The Mortar Matters

Stone pointed
New mortar in old stone at All Souls

A sermon for the Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost, August 24, 2014.  The lectionary readings are Isaiah 51:1-6, Psalm 138, Romans 12:1-8, and Matthew 16:13-20.

I’ve been thinking a lot about rocks this week—with today’s Gospel and with all kinds of other issues. At our construction status meeting on Thursday, we talked about rocks—about stone, and when the stonework would begin in the schedule, and when a test wall would be created. In another discussion, there was talk about our “old rocks” too—the stone on our existing building, as we try to care for it and repair some of the deteriorating places. I thought of rocks in terms of dealing with some of our neighbors, as I wondered this week, if a few them were about to take up rocks and throw them at us, since it was a noisy week with big, rumbling equipment.

Rocks have been in the news, if we watch it or read it. We see people picking up rocks and throwing them in Gaza, in Ferguson, Missouri. Rocks are weapons when we’re little or when we’re desperate, whenever people are powerless. In one of the stories about Jesus, a crowd gathers around a women accused of adultery. But Jesus cautions people about being quick to cast the first stone—whether literally, or figuratively. Instead of the way of violence and aggression, Jesus suggests a way of engagement, a way of relationship.

The scriptures today invite us to think about rock not so much as objects outside ourselves, but instead, the scriptures invite us to think of how we can sometimes be like rock—in good and bad ways. The scriptures speak of people being like rock, and even of God being like rock.

Isaiah, says, “Hearken to me, you who pursue deliverance, you who seek the LORD; look to the rock from which you were hewn, and to the quarry from which you were dug.”

Isaiah pictures the Lord God as a rock. God doesn’t change. God is always there. God is immune to custom or convention. Water does not erode. Pollution does not damage. God provides shelter and represents strength and power and stability.

The people of Israel did change.  They struggled with false idols. They get bored with the Rock of Ages replaced God with fake things, with pretty things, with things that charm and wow and take up time and money and attention. They forgot their own ability to be strong and steady, and so they crumbled and began to disintegrate.

In the Gospel, the mention of rocks only comes up after a lengthy and important discussion. Jesus puts a big question to his disciples. He asks them: “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?”

Here, Jesus is using a very old term, “Son of Man.” It’s a term that would have resonated with any of his Jewish disciples. They would have heard this term their whole lives when they heard scripture, or songs, or talk of religion and the expectation and hope that God might come in a new way. Ezekiel the prophet, way back in the Hebrew Scriptures, is referred to as Son of Man. Daniel, another prophet, is called Son of Man. It is a phrase that encompasses prophecy, a special chosen status by God, and more than a hint toward messiahship.

And so the disciples tell Jesus what the people are thinking about him. “People think you’re a prophet,” they say. “A great prophet, a mighty prophet. Some say you’re Elijah returned. Some say John the Baptist.” This shows us how the people saw Jesus at this point (at least through the eyes of Matthew the Gospel writer. ) They don’t seem yet to have connected Jesus with being the Son of God, or the Messiah. But Jesus questions on. Who do YOU say that I am.

Simon, the disciple who often speaks up, says with clarity, faith, and daring, “You are the Christ. The Son of the Living God.“

Jesus looks at him, and says, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah. Your name [Peter, which means “rock” in Aramaic] is the rock I choose.  On you, the rock, will I build my church. And the powers of death shall not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.”

Here, Jesus basically establishes the Church upon Peter and the other apostles. He breathes on them and gives them the Holy Spirit. The term, “apostolic succession” points to this beginning. While some might argue that, apostolic succession means that authority in the church exists in a clear line drawn from Saint Peter through all the bishops of the church to this very day, another view argues that apostolic succession (especially championed by the early Church Fathers) has to do with the faith that is passed down. It’s faith, not some tight, bound-up understanding of authority and control, that is handed down through history from community, to community, to community. Rather than using all the customary symbols when a new bishop is consecrated, a better symbol of the church’s faith might be to hand a rock to the new bishop, a rock or stone representing that faith that is handed down, from one generation of the faithful to the next.

If we look at today’s Gospel closely, Jesus proclaims Peter the Rock on whom he will build the church, not because of Peter’s goodness or worthiness. Peter’s declaration of faith, “you are the Christ” becomes the foundation. The church will continue to be built on those who have this kind of faith, who believe that Jesus is the son of God, the way, the truth and the life, in whom is the forgiveness of sins and the resurrection to eternal life.

I mentioned earlier that at this week’s construction meeting, we talked about rock. But we also talked about mortar, the stuff that goes between the stones and makes a wall. If the mortar is all cement, there’s a problem. The wall will be rigid. It doesn’t allow for moisture or settling, and so either the mortar or the rock can crack and crumble. But the other extreme won’t work very well, either. If the mortar is all sand or too soft, the stones won’t hold and they’ll be individual rocks and could just roll away.

The mortar matters. The stuff around the stone, the stuff that supports and protects the stone is important. We can see what happens with there’s not enough to support a stone if we look at what happens to Peter, the so-called Rock. Jesus names him “Rock,” but Jesus also knows how easily Peter can crumble. Jesus prophesies that Peter will deny Christ, and that’s what happens just after the Crucifixion, as Peter says he has nothing to do with Jesus. He says it three times, while he’s warming himself by the fire. Through fear, or anger, or disappointment, Peter has separated from the others, even from Christ. Peter is alone, and that’s where the devil of temptation gets him. Alone and afraid, Peter is vulnerable. In the wilderness and in the Garden of Gethsemane the devil tries to get Jesus alone. But Jesus doesn’t allow it. Jesus is connected to God in prayer.

If we lose our mortar—the stuff that keeps us strong and steady– The same thing can happen to us. It can happen whenever some aspect of life ties to separate us from all that would act as mortar in our lives. We fall out of the habit of going to church, so we lose touch with people. Or we stop talking to people. Or we don’t tell others when we’re in pain or when we’re in need. The devil gets us alone, and we can crumble. A crisis shows up and makes us feel like we’re completely unique. No one else in the world can possibly understand what I’m going through, or what things look like from where I stand—and so the devil chips away at our mortar and we crumble.

The mortar of faith is made of other people. It’s made of spiritual practices (like prayer, meditation, reading the Bible, fasting, writing down our thoughts, even writing a letter to someone you haven’t spoken to in a long time.) Sometimes we’ll find that our mortar has grown thin and we need to do something to shore up our foundation—a book can help. A spiritual director can help. Sometimes sacramental confession can clear away whatever is blocking the way of strength.

After the denial, Peter eventually joins the other disciples again. We don’t know exactly what helped him get back in a stronger or more solid place. It might simply have been his own inner resilience. It might have been getting back to work and going fishing. Whatever it was, Peter regained his footing. In the last conversation we have between Jesus and Peter, after the crucifixion, after the denial, after the resurrection—the disciples have been fishing and Jesus appears on the beach and calls them to shore. There, Jesus offers them breakfast and asks Peter more questions. “Do you love me?” Jesus asks. “Do you love me? Do you love me?   Then. Feed my sheep. Feed my lambs. Tend my sheep.”

Christ himself becomes the mortar that makes Peter the rock strong, and Christ comes to support us, as well. Jesus says “Feed my sheep,” and be fed by my sheep. But Jesus might have just as easily said, “remember that you’re a rock. You’re strong, from the quarry of God. You can withstand anything, if you’re strengthened by others, and made strong in Christ.

May we always have faith to remember that like rocks, we need mortar to support us, if we’re to stand for the long haul. May we lean on Christ our solid rock and receive all that would strengthen and support.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen..





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