Psalm 118: 19-26; 1 Peter 2: 4-8
May 29, 2011
This past week I learned something new about our church. I learned that we have a cornerstone. I had to get Mike Branch to help me find it, though. There I was this past Wednesday morning, scrounging behind the huge rhododendron bushes that grow along the outside of our sanctuary, Mike guiding me on the cell phone. I’m sure it was quite a sight for those on Main Street – what is that crazy Presbyterian minister up to now?! Eventually we found it – not near the main door as we suspected. It’s actually just outside this door to the right, a few feet above the ground, barely visible behind the bushes. There’s a picture of it on the front of the bulletin, you may have noticed. And unlike the coarse granite of the rest of the building, this stone is smooth. You’ll see it has the church’s name and year etched into it: First Presbyterian Church, 1910.
Quick history lesson: you’ll recall that, while our church was founded in 1858, the original sanctuary was destroyed in a fire around the turn of the century. The sanctuary we’re worshipping in now was built soon after, marked by this cornerstone that still exists 101 years later. How’s that for longevity!
What you may not realize is that cornerstones in our day are different than what they were back in Biblical times. For us they are nothing more than markers; signifying a point in history when a building was built. Sometimes cornerstones have a hollow space inside that serves as a time capsule, where churches can leave pictures and documents to be opened at a later date (ours does not have that, by the way).
But perhaps the biggest difference is that our cornerstone is not a foundational part of the structure, like they were in days of old. Our stone could be removed and the building would continue to stands. But that’s not the case with cornerstones in Biblical days. By design, they were THE foundational piece of the whole structure. Cornerstones were the very first stone placed, and it was put – not surprisingly – at the corner. Therefore it held up not one wall but two – and, in essence, it really held up all four. A cornerstone was larger than all the others – so it was easily recognized. It had to be exactly the right size, exactly the right cut, and placed exactly where it needed to be. Any variation and the building it supported would not stand the test of time.
It shouldn’t come as a surprise, then, that when the Hebrew people wanted a metaphor to describe the God they worshipped, and how that God was the foundation of their faith, and how everything they believed in and their very lives depended on that foundation, it’s not surprising that they would speak of a cornerstone. It’s not used much in scripture – only eleven times, including the two passages so wonderfully read today by our SPARK children. But it gets the point across – the idea that God is foundational, that God is worthy of our complete trust, that God is someone we can lean on and rely on as people of faith. Especially as we make our way in a chaotic, unpredictable world.
Which is why this image resonated so strongly with the audience Peter was writing to. Written sometime in the late first century, 1 Peter was directed at a particular community of faith with the intention of encouraging them through difficult times of suffering. But the thing is, their suffering wasn’t coming from physical persecution or the threat of death, as we hear about happening elsewhere. No, their suffering was due more to social exclusion. See, because of their belief in Jesus, these early Christians were not allowed to participate in the daily commerce of a pagan culture, not able to use coins with idols engraved on them. So they were ridiculed for this and other oddities: allegiance to a single God in a world of many Gods; to the son of a deity who died the death of a criminal. Those early Christians Peter wrote to were looked down on as strange outcasts with strange beliefs in a strange God. And because of that, they didn’t feel like they belonged anywhere.
We know what that’s like from time to time, don’t we? We know what it’s like to feel out of place, to feel as if we are strangers in a strange land? You remember that feeling when you were younger, maneuvering through the difficult waters of adolescence, trying to find yourself through the circle of friends you associated with? You remember what it was like when you were in a particular circle and you just knew it wasn’t yours? That helpless feeling inside, trying to find your way, trying to find yourself?
We all have this inner need to belong somewhere to someone! And that’s why Peter wrote the letter he did – bringing up, among other things, the cornerstone. Something solid and sure, immovable, foundational. Don’t you think that must’ve been a comforting message for those early Christians? They had lost something near and dear to them by going the way of Jesus – they had lost the temple in Jerusalem, the physical home of their faith for generations. It had been part of that faith, enmeshed in their very soul.
But now, Peter tells them, the “temple” they worship in is not some far-off structure. It’s right there in their very midst! Their cornerstone is not some over-sized hunk of rock that rests at a building’s foundation. Their cornerstone is the presence of God in their fellowship! And the walls of the temple are not constructed with your average, run-of-the-mill stones. No, Peter tells them – they are now the stones, embodying the presence of almighty God in their gathering. Living stones!
You know, that’s a strange pairing of words, don’t you think – “living stones?” The two words don’t seem to really go together. And it’s not just the fact that rocks aren’t alive. If something is “living,” it’s vibrant – teeming with activity, breathing, moving, changing and evolving. Stones are nothing more than masses of mineral, inanimate, unmoving, unchanging. How can stones ever show any signs of life?
You remember that story about Jesus in Jerusalem, when the crowd welcomed him on that first Palm Sunday? You remember how they were singing and shouting praises to Jesus: Hosanna in the Highest! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord! And how among them were a few who weren’t singing and shouting, who were worried about what this all meant, who were maybe even offended by it. And so they go to Jesus, the object of the crowd’s affection, and they beg him to tell everyone to shut up, be quiet, keep it down!
You remember how Jesus responded? He told them it wouldn’t make a difference if he did – because even if the crowds did get quiet, even if they didn’t sing or shout another word, those praises would still bellow forth because the rocks and stones would pick up the slack!
I wonder if that’s what it means to be “living stones” – where you just can’t help yourself, because God’s goodness is so good, God’s greatness is so great, God’s love is so loving. Even something as dense and dead as rocks will spring forth to life, if given the chance.
And, you know, the thing is, it’s not about how pretty or perfect or positioned we are as those living stones. Because throughout the Biblical story, God has an amazing propensity of going out of God’s way to call and work with the least likely stones in the quarry; and through those stones, do God’s greatest work: prophets who weren’t public speakers, women leaders in a male-dominated society, kings anointed as teenagers and divine sons who were carpenters. Why should it be any different for us? Why shouldn’t God use us as living stones to build up God’s spiritual home?
There’s a great little story about a small Presbyterian church in upstate New York whose sanctuary was built – intentionally – with “clinker bricks.” In case you didn’t know, as I didn’t until I read the story, “clinkers” are bricks that for whatever reason come out of the kiln deformed and misshapen. They’re the ones that typically get tossed aside in the trash pile and never make it to shipping. And yet these reject bricks were specifically selected by this church when it came time to build their sanctuary. (Michael L.C. Henderson, “Clinker bricks and Ebenezers,” May 2, 1999, Exeter Congregational United Church of Christ Web Site, users.rcn.com)
Now why do you think they would do something like that? Perhaps they got a good deal on them. Perhaps. But I wonder – I wonder if that little church used those clinkers because they realized that, just as masons could fashion the walls of their sanctuary with them, God could also use the people of that church to construct God’s presence in the world?
Listen again to what Peter tells the church:
Come to God, a living stone, though rejected by people,
yet chosen and precious in God’s sight.
And like living stones, let yourselves be built into a spiritual house.
In our own ways, we are all clinkers. Every last one of us. We’re not the kind of stones God would prefer us to be. We have our rough edges, our brokenness, our fragile composition. And so our inclination is to lie dormant and useless, or allow ourselves to be tossed into the reject pile, or simply forget who we are and whose we are and where the cornerstone is.
But thanks be to God that you and I do not need to be defined by what the world thinks of us. Thanks be to God that our God, the cornerstone of all cornerstones, regularly makes a habit of using clinkers to do God’s great work. And as long as you and I remember who the cornerstone is, and how we depend on that cornerstone in everything we do, it’s amazing where a little “rock-bottom living” will take us.
That’s why we have cornerstones – the literal ones, as well as the figurative ones. I encourage you, as you leave church today, to go take a look at the one in front of our church. I’ve cleared out the brush a bit so you can see it better! And as you look at it, I want you to think of this poem that was found mounted in a dusty old frame in the dark corner of an old, old church in England – out of sight, much the same way our cornerstone has been:
Upon the wreckage of thy yesterday,
Design the structure of tomorrow.
Lay strong cornerstones of purpose, and prepare
Great blocks of wisdom cut from past despair.
Shape mighty pillars of resolve, to set
Deep in the tear-wet mortar of regret.
Work on with patience, though thy toil be slow,
Yet day-by-day thy edifice shall grow.
Believe in God — in thine own self believe —
All thou hast desired thou shalt achieve.
(Luci Swindoll, The Women of Faith Daily Devotional (Grand Rapids, Mich. Zondervan, 2002), 18)
Thanks be to God! AMEN.