Sermon Commentary for Sunday, May 14, 2017
1 Peter 2:2-10 Commentary
Whatever you may think about the musical group The Beatles, it is generally acknowledged that few bands have ever paid as much attention to the lonely, invisible people of society as did The Beatles. Two of their songs carry a particular poignancy in this regard. One haunting tune is titled “Nowhere Man.” The song talks about a “nowhere man who sits in his nowhere land making his nowhere plans for nobody,” but the song then asks, “Isn’t he a bit like you and me?”
Perhaps the most poignant such song is “Eleanor Rigby” that paints a sad vignette of lonely people who live on the isolated margins of the wider world. Eleanor Rigby, we are told, is the caretaker of a country church. Eleanor is the one who picks up the rice after weddings have come and gone. The church’s pastor is Father McKenzie, a man who, it is said, writes the words to sermons that no one will hear because “no one comes near.” In the end, Eleanor Rigby dies in the church and is buried “along with her name. Nobody came.” The mournful chorus of the song asks, “Ah, look at all the lonely people. Where do they all come from? All the lonely people: where do they all belong?” Indeed, look around you in society and it is sadly easy to spy lonely, aimless, marginalized people, the ones no one talks to.
Sometimes I don’t mind eating out at a restaurant by myself. Sometimes it’s fun to be by yourself and just people-watch. But what if “table for one” was all you ever could manage when going out? Or what if you flat out never went anywhere at all because your phone never rang with invitations? What if your email and regular postal mail never contained warm messages from friends or family, asking how you were doing and suggesting maybe you come along to a party Saturday night?
What if you really and truly felt alone and cut off all the time? There are people like that all over the place. Have you ever felt alone in a crowd? Have you ever had just a stab of that kind of loneliness? Some people live with this 24-7.
In this Lectionary passage from 1 Peter 2 (and I will leave it to wiser people than I to figure out why we moved backwards in 1 Peter 2 from last week’s Lectionary text to this one!) Peter writes, “Once you were no people.” Some translations render this line as “once you were not a people,” but the original Greek just has the negative word “no” there. Once you were no-people. Once you were nobody, a nowhere man or a nowhere woman, a marginalized and isolated cipher ignored by the world and off floating on society’s fringes.
That, Peter tells his readers, is who they had once been. Nobodies belonging to no one in particular and going nowhere special in life. No-people. Can you hear the aching sadness in that?
If you can, then the lyric and lilting nature of this passage can hit home. If you can sense the longing behind what Peter is saying, then you will also sense afresh what this supper of Holy Communion really gives us, too. Because in this passage Peter makes clear that if you want to talk about the mass of this world’s lonely, rejected people, you would have to place Jesus in their number.
I Peter 2 is one of many places in the New Testament that lifts up what, all things being equal, should have been one of the Old Testament’s most obscure of all passages. It’s that line from Psalm 118 about the stone that the builders rejected becoming the cornerstone of some new and grand building. If you are familiar with that verse from the psalms, then it’s not because it leapt off the page at you when you were reading the psalms for devotions one evening. I doubt that Psalm 118 even counts as the favorite psalm for most of us. Yet for some reason, Psalm 118:22 went on to become the single most-oft quoted Old Testament verse in the New Testament. This odd line from Psalm 118 was quoted more often by Paul and Peter than any other verse in the Bible. Psalm 118:22 beat out Psalm 23, it beat out any of the words from Isaiah or Jeremiah.
Somehow the apostles spied in that lonely verse about a lonely and rejected stone the very essence of Jesus and his gospel. After all, Jesus was the lonely man in his day. No one really understood him, least of all his mother and family. One day when Jesus was delivering as fine a sermon and lesson as he had ever done, his mother and brothers said, in a loud voice for all to hear, “He’s off his rocker and out of his head!” That had to hurt.
Jesus was the lonely one, the man from whom people hid their faces. Jesus was the one who knew deep in his soul exactly what it felt like to be included in the category of being a no-people, a nobody. But that’s also a major reason why he came. After all, in Genesis 3, what was the very first thing that happened when sin crashed into this world? Adam and Eve hid. They hid from God. They hid their bodies from each other. Their fellowship was broken left and right and through the cracks and fissures of that brokenness, all the loneliness the world has ever felt seeped in. Loneliness on our cracked hearts is like rainwater on a leaky roof–it always finds a way in.
But God didn’t leave Jesus alone in the nowhere land of nobodies. God picked up that rejected stone and made it a living stone. God, in his great mercy, took what looked like a junk rock and turned it into something more precious than jewels. And this living stone that is Christ Jesus the Lord has, ever since, been doing the same thing for as many other rejected and lonely ones whom he can grab and grace with his mercy. “Once you were no-people” Peter says. We know what that’s like and we know how many such folks are still here, in this room, in this city, in this nation, across the face of this sad world. “Once you were no-people. But now you are the people of God.”
The gospel tells us that this is possible, and that it happens all the time. Nobodies become somebodies. The lost and isolated get found and included–they get included in something grand and new called the people of God. The once-lonely who had cried themselves to sleep or who had drifted off to sleep in front of the television more nights than not, they receive mercy. It’s what they wanted all along. Every time they sobbed in loneliness, every time they stifled a cry when they saw a happy family pass by on the sidewalk, reminding them all over again how alone they were by comparison, every time such a person cried, it was the cry of “Lord, have mercy” whether they knew it or not.
“Once you had not received mercy,” Peter says, “but now you have received mercy.” For all the lonely people who know deep down that being lonely is not the way God wanted things to be, for all such as this, the gospel of Jesus the rejected one is this: those who are no-people, those who cry for a mercy they’ve never yet found, are the very ones that will be the first to be lifted up to Jesus’ loving face. Just one look into those eyes, and you’ll know in an instant that he understands. Arthur Miller once wrote that his former wife Marilyn Monroe, immediately upon entering a room, had an uncanny knack for spotting people who had been orphaned as children the way she herself had been. Orphans can always spy a fellow orphan just by looking into their eyes, Miller said. Seeing Jesus is like that: just behind the fierce majesty of that Holy Lord’s gaze are the flickers of knowing what it means to be rejected, despised, and truly alone.
Jesus comes to all the lonely people–and maybe to the lonely person who finally lives deep in the heart of each one of us–he comes to these friendless, isolated people whose phone never rings and in his great mercy says in inviting us to his holy table of communion or eucharist, “I was wondering, would you like to have dinner with me?” All who know that once they were a no-people can respond to this gracious invitation in just one way: “Yes, Lord, I’d love to have dinner with you. I think that would be very lovely indeed.”
Years ago when I was a seminarian, I used to make calls on neighborhood people to bring them food from my congregation’s food pantry. It often amazed me that sometimes, even when people would invite me to sit down and chat for a bit, they never turned the TV off. I found it annoying and vaguely rude. But later I realized: that TV and the sounds it makes was this person’s only companion day in and day out. They’d no more turn the TV off than you’d stick your best friend out in the garage.
Some while back in the New York Times there was a story about how the “Meals-on-Wheels” people in the city had adopted a cost-savings plan. 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 on Monday only. It made good economic sense, but the people who received the meals were bitterly disappointed. You see, 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 eight million, they are alone.
The article featured a heartbreaking photo. We all know 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. That is a heartwarming, classic painting that, inadvertently, the Times mirrored. Because 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. That is her life.
All the lonely people. Where DO they all come from?
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