Preached August 23rd at West Concord Union Church
Pharaoh’s daughter walked down to the river to bathe. I imagine this path was well-trod, that the heat of Egypt made bathing in the river a regular, maybe daily, practice. She would have known the best time of day to go and the way the shadows of the reeds fell first on one another and then played along the water’s edge. She would have known how the water created eddies along the bank as she walked to her usual spot. In today’s reading from Exodus, we hear of one particular day, when she noticed something different, a basket maybe bobbing on the water maybe caught in the reeds. I like to think that it was, in part, her familiarity with this stretch of bank and perhaps how the reeds stood angled to the side and the water stirred differently that drew her attention right to the basket. I like to think that her knowledge of the riverbank is part of what led her to find the baby: this baby who would one day liberate a people. I like to think that our own knowledge of our surroundings and attention, to what’s close and routine, is essential in these times.
Pray with me: Loving God, may the words of my mouth and the mediations of all of our hearts be acceptable to you, our rock and our redeemer.
I want to start by reading the most famous line of today’s gospel one more time: “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.” Jesus declares Peter the rock on which the church is built. In Greek, the pun is obvious: Peter, Petra from petros, rock. Usually, I approach this passage thinking about Peter. Peter who is so zealous he tries to walk on water, Peter who wants Jesus to wash not only his feet but his hands and head, Peter who denies Jesus three times. Peter hasn’t ever seemed very rock-like to me.
But what do I know about rock? I haven’t spent much time considering the other half of the metaphor. Rock: it’s solid, stable. It makes a firm foundation. Or at least, that’s what I always assumed. But I’m sure a geologist would have many more answers for me. Or a rock climber. A stone-worker would have more insights or a farmer hauling granite chunks from her field might have another angle.
I had two pieces of help this week pondering rock. They run along a similar vein. First, it was this week that I found my children in the middle of the lawn, pounding bricks together. The bricks had once served as a border to a garden. Over a couple of afternoons, they collected the red dust from the bricks for potions and used it to paint their bodies. They sculpted the bricks by hammering on them with stones. I had been walking by these bricks for years and all this potential had escaped me.
But the second piece of help had been a book that was lying on my desk when I discovered this week’s lectionary texts. It’s Andy Goldsworthy’s Stone. We had it checked out when the library closed in March and have been taking our time reading through it. Andy Goldsworthy is known for his collaborations with nature, he has a new piece right down the road at Decordova in Lincoln. He makes site specific art—never knowing quite what he’ll do before arriving in a place and spending time on the land.
Goldsworthy takes playing with rock to another level. When he first started making art people accused him of being childlike, and at first he didn’t like it. He didn’t like the implication that his work was play. But then he had children of his own and saw the intensity with which children discover through play and acknowledged that this is in his work too. [Stone 6]
To work with stone, Goldsworthy says, “I had to forget my idea of nature and learn again that stone is hard and in so doing found that it is also soft.”
Especially now, when I and maybe so many of us spend so much time in one place, I appreciate the placed-ness of Goldworthy’s work. He spends time in a place—he learns it’s natural history and sees what catches his eye. Then, he’s often curious about what happens over time. He says, “I revisit some stones, as I do places, many times over. Each work teaches me a new aspect of the stone’s character. A stone is one and many stones at the same time—it changes from day to day, season to season.”
Let’s return to the scripture: “And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church.” Peter is the rock on which the church is built; what does it mean for the church to be built on a rock?
Let’s see what Goldsworthy has offered us:
- to know a rock, we need to observe it, explore it, even play with it
- we could also return to it with curiosity, again and again
My unexamined understanding of rock: as something solid, stable and unshakable seems, at first to be a lot more comforting when applied to the church. And yes, in many ways, rock is solid, it is used in foundations, but it’s also a bit more interesting. Solid doesn’t mean that there’s still not a lot to learn or explore, or that the rock doesn’t have more to offer than we might first assume.
Do we want to use what Goldsworthy offers us about rock in relation to the church? Do we want to think of the church as built upon something hard to pin down? Something we need to return to? A year ago, we might give varied answers. But now? Given the past six months we can see that if the church were rigid and unbending, it would be broken by now.
And West Concord Union Church, you seem far from broken. Who would have imagined a year ago, what church looks like now? To me, it seems like you’ve held onto the essentials: You still gather together. You still pray and sing and hear scripture and sign. You are still you. You are still church, but you had to adapt as all around your stone shifted. I don’t know if it’s fair to say you played with the church and its structure, except if we add Goldsworthy’s caveat: that you’ve focused in on church with an intensity that has allowed you to know it differently. As you looked at the church in the midst of these months, you got to see what was essential and to leave behind some pieces that weren’t. That’s not to say that much isn’t missed. But you have kept church going, you have this rock on which to be in this very challenging time.
It’s been five months since schools closed. The seasons have shifted. Some pieces of this COVID era have become normal. For some of us the grief, the fear, the worry pulses high in our consciousness and for others these threads are more subdued. For some there’s a restlessness growing. So much is being asked of us on all fronts.
But keep heart. The truth that Peter spoke is that Jesus is the Messiah, that God is with us and loves us no matter what and especially when times are the hardest. The church, this community is striving to be God’s hands and feet in the world, striving to do justice and love kindness, the church is built on a rock. And the rock is alive with it’s own energy, both hard and soft as Andy Goldsworthy tells us. We must continue to pay attention to the church and the call on the church today to let it live today. Could it be more alive now than it’s ever been before?
And we must pay attention. I love that Moses isn’t named for the water, but for the fact that he was drawn out. Can we pay enough attention, can we look so deeply that we can draw out, the very precious parts of the church and its tradition that are utterly needed? Can we take what was old and handle it lightly, play even, to make it new? Can we look to the past to be part of a future that is more just, more holy, and with more equity for God’s children?
I wonder how you will continue to be the church in this time not just beyond the four walls of the church, but these four walls?
This is a strange and terrible time and it is a time full of possibilities. I wonder what could be floating down the river towards you. I pray that you will keep your eyes open, even on a circumscribed path. For God is at work. God is with us in the reeds and in the rocks. May we be open to play, open to continue seeing the church with new eyes. Let us be open to the newness of life that God offers, each and every day.
“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.” May it be so. Amen.