Shibboleths and Cornerstones

Sermon preached at Crescent Springs Presbyterian Church on the Twenty-third Sunday of Ordinary Time for a series on the Protestant Reformation.

Judges 12:4-6

So Jephthah gathered all the men of Gilead and fought the Ephraimites. The Gileadites defeated the Ephraimites, because they had said, “You are fugitives from Ephraim! Gilead stands within Ephraim and Manasseh.”

The Gileadites took control of the Jordan’s crossing points into Ephraim. Whenever one of the Ephraimite fugitives said, “Let me cross,” the Gileadites would ask him, “Are you an Ephraimite?” If he said, “No,” they would tell him, “Then say shibboleth.” But he would say, “sibboleth,” because he couldn’t pronounce it correctly. So they would seize him and kill him at the Jordan’s crossing points. Forty-two thousand of the Ephraimites fell at that time.

Ephesians 2:14-22

Christ is our peace. He made both Jews and Gentiles into one group. With his body, he broke down the barrier of hatred that divided us. He canceled the detailed rules of the Law so that he could create one new person out of the two groups, making peace. He reconciled them both as one body to God by the cross, which ended the hostility to God.

When he came, he announced the good news of peace to you who were far away from God and to those who were near. We both have access to the Father through Christ by the one Spirit. So now you are no longer strangers and aliens. Rather, you are fellow citizens with God’s people, and you belong to God’s household. As God’s household, you are built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets with Christ Jesus himself as the cornerstone. The whole building is joined together in him, and it grows up into a temple that is dedicated to the Lord. Christ is building you into a place where God lives through the Spirit.


One of the joys in moving to a new city is finding a new set of medical professionals to work with, and one of the joys of starting over with a new doctor is filling in your family’s medical history.

I tend to think of my family as a pretty healthy group of people, all things considered. There’s no lingering malaise, no great medical crises that I can recall. When a friend asks me, “how’s your family?” I usually respond, “doing really well.”

But when you go to the doctor, suddenly you’re forced to look all your family’s medical history in the eye at one time. I imagine my family’s medical history looks a lot like many of yours: a couple kinds of cancer, some risk of diabetes, a smattering of mental illnesses, some heart issues. There’s one or two rarer things in the mix as well, although they aren’t likely to be a problem for me. But when you start checking off the boxes on the form, it does tend to look a bit daunting.

My family is, by and large, pretty healthy. I am, by and large, pretty healthy. But I know there are things to watch out for—a history of skin cancer, for example, means I have to be extra vigilant with my sun screen. Knowing what’s happened in my family’s past helps me keep my own future healthier.

This month we’ve been celebrating the Protestant Reformation. There’s much to celebrate in it. But it’s also worth taking a moment to check our church-family history of disease. As we all know, our family medical history isn’t a prophecy of our own, but it does show us what our risks are. Knowing what’s happened in our church’s past helps us keep our own future healthier.

Most of us nowadays take a very intellectual approach to the Protestant Reformation. We think of it as a battle of the minds, a war of scholars, men in ivory towers and tall steeple pulpits figuring out new theologies for the church. But the sad fact is that the Reformation was not only a war of words; it was also accompanied by very physical wars all over Europe.

I would like to say that the Reformation got its energy and drive from a deep spiritual conversion of Christians all over Europe to a new way of thinking about God. And if I said that, it wouldn’t be untrue, but it wouldn’t be the whole truth, either. The whole truth is that one of the reasons the Reformation was so popular is that it gave local rulers a theological reason why they could stop obeying Catholic authorities and start exhibiting more power themselves. Most towns converted to Protestantism not from the ground up, through the people, or even through the impassioned preaching of their pastors, but by edicts from their magistrates. The Reformation gave local rulers the political freedom they’d been itching for for a long time. Being Protestant meant being powerful.

So in some ways, what the Reformation did was give politicians who’d been wanting to fight each other for a long time the go-ahead to do it. And fight they did. At least seven wars are attributed directly to the Reformation, and dozens more were spurred by its aftershocks. Perhaps most famous was the Thirty Years’ War, which ranged all over Europe as Catholic, Lutheran, and Presbyterian factions fought to dominate.

It is sometimes remembered fondly that the early Protestants were willing to die for their faith. It is less often recalled that they were equally willing to kill for it.

Over the thirty years of the war, between direct conflict, plague, and starvation, around eight million people were killed. Some estimates suggest the population of Germany, for example, was cut nearly in half. Each side was convinced that because they knew the truth about God, they should be in positions of power. It was ugly, and messy, and harsh, and violent, and unfortunately, nothing new.

I wonder if any of you recognized our first scripture reading this morning. It wasn’t one I knew until seminary—we don’t read a lot of Judges in church. It’s a violent, harsh book, full of the wars of the early Israelite people, both against the natives of Canaan, whose land they were invading, and between each other. The story we read today begins with a classic bit of schoolyard logic—the people of Ephraim are going to fight the people of Gilead because the people of Gilead didn’t invite them to go fight the people of Ammon. To protect their pride, they go to war, and people of Gilead defeat the people of Ephraim. But defeat isn’t enough. The people of Gilead set up a checkpoint at the border to keep those who have survived the war from getting home.

The people of Ephraim try to sneak their way through. After all, these are all Israelite people. They all look the same.

But their accents are just a little different. Just enough to tell.

And so the people of Gilead make everyone trying to get through say the word shibboleth. It’s an ordinary word. It means an ear of corn. But in the dialect of the people of Ephraim, it’s sibboleth. And from that one phoneme—sib vs. shib.—they are discovered, and killed, one river away from home. The Bible gloats that 42,000 men were killed that way.

Shibboleth has the distinction of being one of the very few Hebrew words that has made its way into common English usage. Because, sadly, its so common. God’s church, Protestant and Catholic, has a history of killing people over a difference in theological accents. In some places in the world, we still are.

I say this partially to remind you that there is no major religion on earth that has not, at some point, sought political power for its followers through violence, our tradition included. There is no moral high ground when it comes to faith-based violence—there can only be repentance, and a resolve to hold more strongly to Christ’s example of peace in the future.

I admit that I am not terribly worried about modern Presbyterians taking up arms. I don’t think St. Joe’s has anything to fear from us. But as the church—and I think Protestants are especially vulnerable to this—we are still very prone at setting up shibboleths, little tests to figure out who’s in and who’s out, who believes the right things, who is worthy of our compassion, who God really loves, who we should associate with. There is much to celebrate in the Protestant legacy, but our tendency to put down others in order to make ourselves look good is not among them. The wars may have quieted, but we are still fighting and squabbling and attacking each other over what often amounts to no more than the difference between sib and shib. We are still making fun of each other’s accents.

I will be talking next week more about Presbyterianism, and why I love it, and why I think it the world needs our particular dialect of Christianity. But I will admit today that when all is said and done and Jesus returns to earth, I don’t think the Presbyterian Church (USA) is the final goal. I don’t think God is coming to make us all Presbyterian, or Protestant (or, to be fair, Catholic either). I don’t think any of us have it so right that God’s final church, the one where we sing forever to the glory of God’s name, is going to come with a denominational logo and slogan.

Jesus’ vision for his church was not for us to be siloed into thousands of separate little pockets. As Paul so beautifully said in Ephesians, Jesus is our peace. Jesus came to break down divisons, turn enemies into neighbors, and grow us into a single building, a single temple dedicated to the Lord, built on Jesus himself. We are not to divide ourselves by our shibboleths, but grow together on our cornerstone, Jesus, who crossed all barriers in his life to draw people to God.

There has been a push, during this 500th anniversary of the Reformation, to use the word “commemoration” rather than “celebration,” remembering how much pain and upheaval and distress the Reformation caused, remembering that millions lost their lives following a German monk’s theological ponderings. But there has also been—and this is astonishing—a push for reconciliation.

It’s not new. Fifty years ago, the Catholic church opened a dialogue with the Lutheran church, their nearest Protestant neighbors on the family tree. And last year, in Sweden, the president of the Lutheran World Federation presided at a worship service alongside Pope Francis himself. During the reformation, the Catholic church considered Luther a heretic; the Lutheran church called the pope the anti-Christ (and worse). Now, the two leaders lifted their prayers to God together to heal the sin of division.

Five hundred years ago, the church was rent asunder, sometimes by legitimate differences, but more often by greed and a lust for power. Now, we are working to become better siblings in God’s household.

By human efforts, I don’t think we could ever perfectly reunite. But we can put the puzzle pieces back together, and even if we can see where those edges are, we can come to more fully show the image of the body of Christ.

There are other risks in the medical history of the Protestant church. Presbyterians, especially, have a history of valuing order over the movement of the Spirit; we have a tendency to be overly authoritarian; we have not balanced our heads and hearts well; and, to be completely honest with you, we can be a bit snobby. But these are risks to be aware of, so that we can be healthier in the future. So that we can practice openness and unity, practice compassion and courage, practice imagination and equity.

Because here’s the thing: the church has a Great Physician. And if we trust in him, then he will help guide us to a healthier future.

In 2015, a Lutheran woman married to a Catholic man asked Pope Francis if she could take communion when they went to his church together—which is technically not allowed. The Pope’s answer was not definitive, but he did say this: “One baptism, one Lord, one faith. Talk to the Lord and then go forward.”

Talk to the Lord and then go forward.

It’s not a bad prescription for the church.

Ours is not a sinless past, individually or together. But neither is the church a place without grace. Despite its flaws, despite its wounds, despite its sins and shortcomings, the church has nurtured millions, fed and clothed and comforted, been a place to belong, a place to find refuge, a place to stand against injustice, a place to find God.

God knows what it is to live in a broken body. God chose that once, on the cross. God chooses it now, in the church. I cannot think of a more beautiful act of grace. God lives in this broken church, makes it God’s body on earth, makes it beautiful.

So this is my prayer for the church—for our church, our denomination, for Protestants, Catholics, Christians, for the Church universal—

may God forgive all our iniquity,
heal all our diseases,
redeem our life from the Pit,
crown us with steadfast love and mercy,
satisfy us with good as long as we live
so that our strength is renewed like the eagle’s.

To God be the glory. Amen.





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