Saint James Fordham • Easter 5a • Tobias Haller BSG
…like living stones be yourselves built into a spiritual house.—1 Peter 2:5
Today we are called to think about one of the strangest ideas in all of Scripture: living rock. Remember your high school geology class: igneous rock comes from lava, sedimentary rock is made of layers of clay, and metamorphic rock arises from the action of heat and pressure on the other two kinds. That’s your science refresher course for the day! But whatever kind of rock you’re talking about, rock is as dead as dead can be.
In fact, there are countless legends and fairy tales of people cursed by being changed into stone. It is a fear buried deep in our collective unconscious as a symbol of death, coldness and finality. You may remember Medusa, the young lady who was so beautiful that her pride led her to think herself more beautiful than the goddesses. Mistake. They cursed her so that she ended up nut just ugly but ug-LY! As they say, she had ought to stop chasing parked busses. How ugly was she? Well, she could turn you to stone if you got one look at her ugly mug and serpentine hair-do. She was ugly enough to petrify — literally.
On the other hand, there are the stories about statues coming to life, marvelous legends, myths and fairy tales, where the curse is reversed by a blessing. My favorite is The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, which actually formed a part of my reconversion to Christianity as a teenager. Perhaps you saw the film version a few years ago. The imaginary land of Narnia is enthralled by a wicked witch who has cursed the land so that it is always winter but never Christmas, and she has punished anyone who opposes her by turning them into stone. Her prisoners return to life when the Great Lion comes to breathe upon them and lick them back to life, like a mother cat licking her kittens.
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So perhaps it isn’t so strange after all that this idea of living stone should be in Scripture. As with all else, it starts with Jesus, whom Peter, in our reading this morning, describes as the cornerstone for God’s temple. And the building-stones of that temple are ourselves, our souls and bodies, reasonable and holy, transformed into building blocks for God’s house. We are called to be living stones!
This is what Easter is all about: life coming to what is dead. The dead stone is rolled away, and the living Rock of Ages is revealed. And just as Jesus Christ is the Church’s one foundation, the cornerstone chosen and precious, so we are called, through Baptism, to be the living stones building up the New Jerusalem.
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I began this sermon by reminding us where rock comes from. Let’s revisit that a moment. One particular kind of rock is built up from sediment. Dust of the earth, or sand of the hills, and fragments of organic matter, washed away by rainfall, flow downstream to the sea, settle and become a deposit of clay. And over the years, that clay hardens into sedimentary rock. You need look no further than our own slate roof, which millions of years ago was a lake-bottom in Vermont.
The surprising things is that as more time goes by, and shale or slate or sandstone that lies deeper in the earth is compressed further, and heated by the pressure of the layers above, it can change into yet another kind of rock: it undergoes metamorphosis. Sometimes, if all the factors are just right, the compressed and heated sediments become precious rock — gemstones, jewels — diamonds and rubies and sapphires.
Now, as we are reminded on Ash Wednesday, we are dust, and to dust we shall all return. We are also clay taken from the riverbank, molded, and given the breath of life by God himself. And water flows over us — the water of Baptism flowing from the same living rock that quenched the thirst of the children of Israel as they wandered in the wilderness.
They doubted God could give them water from the rock, no doubt a reasonable doubt. But God is not particularly fond of reasonable doubts or reasonable doubters, and that generation was punished by not being allowed into the Promised Land. They put God to the test, though they had seen with their own eyes all the mighty works he had done in Egypt and at the Red Sea. If he made the sea into dry land, could he not do the reverse, and bring water from the rock?
But not only did that Rock become the source of water, of life and salvation for all who believe, it also became the head stone of the corner. The stone that the builders rejected — the stone that didn’t fit their plans, that seemed to big or too small, or the wrong shape — became the very heart of the building.
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Peter was the first to proclaim Christ as Messiah, head and cornerstone of the new Israel. And Jesus reminded him that his name “Peter” means “the rock” — and a few verses later Jesus called Peter “a stumbling block” too! Surely these words must have been in Peter’s mind when he wrote the Letter from which we heard today! Peter was one of the twelve foundation stones of Christ’s Church, but he had also been a stumbling block. He is a perfect example of the old advice, If you can’t be part of the solution at least don’t be a problem! Get with it or get out of the way! Be of good use, not just an obstreperous obstacle.
This is a warning for us as well. Just as Peter got in Jesus’ way, just as the children of Abraham, the chosen people precious to the Lord, doubted in the wilderness, we too — people of God by adoption, people who “once were no people” — could stumble if we were to fall into “malice and guile and insincerity and envy.”
To help us avoid this Peter reminds us of the wonders to which we are called in Christ. Chosen and precious, a holy priesthood, a chosen race, a holy nation, we declare the wonderful deeds of the One who gives us life everlasting. Each of us is unique, chosen and with something precious to offer — a greater purpose to serve other than just getting in the way. Each of us is marked out with our own special place, just as each stone in this church has its own place, its own shape and size.
Back in the nineteenth century there was a craze as wealthy businessmen, hungry for antiquity in this new land, bought castles and cloisters in Europe, had them disassembled, crated up, and shipped to America for reassembly. As the castles were taken apart stone by stone, each stone was labeled and marked, so that each could be put back in its place when the time came. We are like that, each marked as Christ’s own forever in Baptism, and each with our own place in the new Jerusalem, a place which no other stone can fit so well as we. For the stones at the top of the wall couldn’t be there if it weren’t for the stones under them holding them up — each has its place and its function. Well, Jesus, by his grace, takes us lifeless stones and raises us up as children of Abraham and children of God! Each of us is unique, yet all work together in the new building plan. Once we were no people, but now we are God’s people, children of Abraham by adoption.
And like the wandering Israelites our spiritual ancestors, we are in the presence of the living Rock Jesus Christ. We have passed through the Red Sea of Baptism, and have been washed in the stream of living water that flows from the side of the Rock. Through the incomparable gift of grace, we have stand in the presence of the One who is a temple that was destroyed and rebuilt in three days — the temple of which we are invited to become part, living stones built into a spiritual house, the cornerstone of which is the Rock of Ages, the Rock of Salvation.
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This is our call: to be living stones built into a spiritual house. But we often feel, in moments of distress and depression, that we are still just dust and clay. How can we be living stones, as he is?
Through the movement of water, bits of earth and clay are broken off and washed down to very deep places. Pressed with the weight of the earth, these bits and pieces are transformed into rock, and sometimes into gemstone. In time, further washing of water uncovers the rock and exposes it to the light of day. This is death and rebirth, the death and rebirth that comes to us in Baptism by water and the Holy Spirit. Baptism breaks us up and washes us down to the very depths, in unity with Christ’s death. The heat and pressure of the Holy Spirit continue to form and shape us, metamorphing us into the image and likeness of Christ, the living Rock. In moments of grief, frustration or depression, we can remember that throughout our lives God is working to mold us, to break us, to form and reshape us.
For God does not just create us — God recreates us, redeems us and makes us new — no longer dust but living stones.
The dust that is buried becomes the rock that emerges, or the gems that are quarried and mined. The stone and gems are brought forth from darkness into the marvelous light. The stones — living stones, all of us, you and me and all the saints of ages past and yet to come — are carved and polished and set in precious metal. A new temple, a New Jerusalem, is built, with firm foundations, a house with many mansions, with each of us in our place — a place appointed us from before the foundation of the world — with Christ the head and cornerstone, standing bright and clear in the eternal light of a never-ending Eastertide. Alleluia, the Lord is risen. The Lord is risen indeed, Alleluia!+