Upon This Rock
Based on Proverbs 1:20-33, James 3:1-12; Mark 8:27-38, Psalm 19
I have been fascinated by rocks since I was a child. I loved to learn about all the various types of rocks when we studied Geology. I also have always marveled at rock walls and foundations. The rock fences of New England are to me works of art. I love field stone fireplaces and facings on houses; flagstone walkways and stepping stones in gardens. Our vacation house near Mystic, Connecticut, is built on a huge slab of native granite. The builder had to use a pickaxe and shovel to carve out the minimal storage space under the house around and between huge boulders. Those boulders give the house a solid footing that will be there until the next ice age glaciation moves them from where the last one laid them so many millions of years ago. I know that with such a strong and immovable foundation, I can know that the house will outlast me.
Rocks are used metaphorically in a couple of our scripture readings for today (another reason to love them)! We have God as our rock in Psalm 19 and Peter as the rock which Jesus will build his church (we must look to Matt 16 for this reference). Keeping our tongues bridled as a foundation for appropriate behavior and not being block-headed towards Lady Wisdom, complete our rock-inspired scriptures. Before we launch into this sermon, let us clear the gravel of the week from our minds with a time of prayer…
The opening chapters of the Book of Proverbs (up through the beginning of Chapter 9) introduce us to “Lady Wisdom” and her positive and helpful ways of life. In contrast the “simple ones” and “scoffers” are derided and told about the “calamity like a whirlwind” and “panic…like a storm”, because they have not listened to her and heeded her counsel. Waywardness and complacency bring ruin to the fools and the simple, while those who heed Lady Wisdom will live lives of ease and security. When the cornerstone of their lives is wisdom, they will be building on solid rock. Likewise, when believers acknowledge God as at the end of Psalm 19 as “…my rock and my redeemer….”, then they have truly gained wisdom through awe and respect.
Speaking words that are acceptable to God and God’s people are what this section of the letter of James is all about. When we are unwise and do not curb our tongues, then we set ablaze the forest of the world around us. We ruin all that God is doing when we speak without having a bridle on our tongues. It is a truism in the U.S. today that people speak both blessings and curses from the same mouths (or through social media). Scripture, written almost two thousand years ago states plainly, “…no one can tame the tongue – a restless evil, full of deadly poison….” It has always been a part of the human condition that we say things we shouldn’t – especially when we are angry or under the control of other strong emotions. How many of us have said or written words that we later wished we could take back? Our viewpoints can be so “set in stone” as to blind us to the need to communicate carefully and empathically to all of those who, like us, were made in the likeness of God.
Jesus takes his Disciples to Caesarea Philippi, the cesspool of northern Palestine in the early first century. Here were all sorts of hedonistic gods worshipped with all types of debauchery. Certainly not the place that a self-respecting rabbi and his flock would usually hang out. Jesus has a purpose, however, and that is to show the acute difference between life lived with God and built on that rock, and the hell of life lived following lesser gods whose statues were placed in niches carved in a rock wall. Along the way, he asks who people say he is, and Peter states wisely that Jesus is the Christ (the Messiah) the Son of the living God (in contrast to the stone idols of Caesarea Philippi). If we look at the same story in Matthew 16:13-23, we get a better sense of the idea of Peter as the rock of the new church. Hear that version now…
This is the only pun that Jesus was recorded to have made. The play on words is between the Greek word for Peter – “Petros”, and the Greek word for rock – “petra”. Because Peter had answered correctly about Jesus’ divinity, he was blessed by Jesus to be the foundational “stone” on which the church would be built. Right after that exchange however, Peter became hard-headed in his view of what the Messiah was supposed to do (i.e., throw off the Roman occupation and restore the glory of Israel). Jesus had to make an object lesson out of their disagreement and told Peter to get out of the way because he was focused only on “human things”.
The writer of Psalm 19 and the writer of our beloved hymn, “How Firm a Foundation” (UMH 529) see God and God’s word as a base from which to live our lives. The opening verse of the hymn says, “How firm a foundation, ye saints of the Lord, is laid for your faith in God’s excellent word! What more can God say than to you God hath said, to you who for refuge to Jesus have fled….” The Psalmist notes that all creation speaks of God’s greatness without using words. He notes that God leads us with tenets that are perfect, wise, correct, clear and true; and warn God’s servants about not following, while rewarding them for keeping them all. This is why the Psalm ends with how he hopes that he will always think and speak in ways that are acceptable to God and built on the strong foundation of God’s word in the flesh – Jesus.
The writer of James echoes this sentiment in having us consider how to best communicate with each other. In this day of uncivil discourse, be it speech or Tweets or texts or other written works, not a day goes by where from greatest to least among us some inflammatory prose or conversation is communicated. The verses after our reading today speak about how bitter envy and selfish ambition are “earthly, unspiritual and devilish”. It goes on to say that where these things occur, “…there will also be disorder and wickedness of every kind….” (v 16) I think we have been living in a country that has been informed by this kind of wisdom for a while now! Alternatively, the writer in verses 17 and 18 states, “…But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits, without a trace of partiality or hypocrisy. And a harvest of righteousness is sown in peace by those who make peace….”
Jesus chooses fallible humans to make his Church. This is because it was all he had to make it out of – a thought that should keep us all humble (especially those in my profession). Peter is at once a great foundation stone, and at the next moment has a head full of marbles. He is a contradiction, an enigma, and yet he is one who will lead the new movement into the future. He is built on faith in Jesus above all things, and though he will make numerous mistakes and “be judged with greater strictness”, still he is a man for all seasons. He learns from his mistakes and knows that he is forgiven. He does his best to follow Jesus’ teachings and to communicate those to the following generations. He is seen by history as a great preacher and pastor and the genesis of all the Popes (good and bad). Upon this rock, Jesus built his Church. Not a rock without flaws, not a rock that never made mistakes, but a rock that did not crumble when the weight of holy expectation and persecution were placed upon it.
Upon what rock is your faith built? Is it the granite bedrock of God’s unchanging excellent word, or is it the sandstone or shale of something worldly? Is your communication controlled by envy, pride and self-ambition, or is it moderated by peace, humility, mercy and a lack of hypocrisy? No matter where you find yourself today, we can build our faith on the rock of God’s word and promises through consistent and intentional prayer and study. It does not mean that we will ever understand God fully or never make mistakes. It does mean, however, that the more time we spend with the wisdom of God, the less time we will spend on the wisdom of the world. In this way our faith, dependent upon the rock of God’s word, will be strong enough to handle anything that life can throw at us. The hymn tells us, “…Fear not, I am with thee, O be not dismayed, for I am thy God and will still give thee aid; I’ll strengthen and help thee, and cause thee to stand upheld by my righteous, omnipotent hand….” (v 2) Thanks be to God, our immovable rock and our redeemer. Amen!