Monday, May 25, 2009

The Stone the Builders Rejected

Acts 1: 15-17, 21-26
John 17: 6-19

The Stone the Builders Rejected

All of us in this church have our stories, and they are little stories, in spite of them being big with meaning for each of us in our lives. Once upon a time, they all begin, Once upon a time, Carol Shorey was born in the village of Sheepscot, Maine; Cyndi Brinkler was born in Lynn, Massachusetts; Jon Robbins was born in St. Paul, Minnesota. We all began once upon a time, and our lives have unfolded from that point.

Jesus was no different. He was born once upon a time in Bethlehem, and he grew up in Nazareth. Nobody heard much about him until he made a splash at a wedding feast in Cana, where he changed water into wine. Then word began to leak out about the miracle worker from Nazareth. Notwithstanding his notoriety, or maybe because of it, he became the stone the builders rejected, as in the title of this morning’s message.

That title comes from psalm 118, vs. 22, and 23. “The stone the builders rejected has become the cornerstone,/ By the Lord has this been done; it is wonderful in our eyes.” These verses can be read as anticipating the Christ, who in Jesus was indeed rejected by the majority of pharisees and scribes, and those who generally exercised power in that time.

Jesus understood rejection and didn’t let it get him off message. In fact he used that rejection as a platform for teaching again and again. I wonder though, whether any of us would have done as well. What brought all that to mind was this morning’s first reading from Acts. If you recall, the eleven apostles remaining after Judas died, had to choose someone to take his place, to bring the number of apostles back to twelve. That number was symbolically important to the group because of the Twelve Tribes of Israel. It at least partially indicated that the Messianic teaching about Jesus was to be offered first to Israel.

The names of two men were proposed: Joseph, called Barsabbas––also known as Justus––and Matthias. They cast lots and the lot fell to Matthias; so he was added to the eleven apostles. Where did that leave Barsabbas? He is dropped from the conversation like a bad habit. We don’t hear about him again, unless he is the Judas, also called Barsabbas in chapter 15 of Acts. One could argue that the similarity of the names Justus, as Joseph Barsabbas was also known, and Judas Barsabbas were one and the same, but it’s as likely they are different characters. My point here is that after this mini-election Joseph disappears, as in always a bridesmaid––or best man––never a bride, or bridegroom.

To be the one not chosen as prince or princess, king or queen of the prom; to be one of two candidates for a job, interviewed by all staff members over an eight-hour day and then not to be chosen. There’s a sting in that, especially if it has happened before. The times we were not chosen for the sports team or the cheer leading squad; the times we were overlooked by our grandparents for the overnight in favor of our older sister or brother. Hey! What about me? How do you think I feel, the little kid in you cries out.

All those things crossed my mind in relation to Joseph Barsabbas. How did he feel fading back into the woodwork? How could he make meaning out of not being chosen? Well, how have you made meaning in the past out of not being chosen for something: editor of the school yearbook, varsity instead of jayvee, the lead role in the play? In fact there are still other roles to play besides that lead role, aren’t there?

I thought of Brother Lawrence, who lived in the seventeenth-century in a Carmelite monastery in Paris. The most significant spiritual event in his early life occurred on a cold winter day in the presence of a leafless tree. Nicholas Herman, as he was known then, thought to himself that in a little time the bare branches of that tree would be covered with new leaves, and that thought filled him with “a high view of the providence and power of God.” He went to the Carmelites in Paris, where he was admitted as a lay brother and became known as Brother Lawrence.

He spent the next forty years in the monastery kitchen, scrubbing pots and chopping vegetables. No doubt he would have remained entirely anonymous in his life if a visiting official had not initiated a conversation with him and been amazed at the depth of his spiritual insight and wisdom. They had successive conversations and a long correspondence, that were distilled into the spiritual classic, The Practice of the Presence of God. According to Brother Lawrence, wherever we find ourselves, whatever the task at hand, we should perform our duties with a consciousness of God’s loving presence. With that consciousness, all of what we do is holy.

Brother Lawrence made no distinction between great works and small. As he liked to observe, God “regards not the greatness of the work, but the love with which it is performed.” Wise words from Brother Lawrence, and words that we can appropriate to make meaning of our lives, which sometimes appear less than earthshaking because they are.

In the late nineteenth century, when she was nine years of age, Josephine Bakhita was kidnapped from a small village in Sudan. She was a mistreated slave in the home of many masters before she found a kindly mistress with whom she traveled to Italy. She accompanied her young charge to a boarding school in Venice, and it was there she heard the gospel for the first time and felt God was calling her to be free. After finding out that slavery was illegal in Italy and realizing she was already free, she was baptized and later became a nun. Like Brother Lawrence, Josephine Bakhita spent her life in simple tasks of sewing, cooking, serving as sacristan and doorkeeper. No work was unimportant when performed for the “Master,” her favorite title for God. She became famous for her quiet faith and the care she brought to her assignments, big and small. I am reminded of Mother Teresa’s quotation: “We can do no great things, only small things with great love.”

We can do that, can’t we? Alex and her work on the cookbook cross my mind; Carol greeting at the door; the faithful choir and Carroll, their director; Chrissy with the children; Sonnie and Bill tending whatever they do with great consultation and care. I’ll stop, but you know I could go on. These are all small works done well, and they’re done not for ourselves, but for the community, and therein lies the satisfaction and any joy that comes from it. The message of the last few weeks has been Jesus’s command to “Love one another,” and I talked about the ways we do that. Those things intersect with what I am talking about this morning.

Our lives are not Big Lives, in the eyes of the world, but they are what we have to work with and we do try to make the best of them that we can. To quote Mother Teresa again, “To show great love for God and our neighbor, we need not do great things. It is how much love we put in the doing that makes our offering something beautiful for God.” Something beautiful for God.

I think people in this church have a genius for knowing that life and its partner eternity are happening right along. How many times have we observed the attitude that when this thing happens or that thing happens, then, then I will do this or that. The idea of postponing living until this or that great event takes place––this birthday party, that holiday, a wedding––to establish or shift meaning––that’s a great deception. Life is happening now. This is it. In these small things, washing or drying the dishes, preparing the garden for planting, painting a picture, changing the baby... Doing these little works with a consciousness of the presence of God doesn’t change the work, but it does change how we think about it and make meaning of it in the larger context of our lives.

Life is happening right now. The moment is all we have. It’s good to make plans and to have goals, but it’s even better not to lose sight of what is right in front of our eyes. Even more important, of who is right in front of our eyes. We make our eternities, we make our meaning through our work and especially in relationship with each other. That’s what we’re here for, to learn how to do it, to relate in love. To pass on the gift of love, as Jesus was doing in today’s gospel.

I was touched by the sentiment of Jesus, as the writer of John portrays it. Jesus is leaving the world and he’s concerned, very concerned for his little flock. He’s having a conversation with his abba, his Father, wherein he is asking the Father to watch over these. He can’t do it any longer because he is leaving the world. He is asking the Father to protect them by the power of his name so that they may be one as Jesus and he are one. I can imagine the disciples listening to this prayer, feeling both fear at the imminent loss of Jesus––he keeps saying he’s going away and they won’t be able to follow him there––and tenderness toward this one who loves them so much. He’s trying to safeguard them, asking the Father to protect them from the evil one. It isn’t much different from what I was actually criticizing the figure of Job for doing in the Mothers Day message. But this is a little different; I think Jesus probably knows whereof he speaks––and prays.

Even so, he does remind me a bit of Holden Caulfield, the anti-hero of Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye. The title represents Holden’s imagined role whereby he protects his sister Phoebe and all the innocent children, who are running through the field of rye, from going over the edge. He will catch them so they don’t hurt themselves, so that the world does not hurt them. That’s a bit like what Jesus is saying here.

I also thought of fathers dying and having an interior conversation with God along these lines. It is so difficult for a good father to let go, to trust that his children will be okay in the world, especially if he is no longer there to act at least as a sounding board. Even if he may not have had his physical strength and all his faculties for some time, his children could always turn to him for advice. But now, he must leave this world. Thank God for the Father of their spirits, who watches out for them. Thank God for the heavenly Father who loves them beyond what the human father can even imagine.

The great promise for both the earthly fathers and for Jesus is that the Spirit will come, the Holy Ghost will come and will teach those disciples, will teach our children, will teach us about God, wil comfort and counsel. The Spirit is in the wings and will be center stage next Sunday on Pentecost.

It is true that the Spirit is always with us, enabling the church to continue by breathing into it. While the constant presence is a truism, the celebration of that original descent of the Spirit on Pentecost, called the birthday of the church, as Jesus had promised, cannot be overly celebrated. I recommend that you prayerfully anticipate our worship next Sunday. Dare to ask God to reveal to you the wider and deeper meaning of your life, which revelation is possible through your connection with God by that same Spirit. We are surrounded by what we call mystery, especially when we speak about God, and this is good. But there are some things God would like to reveal to us in order to have the joy of our praise and thanksgiving in response, as we come into understanding. Anyway, please pray for greater insight in your own life, or as God gently directs.

Who cares about our stories and our little lives? Oprah won’t be coming to The King’s Highway any time soon. There’s nothing too spectacular in the eyes of the world going on here in the village. Or is there? I think of Jimmy Stewart as George Bailey in It’s a Wonderful Life, where he discovers how important his life has been, interwoven with the lives of so many others. That makes me think of Carol, Cyndi, and Jon again, and indeed all the rest of us, whose lives are part of the fabric of this church and how we would all be diminished by the absence of even one of us. It’s important that we keep track of our stories, of who we are, of where we have come from, of whom we have met along the way because it is in and through these stories in all their particularity that God makes himself known to us powerfully and personally.

I would like to know what Joseph Barsabbas did after he was not chosen to be the twelfth apostle, Judas’s replacement, but I don’t have to know. I suspect he went about the business of the early Christian community, quietly helping, like Brother Lawrence or Josephine Bakhita, or Carol Shorey, making meaning, building community, loving those he lived with and for. Amen.

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