God’s strange tools
Lectionary blog for Aug. 24, 2014
Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost
Texts: Isaiah 51:1-6; Psalm 138;
Romans 12:1-8; Matthew 16:13-20
By Delmer Chilton
About a hundred years ago, over in east Tennessee, a Church of Christ congregation was given a piece of property upon which to build a church. When the elders went to see a lawyer about drawing up a deed, they were able to persuade him to list the owner as “The Lord God Almighty.” This was fine until a few years ago when the congregation decided to sell the building and lands and relocate to a larger site in order to have a wider witness for Christ. Then the legal system went to work.
Because the property was listed as being owned by one “Lord God Almighty” and not “The Carter County Church of Christ,” they had to get a deed before they could sell it. And to get a deed, they had to show that the previous owner did not exist or could not be found. So the county sheriff was issued a warrant to locate Lord God Almighty. He went over to the coffee shop on the square across from the courthouse, had his coffee and read the paper and then came back and signed the papers attesting that Lord God Almighty could not be found.
While he was having his coffee and crumb-cake, the sheriff happened to mention this little legal maneuver to the editor of the local paper, the next day the headline read “Lord God Almighty not to be found in Carter County, Tennessee.” I’m pretty sure that’s not the sort of “wider witness” the church had in mind.
In our Gospel lesson, Jesus says to Peter, “And I tell you, you are Peter and on this rock I will build my church.”(Matthew 16:18) Though we know him as Peter, the man to whom Jesus was speaking’s real name was Simon, Simon bar Jonah – which means Simon son of Jonah. In today’s story, Jesus has changed Simon’s name as a symbol of an important change that is beginning to take place in Simon, a change our lesson from Romans calls “being transformed.” (Romans 12:2)
Names and name changes are important in the Bible. Abram became Abraham, Sarai became Sarah, Jacob became Israel and later Saul became Paul. All these name changes mark personal transformations, show that the old has passed away and the new is being born. Jesus calls Simon by a new name to signal to Simon that a change is taking place, but it is not a change that takes place quickly, or suddenly, or all at once. It is a gradual transformation. At the time it was almost a joke. Peter means “Rocky.” Who in the Bible is less rock solid and steady than Simon? His changes of emotion and action are almost comically rash and totally unpredictable. And yet, Jesus calls him Peter, the Rock.
And eventually, he becomes a rock, a rock of faith and devotion. It is a name that he lives into gradually and slowly, but after a while, he becomes the person Jesus saw him to be many years before.
When God calls us “church,” it is not a name we have earned by any extraordinary saintliness. In the same manner that he called the perpetually iffy Simon a rock, Jesus sees us becoming a holy people, names us that even though we’re not there yet.
When Jesus called Simon bar Jonah a new name, it was the beginning of the church. This was a signal that God was doing a new thing. God was taking people who were willing to risk everything on faith and using those people to create, to build a new community, a community of love, a kingdom of heaven.
God has called us church, and God is using us to build the church in this place and this time. Funny thing is, when God builds a church, God does not use materials and methods that would pass inspection in the real world.
Anne Lamott in her book “Traveling Mercies” says: “I always imagined when I was a kid that adults had some kind of inner toolbox full of shiny tools: the saw of discernment, the hammer of wisdom, the sandpaper of patience. But when I grew up, I found that life handed you rusty, bent tools – friendship, prayer, conscience, honesty – and said, ‘Do the best you can with these. They’ll have to do.’ Mostly, against all odds, they’re enough.”
As Lamott says, God hands us strange tools with which to build a life and a church, but it is God who is building the church, not us. We are merely workers and tools. We are being built up each day into the holy people God has already declared us to be. Just as Jesus called Simon bar Jonah by the name of Peter long before Simon became a rock of faith, God has called us church and is continually leading us forward in becoming what God has already declared us to be.
Our job today is to take the tools God has given us, tools like the friendship and prayer and conscience and honesty that Lamott mentioned, and tools like serving and teaching and giving and encouraging and leading and caring that Paul lists in Romans. We are to take those tools and build a community wherein the Lord God Almighty can surely be found.
It is our calling to live up to our name of Christian church; it is our calling to make this place a place where everyone is welcome and everyone can find compassion and forgiveness, and community and faith, and joy, peace and hope and, most of all, love.
We hold the keys. God has placed them in our shaky hands. God has named us church. God has put us in community and has called upon us to open the doors of the kingdom of heaven and bring the world inside. God has called upon us to make sure the Lord God Almighty can be found in this place.
Amen and amen.
Delmer Chilton is originally from North Carolina and received his education at the University of North Carolina, Duke Divinity School and the Graduate Theological Foundation. He received his Lutheran training at the Lutheran Theological Southern Seminary in Columbia, S.C. Ordained in 1977, Delmer has served parishes in North Carolina, Georgia and Tennessee.