Scripture - Hebrews 10:19-25
Sermon Preached by Thomas R. Stout
Sunday, September 22, 2013
So, let me call your attention to the obvious this morning. In the bulletin, right after the sermon title, there is a picture of four stacked stones. What do they call to mind? Whenever Nancy and I go to the beach, we inevitably take a walk right along the tidal line. I always pick up stones; Nancy picks up shells. It makes for an interesting collection. Her shells get put into clear glass flower vases at home. My stones usually end up in a jar, or on the display shelf in my study, or in my pocket - like this one I picked up earlier this year on Iona in Scotland. I love these natural reminders of places we have been - quiet, unhurried, relaxed places and times we love.
In biblical times stacked stones had a similar message. Actually, as I have read the Bible, I have found two major meanings for stacked stones. In one of them, the stones mark out boundaries. A stack of stones was put at the corner of one's property - especially if there was no other natural marker, like an oak tree, or a wadi, or a boulder. This stack of stones said: "This area belongs to someone. Do not trespass. Do not sow here, or reap without the owner's permission. These were boundary markers, meant to keep people out, or at least they said, "Ask permission before entering."
The other function of stacked stones was to serve as a memorial, a reminder. Remember the story of Joshua leading the twelve tribes of Israel into the Promised Land. After the exodus from Egypt, the wandering through the Wilderness, and then crossing the River Jordan, Joshua told each tribe to pull a stone out of the river, and to start to build an altar on the west side of the river. This stack of stones was to be a reminder to the people that God had led them safely on their journey to the land of Canaan - promised to their forbearers. When the people got to the area of Bethel, they would have seen another stone, a Standing Stone. This one was put there by Jacob after he had lain on the spot and had a dream of the Ladder to Heaven, with angels going up and down on it - messengers of God to him. "This," said Jacob "is the very house of God (Beth-el)." So here he raised the stone that had been his pillow. It was a reminder, a marker, that here, on this spot I (and you too) met God.
A boundary marker; a memorial: both meanings are in stacked stones.
The other day when I arrived here for my office hours, after I had parked my car in the lot behind the church buildings, I looked up and saw those buildings in a new way. I realized that these buildings told some of the history of this congregation. One building goes back to the 1870's; another to 1910, with renovations in the 1920's; and the third one goes back to the construction and renovations of 1996. You can see what I saw in the three photographs printed on the bottom of pages 6 and 7 of the bulletin. And as I looked, I realized that I was seeing stacked stones. The buildings of this church are a stack of stones multiplied, beautified, and practically arranged. Are these stones a boundary marker, or are they a memorial, or are they a combination of the two - something else? And what will tell the tale of what they are is up to you and me. What do we make these stones mean in mission, ministry, memorial, limits, or...?
And that brings me to the scripture lesson for this morning, from the Letter to the Hebrews. Most scholars are not real sure who wrote this letter - which actually reads more like a sermon than a first century epistle. There are signs of Pauline theology, Johannine thinking, or maybe that of Luke, or even of one of Paul's disciples. Someone has actually suggested that Priscilla could be the author. What is certain about this letter is that it was written to a community of Hebrew Christians because of all the references to the Temple in Jerusalem (another stack of stones, by the way). And given all of the references to worship in the Temple, some scholars think this letter was written before 70 CE. Well, whenever and by whomever this letter was written, the lesson reminds us that Jesus was the High Priest without parallel. Our confidence in the presence of the Divine when we gather in worship comes because of what Jesus of Nazareth accomplished in his life, death and resurrection. "Therefore," says our lesson, "we have confidence to enter the sanctuary...." We can go into this sacred space, or to any place, where we sense, feel, find, hear, maybe even touch and taste, the presence of God because of Jesus' great offering of himself. To that end, the writer offers these words of encouragement to all readers: "... to remember the once-offering of Jesus;
to hold fast to our confession of Jesus as Lord;
and to consider how to provoke [now there is a lovely Greek word; it means to make angry, to stir up deep fiery feelings];
one another to love and good deeds."
And then, almost as an afterthought the writer adds this: "not neglecting to meet together as is the habit of some." Whoops. Is that me? Is that you? I honestly look forward to my one Sunday a month off here. Some of us have been known to take off a few more than just one. And for some, they see no reason at all to be here in this place, this stack of stones.
Clearly, the author of these verses wants the stacked stones of the Temple to be a memorial, to mark a place where God can be met. But he or she also realized that it is those of us who come here (however often); we are the ones to invite, to encourage, to welcome other seekers of God, to join us as we gather at this table. How we do that, I think, is based on what we each think these stacked stones mean. Boundary markers? Memorial markers? And what will others around us see in these stones? That, my friends, is up to you and me - at least in part to start. After that the Spirit of the Christ takes over.
Let me close with a quote from Pastor Rene Bruel, the founding pastor of San Lorenzo Evangelical Church in Rome, Italy. Writing in the September 4 issue of The Christian Century, Bruel writes these words about forming his congregation and its outreach in the Eternal City:
"In my experience of planting a church in Rome, the old methods of reaching people
"In our post-Christian context, outreach is profoundly relational. It takes a solid friendship to make a counter-cultural message both visible and trustworthy.
It takes warm community of people to patiently answer people's doubts, to tend to seeds of the gospel, and to provide a love concrete enough to make the beauties of faith tangible.
We need an approach that fosters deep dialogue and warm community."
So what are you and I up to here? Why do we come to church? And what can we do to welcome others to our stack of stones?
Prayers of the People ~ Dr. Gregory Knox Jones
Gracious God, we know from the Scriptures that you urge us to care for one another, and that you call on us to treat all people with justice and mercy. We confess that while there are times we make progress, we sometimes fail. Too often we continue to relate to people only on the basis of their race or their economic status, their gender or their sexual orientation, their religious beliefs or their political beliefs. When we are honest with ourselves, we find that we are often threatened by people who are in some way different. For the strife we create by pressing our differences rather than acknowledging the things we have in common, we ask your forgiveness.
Loving God, these days our hearts are heavy with sorrow following the shooting in the Navy Yard in Washington. Our sympathy goes out to the families of those who lost loved ones and colleagues in the senseless killing that left so many innocent people dead.
God, forgive us for the violent movies and videos we produce simply in the name of profit. Forgive us for lax gun laws that allow mentally disturbed people to easily purchase weapons. Forgive us for our unwillingness to take better care of people with mental illness in our society. Forgive us fostering a mindset of revenge rather than forgiveness and reconciliation.
Eternal God, as we begin the World Week for Peace in Israel/Palestine, "we weep for the people of the Holy Land where brothers and sisters kill each other, where hatred feeds and nourishes anger, where animosity blinds mercy, where religions divide, where children learn to hate and the elderly live in old grudges."1
You call on us to speak out against oppression, to work for justice and to strive for non-violent ways of settling our disputes. God, sear our consciousness with the commandment to love one another, plant within our hearts a burning desire to do the hard work of reconciliation and steer our vision toward your dream of peace.
Gracious God, the problems of our world are large and complex. We know they defy quick and easy solutions. But do not allow us to use these as excuses for failing to do our part in making our world a just and peaceful place. You call us to be ambassadors for peace by spreading your love to a hurting world. Remind us that each of us has a part to play in our homes, in our schools, in our communities and around our planet. Grant us the determination to counter cruelty with compassion, to repel lies with honesty and to find ways to stop the violence that is shredding the fabric of our society. We know that you want us to create a world very different than the one we are creating. Grant us the courage to change our ways and to follow the path that Christ has shown us. And now we join our voices together and pray the prayer that the Prince of Peace taught us to pray, saying, "Our Father........"
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