Monday, November 19, 2007

Welcome to the Living Stone

Believe it or not, I want to start this sermon rejoicing over windows, newly installed this week in our sacristy and adjacent bathroom. They open and close! In all our recent building work, here is our first taste of what it’s like to see something new. With this, the exterior work of our Preservation Project has been completed! Yes, hooray! That represents 90% of the whole project—eventually, the caboose will be structural repairs in our lower room, a step we won’t take until we’re confident how we want to use that room—but we all agree that 90% is time to celebrate, and next Sunday that’s what we propose to do.

That will be a holiday weekend, and because it will find some of you away we’re warming up our celebration skills so as to include you today.

But does our Gospel help us? “One day people were… talking about the Temple, remarking how beautiful it was, the splendor of its stonework and memorial gifts. Jesus said, ‘All this you’re admiring so much—the time is coming when every stone in that building will end up in a heap of rubble.’”

We’ve already lived with our heaps of rubble during the past year when most of the stones in this building have been touched by the skilled hands of master masons, some of those stones repointed, some of them realigned, some of them replaced. We don’t need to picture them reduced to a pile of rubble today, thanks anyway. We want to picture them standing tall and secure to give God a place of praise and to give countless people a place of encounter with God in Word and prayer, in sacrament and friendship, in the shared work and play of community, in the giving and receiving of support and care.

So I’ll tell you what we did at Worship Outside the Box this morning. Instead of reading today’s Gospel, we heard Stefanie read a passage from the First Letter of Peter. It goes like this: “Welcome to the living Stone, the source of life. The workmen took one look and threw it out; God set it in the place of honor. Present yourselves as building stones for the construction of a sanctuary vibrant with life, in which you’ll serve as holy priests… God’s instruments to do God’s work and speak out for God, to tell others of the night-and-day difference God makes for you.”

Welcome to the living Stone. Isn’t that something, that the apostle who wrote this letter found stones such a good image to represent the life and work of Jesus, and to represent the purpose of living in Christ?

So I thought it might be good to give ourselves two special images of stones that might be said to have some living nature. They’re printed on an insert to your leaflet today. Perhaps you’ve already wondered over them, “Why are they in my hands today?”

One is the famous Cristo Redentor (Christ the Redeemer) in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Standing 130 feet tall (33 meters, one for each year of his life), weighing 700 tons, it’s located at the peak of Corcovado Mountain overlooking the city. Made of soapstone from Sweden, it took from 1926 to 1931 to build. This Christ of the open arms was named one of the New Seven Wonders of the World this summer.

The other image I’ve chosen is our own little cornerstone. Do you know where it is? According to our parish history, at 4:00 p.m. on a September day in 1895, church members, townspeople, and “boys from the College” gathered at the southwest corner of the rising church foundation, and sang some hymns. I wonder which ones they sang? “How Firm a Foundation”? “A Mighty Fortress”? “Christ is Made the Sure Foundation”? “Rock of Ages, Cleft for Me”?

The pioneer of St. John’s, The Rev. Dr. William Tatlock, was the guest of honor. As a Williams student, he had started a student fellowhip in 1853. A Brit, he had been missing worship with the Book of Common Prayer, so he took matters into his own hands and, on Christmas Day 1853, led Morning Prayer in the front parlor of Mrs. Starkweather’s home on North Street, the first Episcopal service ever held in this town. In 1855, he helped found St. John’s Church in North Adams.

Now move ahead—or back—to 1895, and Tatlock was then Rector of St. John’s Church in Stamford, Connecticut. (Were all Episcopal churches in the waning years of the nineteenth century named for St. John?) Having taken the train to Williamstown for the laying of this cornerstone, he spread the cement, the stone was lowered into place, and I’ll bet prayers were said and more than a few words, as well.

What could be said to have made this a living stone is described by our founding Rector, The Rev. Dr. Theodore Sedgwick. “In that stone we placed many things, a Bible, a prayerbook and a hymnal; newspapers of the day, money coins of that date, a list of the contributors and officers of the church. The box, I remember, was very full when it was sealed with solder.”

Placing a time capsule in a cornerstone is still a custom meant to say: A certain group of people, we who chose those objects, placed them here, we whose names you’ll find here; we set this place in motion. We invested ourselves in the building of what you now renew for generations yet to come.

In this great chain of receiving and giving, receiving and giving, the pronoun “we” has as wide an embrace as the open arms of Cristo Redentor.

When Dr. Sedgwick left St. John’s in 1900, he went to become Rector of (you guessed it) St. John the Evangelist Church in St. Paul, Minnesota, a large parish that also was building a church. Wasn’t he the lucky duck? In 1902, that cornerstone was laid. It had been purchased for $200 raised by the 400 children in that church’s Sunday School and other children’s programs with which Sedgwick had become involved in St. Paul. (Those were days when many families were too poor to send their children even to public schools, and churches took measures to provide basic education.) That was a large sum in what was then a poor community—and the children led the way.

A cornerstone represents sacrifice. Civilization has come far in some respects. In some ancient cultures, the foundation of a new temple could not be laid without the ceremonial sacrifice of a human life. It took blood to create a living stone, they thought.

Wait a minute. Don’t we believe that, too? That “living stone” in I Peter is the crucified Christ whose life-blood was poured out for us all. It’s those three little words “for us all” that set the blood of Cristo Redentor apart from all blood-thirsty religion, past and present. His self-offering of his own life ends all justification of violence; many Christians would say that includes attempts to justify war. Ended are all claims that God requires the spilling of blood.

As the Book of Common Prayer says it, elegantly and clearly, “All glory be to thee, Almighty God, our heavenly Father, for that thou, of thy tender mercy, didst give thine only Son Jesus Christ to suffer death upon the cross for our redemption;” --Cristo Redentor—“who made there, by his one oblation of himself once offered, a full, perfect, and sufficient sacrifice, oblation, and satisfaction, for the sins of the whole world…”

But this gift has to be received, has to be taken in to fill the hollow of our cornerstone.

The Christian doctrine of redemption may trouble us for what it says about God, that a parent’s love of a child could somehow include allowing, even willing, the death of that child in order to fulfil the expectations of the parent. Many a former Christian has walked away from doctrine as dense as this. Many an honest struggling Christian trips over doctrine as demanding as this.

No accident that in I Peter the apostle says that this living stone, rejected by some, while God chooses it to become the cornerstone, for many becomes a skandalon, the Greek word for a stumbling block.

But isn’t the unjust death of Cristo Redentor the event in which God says “Enough!” to the old ways, the old blood lusts and blood-lettings? Isn’t it there on the trash heap of Calvary that God begins what the prophet Isaiah heard promised, the creation of new heavens and a new earth? Even as Jesus’s blood drops into the dust of the old earth, a new age is opened just as wide as those arms above Rio.

“Come to me, all whose labors in this unjust world wear you down, and I will give you rest. I will build you up. Take up your ability to trust me, and you will find courage to end the cycle of hurting and destroying that has no place in a world being made new.”

This Good News, passionate for justice, compassionate towards all, committed to truth, determined for peace, this Good News of the open-armed Christ needs sanctuaries made with hands only to hold Christ’s people long enough, often enough, deeply enough to form in them living sanctuaries built of hope and love and faith.

Here, hallowed long by the spiritual encounters of so many, the stones themselves could sing, if we were to forget how. They’ve called us to invest ourselves, many of us sacrificially, to free this house of prayer to stand secure and open, wide open, for another century.

We have begun our thanksgiving for the grace by which we’ve accomplished an enormous task. We have learned to open our arms wide to welcome the challenge that was truly ours. We understand those hard words we heard our Lord say in Luke, that “As for these things that we see, the days will come when not one stone will be left upon another; all will be thrown down.” We do not need to be convinced about that. Stones fall. Temples decay. Even buildings we take for granted as “there forever” will not be.

And we know why we’ve done the work we’ve been given to do. As people of sacrament, we know that things we touch, when touched by faith and hope and love, become outward and visible signs, means by which inner and spiritual grace is given and received. The story of our restoring this building is just as truly the story of God restoring us, God building in us a sanctuary, building of us a people open to the world.