“He is the stone that was rejected by you, the builders; it has become the cornerstone.” –Peter’s testimony to the priests, the same ones who had Jesus killed. It’s a continuation of the story we read last week. The leaders killed Jesus, God raised him, said, “Hey, guys. Funny story: that was me.” So, now Jesus’ name has power, and by his name Peter gave the ability to walk to a man who’d never walked. We skip the part where the priests arrested Peter and John and stuck them in jail overnight. This scene today was meant to be the verbal dressing down following a night of cooling off in a cell. Instead, Peter testifies to his jailers. It’s not exactly a slick appeal. He says Jesus is the stone the builders rejected, now the cornerstone. I mean, it’s an awesome image from Psalm 118. But a rock’s got to be pretty lousy to be rejected outright for construction, and Peter says this one is the cornerstone. Urging people to build on something you freely admit will fall over: those are some guts Peter’s got. Just like last week, Peter has gotten to the heart of the matter: will you trust the God mysteriously and counterintuitively at work in Jesus, or will you turn to something else you think can help you get what you want?
That’s the challenge in the Gospel, too. Will you pick the Good Shepherd or the Hired Hand? Sounds like a no brainer. If Jesus has to spend time telling people not to pick the hired hand, some people are picking the hired hand. Why? Well, what do you want God to be? Whether a concept of God is attractive to us or not depends a great deal upon what we want God to be. A hired hand God has a lot to recommend him. I get to decide the nature of the relationship. I create a job description for God. I assign responsibilities. I determine what competencies God needs. I set God’s hours. There are hours when I want to be left alone; God shouldn’t call me with questions during those hours, but better be available during working hours. That’s in the contract. I offer a contract to God, get him to fill out a W-9, and we’re set.
And I pick what I want God to do. Those things change over time and they vary from person to person. They usually boil down to personal security. When I say security, I use it as it is defined by Edwin Friedman, the “godfather” of family systems theory. Friedman defines security as the illusion of safety and stability. No one seeking security knowingly understands that it is an illusion, but that does not make it any less illusory. And I am not saying this to judge the prayers of anyone in this room. There have been times in my life where I prayed for a better job—the current one was toxic and the pay was inadequate—or prayed that the committee chose me, or prayed that someone I loved understood that and loved me back. Those are totally legit prayers.
Treating God like a hired hand is not far from treating God like a Good Shepherd; good and evil travel parallel to one another. The problem comes whenever I would have the attitude: “If I can just get God to give me this, I’ll be set.” “God, if you just get me a better paying job, I’ll be fine and won’t bother you any more.” “God, if you choose me for this school I promise I’ll get my act together.” “God, if you come through on this one I will be what you’ve always wanted me to be.” That’s treating God as a hired hand, because once I have what I asked for I think I am set. I feel secure in my own existence. I act like I just needed a little help, but now I am good.
When Jesus says, “I am the Good Shepherd,” he means he’s good all the time, not just when you’re asking for stuff. He’s good when you’ve got things to share, and he’s good when you’ve got nothing to share but yourself and you aren’t too keen on sharing that. He’s good when you have nothing left to give for this world and he’s good when you feel like you can take on the world and have concrete examples of success ready to point to. Jesus is good for you all the time because that is his nature. From eternity Jesus is good. Before there was time and anyone around to argue over good and evil, there was Jesus and Jesus was good.
We want so badly to be the source of all good, and we are so not. When we just cannot be what others need we feel so guilty. Why?! Since when are you the source of all good? Relax. When things are great, the clothes are clean, the bank account is fat, the hair is perfect, and we are ready to take on the world we feel like saying, “I have got it going on! I have pulled myself together.” Meanwhile our friends are going, “That’s an interesting interpretation of his life right now.”
Jesus is good, and Jesus lays down his life for us, making us good. When Jesus lays down his life in the Gospel of John it is on the cross, where Jesus literally pours out life when the centurion spears him. Life pours out into the world. Even in the moment that creatures think they’ve stopped the creator of life, God gives life to the world. Jesus is good and gives us life. Jesus cannot be hired to fix a few things for us; he’s already here. Jesus cannot be fired; he owns the place.
Our search for security—the illusion of safety and stability—is futile because God gives us everything and calls us to follow wherever God leads us. You don’t “get God”; you already have God. And you don’t stop now that you’ve got God; you follow. I think of this—as I do with far too much of life—in relationship to playoff hockey. It’s playoff time in the National Hockey League. (I apologize for mentioning the playoffs what with the Blackhawks not making it, but the playoffs are happening even without you and we need to deal with that so healing can begin.) Security is like a Stanley Cup championship. They happen sometimes. We pray to God the Hired Hand for a win. We may even thank God the Hired Hand for that win, which we interpret as God’s favor. We won it and even people who don’t care at all about hockey know what that trophy is. We’ve secured it. But no one keeps the Stanley Cup. You hang a banner from the rafters that says you won this one, and it’s on to the next season. That’s the nature of championships like that, so it’s fine and my obsessive watching of the playoffs is a normal condition.
Those moments of security in life are like championships. We treat them like they are permanent, when in reality they’re over and we’re on to the next thing. At most, you get a banner you can hang from the rafters. “This one time, 1998, June, we had security.” So, then, we can’t understand why things aren’t working. God gave us that thing we asked for, and we’re supposed to be all good, now. Why is it going wrong again? Life is on to the next thing.
Jesus is our good and calls us on to the next thing. What does that look like today? It looks like what our Second Reading calls us to do: “Let us love not in word or speech, but in truth and action.” The author of 1 John faces the same challenge Jesus takes on in the Gospel of John: the idea of God as a hired hand. The author writes: “How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses help?” The word we’ve translated as “goods” is the Greek word bios from which we get biology and biography. It’s life. It’s the stuff of life. John asks, “How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s life—the life of the world, the life Christ pours out on the cross—and refuses to help?” You get there by thinking of God as a hired hand, a contract worker who filled out his W-9 and provided basic spiritual and temporal services once, but now I’m set, thanks.
Jesus says, “I give you the life of the world every day. I want you to spread it around.” If you’ve got things to share, share them. If you have only yourself, share that. If you are empty and overwhelmed, come be filled and fed. If you feel like you can take on the world, come on: the world needs taking on. We’ve got stuff you can do, and we are interested in hearing what you want to do. And in all these things, share Jesus. Let the world know he is already here. Like Peter and John in Acts, tell the ones the world excludes that Jesus includes them. Tell those who are amazed that God includes them, too. Tell the ones who try to stop you and who lock you up, “He’s already here, he made the place, and he wants you, too.” Your words may not yield worldly standards of success. Jesus does not lend himself well to slick sales pitches. He’s a dead guy followed by a bunch of unemployed fishermen, tax collectors, and prostitutes, and who portrays himself at various times as a dead lamb, a loaf of bread, a glass of wine, and rocks that you wouldn’t even use for gravel. But he is the life of the world, he is the one by whom we live, and he is our cornerstone. Because of him, we don’t want the hired hand. We’ll take the one whose life is the life of the world.