May 10, 2020/Fifth Sunday of Easter

Call to Worship (Psalm 31)

In you, Lord, I have taken refuge.
Let me never be put to shame.
Deliver me in your righteousness.
Turn your ear to me.
Come quickly to my rescue.
Be my rock of refuge, a strong fortress to save me.
Since you are my rock and my fortress, lead and guide me for the sake of your name.
Let your face shine upon your servant.
Save me in your unfailing love!

The Origins of Mother’s Day

Long before Mother’s Day became an international celebration of cards, bouquets, brunches, and gifts—before it became a $20-billion-dollar-a-year industry—the early advocates of Mother’s Day in the United States originally envisioned it as a day of peace, to honor and support mothers who lost sons and husbands to the carnage of the Civil War.

It was in 1870—nearly forty years before it became an official U.S. holiday in 1914—social justice advocate Julia Ward Howe issued her inspired Mother’s Day Proclamation, which called upon mothers of all nationalities to band together to promote the “amicable settlement of international questions, the great and general interests of peace.”  She envisioned a day of solemn council where women from all over the world could meet to discuss the means whereby to achieve world peace.

Julia Ward Howe was a prominent American abolitionist, feminist, poet, and the author of The Battle Hymn of the Republic.  She nursed and tended the wounded during the Civil War and worked with the widows and orphans of soldiers on both sides, realizing that the effects of the war go far beyond the killing of soldiers in battle.  The devastation she witnessed during the Civil War inspired her to call out for women to “rise up through the ashes and devastation,” urging a Mother’s Day dedicated to peace.  Her advocacy continued as she saw war arise again in the world in the Franco-Prussian War.  The opening stanza of her poetic challenge went like this:

Arise then…women of this day!

Arise, all women who have hearts!

Whether your baptism be of water or of tears!

Say firmly:

“We will not have questions answered by irrelevant agencies, our husbands will not come to us, reeking with carnage, for caresses and applause.

Our sons shall not be taken from us to unlearn all that we have been able to teach them of charity, mercy and patience.

We, the women of one country, will be too tender of those of another country to allow our sons to be trained to injure theirs.

After writing this proclamation, Howe worked to have the poem translated into numerous languages and spent the next two years of her life traveling the globe, distributing her Mother’s Day poem, and speaking to women about the cause.  Because of Howe’s work, communities throughout Massachusetts and in other parts of New England began organizing annual Mother’s Day gatherings, gatherings that were grounded in faith, feminism, and protest.  Howe, in addition to Ann Reeves Jarvis, a West Virginian Methodist and social activist who organized Mother’s Day Work Clubs in hopes of educating poor women about health and hygiene, inspired a movement that would one day, in 1908, lead Jarvis’s daughter, Anna Jarvis, to organize the first Mother’s Day celebrations in Grafton, West Virginia and Philadelphia.  Jarvis’s dedication to the cause, an idea that, for her, was a tribute to her mother led a growing number of states and cities to observe the celebration.  Then, in 1914, President Woodrow Wilson made the holiday official, declaring the second Sunday in May to be Mother’s Day, a nationally recognized commemoration.

However, nine years later, after seeing her idea turn into a holiday gold mine, Jarvis began using her voice to protest the commercialization of Mother’s Day, even calling for boycotts.  “This is not what I intended. I wanted it to be a day of sentiment, not profit.”

Howe would have likely been even more disappointed.  Her proclamation for Mother’s Day included a much loftier vision than mere sentiment: “Whereby the great human family can live in peace,” she wrote, “each bearing after his own time the sacred impress, not of Caesar, but of God … To promote the alliance of

the different nationalities, the amicable settlement of international questions, the great and general interests of peace.”

Opening Prayer

This day we gather with eager hearts, hungry for your Word, yearning for the joy you promise in love.  O God, together we hold a vision of your kingdom, a people of prayer and open hearts, a loving Body of Christ eager to learn and eager to share.  You bless us, O God, and shine upon us with the mercy of your salvation.         

On this day of celebrating your love in Jesus Christ, we lift to you those who have given us life, those who have loved us, those who have blessed us, and those who have taught us—our mothers.  May your blessing pour out upon the women who gave us birth, and those beautiful, strong women of faith who have been mothers to us along our journey.

We praise you, O God, for your gift of motherly love, both gentle and fierce, both strong and humble, both kind and true.  Where we have been so blessed, we give our grateful praise, for you have provided loving hands that have worked so hard in raising us, cared enough to correct us, blessed us in ways we cannot have fully known as children.

We call forth your compassion upon every mother who has unknowingly caused pain and suffering.  And, so we lift to you our mothers, so imperfect, also so wounded by this world.

We lift to you the heart of every mother who has watched her child die of hunger, every mother who had been a victim of abuse, every woman who stands in protest against a world that massacres her children and renames them “collateral damage.”  We lift to you the prayer of every mother who has ever loved and lost.

We lift our prayers to your mother’s heart, O God; and although we cannot begin to fully express our gratitude, help each one of us to be your blessing of love, a blessing straight from your heart.  Amen.

Scripture Lesson/1 Peter 2:2-10 (NRSV)

2Like newborn infants, long for the pure, spiritual milk, so that by it you may grow into salvation— 3if indeed you have tasted that the Lord is good.

4Come to him, a living stone, though rejected by mortals yet chosen and precious in God’s sight, and 5like living stones, let yourselves be built into a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.  6For it stands in scripture: “See, I am laying in Zion a stone, a cornerstone chosen and precious; and whoever believes in him will not be put to shame.” 

7To you then who believe, he is precious; but for those who do not believe, “The stone that the builders rejected has become the very head of the corner,” 8and “A stone that makes them stumble, and a rock that makes them fall.”  They stumble because they disobey the word, as they were destined to do. 

9But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people, in order that you may proclaim the mighty acts of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light.  10Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.

Message/A Peculiar People

About 1,000 years ago a group of Vikings led by Erik the Red set sail from the coast of Norway for the vast Arctic landmass we know as Greenland.  Greenland was (and still is) largely uninhabitable.  It’s basically a massive Island covered by a huge sheet of ice.  But along the southwestern coast they found two deep fjords that were shielded from the harsh North Atlantic winds and salt spray.  As they sailed upriver, they began to see green, grassy slopes appearing through the fog, dotted with wildflowers and shrubs.  They saw thick forests of willow, birch, and alder trees.

They settled there and formed two colonies about 300 miles apart that were known as the Eastern and Western settlements.  They began to raise sheep, goats, and cattle.  They turned the grassy slopes into pastureland and hunted seal and caribou.  They built a string of parish churches and a cathedral to rival those back in Norway.  They traded actively with mainland Europe.  They tithed regularly to the Roman Catholic Church.  They were law-abiding, economically viable, fully integrated European communities, and at their peak there were around 5,000 people settled in Greenland.  They lived there for 450 years—and then they vanished.  And until recently, nobody knew why.

Their story is told in Jared Diamond’s book Collapse.  Diamond is a Pulitzer Prize winning Geographer who studies about why civilizations end.  For a long time, we assumed it was always the result of wars, drought, or some cataclysmic events.  But what we now know is that they collapse because they were not committed to the holistic stewardship of all of life—they become too focused on perpetuating their own culture and lost sight of the big picture.

Diamond shares that archeologists still come from all over the world to dig in Greenland and they all seem to be looking for the same things—evidence of war or disease or some sort of catastrophic event.  But what they’re looking for is fish bones—and they never find them.  The Vikings who colonized Greenland were surrounded by some of the most fertile fishing waters on planet.  And yet, by our study of the ruins there—they were starving.  So, the question is, why would a society that was sitting on top of the richest food source the ocean has to offer starve to death?

The answer is that the Greenland Norse had a cultural taboo against eating fish.  It simply wasn’t done.  Vikings elsewhere ate fish—they even exported dried fish to continental Europe—but the Greenlanders had some sort of strong cultural taboo against eating fish.  Vikings are often portrayed as transient, seafaring raiders, and to a point, they were.  However, they preferred to look at themselves as settled farmers and ranchers.  In large part, they raised cattle—it was a huge status symbol for them.  In their world, real men raised cattle—they didn’t eat fish.  So, when they settled Greenland: they cleared forest for pasture, and began cutting down trees for barns, homes, firewood.  The deforestation removed the critical footing for the thin fragile arctic soil.  Over time the livestock over-grazed the hillsides, and the erosion caused by the wind and rain began to carry away all the topsoil.  Pretty soon the crops wouldn’t grow, and the livestock couldn’t be fattened, so food became scarce.  Even though they were sitting on top of millions of North Atlantic Cod, all archeological evidence suggests that the Norse would rather starve than eat a fish.

They could have learned better survival skills from the native Inuit people.   How to survive by using fewer trees.  How to burn seal blubber instead of wood.  How to fish or hunt seals in winter when they were at their most vulnerable.  But the Vikings despised the Inuit.  They called them “skraelings” or wretches.

When archeologists dug through the ruins of the Western Settlement, they found plenty of valuable wooden objects: Crucifixes, bowls, furniture, doors, and roof timbers, which means that the end came too quickly for anyone to do much scavenging.  They can tell from the skeletons left behind that the people suffered from horrible malnutrition.  They found the bones of newborn calves—meaning that in the final winter they gave up on the future and ate the young animals.  They found toe bones from cows that equaled the exact number of cow stalls in the barn—meaning they ate the cattle right down to the hoofs.  Through forensic evidence, the archaeologists discovered that they were so desperate, they actually ate their own pets.

What the archaeologists didn’t find were any fish bones.  It seems right up to until they starved to death, the Norse never lost sight of what they stood for. 

What Diamond demonstrates thru the telling of this story is that most vanishing cultures do at least two things wrong.  They do a lot of other things too, but they all seem to do at least these two.  First, they become highly invested in boundary markers.  Boundary markers are cultural markers that define who is in, and who is out.  Things like needing to raise cattle, build roaring fires, and never eating fish—those are boundary markers.  Second, they use the world around them selfishly.  They become more concerned with perpetuating their own culture than with the overall well-being of the world.  The Greenland Vikings tried to recreate a way of life that worked fine in Norway, but conditions in Greenland were much too fragile for it.  By the time they knew they were in trouble it was too late.

The author of First Peter, specifically our text from this morning, uses verses from the Old Testament to help the struggling Christians in the house churches of Asia Minor.  Hear verse two again: “Come to him, a living stone, though rejected by mortals yet chosen and precious in God’s sight, and like living stones, let yourselves be built into a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.”

A living stone—now that’s a different way to look at a rock.  We think of life in terms of animal and vegetable, but certainly not mineral.  And yet, this is the concept that our text is trying to convey.  One can’t do much with one rock.  A paperweight, a doorstop, something to skip across the pond.  You can’t do much with a rock until you start putting it together with other rocks.  The point our author is trying to make is that we, the living stones, we who find our rock-solid identity in Jesus Christ, come together, we form a spiritual house, a temple where the worship of God and the love of neighbor can expressed. 

This means two things: First, we can only understand the abundant life God offers us in Jesus Christ in the light of community.  Life is only intelligible in that we are part of one another.  As John Wesley said, and I paraphrase, “There is no such thing as private religion.”  Indeed, faith can be deeply personal, but it must be lived out with others.  When we come together with other living stones, we come alive in new and creative ways.  Second, it says something about the sacredness and meaning of life itself.  It means that our lives matter—because Jesus has chosen to live on in the world in and through us.  Our lives matter to the world—not just to our children, our neighbors, our co-workers—but to everyone in the world who struggles under weight of brokenness and sin into which we were born.  God’s solution for this brokenness is Christ—and the primary means that Christ is present in the world is through the living stones that make up his church—that’s us.  We become a place where God is present forgiving sins and healing broken hearts and sharing mercy and grace.

I can only begin to imagine what this text must have meant to those struggling Christians living in a threatening and dangerous world, a new sect attempting to survive on the periphery of the Roman Empire.  This text reminds them of their identity and their purpose.  And yet, along with the promise of God’s presence and God’s blessing, comes great responsibility, and perhaps even a warning.  Because, you see, once we think we’re something, once we think we’ve arrived, that we are “it,” there is a great danger to begin excluding others and becoming subservient to tradition.  Like the Greenland Vikings, there is the looming temptation to start doing what vanishing cultures do… setting cultural boundary markers and forgetting our obligations to others.

The painful reality is we do these kinds of things all the time.  We set up boundaries around our beliefs and make declarations that if your beliefs aren’t in line with our beliefs, we’ll throw you out.  We sometimes set up boundaries around our religious practices—you have to be baptized in a certain way with “x” number of gallons of water.  Or you have to go up to the front of the church during the last hymn and offer up a teary-eyed profession in order to be saved, or you can’t really be a part of us.

We set up boundaries around morality—if we don’t like your lifestyle, then you’re out—completely blind to our own moral failings.  When it’s all said and done, the people who are struggling the most: those who wrestle with addictions, doubts, depression, despair—the very people who are in the most need of the mercy and grace of a loving God, can’t get past the walls and boundaries we erect.

I see this happening in the utter pre-occupation we our own denomination has with church growth.  Our consumeristic culture loves to keep count.  We’re preoccupied by numbers because big numbers stroke our egos, win us awards, and offer us bragging rights.  What we forget is the fact that grace never keeps count.  God’s grace is immeasurable, unquantifiable.  God’s grace resists the temptation we have to treat one another as commodities purchased or sold on the open market.  What God does care about are human beings and all that God has created.  We exist as part of God’s life-bringing purposes for the world.  Our work is not about inundating people with all the latest and best programs in the hopes that people will come or competing with our sisters and brothers in other Christian communities down the road.  We are living stones—built into a holy temple together—and we are meant to be a place where all kinds of peculiar people come and meet God and God deals with all their brokenness.  That’s why we exist—to meet the world at the point of its greatest need with the presence and forgiveness of God; that’s what the church is supposed tom be about!

We exist because God is on a mission of redemption.  The world has been hijacked by sin, poverty and injustice.  Folks all around us are enslaved to addictions, pain, fear, guilt, and shame.  And we continue to focus on building bigger buildings and brag about our brilliant programs.  If the life of the church becomes just about the quest for the ultimate worship experience and not about the life of the world, then we’re doing exactly what vanishing cultures like the Greenland Norse do.

There’s a text in the Old Testament where it is explained how the Jerusalem temple was constructed.  This piece was cut this tall.  These widows had recessed frames.  The nave had to have this many side chambers…it goes on and on with exacting specifications.  But there’s this one detail that jumps out at you.  In 1 Kings 6:7 we read: “The house was built with stone finished at the quarry, so that neither hammer nor axe nor any tool of iron was heard in the temple while it was being built.”

There’s an old rabbinic belief that as the stone was harvested for the Temple in Jerusalem, it miraculously came out of the quarry in just the right dimensions to fit with what they were building at the time down at the temple.  They didn’t even have to shape it at the job site.  Every rock came out of the ground with exactly the right shape so that it could be fit together into the temple.  So the rabbis taught: God has cut each of us out of the quarry, and made us living stones; all different shapes and sizes, and God fits us together and then uses us—the body of Christ, the temple—for the life of the world.

Prayers of the People

In this time of pandemic, we pray:

When we are aren’t sure, God, help us to know that you are the solid rock upon which our faith rests;

when information comes at us from so many places, help us to discern;

when fear makes it hard to breathe, and anxiety seems to be the order of the day, slow us down, God;

help us to reach out with our hearts, when we can’t touch with our hands;

help us to be socially connected, when we have to be socially distant;

help us to love as perfectly as we can, knowing that “perfect love casts out all fear.”

For doctors and nurses, for technicians and custodians, for aides and caregivers, for researchers and epidemiologists, we pray.

for those who are sick, and those who are grieving, we pray.

For leaders who have to make difficult decisions;

for all who are affected, all around the world, we pray

We pray for all front line workers and employees who are considered essential-we pray for safety, for health, and for wholeness.

May we feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, clothe the naked and house those who have no home in which to find safety.

May we walk with those who feel they are alone, and may we do all that we can to heal the sick—in spite of this epidemic, and in spite of all the fear.

Help us, O God, that we might help each other.

In the love of the Creator, in the name of the Healer, in the life of the Holy Spirit that is in all and with all, we pray.  Amen.

The Lord’s Prayer                                                                          

And now with the confidence of the children of God, let us pray:

Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name.

Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.

Give us this day our daily bread.

And forgive us our trespasses,

            as we forgive those who trespass against us.

And lead us not into temptation,

            but deliver us from evil.

For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, forever.  Amen.

Closing Thought/Benediction

The Hippopotamus (T.S. Eliot)

The broad-baked hippopotamus rests on his belly in the mud—

although he seems so firm to us he is merely flesh and blood.

Flesh and blood is weak and frail, susceptible to nervous shock;

while the True Church can never fail for it is based upon a rock.

You are a baptized people, a community of hope, the new race dedicated to doing the unlikely deeds of grace, and sometimes even taking on the impossible.

Thanks be to Christ, whose power is made perfect in human weakness.

So go into the world and live as God’s people, through the grace of Jesus Christ, and the power of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.