A Community Exploring Faith, Seeking Justice, and Living with Respect in Creation

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Rock Collection

August 27, 2023
Rev. Dr. Martha ter Kuile
13th Sunday after Pentecost
Isaiah 51.1-4, 6

Listen to me, you that pursue righteousness,
   you that seek the Lord.
Look to the rock from which you were hewn,
   and to the quarry from which you were dug. 
Look to Abraham your father
   and to Sarah who bore you;
for they were but one couple when I called them,
   but I blessed them and made them many. 

For I will comfort Zion;
   I will comfort all the waste places,
and will make the wilderness like Eden,
  and the desert like the garden of the Lord;
joy and gladness will be found there,
   thanksgiving and the voice of song. 

Listen to me, my people,
   and give heed to me, my nation;
for a teaching will go out from me,
   and my justice for a light to the peoples. 
Lift up your eyes to the heavens,
   and look at the earth beneath;
for the heavens will vanish like smoke,
   the earth will wear out like a garment,
   and those who live on it will die in their time;
but my salvation will be for ever,
   and my deliverance will never be ended. 

Matthew 15.13-19

Now when Jesus came into the district of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?”  And they said, “Some say John the Baptist, but others Elijah, and still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.”  He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?”  Simon Peter answered, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.”  And Jesus answered him, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven.  And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it.  I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” 

This is a great time of year for kids who love to collect rocks.  And maybe not just kids – how many here once picked up and treasured rocks from along a beach or in a park?  Do you still do it?  They can be so beautiful – so many colours and shapes, and the way they shimmer in the sunlight, and glow when they are wet, and some are hot to touch and others cold, some are jagged and sharp while others have been polished by the waves and each other to perfect smoothness.  When you look at a stripey one you can’t help wondering about the millions of years of pressure that formed those layers.  Or, examining sand up close, about ten thousand tiny rocks will fit in the palm of your hand, all different.  If you love remembering complicated names, you will want to be a rock collector. Yet no matter how well we master the science of rocks, the simple fact remains:  these silent witnesses have been here much longer than we can fathom, and they will be here long after we are gone.

The Bible loves rocks too.  The Old Testament writers often call God a rock.  Rock of Israel, rock of salvation, our rock, our redeemer.  When the Hebrew people are wandering the desert, the water they so desperately need gushes out of a rock.  And later God gently puts Moses in the cleft of a rock, to protect him from the danger of God’s overwhelming presence. King David the shepherd-poet and warrior-king calls out to God, my rock, my refuge.  In Dan’s reading from Isaiah, the prophet invites us to remember that rock, from which we were hewn.  And when Hannah prays for the gift of a child, she declares, there is no rock like our God.  This rock protects, and nurtures, and saves.

So, when Jesus calls Peter a rock, it is a very big deal.  He says he is going to build his church here, in effect assigning Peter the tasks of a rock – to protect and nurture and save.  But as it turns out, despite his flash of insight about Jesus’ identity, Peter isn’t really that kind of a rock.  He tries hard but he gets it wrong all the time.  Jumps out of the boat when he sees Jesus on the water, but then starts to sink for lack of faith.  Starts babbling and wants to build a tent on the mountaintop when Jesus is transfigured. Completely off the mark.  Begs Jesus to stop talking about dying as the final days close in.  At the critical moment, Peter sneaks in to watch the trial, but then denies that he knows Jesus, three times.  He’s dumfounded at the empty tomb.  After it all falls apart, Peter goes back to fishing, and needs to be prompted again by the risen Lord before he begins the work of evangelisation.  Gets involved in endless fights and controversies as they try to establish a church.  He is a very flawed person.  Is that the kind of rock you would build a church on?  Jesus seems to think so.

As a matter of fact, the church from its beginning has been the same mixture of strength and weakness as Peter was.  It has passed along the good news of God’s love almost in spite of its own constant failures.  You can think of the grand sweep of history, of centuries of compassion and healing, of poetry and art and music, of all the songs of hope that Christians have sung.  But you also have to reckon with its inquisitions, and witch burnings, its doctrine of discovery, its slaveholding, and Magdalen laundries, and residential schools.  Exclusion, and control, and a pernicious connection to a malign political power are still all too common in the church.

Focusing on our own little patches of ecclesial turf, here at Bloor Street and St. Matt’s and Trinity-St. Paul’s, we have memories of wonderful work and witness, of gentle care in times of shared sorrow, of moments of beautiful, deep silence.  When we sing together and eat together and have a party to raise money for a good cause, church can be a lot of fun.  But as we have seen, congregations have their struggles too, and it is never any fun when there is disruption.  The church lets us down almost as often as it builds us up, and this shouldn’t surprise us.

Sometimes when we hear today’s passage – the promise of the keys of the kingdom – we hear it as a promise of power.  Whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven. Makes the church sound pretty important.  With special access to virtue. This is a passage that has often fed self-righteousness and closed-mindedness in the church.  It brings out the worst in us.  So perhaps we should hear it again, not as a promise – perhaps, instead, it is a warning. Jesus is saying, remember that when you gather in my name the things you do will matter.  The goodness that you extend to your neighbour is not your goodness, but God’s.  Let it resonate beyond the boundaries of your community but beware of your own arrogance.  When you let each other down, or exclude outsiders, or oppress or bully or manipulate, remember the deep harm you may cause.  If you loose it, says Jesus, it will be loosed. So, take responsibility for what you do in my name.  Be careful with one another.  And that applies to us now.

It seems that the church that Peter built is itself a collection of rocks: different sizes and shapes, a range of colours, some hot to touch and some cold, sharp ones and smooth ones, some buried deep in the earth and others shining in the sunshine.  [Interesting to ask yourself – what kind of a rock are you?]  There are times when this strange rock collection forms a beautiful edifice.  But sometimes we are just a pile of rubble.

Peter knew he wasn’t much of a rock.  He was the first one to admit he was wrong, more than once.  His resilience wasn’t based on his success or his self-regard – it was his love of Jesus that kept him going.  Throughout his life he remained openhearted, and willing to change his plans when the spirit prompted.  And in his bleak times, he touched down to the true rock and found the energy to go on.  He let that rock hold him up, as it holds us. It is Peter’s buoyancy that has been handed down through the centuries. Whether we are thinking about the church as a whole, or of our own congregations, or of our own lives, no one will deny that these are difficult times.  When life is filled with challenge and hardship, Jesus invites us to find our way to the true rock – the rock that nurtures and protects and saves.  For Hannah was right when she said, there is no rock like our God. This rock has been here since long before us and will be here long after we are gone.  And for this we give thanks and praise.

Let us pray:

Gracious God, you are the rock from which we are hewn, you are the one we rely on.  Fill us with your love and help us always to find our grounding in you. We ask it in Jesus’ name.  Amen.


The Prayers of the People                                                                         Rev. Michael Blair

Holy One, who is wholly mystery, you whom we often name as God, Creator, parent – mother and father, Wisdom, spirit, provider, today we name you ROCK.  Grateful for the strength, stability, and protection that the image of rock engenders.  We come this morning, we acknowledge the gift of life and the gifts of diversity, community and calling, we pray that we will continue to experience your strength and protection through the changing season and circumstances of our lives.

We are mindful that the image of rock connects us again to the reality of our connection to the created world, and today we are especially attentive to the impact of our treatment of creation.  Help us to be mindful of interconnectedness and to move from mere words to action.


Image credit: Winggo Tse – unsplash.com

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