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Room to Spare

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I want to stay with the images, because I think they open some windows for us to look into the world and become part of its transformation – even as we are transforming ourselves.

Today’s texts – 1 Peter 2:2-10 and John 14:1-14 

Pastor Phil

I am wondering what you are feeling like this morning.

Are you feeling like a newborn baby, nourished by your mother’s milk?

Are you feeling like a stone on the road? Or maybe like a stone kicked aside?

Are you feeling a bit homeless, wandering the world and wondering if there is a room for you somewhere?

Or are you feeling like part of a royal priesthood?

Like one of God’s people?

Like someone who has found the way, the truth and the life?

You probably recognize all of those as images that were woven into our two scripture readings today. It is easy with these readings either to overthink the metaphors or get lost in the theological debates that grow out of them.

Is Jesus the only way to God? Will people who trip over the words of Jesus really stumble and not be able to get back up? If we are a chosen race, what does that say about everyone else?

Some people have taken the verses that we heard today and turned them into justifications for exclusivity. It might be worth remembering that very last line of Peter’s letter: “Once you hadn’t received mercy, but now you have received mercy.”

But I don’t want to wander down those theological paths today. Instead, I want to stay with the images, because I think they open some windows for us to look into the world and become part of its transformation – even as we are transforming ourselves.

Let’s start with that thirsty newborn baby, a good image on this Mother’s Day. It’s a good image because babies cannot survive in this world on their own. They need not just the physical nourishment of milk but the emotional nourishment of the love of their parents.

Peter took that image one step farther. He writes about the pure milk of the word – God’s word, which refers both to the words in the Gospels and to Jesus as the Word of God. It’s a reference to Jesus’ teachings and to the way that Jesus lived his life. That’s why Peter writes: “Nourished by it, you will grow into salvation, since you have tasted that the Lord is good.”

Thus, we are nourished by the lessons and life of Jesus. That’s a good start.

When we follow the way of Jesus, we are on that path that Jesus talked about as he gathered with his friends around a table on the night before he was killed. This was a place where they were being nourished both literally and figuratively with the word of God.

The image that caught my attention had to do with Jesus going to his Father’s house to prepare a place for us.

I suppose it is easy to think of this as some divine dwelling in the sky. We might think of it as heaven. But in the context of Jesus’ life and times, it’s really a more complex image than that.

In writing his Gospel, John keeps coming back an image of God and Jesus dwelling in one another. When John writes about location, it’s about the intimacy of Jesus’ relationship with God.

A little later in this conversation with his friends, “Whoever loves me will keep my word. My Father will love them and we will come to them and make our home with them.”

This is not a place far off in the sky. This is not just for a small band of followers. This is for whoever loves him and pays attention to the words of Jesus.

As one commentator wrote, what Jesus is really saying here is that “My return to God will make it possible for you to join in the relationship that the Father and I share.”

This is probably a good place to note that while Jesus talked about God in paternal terms – his Father – God is not limited by gender. Feminine images of God are vitally important in the panoply of ways that we might try to think about the divine.

Let me go back to the opening phrase of the Gospel, though. “My Father’s house has room to spare.” I love this translation. Sometimes the phrase is translated as “many rooms” or “many dwelling places.” But “room to spare.” What a great image.

Another recurring theme in the Gospel according to John is abundant life. And here is a beautiful image of abundance in a place – a home – that may seem to be limited. God’s place has room to spare. We can all find a spot there.

And since God makes God’s home with us, as Jesus said, then can’t we have room to spare as well?

Sure, except on those days when we feel like a stone on the road. Even worse when we feel like a stone kicked aside.

Peter changes our self-image in his letter. We are not just stones kicked aside. We are living stones being built into a spiritual temple.

When Bonnie and Nancy take groups to Israel and Palestine – the places known as the Holy Land – they talk about meeting the living stones, the people who are there now. It’s tempting to just visit the famous sites – the Church of the Nativity, Nazareth, the Sea of Galilee, the Mount of Olives, the Old City in Jerusalem – and look in awe on the stones that mark those sites.

But it is the living stones of our era – the people bringing together warring factions, the people building for the future, the people planting olive trees in the shadows of concrete walls – it is the living stones that are building for the future.

Peter uses that image of a living stone not just for us but for Jesus as well.

First he describes Jesus as a cornerstone – the first stone set as a building is constructed. All other stones will be set in reference to this stone, thus determining the position of the entire structure.

Then he writes about Jesus as a stone the builders rejected, tossed aside. Think of Jesus on a cross, rejected by the powers of his time. That image – a crucified Jesus – became a stumbling block to many who could not imagine a messiah, a true leader, coming to such an ignominious end. And yet…

Let me tell you a story about a stone kicked aside that has become a cornerstone.

Well, it’s not exactly a stone. It’s a person. And it’s not exactly a cornerstone. It’s a bakery.

Many of you know Ken Johnson, who often staffs the Just Bakery table here on the second Sunday of the month. Like many of the folks who work for Just Bakery, Ken spent some time in prison. And when he got out, he surely had that feeling of being a stone in the road, kicked to the side by a society that often does not seem to have room to spare.

In time, Ken went to work for the program at Just Bakery, learning baking skills and then leadership skills. Today, he is the kitchen manager – a cornerstone of their program.

A few weeks ago at its annual Partners for Change lunch, Madison-area Urban Ministry, which created Just Bakery, showed a video about their partnership with UW Hospital and Clinics. It’s a neat story and one of the stars of the show is – you guessed it – Ken Johnson.

Here’s the story.

People here are familiar with the many different ways that Madison-area Urban Ministry serves our community. You have helped them expand their work in yet another way through our Centennial Outreach Fund that will allow them to provide micro-loans to people who were formerly incarcerated. And in this year when we are paying a lot of attention to our own history, we can take note of the fact that Memorial was right there at the start of MUM 44 years ago.

In the stories of MUM and Ken Johnson and UW Hospital and Clinics, we get to see people nourished on the pure milk of God’s word, people who understand that within God and within us, there can always be room to spare and that we can be the building blocks to create a whole new world.

Right around the time that Madison-area Urban Ministry was starting up in the mid-1970s, Noel Paul Stookey of Peter Paul and Mary was composing a song called “Building Block.” It seems like just the right song with which to end this reflection. So please join with Noel in singing it.