SJF • Easter 5a • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
To you then who believe he is precious; but for those who do not believe, “The stone that the builders rejected...” and “a stone that makes them stumble.”
We are presented today with one of the great strangenesses of human experience: that a thing which can be delightful and wonderful to one person can be horrible or disgusting to another. Much in life seems to be a matter of taste: when it comes to food or music or art, or even religion — what one person finds delicious or pleasing or inspiring, another finds nasty, ugly or repulsive. This could be a matter of nature — something with you from birth — or of nurture — learning to enjoy something you found distasteful as a child, like broccoli — or to find displeasing something you really quite enjoyed as a child, like making mud pies.
Some of it clearly relates to the person him or herself: some people are by nature capable of hearing sounds or tasting tastes — either pleasant or irritating — that others cannot, and this has a real impact on their enjoyment of or distaste for certain kinds of music or food. In fact, there is a chemical — phenylthiocarbamide, in case you’re interested — that people with a particular genetic makeup taste as strongly bitter, while others cannot taste it at all. We all know that some people cannot abide broccoli or asparagus, and this is in part because they are genetically more sensitive to naturally occurring bitter chemicals in those vegetables. A taste which many tolerate or even enjoy due to the inability to taste it in its fullness, such people find intolerably unpleasant.
My point is that the vegetables, and the chemicals in them, are just what they are: the difference lies, as is said of beauty, “in the eye of the beholder” — or in this case, the tongue!
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In our reading from the First Letter of Peter, he describes Jesus as a chosen and precious and living stone. He is the cornerstone of the spiritual temple which will be the church of God — for those who believe. But for those who do not find him to their taste, to the builders who reject the cornerstone, he becomes a source of scandal and stumbling and fall. The one and the same stone can be — for those who accept and believe in him — a precious protection from shame; but for those who deny or reject him, he will bring subjection to that very shame and stumbling. The point is that the joy or anguish is not in the stone itself, or I should rather say, himself — for it is Jesus of whom we speak here — the joy or the anguish is in that proverbial “eye of the beholder.” Whether the stone will be your rock of ages, cleft for you to find refuge; or a stumbling-block that makes you trip and fall depends on you, and how you treat it: with respect and acceptance, or with rejection and hatred.
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We see the two sides of this reaction in our first reading, and can side by side set the personalities of Stephen and Saul. For Stephen the deacon, Christ is Savior and Lord, worth dying for — and he sees the heavens opened to receive him as he dies. For Saul, this crazy new teaching is heresy of the worst sort, and Christ, the founder of this pestilent sect, is a mischief-maker rightly rejected by the authorities. One and the same Christ can lead a man to lay down his life in witness to him, and drive another to the extreme of murder — though, of course, we also know that once Saul came to know Jesus better, on that road to Damascus, he too saw the light — literally, and it blinded him for a time — and he developed finally a taste for Jesus, and even beyond that a bold willingness, like Stephen, to suffer and die for him. As I said, not all things are determined by genetics, and we can be nurtured in directions we might never imagine. Who would have thought that Saul the vicious persecutor of the church would become one of its greatest champions? More than his name changed when he became Paul!
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And that is ultimately the good news in all of this: our tastes can change. We are not always newborns who can only tolerate milk. As we grow older we can learn that a little bitterness — offensive to a child’s tongue, a sensibility that only wants sweets or pleasant things — that little bitterness or sourness actually makes certain foods taste sweeter. We come to understand that a little piquance actually brings out the sweetness of certain foods, or that a dash of Scotch Bonnet pepper — which to a young child can be a truly nasty experience — brings for the adult who has learned to enjoy it, just the right savor and relish to a dish, without which it would be dull, stale, flat, boring and intolerable. We can learn to appreciate certain kinds of music or art by studying them, and realizing that our first impressions may have been based on our own ignorance, not on some quality inherent in the art or music itself.
And when it comes to God — and Christ Jesus his Son — well, God is God, after all; and he assures us that he is in fact the Way; as he said last week, “the gate”; and if we enter, as we are invited so to do, he will invite us to “Taste and see.” He invites us to his supper.
In the old legends of the Holy Grail — the cup that Jesus used at the Last Supper — it was said that the Knights of the Grail, those who dwelt in the Grail Castle and served there, lived on nothing but the Holy Communion. But the legend also says that each and every one of them experienced the bread and wine they received as if it were his favorite dish, whatever food they liked best. Though always and only bread and wine, though of course also the Body and Blood of Christ, one of the knights would experience its taste as roast pheasant, another as beef, still another as the finest venison. To each one it brought complete satisfaction and joy, though it was only and always what it was, and their only food.
Jesus similarly promises that in the Father’s house there are many dwelling places — and no doubt each of those blessed to follow in his way, abide in his truth, and live with his life will find the dwelling place uniquely suited and furnished to each one’s taste and desire.
And what of those who take another way, or reject his truth, or devalue that life and the lives of those who accept and follow him? It is not for us to judge. Who knows? If such a murderous and hateful one as Saul can be brought round in the end, who are we to set limits on the grace and the power of God? And more than that, ought we not examine ourselves in the meantime and see if something in our own behavior as Christians might be keeping others away?
When I was growing up, we lived next door to a man who had a large garden, and he always gave my mother vegetables. Among the vegetables there would always be one or two eggplants, which we never ate because my mother didn’t like eggplant, and always said, “You wouldn’t like it,” when I asked why she didn’t prepare it. And so we never had it. It was only years later when I was grown up and living away from home that I gave eggplant a try — and it turned out I loved it! (I told my mother the next time I saw her after that, and she just grimaced — she couldn’t believe it, — clearly she was more sensitive to whatever it is in eggplant that gives it that bitter taste; she had never learned to enjoy it, that bitterness that is part of “the eggplant experience.”)
But I had learned. You can learn. You can change. Saul changed...
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But it is not for us to judge the tastes or fates of others. God the Father has prepared a house with many dwelling places in it — and some of those places may have been prepared for some of the most unlikely people! As the old joke says, they may be the ones surprised to see us there! These may be people who had never imagined themselves as Christians; they may be people who have taken offense at something they’ve seen an individual Christian or a Christian church do; they may even be among those who have at first rejected the very cornerstone of faith. It is not for us to judge, however; it is our task to celebrate as much as possible, to show our joy in the Lord in such varied and persuasive ways, that even those who may have been at first put off or reluctant to do so, might venture to taste and see that the Lord is good. They may find that, after all, the thing they rejected in the past is now just what they most desire, and come and join us at the feast where there is room for all, and all are welcome, and all — all — all who come to the banquet shall be satisfied.+