I grew up about five miles from my first cousins, my father’s brother’s children; the two families were very close, we spent a lot of time together. When I was 15, my oldest cousin married a young woman who, over time, became a mild irritation to everyone in the family: it seemed like she never really listened to what anyone else was saying, and she usually didn’t have much to say that anyone else was interested in. Probably we just made her so self-conscious she could never relax and be herself. Eventually they divorced; but, years later, my father told me that he had been sitting next to her at one Christmas dinner (a duty that everyone dreaded annually, but you knew your turn was going to come up sooner or later) and, completely out of the blue, a propos of nothing, she had said, Uncle Kay, why do you go to church?
My father was a lifelong churchgoer, and told me this story as just one more example of what an oddball she was, but of course it’s not an oddball question at all. As with anything that we do regularly, that’s important, it’s a very good question, and one that we should make a point of asking ourselves every now and then: Why do I go to church? What am I doing here? Am I really paying attention? Am I allowing this to be about my life?
Well, of course, there are many specific answers to these questions. There are a lot of things we do here in church: we worship God, in many different ways; we give thanks; we pray for others, and for ourselves; we confess, we try to be honest with God about what’s really going on with us: there are many things we do here in church. But there are also broad, overarching ways to answer the question; and one of them occurred to me to talk about today.
I’m put in mind of all this because of three things. The first is something from one of the Scripture readings today, which I’ll get back to. The second is that today, at the 10 o’clock service, we celebrate Church School Sunday; and certainly one of the most important things we do in church is hand on to our children our Christian tradition, hand on what we believe to be the truth.
And the third thing is something I read not long ago in a book.
The book, by a financial journalist named Michael Lewis, is called Flash Boys. It’s about a discovery that was made several years ago by a small team of people, at a bank in New York City. It’s complicated, but just very briefly to summarize, they found that a number of investment firms had formed a conspiracy with big banks and stock exchanges. Using high-speed computers and complex software, they skimmed small amounts of money from trades being made on those stock exchanges. What was happening was that the technology, that everyone was using, allowed a small group of traders to get an advance peek at trading orders and shave off for themselves just a penny or two, so it was barely noticeable, but from billions of transactions, which added up to a lot of money.
For our purposes here today, it’s not important to understand the process (I certainly don’t, entirely); the point is that these few people were gaming the system to rig the market. They exploited the technology to create an uneven playing field. It was a fix. And the small team that was investigating this also discovered that, over a couple of years, individuals at a few other financial institutions had stumbled onto this racket; but rather than blow the whistle on these people, they joined them, they started doing the same thing.
The point of the story (at least as far as I’m concerned) was contained in two sentences, buried in the middle: Lewis wrote: “The deep problem with the system was a kind of moral inertia. So long as it served the narrow self-interests of everyone inside it, no one on the inside would ever seek to change it, no matter how corrupt or sinister it became.” Now, it’s certainly not a startling revelation that there’s greed in the financial world, and that people will do dishonest things to make money. But there’s something about this situation that I think the phrase “moral inertia” captures pretty well: it describes the mindset that holds, If I’m smart enough to understand something and you’re not, that’s not my problem. It’s your problem. It’s the survival of the fittest. That’s moral inertia: from a Christian perspective, it’s sinful: it’s willful ignorance of the communion in which God intends us to be.
This is what can happen when we allow ourselves to be defined by the boundaries of whatever small world we choose to inhabit; and we each do inhabit a particular world, our family, our job, the path each of us chooses in life. The danger is that, on that path, we abandon our awareness of God’s creation, the wholeness that each of our particular worlds is rooted in, and gets its life from. God has created us to live in communion with God and with each other. This is the truth, which we learn here in church. This is the nature of God’s creation; and when we ignore it, things go wrong; people get hurt; and we miss out on the true richness of life.
The story Lewis tells is a specific example of this disconnect. It’s an extreme example, but we all experience that disconnect. We show it when we’re angry, or impatient, or selfish; say, for instance, if we have an in-law who we think is a bore, and we don’t want to have to sit next to her at Christmas dinner; so we miss out on who she really is, on her real life, and on our chance to learn something from her.
I spoke of a broad overarching answer to the question of why we go to church. I hear one such answer in a verse from today’s reading from the first letter of Peter, and it bears on what I’m talking about.
The author of this letter is writing to a very young church, in the first century, a group of people who have felt called to Jesus Christ, just like us; and what the letter tells these people to do is this:
“Come to him, a living stone, and like living stones, let yourselves be built into a spiritual house.”
“A living stone.” Both Old and New Testaments frequently use “stone” as an image of the presence of God, and of the nature of God. A stone represents permanence, absolute reliability, something you can stand on, that will support you, something that’s going to be there no matter what. Today’s passage from 1 Peter follows this invitation (“Come to him, a living stone”) with three quotations from Scripture, all of which have to do with stones, two of which speak specifically of a cornerstone: one from Isaiah: “See, I am laying in Zion…a cornerstone chosen and precious…”; and one from the Psalms: “The stone that the builders rejected has become the very head of the corner.” Cornerstones are part of buildings that we humans build: so the image is of the presence of God in our lives, a presence that we intentionally make room for.
Now, originally, a true cornerstone was the very first stone put into place, so every other stone was set in reference to that first one. So the cornerstone determined the building’s orientation, the solidity of its foundation: everything else that you put into the construction of the building followed from that first step.
When we make Christ our cornerstone, that’s what we’re talking about: that first stone of the spiritual house that each of us builds. Every single human being, in church or not, builds a spiritual house in life, one way or another. The question is, do we build it for the life God wants for us, a life lived in communion, a life of love and peace and joy? Do we build it on a living stone, from which life is eternally opening out in front of us? That’s what we’re doing here. That’s why we go to church. Thanks be to God.