Sermon for Sunday, May 18th, 2014 || Easter 5, Year A || Acts 7: 55-60; Psalm 31: 1-5, 15-16; 1 Peter 2: 2-10; John 14: 1-14||
The Rev. Margot D. Critchfield
“Come to him, a living stone…chosen and precious in God’s sight, and like living stones, let yourselves be built into a spiritual house…For it stands in scripture: “See, I am laying…a cornerstone chosen and precious; and whoever believes in him will not be put to shame.”
In his wonderful book about the history of our beloved St. Stephen’s, parishioner David Pottenger writes about a rather high-profile controversy surrounding the laying of our cornerstone in December of 1899. According to David,
“On January 13th, the Boston Journal reported, under banner headline:
‘EPISCOPALIANS IN DISPUTE.’
Yes, I know, some things never change. But in this case, it would seem the controversy “du jour” whirled around the rector’s decision to include in the ceremony—both as a guest speaker and as the author of a sermon included in a time capsule laid inside the cornerstone — the minister of the Unitarian Church. Well! As the Journal reported,
“…Rev. WB Frisby, Rev. Edward Osborne, Rev. CT Whittemore, and twenty-three other
‘loyal sons of the church’ addressed a letter to the Bishop, prefacing it with an expression
of grief at learning of the incident, and that it was done with his permission.”
David’s essay explains that while the Bishop claimed he was unaware that the gentleman was a Unitarian minister, he really didn’t see how it mattered. ‘Nuff said.
But, Milo Gates –the offending rector of St Stephen’s–came out fighting. Blasting those he referred to as his “extreme high church friends” Gates said that, “The ceremony of the laying of a stone is not ecclesiastic. There is no prayer book service for it…If they wish to fight they can have a fight. If they think they have a little country clergyman to contend with and browbeat, they are mistaken.”
Ah, yes. Church life—it does have it’s ups and down. But what a telling story this is. Because in reference to an event explicitly called the laying of the cornerstone –and not the cornerstone of just of any building but of a church for heaven’s sake—even a group of self-identified ‘loyal sons of the church” managed to completely forget that Christ is its cornerstone, not them. And rather than focus on the joy and opportunity this occasion offered for the growth of God’s kingdom in Cohasset, they chose to be self-righteous and small-minded. And frankly, the Rev. Gates’ doesn’t come out looking much better; I doubt his defensive posturing with holier-than-thou huffing and puffing did much to build up the body of Christ either!
It’s so easy to forget the obvious: The cornerstone on which the church is built is Christ—not the piece of rock out front with a box full of historic momentos in it. And we are the living stones that comprise the rest of the church—each as different from the other as the actual stones that comprise the structure called St. Stephen’s. But we are the church—not this awesome building in which we worship, as sacred and as holy as it is. We are the church, or– as the old children’s rhyme reminds us, “You can have a church without any steeple. But you can’t have a church without any people.”
And as the church, Peter writes in our lesson this morning, as living stones and followers of Jesus, we are to “let ourselves be built into a spiritual house.” We are to be a new sort of gathering, a gathering of God’s people who come together in an intentional way to form a special sort of community—a community that defines itself very differently from other communities, and that acts very differently than other communities because of our belief in the Resurrected Christ.
Peter describes this different way of life of ours as one of “offering spiritual sacrifices acceptable through Jesus Christ.” Now, no one knows exactly what that means, and Peter doesn’t tell us. But I’m casting my vote with Anglican priest Bryan Findlayson, who hears in those words of Peter the echo of a phrase from Paul. In Paul’s letter to the Galatians he writes about “faith expressing itself through love.”
Our corporate life together, as the living stones who comprise God’s church and whose cornerstone is Jesus Christ, is to be a life of “faith expressing itself through love.” All that we do here as St. Stephen’s Church, both in caring for our own members and in caring for those in the wider world, is a demonstration of “faith expressing itself through love.” Our worship together is “faith expressing itself through love.” The priority we place on our children as the next generation of Christ followers is “faith expressing itself through love.” Hanging in there with each other even when we disagree on one thing or another is “faith expressing itself through love.” Giving generously of ourselves to each other and to this church is “faith expressing itself though love.” All of these are just some of the amazing ways we offer “spiritual sacrifices acceptable through Jesus Christ.”
We do this, Peter says, because all of us, together, are “a holy priesthood,” what our prayer book calls the “priesthood of all believers.” Whether lay or ordained, we are God’s people. We are followers of the Resurrected Christ, baptized and reborn in him, and as such our vocation is to love as He loves. Our vocation is to be agents and advocates of healing and reconciliation—whether it be physical, spiritual political or economic. Our vocation, in Peter’s words, is to “proclaim the mighty acts of him who called us out of darkness, into his marvelous light.” Proclaim them, and do them!
This is who we are and who we are called to be as the living stones that comprise His church.
Thankfully, mercifully, we are not alone. The living Christ has promised to be with us, even to the end of the age. Thankfully, mercifully, we needn’t figure it all out ourselves. We have the pure milk of his Word, and guided by it and nourished by it we will stay true to our cornerstone. And thankfully, mercifully, we are a work in progress—a community of living stones, studying scripture, maturing in our faith, witnessing to his grace, growing as his church—stronger, deeper, and with an ever-wider embrace to welcome all. Indeed we have tasted, and the Lord is good!
You know, ever since Easter Sunday our gospel lessons have assured us that the risen Christ is always at least one step ahead of us. He always goes ahead of us into the future we can’t yet see. He goes before us to Galilee, walks ahead of us on the road to Emmaus, leads the way for us as the Good Shepherd, goes to prepare a place for us in his Father’s house.
So as we live into God’s future for us, may our hearts not be fearful or troubled. Christ is our sure and strong foundation…our pure, spiritual milk…the way, and the truth, and the life, and we will continue to blessed as long as we build our life together at St. Stephen’s on him, God’s Cornerstone, and on his word. Amen.