we knew it.

Peter knew. He knew God was in the world, even before the world was ready to know it.

That’s how every new movement starts. Someone listens to God, even before the rest of the world is ready. Someone puts it into words. People start to listen. The world begins to change.

We can see it some places. But we aren’t all the way there yet. It seems like it should be simple, but when we turn on the TV, there they are again, the fiery gates of Hell, in the middle of a neighborhood.

Greater St. Mark church (snagged from Brian Merritt's Facebook page)
Greater St. Mark church (snagged from Brian Merritt’s Facebook page)

In that neighborhood, the raided church continues to offer first aid and water bottles and a place to gather.

We can do it in any neighborhood when we open out with healing and nurture and community for all beloved children of God. That’s the way to be Christ’s church, founded on a rock, hewn from the quarry of God’s steadfast love.

The gates of Hell can never prevail against it.


(Today’s readings here and here.)

Matthew 16:13-20, Proper 16A, Sermons

Passed Down

(A sermon for Proper 16AAugust 21, 2011 — Isaiah 51:1-6; Matthew 16:13-20)

I grew up in an old house which, like many old houses, was brought “up to date” whenever it got new occupants. When it was first built, the kitchen was an outbuilding! My parents arrived there in 1951, and they put in a kitchen with pickled pine cabinets like the ones on “Ozzie and Harriet.” They wanted a cozy place to eat near the kitchen, reflecting that my mother, not a servant, would cook the meals, so they designed a pass-through in a place where nowadays we might see an island between the kitchen and the dining area. We all sat together there around an old-fashioned dining room table, even though the room itself was not formal.  With their choices in arranging our home, my parents sent the message that our mealtimes were important, and those meals always began with a prayer.

But the prayers were not always the same. My parents had many generations of ancestors, both on their mother’s sides, from that small, Southern city, but one side of the family was Methodist and the other Baptist, and in both cases my grandfathers from far away had contributed an Episcopal influence. One grandfather was in the Marine Corps, and my father served in the Army Air Corps in World War II, and I’m sure they brought those influences to the table as well.

“Bless this food to our use and us to thy loving service. In Christ’s name we pray. Amen.” I remember my mother saying those words in her gentle tone. And then I recall my father, in his elegant drawl, praying, “Lord, make us thankful, for these and all our many other blessings, for Christ’s sake. Amen.”

Mother and Daddy set the standard, which was not to choose one prayer, or one way, as the right way, but to let my brother and me hear more than one and learn each. We began with “God is Great, God is Good,” but later I was proud to say what I thought was a more grown-up blessing. I remember sitting at the table with my mother’s mother, now a big girl who knew more than a baby grace. “Lord make us thankful for these and all our many other blessings,” I prayed proudly.

But I had chosen to level up in front of the wrong grandmother.  This one spurned my prayer, saying, “The Lord shouldn’t have to *MAKE* us thankful.”

And I learned, not for the last time, that we don’t all hear the words of scripture or prayer in the same way.

Suddenly, “Lord, make us thankful” did not sound like a thank you to God but like an admission of spiritual weakness, a lack of gratitude, a gratitude I ought to have felt, apparently, without any assistance from God whatsoever. In fact, I got the feeling God must be pretty disappointed in me, and maybe even angry with me, for saying things the wrong way!

I became a “Bless this food to our use” pray-er, immediately. And despite my parents’ efforts to be broad-minded, which they were, and to teach me to be likewise, I got the message that God, perhaps, was not.

“Listen to me, you that pursue righteousness, you that seek the LORD. Look to the rock from which you were hewn, and to the quarry from which you were dug.” (Isaiah 51:1, NRSV)

The rock from which I was hewn, the heritage that influenced me, at least in part, gave me cause to worry that every word I spoke would be judged and every thought that crossed my mind potentially found wanting.  I became more careful. I became quieter.

So imagine how surprised I was to discover that the same God who I worried didn’t like my attempt at saying a blessing over dinner wanted me to get up in front of people and talk about my faith.

Now when Jesus came into the district of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” And they said, “Some say John the Baptist, but others Elijah, and still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?” (Matthew 16:13-15, NRSV)

It’s one of the essential tasks of a faithful life, I’ve come to believe, making an attempt to answer that question. It’s what makes us different from a country club or a service organization or even other churches and faith communities. We come together to explore the questions. Who do people say that Jesus is? And who do we say that he is?

Some said the recently-executed John the Baptist, others the long ago taken-up-into-heaven Elijah and still others, well, an array of other prophets, dead or long gone. They were men known for speaking the truth whether or not the authorities liked it. (They didn’t.)

All of these possibilities, confusing as they sound, suggest people knew Jesus to be something other than ordinary. Finally, he asks the people closest to him, “Who do you say that I am?”

It’s Peter who speaks up: “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” And blessed is he! Peter will be the rock, the solid ground on which a new way of understanding God’s relationship with humanity will be built. What makes him so useful and pleasing to Jesus is that he can hear the truth of who Jesus is. He is open to wisdom that comes not from other people, but from God.

And here is what I find encouraging. Peter is not always right. He is not always brilliant. He tends to blurt things out, to act on impulse and to sometimes say the wrong thing. (Come back next week for the second part of this story, and you’ll see what I mean.) But in this moment, he gets it absolutely right.

He moves beyond what has been passed down over the generations, the rock from which he was hewn.

Peter lived in a culture where tradition was strong, and wisdom was the interpretation of the current priests. Those were not the people supporting Jesus. They were the ones saying things like, “You’d better not expect the Lord to *make* you thankful, young lady!” They laid down the rules for living out the Law, and they were threatened by anyone who says otherwise.

So it took people like Peter, people who would simply leave it all behind and stop listening to the voices of tradition, to make something new on behalf of Jesus.

Now, it’s human nature to make a new tradition almost as soon as we start doing things in a group. We lay down new rules and laws, derive understanding from our experiences together, and pass them down to the next generation. We have a right way of setting the table for Thanksgiving or of cooking the peas for 4th of July or decorating the sanctuary for Christmas. We have a right way of saying prayers and singing hymns and standing up to sing the Gloria, and most of the time we don’t know why that way is right or when it started.

Like my grandmother, we may not always stop to wonder why something works or doesn’t. We may just declare it wrong, because it’s not the way it was passed down to us.

Whose voices influenced you? And who do people say Jesus is today? Out there in the rest of the world he’s considered to be anything from a good person to a spiritual master to a prophet to a made-up character. Even people who believe he lived have lots of different ways to think of him. He is Jesus, our brother, kind and good. He is teacher or rabbi. He is what a friend. He is a little baby in a manger (and that’s the one some people want to pray to, if you’ve seen Talladega Nights!). We call him Shepherd and Savior and King and Lord.

“Lord, make us thankful.”

When I was a little girl, I didn’t think about whether Lord meant Jesus, the little Lord Jesus asleep on the hay, or the grown-up, died-and-rose-again Lord Jesus Christ. I said the words because they had been repeated to me, passed down to me, and I had learned them. Like my parents, I adapted old thoughts with new understandings. I grew up and learned from my own life and from other faithful people what it meant to call Jesus “Lord” and to know him as the “Son of the Living God.” I grew up and came to understand Jesus as a saving bridge between my human failings and the God who wanted to love me all along. I came to realize that through his life and death and resurrection, he really did make me thankful.

What do you call him? Who is he to you, this Jesus? Who do you say that he is?

Peter had to learn to talk about something unbelievable, to bring across to others his message that the living man he knew had died only to live again. Peter had to find a way to tell others who Jesus was and what his life and death and resurrection meant. Peter lived into being the rock by bringing Jesus’ love and God’s forgiveness to the world.

And that is the rock from which we are hewn, this church and each of us. It’s the heritage of our faith, to share the Good News that God can overcome death and bring new life. It’s the good word God calls us to spread around and pass down. Amen.