1 Peter 2:2-10
Have you ever thought about what your life would be like if it were a movie?
Yeah, of course you have. I mean, maybe you have. I have.
Most people imagine which esteemed acting professional would portray them. As for me, I’ve given way more thought to the music. Well, at least one part of it.
The opening sequence, as you trace the rural roads through Alabama to begin the portrayal of my childhood, is “Gimmie Shelter” by the Rolling Stones.
The wavering electric guitar reflects the roads shimmering in the Alabama summer heat as peanut and cotton fields roll past.
I don’t know what happens after that. I just like music.
And “Gimmie Shelter” is a song that could be a precursor to any of our lives, though admittedly it’s more contemporary to some of our lives than others. But my Baby Boomer father, a Vietnam vet who loves good music, helped raise me, and the Rolling Stones taught me about the state of the world as they knew it, and it is the way I came to understand it, through my own experience and through the news:
“Oh, a storm is threat’ning
My very life today
If I don’t get some shelter
Oh yeah, I’m gonna fade away
War, children, it’s just a shot away
It’s just a shot away…” (1)
This outlook may seem bleak, but it gave me a realistic picture of what the world was like — in 1969 when the song came out, in 2001, and in 2017. It’s just a shot away.
Disaster hangs out on our doorstep all the time. On a personal, national, and international scale, we’re usually closer to the brink of catastrophe than we think — it’s just that sometimes we’re more aware of how crazy things have gotten than others.
Even when it comes to a joyful day like Mother’s Day, we know that this is not a day of joy for everyone. Some of us have longed to shelter a child but have been unable to conceive or adopt. Others have experienced pain at the hands of children and grandchildren whom we long to shelter. Finally, not all of us have received comfort and shelter from our mothers and grandmothers. Some of us have experienced mostly pain and abuse and long for reconciliation that may never come.
Our government and world, too, teeters on the edge of disaster.
In early April 2017, the Huffington Post High Line published an article called “This is How the Next World War Starts,” describing how US intelligence planes have been barrel rolled by Russian fighters in recent months. This kind of thing isn’t unheard of ever, but it seems, according to the article, to be happening with increasing frequency: how the next world war could start “With one miscalculation, by one startled pilot, at 400 miles an hour.” (2)
Though it’s been happening with increasing frequency, we come close to having huge, international, war-causing incidents all the time. It’s just that our governments are usually able to avoid them through diplomacy.
But with our government looking as if it’s increasingly dividing into warring factions, our confidence in its ability to avoid such things and protect us is going down.
Welcome to the United States of Anxiety. Population us.
I admit, I’ve been diving into the news lately: North Korean nukes. US troops destined for Afghanistan. Russian meddling. FBI directors. French elections.
If we don’t get some shelter, yeah, we’re gonna fade away.
Resurrection is good hope for despair, but what use is resurrection when you’re scared of the trauma in the first place? When you’re afraid of disaster striking? We say, I guess, that we should hope in God and not any earthly leaders in the White House or Congress or the state house, but the truth is that no sane person is entirely unconcerned with what’s going on in any of those places. The promise of heaven, no matter how strongly you believe in it, doesn’t mean that sometimes things don’t go horribly. God being in control, however you mean it, has never meant that people don’t suffer.
“Oh, a storm is threat’ning
Our very life today
If we don’t get some shelter
Yeah, we’re gonna fade away”
One response to anxiety is to double down — on everything you think and believe. This, after all, is where religious fundamentalism often comes from: it is a response to anxiety. It is a need to be sure — sure that we are correct.
Our favorite shelter, after all, is being right. It’s being safe through being superior and powerful and righteous.
And let’s be honest: sometimes the Bible makes it easy to take this shelter. After all, Jesus said, and we read this morning: “I am the way, the truth, and the life, and no one comes to the Father except through me.” (John 14:6)
If there’s anything I’m quite sure Jesus doesn’t want us to do, it’s to prooftext our own Scriptures to prove our faith’s superiority, as if faith superiority were a competition to be won.
But if it’s not an affirmation than we’re right, what are we supposed to do with Jesus’ claim to be the way, the truth, and the life? You could throw it out entirely as an exclusive claim — some Christians have — but what does that say about how seriously we take the Bible as part of our identity? Any position you take as a churchgoer on such a well known Scripture is going to cause a stir.
“War, children — it’s just a shot away”
We need shelter from our state of anxiety. We need assurance. But if this isn’t assurance that we’re right, then what is it assurance of?
New Testament scholar Amy-Jill Levine, a professor at Vanderbilt Divinity a.k.a. Vanderbilt pastor school and a Jew, once told a conference crowd that she had some Christian students who worried about her salvation — being a Jew and all. A New Testament scholar herself, she began to imagine a scenario like this:
She went on to tell a story about how she imagines the final judgement if Jesus is in reality the person he is in the New Testament that she studies. She said that she imagines herself dying and going to the pearly gates and St. Peter is there, and he lets some guys in ahead of her, turns around and opens the gates for her. The guys turn around and say, ‘Hey, wait. A Jew? What is this? She didn’t ask Jesus into her heart. She didn’t go to church. She’s Jewish, for God’s sake! Jesus said ‘I am the way, the truth, and the life, and no one gets to the Father except through me!’”
Peter remarks that he is impressed that they can quote the Gospel of John but motions for them to look behind them, where a man with dark olive skin, black hair, and knowing eyes is standing. “‘I did say that,’ he said. Because I am the way, the truth, and the life, and no one comes to the Father but through me. It is not through your expectations or claims, and it is not through your church’s rules and proclamations that people get to God, but by my rules. I am the way, the truth, and the life, and no one comes to the Father except through my Word. And she’s in.” (2)
Paradoxically, I find this freeing. I find this claim itself to be shelter from the storm of always having to be right. If no one comes to the Father except through Jesus is actually true, the central claim is that it’s not up to me. Or you.
We don’t have to get it right. We wouldn’t get it right if we tried. Believe it or not, even with Google at our fingertips, God still knows more than we do. Christ, not us, is the cornerstone, as our epistle reading from St. Peter said today. And we, in turn, are freed to be living stones: shelter for one another.
Earlier in the passage Jesus says, “In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? … you know the way to the place where I am going.” (John 14:2,4)
“If I don’t get some shelter
Yeah, I’m gonna fade away”
Jesus offers shelter. Yes, in the eternal sense — this is a claim that someday, somehow, there’s hope that things will be alright in the end and we’ll all be with Jesus forever.
But for the moments when we’re not thinking about forever because we’re so anxious about today, there is also shelter.
If we actually believe that Jesus is the way, and the cornerstone, we mean that Jesus makes the rules, that God is an independent being whose grace we cannot control, and that who is in and who is out is not up to us.
We don’t have to be right. That is shelter enough.
I also confess that when I first read this passage this week, I thought of Howie, our beloved brother who died at the very end of last year. This passage was the Gospel for his funeral.
The night of his calling hours and the day of his funeral and in the days which preceded, I heard over and over stories of how generous and kind Howie was. How easily he cared for people, never wanting to be recognized.
On the day of his funeral, I remarked how in this passage, Jesus also says, “You know the way to the place where I am going” (14:4). I said, “I think that what is the simplest and most profound thing about Howie’s faith is how quiet and sure it was. It never drew attention to itself, instead, pointing the way for others. He was most concerned for others because he seemed to know, as Jesus tells us, that he knew the way. A little later in this passage Jesus will say “I am the Way.” Howie knew Jesus, God made flesh, the God that is love itself. Howie knew Love. Howie knew the way.”
Howie, like so many saints before him, showed us how to shelter others with our love. Howie was a living stone. And he was proud to be part of the sheltering structure that is the love of this church. I have, over the last year and a half, watched you shelter each other with love: offering a hug, giving emotional support, providing food, offering to do chores for those who can’t do them, giving each other rides — I could go on. When I first started pastoring, I gloried in how well I could take care of my congregation. When I was a few years in, I realized that the real gift is allowing you to teach me about what love means.
“The floods is threat’ning
My very life today
Gimme, gimme shelter
Or I’m gonna fade away…”
“In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you?…And you know the way to the place where I am going.”” (14:2, 4)
“I tell you love, sister, it’s just a kiss away…”
We know the way. So let love shelter us, and let us shelter each other. Let the cornerstone, Christ, keep us living stones in place as we offer shelter from the world. We are loved. We are love. We are shelter. Amen.
1. “Gimmie Shelter,” The Rolling Stones, written by Jagger/Richards, from Let it Bleed, Dekka Records/ABKCO, 1969.
2. David Wood, “This is How the Next World War Starts,” Huffington Post High Line, 4 April 2017, http://highline.huffingtonpost.com/articles/en/trump-russia-putin-military-crisis/
3. Amy-Jill Levine, remarks given at Reconciling Ministries Network conference Bible study, Vanderbilit Divinity School, 2007.