May 10th, 2020
Psalm 31:1-5, 15-16
1 Peter 2:2-10
Who would compare rocks to people? What is there to see? One is a mass of minerals, brought into existence by billions of years and unrelenting pressure. It can’t move, can’t speak, can’t do anything but sit and decay and erode, disappearing atom by atom until its dust catches in some corner of the world to endure the pressures of gravity and time all over again. The other flits around the rocks in a speck of time too short to be significant to them, breathing, talking, laughing, interpreting, testing, dying, decaying into dust. I’ve never been much of a scientist, but I gather if you give even human beings enough time and pressure and the right combination of natural events, even we someday could turn into rock. Peter’s name, the name of the person writing this morning’s epistle, literally means “Rock”, or perhaps more colloquially, “Rocky”. Peter in the Gospels get this name for his hard headedness, obliviousness, and solid faith. Rocks and people—a weird combination, but perhaps not so weird for Rocky the writer.
Of course, rocks aren’t just rocks. This passage makes me think of that great American tale, A River Runs Through It, a story about family and failure and fishing by Norman Maclean. When his family goes fishing, they fish the big Blackfoot river in Montana, where “high on the mountains above where we stopped to fish are horizontal scars slashed by the passing of icebergs,” a description that gives life to what we might otherwise consider scenery and decoration. Rocks are not just rocks. He also writes, “The flat ended suddenly and the river was down a steep bank, blinking silver through the trees and then turning to blue by comparing itself to a red and green cliff. It was another world to see and feel, and another world of rocks. The boulders on the flat were shaped by the last ice age only eighteen or twenty thousand years ago, but the red and green precambrian rocks beside the blue water were almost from the basement of the world and time.” Maclean and his father considered the rocks together, from which they had built the hearth of their family home—some of the rocks had ripples on them, they remember, some of the rocks had raindrops, ancient rain spattering mud that became rock in the basement of time. Perhaps rocks aren’t alive, but they do have a story to tell, if you know enough and look hard enough—the passing of icebergs, the eruption of volcanoes, the dust from an asteroid that wiped out most of earthly life. We take these rocks, we choose them and shape them and use them in new ways, and we wonder when we discover ourselves again in their ruins. Perhaps nothing is so striking as finding a Solutrean blade, or an arrowhead, the signs of humans interacting with rocks.
But Peter makes it weirder. He says that Jesus is a living stone, a living rock, rejected by mortals, but precious to God. The stone rejected for what purpose? Our passage from acts recounts the first martyrdom of the church, the stoning of Stephen. Perhaps Christ is a stone rejected by one who was stoning another to death: too small, perhaps too large, not the right kind of stone for hurling at someone’s head. Perhaps he wasn’t the kind of stone to be used at the building of our parish hall, a malformed or ugly bit of rock, with no real place to be laid. Or perhaps Christ is like the stone I tripped on during a vacation, a stone that ripped up my toe, and my uncle, who was a former EMT, had to patch up for me. A stone, as Rocky our writer puts it, that makes them stumble, a rock that makes them fall. A reject, a hazard, to mortals, and but a precious cornerstone in the sight of God, who is building something much different than the things mortals do.
So, Rocky the writer insists, consider yourselves to be like him, living stones, built upon the cornerstone into a spiritual house, a holy priesthood, built to proclaim God’s light in darkling world. Sometimes it is hard for us to rest in our rockiness, to trust that the hands and mind of the builder are the hands and mind of a master beyond compare. But nevertheless, God calls us to be a house more beautiful than the Notre Dame, more striking than the Sagrada Familia, not because of our brilliance but because we live and “proclaim the mighty acts of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light.” We are built to be the signs of the slashing iceberg, the raindrops on the precambrian rocks, the epic tale of God’s love for creation.
I think that is a helpful reminder for us now. I wonder if we feel a bit like stones—heavy, lying around, immobile. Perhaps some of us are also feeling rejected, unusable. We are tripping over each other in our homes and apartments. Sometimes we feel like are just sitting around like rocks, doing nothing but decaying.
Maybe in our minds we could think of churches you’ve known and loved. For many of you that might be OSA, nestled almost anonymously in the little valley of Bennett Avenue. Or perhaps you remember the big Catholic parish of your childhood, teeming with people and perhaps even Latin, and remember it as the place where you grew to know and love God. But think of the church this way: imagine yourself walking along a lonely road, in the cold, scared of what might come your way. You might be an immigrant, forced to flee your homeland. You might be running away from a violent father. You might simply be lost, not knowing which way to go. But you’ve found a road, or a path, or a way, and you know that roads lead somewhere, so you follow it and follow it, through the blasted rocks and into the trees. You don’t know where you’re going, but there, far off, through the trees, you see a steeple, a plain white steeple with a plain cross on top. From it you hear the pealing of a bell. Maybe in your mind you think—that’s where I can be safe tonight. That’s one place I can be safe. So you walk the road, thirsty, tired, cold, hungry, afraid, feet freezing and tired. You walk into the edge of town, past the bars and the municipal buildings, around the parks. People stare at you and wonder about you. Their conversations slow and stop. But you see the steeple, you hear the bell and you keep going, through the main streets and the town square, past the good shops and restaurants in the town square. And you walk up to the door and lay your hand on the handle. What will happen when you pull the door?
The spiritual building, the chosen priesthood, the royal nation, the living stones—if this is that kind of place, you’ll find people like you inside, all of whom know what it was like to be lost, alone, treading a weary way. Or they might just have enough empathy and compassion to imagine what it’s like. If they are living stones, they know what it’s like to follow the way, the truth, and the life, and they’ll want your company. If it is a place of mortal’s stones, you’ll pull on the door and it will be locked, or worse, the people won’t help you. I’ve been both a living stone and a dead one in my life, and I’ve been part of churches that have been both living and dying, sometimes at the same time. But the building, the steeple, the bell, the stained glass, and all the vestments and music and sermons and committees, all of these things find their life only in their return to the living cornerstone, and their proclamation of the wonderful acts the lightning God in a darkling world. Sometimes these acts come forth at the rate of geological time: only the constant pressure of the Holy Spirit and the steady erosion of fear and hatred and whatever else grips us breaks through and changes us at the end. Sometimes it’s a simple flash the history of one human life changes all of us in the end. The works we do come from the Word spoken to us from the basement of time in Christ Jesus, who has reached out and picked us for his building, the church, which is a people, a house made of living stones, not dead ones. Church is us. It’s the gathering of wayfarers and pilgrims, united by the Word of God, calling us and breathing life into us, making us living stones.
“I am the way, the truth, and the life,” Jesus says to us today. But he says to us that if we believe, we will do. My family passed a saying down to me, that faith is not a way of believing, but a way of living. Faith, therefore, is harder than anything else, because it requires you to live on a promise and prayer. That’s why faith is a gift. But it is also what helps us bridge the chasms between us. We are the church. Someday we will meet again in a building on Bennett Avenue, and that day will be glorious. But we will come some other day to place where we can see ourselves again from a distance, from another point in time, and we will look back to point out the passing of this time on the living rocks of faith and say to those who weren’t here—do you see those marks, those scars? That’s when God brought us together when everything else was tearing us apart. That’s when light came. That was the hand of God.