Sunday, May 22, 2011

SERMON: Jesus the Cornerstone

Date: May 22, 2010
Text: 1 Peter 2:2-10

When I was young, my uncle introduced me to quartz crystal. In our backyard, he pointed out some rocks, took us over to them, and showed us the smoky translucent crystals hidden within. He said that they had probably been spit out of a volcano some million or two years ago, something quite unbelievable in flat Houston, TX. It opened a whole new world to me, and soon I was taking my dad’s sledgehammer and breaking rocks all over our yard. Some were small; others were quite large. Of the crystals discovered, I kept a collection. Over the course of a summer, what once were just rocks suddenly became things of beauty and discovery.


Our second lesson is taken from St. Peter’s first letter. He writes to a group of people who made that same type of discovery. Peter says that their life before was one of darkness, aloneness, and the absence of God’s mercy. But now, because of their discovery, something has changed. Though they were once dwelling in darkness, they have come into God’s marvelous light. Though they were once alone, they now have a people they can call their own. Though they were once outside of God’s mercy, they now have experienced it firsthand.

And here’s where rocks enter the picture: Peter admonishes his hearers to draw near to what he calls the ‘living stone,’ a stone that was chosen by God and precious, intended to be used as the cornerstone of God’s new Temple on earth. The believers themselves will become stones in this building. But first Peter tells them a story, a story about this chosen and precious living stone.

When God put the cornerstone down, there were builders in Zion, hired by God to build his Temple. They were intimately familiar with all of God’s ways and works; God had been working with them for a long time. They knew his designs. When God found the cornerstone to start his new building, he gave it to the builders he trusted.

But instead of proving trustworthy, they did the unthinkable. They rejected this living stone, the cornerstone. It was as if they had said, “We know what the building is supposed to look like, and this doesn’t fit in with how we see it.” They set it aside and began to build on their own.

But that cornerstone, chosen and precious of God, could not be used for anything other than its purpose. They thought it would work better as part of the wall, but they couldn’t budge it, couldn’t make it fit into place. They thought they might break it and divide its pieces among them for various projects, but the stone just rang as their chisels broke against it. And when they tried to ignore the stone, they found it always in their way. They stumbled over it. They fell. They could not finish their work because the cornerstone had become a rock of stumbling. In other words, they could not finish because they would not start where God wanted them to start. The builders had rejected the cornerstone.


Tobias Fünke
It would be hard for us to blame them. We live in a society here in North America where we are constantly advised to build our lives on nothing save our desires, our passions, and our dreams. We, the builders of our lives, are told that we need no touchstones, no cornerstones. All we need is to be true to who we really are. We don’t want to build our lives on anything but ourselves.

A good example of this comes from the odd and off-color TV comedy Arrested Development. All of the characters in the show are baseless. They are wealthy and so are not constrained by anything. They can do whatever they want; they can follow any dream. One of the characters is named Tobias Fünke.

Tobias is tall and mostly bald. Gangly. Strange and a little ugly. He is a difficult character to watch because he has, well, no life. He began his professional career as a successful psychological analyst and therapist, helping people to look deep inside themselves to discover the root of their problems. But then, he looked deep inside himself. There he discovered that he was an Actor, with a capital “A.” This revelation turned his world upside down. He quit his job and started pursuing roles anywhere that he could, living off his wife’s family’s wealth as he pursued his dream. The problem? Arrested Development takes delight in showing its audience, again and again, how irredeemably bad an actor Tobias actually is. The darkly funny part of the whole thing is Tobias’ obliviousness. He thinks he has talent, and whenever he comes face-to-face with his weakness, he refuses to see it. He shuts it out. He tries to build his house around a dream instead of the solid rock of his professional training or his family or the reality of his own strengths and weaknesses.

Am I right to think that you and I are often tempted to live this way? I think so. We find ourselves refusing to build our houses around the solid things of our lives. Instead, we build them around our egos, our dreams, our passions. We learn to shield ourselves from criticism. We learn to pretend that the world is like we want it to be instead of the way it really is. Now, we might try to take reality and fit it into a wall we’re building or to break it up for other parts of our house, but we can’t. Reality sits there ready to be built upon. But as we ignore it, we find ourselves tripping over it, falling, breaking. We find ourselves building on the sand until one day everything we build comes tumbling down.


But the good news that Peter proclaims to his hearers is this: in the midst of a world in which God’s builders had started building their houses on sand, God set a stone in Zion, and this stone was Jesus Christ.

Jesus, God’s own Son, was chosen and precious in God’s sight. God set Jesus in Zion as a cornerstone. He was the one upon which God’s Kingdom would be built. He was the one that if people would only believe in him, they would never be put to shame. But, as we know, the builders rejected the cornerstone and tried to build on their own. To them, Jesus became a ‘stone that makes them stumble, and a rock that makes them fall.’ Their rejection saw Jesus hung upon a cross.

But, God’s love for Jesus, his precious cornerstone, meant that God would not let his chosen one see decay; the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ raised him from the dead. The Living Stone still stands, and it is upon this stone that Peter calls his hearers to be built. “Let yourselves be built into a spiritual house,” he instructs, “to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.” Later, he adds, “you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people, in order that you may proclaim the mighty acts of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light.”

For the people who first heard this letter read in their churches, they received a great gift. Even though they were not Jewish, even though they did not inherit the promises of God by virtue of their birth, they have received the promises through Jesus Christ. While they once dwelt in darkness, they have come into the marvelous light of God’s love. Though they were once not a people, now they are God’s people. Though they had once not received God’s mercy, now they have. They have a new start, a new beginning. They have the opportunity to let themselves be built up into God’s new Temple on earth, the Church. [They can build their lives on the solid rock of Jesus Christ, God’s chosen and precious cornerstone.]


Every week, close to the end of our service, immediately after the post-Communion prayer and before the Blessing, we say in unison a small passage from Scripture: “Glory to God, whose power, working in us, can do infinitely more than we can ask or imagine. Glory to God from generation to generation, in the Church and in Christ Jesus, for ever and ever. Amen” (BAS, 214).

“Infinitely more than we can ask or imagine.” We were meant to live for so much more than what our passions or our dreams or our desires can give us. We can live our lives like Tobias Fünke, constantly grasping after a baseless dream, or we can let ourselves be built on the rock of reality, a rock that St. Peter says is no one other than Jesus Christ himself. Now this treads very close to a central mystery of our faith that is expressed beautifully in the collects for Morning Prayer: “O God, who art the author of peace and lover of concord, in knowledge of whom standing our eternal life, whose service is perfect freedom…” (BCP, 11). For Christians, the limitation of obedience (and obedience is nothing more than being conformed to the reality of Jesus Christ) is not ultimately a restriction but a freedom. Disobedience, or building on the shifting sand of our own desires or passions, is slavery. It is slavery to a limited humanity. Obedience, on the other hand, is openness to God’s “infinitely more than we can ask or imagine.”

What is this infinitely more that human beings are called to? Human beings are called to stand at the boundary-line of heaven and earth, to be, as St. Peter calls us, God’s holy and royal priests, priests that offer spiritual sacrifices that God is delighted to accept. As Christ’s royal priests, we represent the world to God, offering God the things of the earth in our prayers. As Christ’s royal priests, we represent God to the world, as we read the Scripture, listen to the Word preached, and share our faith with others. In all cases, in our lives we offer spiritual sacrifices to God, sacrifices of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, gentleness, faithfulness, and self control.

And all of this happens right here at St. Matthew’s. Being built up into God’s spiritual house, learning to be royal priests, this is the work of the Christian life. It is the reason we gather for worship. It is the reason we join together to serve our community. It is the reason we gather in small groups to learn how to offer the world to God in prayer and offer God to the world in witness. And so I commend our small groups to you again (there’s an announcement in the back of your bulletin). These are lively training grounds for the royal priesthood, where we learn to live our lives together, being built on the cornerstone that is Jesus Christ himself.

As we live quiet and peaceable lives together, praying for all and bearing witness to Christ’s love, we are built up together into God’s new Temple on earth. In the quiet, in the peaceable, in our faithful prayer and witness, built upon the solid cornerstone of Jesus Christ, God’s power, working in us, will do infinitely more than we can ask or imagine. Through us, our worship, and our service, God will be glorified from generation to generation, in the Church and in Christ Jesus, the chosen, precious, and everliving cornerstone, for ever and ever. Amen.

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