1 Peter 2:2-10
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.
Sometimes I think being Jesus must’ve been a very lonely job.
Most of the time when I’m thinking about what Jesus was like, I imagine the social Jesus. You know, the one who was always surrounded by people, usually hanging out with the outsiders. I usually like to picture him talking and laughing and drinking wine with a big crowd. Extrovert Jesus.
But I think in some ways, Jesus probably felt pretty isolated. He was always different. On the positive side, he had a purpose, but even those closest to him didn’t really understand it. Every time he brought it up, they either didn’t get it at all, or tried to argue with him that he wouldn’t need to die. His family kept trying to get him to shut up and go back to his quiet life as a carpenter. For all the time he spent with people, he also spent a good amount of time alone, and at the very end, when he was preparing for his own death, the friends he hoped would stay with him kept falling asleep. Despite being recognized by some as a prophet, a teacher, to the vast majority of people, he was just a nobody.
One of the things I’ve always loved about the Bible is that it’s the story of how a lot of different people experienced God in their own time and place, so all the books speak to people in different circumstances. In this case, the author of 1 Peter is writing to Christians in exile, scattered across Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia, and Bithynia – a pretty major portion of the Mediterranean and middle eastern world. They were away from home, persecuted by the government and their neighbors, and chances are, feeling quite isolated. So the aspect of Jesus that is emphasized in 1 Peter isn’t social Jesus or joyful Jesus or victorious Jesus. It’s reject Jesus. It’s Jesus the nobody.
But somehow it’s this Jesus, the rejected Jesus, the nobody Jesus, that is the one God sees as most precious, the cornerstone of all things. Despite all appearances, this Jesus is seriously a somebody.
So, once it’s established that God doesn’t see the whole question of nobody or somebody the way the world does, the writer draws a parallel between this rejected but precious Jesus, and people who are deeply isolated and rejected by the world. They, too, are precious and chosen and holy in God’s eyes. This bunch of nobodies are, to God, somebodies. And they’re also somebody’s in the possessive sense: they belong to God, and to the people of God.
So, I’ve been in Cincinnati almost a month, and everything is going really well so far. I’m loving exploring the city and getting to know all of you, and I’m starting to learn my way around and feeling acclimated. I’ve been kind of overwhelmed by the warm welcome I’ve received here, and most of the time I’m really excited to be here.
And yet, every once in awhile, at the oddest times, it strikes me that I am alone here. I’ll be sitting in a group of people, and my own sense of isolation pops up, because even though I’m surrounded by people, no one here knows me in that comfortable, long-term sense. As a very social extrovert who makes friends pretty easily, I don’t get that feeling often, and it took me a minute to even identify that sudden rush of sadness as loneliness.
It’s been a recurring theme the last couple of weeks, and not just for me. A number of other unrelated people have mentioned to me something about their loneliness, their sense of disconnection, of feeling unimportant or ignored.
I think this has been particularly poignant being the week of Mother’s Day. It’s such a peculiar holiday! It seems like it should be simple – appreciate your mothers, buy some flowers, maybe have some brunch. And I absolutely believe that we should celebrate good relationships with mothers, and good mothering. I will definitely be calling my mother this afternoon, don’t worry. But this is also an unexpectedly complex holiday with so many mixed feelings. Some of us are missing mothers who have passed away. Some of us had or have dysfunctional relationships with our mothers that make it hard to celebrate today. Some have longed to be mothers but were never able, or are walking the long and discouraging road of infertility, or suffered a miscarriage or the death of a child. Some of us walked through protesters in order to choose not to be mothers. Some of us are mothers but struggle with everything that it means to live in that role.
And none of these things are very comfortable to talk about freely, especially in the middle of this big celebration of the ideals and assumptions of motherhood. There are huge stigmas for women who aren’t mothers or who feel less than purely joyful 100% of the time about being mothers. It’s taboo to bring everyone down with the complications of our grief or ambivalence when we’re supposed to just buy the flowers and smile and pretend motherhood is a pure and blissful relationship. But the problem with sealing it all up and acting like everything is fine is that a whole bunch of us end up feeling like we are the only ones who can’t just get it together and feel happy. That we’re the only ones who feel sad or angry or some combination of emotions. That we are alone. That we are nobodies.
Our sense of isolation can be exacerbated by the scattered sort of culture that we live in. People are more transient than ever before; we live farther from our families of origin and move more often, making it difficult to maintain long-term friendships. Our lives are filled with and dependent on technology, which on one hand gives us a million ways to connect while on the other making us less and less likely to have conversations in which we really look at each other’s faces and hear each other’s voices. Perhaps most of all, we are a culture that loves to be busy. The full schedule has become the sign of a valuable life, of being a somebody. Ironically, the more packed your schedule becomes, the less time you have to really be known by anyone.
All of this leaves a lot of people feeling like they are alone. Even when we’re not really alone, even when we’re surrounded by people who care, it’s possible to feel isolated – like we’re not really known, like we’re nobodies. Well, if that ever describes you at all, this passage was written for people like us, for scattered people, people who sometimes feel alone, people who sometimes have difficulty figuring out whether we really matter. It’s speaking to people who have felt like nobodies.
“Once you were not a people.” But come to this one who is like you, who has been rejected, who has felt the pain of loneliness and the yearning to be known and loved. This is the one who God has called precious, who has become the cornerstone of all things. And you who were once no one at all, you are chosen, royal, holy, God’s own. You who did not belong, now belong. This is a pretty powerful message for people who feel alone in the world.
One of the great gifts of this church is that you are really connected, and you care a lot about each other. It’s possible that some of you are wondering why I’m talking about loneliness and isolation at all in a community where people so obviously belong to one another. Well, this isn’t a totally irrelevant sermon for you. As the people of God, this isn’t just a personal reassurance that we are not alone. It’s a call to the church to greater awareness of the vast numbers of people who do go through life feeling and being alone.
In the Beatles song, Eleanor Rigby, they paint a musical picture of people who live on the isolated margins of the world. Eleanor, the caretaker of a country church, picking up rice after weddings have come and gone, putting on a face that no one is around to notice, dying in the church, buried “along with her name, nobody came.” Father McKenzie, the pastor of the church, writing the words to sermons that no one will hear, because “no one comes near.” Even the two of them, their lives so interwoven, never seem to really connect. And the chorus mournfully asks, “All the lonely people – where do they all come from? All the lonely people – where do they all belong?”
And indeed, if you look around, it doesn’t take long to find the lonely people, the people on the margins. I mean, I kind of enjoy having a meal on my own and even traveling solo, but what if that was all you could ever do? What if you never had an invitation to go anywhere? What if no one ever asked how you were doing? What if you really and truly felt alone and cut off all the time? Earlier I was talking about the sudden stabs of loneliness that come over us in a crowd, but some people live with this constantly, feeling like nobodies.
But God says that they are somebodies.
The question for us as the church, as people who are already connected as God’s people, is how might we connect with people who are stuck in their homes with only a TV as a companion? Or destitute people whose appearance and circumstances are a barrier to receiving contact from others? Or people who don’t speak English very well and don’t trust anyone not to reveal their legal status? Or people whose limited relationships mean they are never heard, never known, never touched? If these people are precious to God – as I believe they are – how do we help them experience their preciousness through the tangible acts of God’s people?
I’m new here, and I don’t have some sort of grand plan. And I think this is more about our daily interactions than about a program anyway. I do know that it helps me to remember that behind the laughing eyes of the extrovert Jesus I prefer to picture, is a deep, personal understanding of what it is to be rejected and truly alone. I know that God cares about all the supposed nobodies – including us – and God is always inviting us to remember that we are somebody, and that we belong to somebody.
There was once a story in the New York Times about how the organization “Meals-on-Wheels” had adopted a plan to save money. Instead of bringing a hot meal to elderly people every day, they could save time and money by bringing them a week’s worth of ready-to-be-heated meals only on one day a week. It made good economic sense, but to the people who received the meals, it wasn’t the same at all. For many of these New Yorkers, the “Meals-on-Wheels” person was the only other human being they ever saw most days – but now it would be just once a week. In a city of millions, they were alone.
The article featured a heartbreaking photo. You may have seen that famous painting of the bearded grandfather praying with bowed head and folded hands at a table on which there is a bowl of soup, a loaf of bread, and a big Bible with the man’s glasses on top. I’m not sure if it was purposeful or accidental that the Times mirrored it. In their picture they showed an elderly lady, head bowed and hands folded, praying over her “Meals-on-Wheels” dinner even as she sat in front of, not a Bible, but a small black-and-white TV that was still on while she prayed. That is her entire life.
All the lonely people. Where do they all belong?
“You are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation. God’s own people.”