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No Stone Unturned

The Reverend Matt Gaventa

June 25, 2017
1 Samuel 7:3-14; 1 Peter 2:2-10

A Reading from the Old Testament

Then Samuel said to all the house of Israel, “If you are returning to the Lord with all your heart, then put away the foreign gods and the Astartes from among you. Direct your heart to the Lord, and serve him only, and he will deliver you out of the hand of the Philistines.” So Israel put away the Baals and the Astartes, and they served the Lord only.

Then Samuel said, “Gather all Israel at Mizpah, and I will pray to the Lord for you.” So they gathered at Mizpah, and drew water and poured it out before the Lord. They fasted that day, and said, “We have sinned against the Lord.” And Samuel judged the people of Israel at Mizpah.

When the Philistines heard that the people of Israel had gathered at Mizpah, the lords of the Philistines went up against Israel. And when the people of Israel heard of it they were afraid of the Philistines. The people of Israel said to Samuel, “Do not cease to cry out to the Lord our God for us, and pray that he may save us from the hand of the Philistines.” So Samuel took a sucking lamb and offered it as a whole burnt offering to the Lord; Samuel cried out to the Lord for Israel, and the Lord answered him. As Samuel was offering up the burnt offering, the Philistines drew near to attack Israel; but the Lord thundered with a mighty voice that day against the Philistines and threw them into confusion; and they were routed before Israel. And the men of Israel went out of Mizpah and pursued the Philistines, and struck them down as far as beyond Beth-car.

Then Samuel took a stone and set it up between Mizpah and Jeshanah, and named it Ebenezer; for he said, “Thus far the Lord has helped us.” So the Philistines were subdued and did not again enter the territory of Israel; the hand of the Lord was against the Philistines all the days of Samuel. The towns that the Philistines had taken from Israel were restored to Israel, from Ekron to Gath; and Israel recovered their territory from the hand of the Philistines. There was peace also between Israel and the Amorites.

 A Reading from the New Testament

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

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. For 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.”

To 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,” and “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.

But 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.

Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.

Some years ago in seminary, I was sitting in a conversation that turned to a debate about our favorite hymns, and, as consequence, our least favorite hymns. And this being seminary, of course, there was a little bit of grandstanding going on — nobody in that room was going to take the easy route, nobody was going to pick “Holy, Holy, Holy” — we were in the hunt for the most creative and most special and fanciest opinion — when a colleague of mine whose name I have totally forgotten threw down what I think is the gauntlet of Presbyterian hymnody opinions. He said, quoting loosely, “You know what I hate? I hate ‘Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing.’” And the room audibly gasped. Because this is an opinion which in the Presbyterian Church as I have over my lifetime come to know it is something akin to heresy, it’s like saying you don’t like sunshine or blueberries, it’s an opinion that God forbid you ever to have and certainly if you did have it may God also bless you with the common courtesy to keep it to yourself, but here we were, face-to-face with the unspeakable.

“I hate ‘Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing,” he said, continuing, “I mean, it’s a fine melody, I guess. But everybody sings these words and nobody has any clue what they mean. I mean, people tell me they love that hymn and I ask them what it means to raise your Ebenezer — you know “Here I raise my Ebenezer, hither by thy help I’ve come — and everybody just stares blankly. I mean, how perfect is it that everywhere you go in this church everybody’s favorite hymn is this thing where we don’t even know what the words mean?” And I kind of laughed nervously, like, yeah, those silly church people, singing all these words and not even knowing what they mean, aren’t they just ridiculous? And then,  immediately afterwards I went back to my computer to Google “Here I raise my Ebenezer.” Because of course I had no idea what it meant.

I do not want you to be so misinformed, and so here we are, in the second week of our summer preaching series on stories of church and worship, here we are in this story from First Samuel of Israel raising its Ebenezer. The people of God have been in great sadness; the Arc of the Covenant has been captured, and the people have turned to other Gods, and then the prophet Samuel calls them back to God. They return to God, they lift up prayers to God, and God delivers them on the field of battle, and so to commemorate the victory, and to remind the people about the deliverance they had in God, and presumably to keep the people from turning again to other Gods down the road, Samuel takes this large stone and sets up as a public marker. And he names it “Ebenezer,” which is a play on the Hebrew for our help in the Lord, because, as the text says, “Thus far, the Lord has helped us.”

So, just so we’re clear. In case anybody asks. “Here I raise my Ebenezer, hither by thy help I’ve come.” It’s a big rock. It’s a marker. It’s a monument. It’s a testimony. It’s a reminder to future generations of just exactly who delivered them in their moment of peril. Beyond that, I’ll admit that the details are a little sketchy. Earlier in 1 Samuel we already have two references to Israel camping at Ebenezer, which is not a place that should already be named by that point in the story, so either the writer has forgotten the order of events or the story has been edited together in some unusual fashion. But in some ways the original history doesn’t matter anywhere near as much as the story that the stone itself tells. The point is not to join Israel in the original moment of raising their Ebenezer; the point is to join them for generations down the road, passing by this marker, passing by this place, seeing this memorial, remembering who they are, remembering whose they are. It matters less where the stone came from. It matters much more that it guides us along our journey.

For years, my family and I have been finding time for summer vacations in the coastal mountains of Acadia National Park in Maine — mountains which count as mountains by the standards of Texas, but, it should be said, barely register by the standards of Colorado. What in particular makes the Acadia mountains distinctive is that some combination of ocean proximity and glacial geography has given them these long, flat, rocky ridge lines — no more than 1,000 feet off of sea level, the tree line dissipates, and you are left with rocky outcroppings punctuated only by low-bush blueberries and flowers that bloom for a few spare weeks every summer. Which leaves a particular challenge for those of us who enjoy hiking these mountains — admittedly, the challenge is not the physical challenge of being in the Rockies; instead, it’s a navigational one. It’s hard to mark a trail over open rock. There’s no dirt path. There’s no poured gravel. Instead, there are splotches of paint, occasionally freshened by the National Park Service. And then there are these rock piles. These cairns. These reminders that jut out over the surface, dotting the path, marking the journey.

The best part of a cairn, of course, is that it’s participatory. The Park Service would not appreciate it if I brought can of spray paint and started touching up their trail markers, but anybody can help build a cairn. You’re hiking along, you see a rock just sitting there, you see a cairn that needs a little more definition, you can take the rock and put it one the cairn, voila, you’ve got a legacy. You have improved the infrastructure of the park. Future generations of hikers will come around this corner and see the trail disappearing over the ridge in some small thanks to you and your contribution. At the top of Champlain Mountain in Acadia, somewhat famously, stands a summit marker cairn that has been piled on for decades, hundreds, thousands of stones, one on the other, made into a pyramid now some ten feet high. You can stand on the next ridge over and navigate by the huge man made cairn sitting on top of Champlain. I’m sure at least one of the stones in that pile has my fingerprints on it, somewhere along the line, if they haven’t washed off in the winter snow. I’m sure that I’ve done my share.

The only problem, of course, is that by now that cairn is plenty high, and if we’re honest, it doesn’t really need any more stones. And for hundreds of feet in any direction around the summit of Chaplain, you can’t find any, because generations of hikers have picked the ridge clean; there aren’t stones, because they’ve all been piled in this pile well past being high enough to do what I needs to do. So everybody wants to participate, everybody wants to put their own stone on the pile, but eventually it’s counter-productive, eventually the ridge can’t take that kind of abuse, because now the open rock doesn’t have anywhere near as much less protection against the winter, and now the brush and the low-bush blueberries and the seasonal flowers don’t have the shelter they need to eke out such a fragile existence, and now in our attempt to help people enjoy the park we’ve jeopardized the ability of people to enjoy the park because of course in the end, the goal was never to build things. The real goal was to help people along their journey.  These days if you hike up Champlain Mountain you’ll hike right past a sign at the entrance that says — and I’ll paraphrase — “Don’t pile the rocks together. This hike isn’t about building monuments. It’s about following the path.”

So let’s talk about church. This is supposed to be a sermon series about church, so let’s talk about church, because of course at its most basic level a church building is a pile of rocks designed to help people on their journey. That’s what the Ebenezer is, that’s why this text even appears in this sermon series; they stop, they give thanks, they raise an Ebenezer, they remember together, and then they come back and do it again, they sanctify the ground as a place where you stop to remember and give thanks. It’s a pile of rocks turned into a church, like the old stone churches in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia, one of those congregations I got to know where in the early part of the 20th century a Presbyterian pastor trained at Union Seminary in Richmond had come home to the moonshine hollers of southwest Virginia and started planting churches and convinced farmers all along the ridge to gather up their stones from their fields and bring them to the crest and they did it and so they piled their carts with Virginia limestone and brought them up to the mountaintop and laid them stone on stone until they had a sanctuary, and even now that congregation is full of the grandsons and granddaughters of the farmers who laid their stones one on top of the other and called it church. You can see it from the next ridge over.

But they didn’t do it to build a building. They did it to help people on their journey. It’s why this Ebenezer gets raised in the first place, and it’s why this New Testament reading from First Peter goes on and on about living stones. Because of course by the time that First Peter comes around, the early Jewish and Christian audience in the Eastern Mediterranean has lived through one of the most traumatic moments of the early church, which is the destruction of the Second temple in Jerusalem by Roman soldiers. For so long the promise of Jewish messianic hope was that Biblical Israel would have its land restored and its temple restored, it’s the promise of prophecy laid into this First Peter text: “See, I am laying in Zion a stone, a cornerstone chosen and precious;” but, by the time of First Peter that promise has fallen into disrepair, as Jews have fled into diaspora, as Christians have begun to fear for their own survival. This promise has been reinterpreted and now it is no longer is this a dream about building structures, one stone on top of the other. Now, we have to build people: “like living stones, let yourselves be built into a spiritual house,” Peter says. The real goal was never to build things. The real goal is to build people. And to help them along the way.

This is the rub. This is what we mean when we talk about church. Last week in worship in the first of this series of summer testimonials, Becky got up here on behalf of the Building & Grounds Committee and spoke about her sense of call to that ministry, which in some ways is the story of doing the things around this building that just have to be done. Any sufficiently large pile of rocks has to be maintained from time to time. But we’re not just here to be a pile of rocks. We’re here to be living stones. Which is why I heard her talk about people. About the people we want to welcome here at UPC, with hospitality of space, with accessibility, with parking and signage and handrails and all the little rocks that that we stack together. And then Brad got up to talk on behalf of the Administration, Communication, & Technology Committee and reminded us that it’s not just about buying computers, it’s about how we talk to one another and how we share stories together and who we are together as the people of God, living stones. For my part, I hope that this is always the measure of our common life. Let this always be the measure of our ministry together. I love this sanctuary. I love this building. I love this space. I love this corner of God’s creation. I love this pile of rocks. I love this church. But the church is not a building. It’s us. And we’re not in this to build monuments. We’re in it to follow the path.

I want to close by telling you a story of one of your sister churches in the Presbyterian Church (USA). I want to be clear that this is their story and not ours. I am not here with a building strategy or a long-range plan. I am here with a Gospel.

About two years ago, in the growing and affluent Washington suburbs of Northern Virginia, on a prime piece of high-traffic and high-value real estate, the congregation of Arlington Presbyterian Church came to a staggering decision. For years, the church had been struggling to maintain financial stability, and especially as the area changed rapidly around them and membership ate away underneath them and the cost of living seemed to go ever upward. In 2012, during a series of intentional conversations with their neighbors, they began to hear the same thing over and over again: “I work here, but I can’t afford to live here anymore,” and after they heard it the tenth time or the twentieth time or the hundredth time, they decided that maybe God was calling them to a new way of being. And so began a process that culminated in late 2015 when Arlington Presbyterian Church sold its own building to the Arlington Partnership for Affordable Housing, which announced plans to build 93 affordable apartments on the site.

The church has not closed. Today, they’re meeting for worship in the same place they’ve met for worship for the past year and a half, in the building of the Arlington United Methodist Church just down the street. As you might imagine, none of this was an easy decision. Of course that space was space where that congregation had gathered in the praise and worship of God for generations, children baptized and lovers married and death looked square in the eye. It was sacred ground for those people of God, and even for their Presbytery, which originally turned down their proposal before time and God did a little bit of work on them. What the church realized, of course, and what the Presbytery finally realized, was that at the end of the day, the pile of rocks isn’t there for its own sake. It’s there to get us up the mountain. And so, we don’t measure our ministry by how high the rock pile is or how long we can keep it standing. We measure our ministry by how many of God’s people we help along the way.

There’s one final twist. Today, as the congregation of Arlington Presbyterian Church gathers to worship, they will give a particular thanks. Over the last year, the congregation has been going on neighborhood walkabouts, trying to discern and discover what God was calling them to be and do as a new people together. One of the things they noticed was that their old neighborhood was crying out for green space, and that so little existed. In fact one of the only remaining options for green space in the entire neighborhood was a plot of land attached to the original sale they had made a year prior, a plot of land destined at the time for single-family housing. And so this week, they bought it back. Just that little sliver. They bought it back, with a vision for community garden and meditation space. They bought it back, with a vision for a community worship and fellowship space. They bought it back, confident that this was the space they needed to be the people that God was calling them to be. And they can gather together and look across the way at the affordable housing going up next door. The builders there are incorporating stones from the old church around the ground floor of the structure. Those old stones are getting a new life. Every last one of them.