Sermon from Sunday 14th May
1 Peter 2 : 2 - 10
It is amazing what you learn when you are preparing for a sermon. This week, I’ve been learning about bricks. In particular, I’ve been learning about things called “clinker bricks”. It seems that in the process of firing the bricks (that is firing as in how they are made – not terminating their employment) sometimes those which are closest to the heat will react badly and turn out damaged. They don’t always look damaged, but a bricklayer could tell with a simple tap because the sound they make just isn’t right, they sound almost metallic, hence the name – clinker bricks. Generally, when a builder came across one he would just toss it aside as useless.
It is not hard to imagine why I might come across such information when reading up on the text for this morning, for in today’s readings we are reminded that our faith is based on the life of one who was rejected and cast aside to be crucified as one who was unwanted. Peter wrote of him as: “the living Stone- -rejected by men but chosen by God and precious to him”. Perhaps if Peter had known about clinker bricks, he might well have said: "Jesus was treated as the greatest clinker brick of all, He was the one everyone else rejected and thought of as no use at all, but still he was precious in God's sight.”
People had looked at Jesus and seen that he was different. They had listened to him and what they heard was different. There was something unusual in him that didn’t fit the normal pattern, and because he could not, or would not, contribute to the future they wanted to build, he was rejected, tossed aside, got rid of. Or at least, that was what people thought they were doing!
So we are reminded that our faith is based on one who was rejected and thrown away, one who was unwanted. Then we are reminded of something else, for Peter, having said that Jesus was like a living stone, continues by saying: “you also, like living stones, are being built into a spiritual house to be a holy priesthood.” Or as the modern equivalent of Peter might have said: “you might be treated like clinker bricks too, you might even be a clinker brick, but that doesn’t mean you really are useless. Come to the one who was rejected, and let him make you into something special to serve God and continue the work of Christ in the world."
Well of course it can be hard to think of ourselves in that way. We like to think that we are useful, not useless. We like to think that we have something to offer. Indeed the church as it became established in our country did become associated with status, with living a good life, with being an upstanding citizen of good reputation. Next week I will be attending the General Assembly of our church and there we will re-enact all the pomp and pageantry of an important institution with representatives of the Royal family and all sorts of important folk bringing their greetings. We like to think that we are important, not that we are despised. We like to think that we have something to offer, not that we are useless.
Which is why the reminder we are offered this morning really matters. The only qualification you need to be a follower of Jesus is an acceptance that you are broken, that you are damaged, that you are no perfect. Jesus made it clear that he had not come to gather righteous people around him any more than a doctor makes it his business to treat those who are in good health. He was rejected by people but still knew that he was precious to God, and he gathered around him people who also knew rejection, and he taught them that they too were precious to God. He still gathers around him people who have known rejection and he still teaches us that we are precious in God’s eyes.
The gospel reminds us that we are all damaged and imperfect, not really worthy of being part of anything great, that the highest status any of us can hope to gain in his church is that of forgiven sinner. We may be successes in some areas of life: financial successes perhaps, business successes perhaps, but in the things that really matter in life – we are failures. We do not love the Lord our God with all our heart, and all our soul and all our mind, and all our strength. We do not love others as we love ourselves. We are each fully integrated members of this sinful world with all it’s appalling injustice and cruelty. When the master builder is looking for material to build something new, what logical reason could there be for him to even glance in our direction. You and I are clinker bricks, too. We aren't perfect. We are so far from it. Yet we discover that the kingdom of God does not operate on the basis of logic or reason, but that it is built on grace and love. So the gospel tells us that it is when we accept that status for ourselves, when we learn to trust in God’s grace rather than our own worth, that we discover who we really are – as loved children of God, that we are able to be useful and valuable people in the Kingdom of God.
The story of church from the very beginning is a story of growth that depended not on the brilliance of its members, but on the awesome mercy of God. What about Peter, Cephas, the Rock, himself? What a clinker brick he was! An uneducated fisherman, just a run of the mill sinner trying to make a living for himself. Until one day the Great Builder walks by and sees him, and says, I have a place for you in the building I am constructing. Then even when Peter showed his true clinker nature by misunderstanding Jesus so often and even denying knowing him, Jesus just kept right on picking him up again, choosing him again. Which is why Peter, of all people, could write: 9 But (in spite of everything you know to be true about yourself) you are the chosen race, the King's priests, the holy nation, God's own people, chosen to proclaim the wonderful acts of God, who called you out of darkness into his own marvellous light. 10 At one time you were not God's people, but now you are his people; at one time you did not know God's mercy, but now you have received his mercy.
That is why we can have the courage to come to church and confess that we are failures. There is no pressure on us here to keep up appearances or to maintain any level of achievement, for here is the place where we discover that we are loved and accepted and welcomed and called – just as we are. We are here because the Great Master Builder has chosen us, has picked us up from the discarded bricks and made us living stones, clinker bricks with a purpose and a job to do. Flawed? Weak? Certainly. But strengthened, reinforced by the Great Master Builder. We are God's people, the stones, the clinker bricks in God's spiritual house.
Apparently, up until the 1920's clinker bricks were still thought to be useless. Brickyards had piles and piles of them. Then, as happens, that l began to change. The firing of bricks became more efficient so that faulty brick became rare. Suddenly clinker bricks were found to have beauty and strength all their own. They are seen now as unique, for no two clinker bricks are the same! Because of that they are in demand. They are considered valuable, antiques, used in all sorts of ways from gardens, to walk ways, to fireplaces. They are in demand, not because of their perfection, but because of their weaknesses. Indeed there is a church in New York which was constructed out of clinker bricks as a symbol that the church was made up of members who, like the bricks, were each unique, and that God welcomes and uses us with all our imperfections. (That seemed like too good an illustration to be true – but I checked it out and it actually is – Gates Presbyterian Church in New York)
I also found a company that specializes in clinkers bricks that advertises with the following words: WANTED: Clinker Bricks - All Shapes, Sizes, Colours, Even the Most Warped Are Wanted. I quite fancy that wording as an advert for the church! Are we not, like our great cornerstone, like our great foundational brick, who himself was once rejected, in the business of seeking out, picking up, taking in, valuing all the clinker bricks in the world? Are we not called to nurture them, to love them until they, too, are transformed by the love and grace of God, discovering that they are a valuable, unique part of this spiritual building God is still raising?
That is not a bad reminder of who we are, not a bad reminder of why we are here, not a bad reminder of what we are called to do.