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Sermons from the Pulpit

Clinker Bricks and Ebenezers
Preached to Exeter Congregational United Church of Christ on the fifth Sunday of Easter, May 2, 1999, by Michael L. C. Henderson, pastor.

Deuteronomy 6:20-24; I Peter 2:1-10; John 14:1-7, 11-14

You are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God's own people. -I Peter 2:9

        It was on the news that those two boys in Littleton, Colorado, chose Adolf Hitler's birthday to do what they did. Since they were such fans of Hitler's they must have read his autobiography, Mein Kampf, My Struggle, and as they read it, perhaps they noticed how at the beginning of it, he quoted his favorite verse from the Bible: You are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God's own people.

        That ought to give us all a chill. We should distrust ourselves whenever we try to make something of Scripture. Instead we might ask prayerfully what it is that Scripture wants to make of us.

        "A chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God's own people" — that's not what Scripture wants to make of us. That's what Scripture tells us we already are, whether or not we know it, whether or not we see any evidence of it. It has nothing to do with Nazi Aryan supermen, and it has everything to do with the grace of God. Hitler knew nothing of that grace; likewise those two poor murderous boys, who clearly saw themselves as no people, as rejects, chosen by no one.

        And what do we know of grace? I have here an excellent definition of it, source unknown to me.

When we get what we deserve that is justice.
When we don't get what we deserve that is mercy.
When we get what we don't deserve that is grace.

        To be a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God's own people — one cannot imagine deserving it, unless one is out of one's mind. It is amazing grace, truly — it makes no sense, we don't know what to make of God making such a thing of us.

        But God has a plan in this, and Peter has figured it out and told us what it is: God intends for us, whom God has so mysteriously chosen, to become like living stones. Living stones built into a spiritual house. Well, what can we say about the lives of stones? Perhaps more than you think.

        In a certain place Jacob, while journeying, lay down to sleep when night fell, and used a stone for his pillow. He dreamed that there was a ladder set up on earth that reached to heaven, with angels ascending and descending on it, and he dreamed that the God of Abraham and Isaac stood beside him there and spoke to him. When he woke up, he said, "Surely the Lord is in this place — and I did not know it! How awesome is this place! It is the house of God and the gate of heaven." And he set up the stone that he had slept on, to mark the place where this thing had happened, and he called the place Bethel, "house of God."

        A marker stone, marking the place where an ordinary mortal met God and lived to tell the tale. In the Hebrew Bible there is a place called Ebenezer, which means "stone of help." That wonderful hymn we sang a few minutes ago, "Come, O Fount of Every Blessing," has been altered for the New Century Hymnal. It now says, "Here I pause in my sojourning, giving thanks for having come." It used to say, "Here I raise mine Ebenezer, hither by thy help I'm come." Apparently the editors worried that we would misunderstand what it means to raise one's Ebenezer. But they are the ones who misunderstand, for if they take away our Ebenezers they deprive us of the opportunity to raise up our own witness to the grace of God wherever we go.

        In the town of Gates, New York, near Saratoga, I'm told there is a Presbyterian Church which was intentionally built of "clinker bricks." "Clinkers," as I understand it, are bricks that come out of the kiln deformed and misshapen. Factory seconds. Rejects. Normally they are thrown away. But those Presbyterians thought they were the perfect thing to build a church with.

        In the ancient town of Capernaum on the Sea of Galilee there is a synagogue that dates from the third century, and next to it a little house made of stones. There is no mortar between the stones. They were made to fit by being rubbed together. They say this took a long time.

        Well, I guess so! Our congregation has been using friction as a building technique for 361 years and still has a ways to go. It doesn't help that we keep adding new stones and more dwelling places. Or maybe it does. Maybe the point is not the finished product, but the building process, also known as life. So here's to this house of God, this Bethel, and all the clinkers old and new of which it is still being built. Here we raise our Ebenezer!


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