Thursday, May 22, 2014

Living Stones, a Bulwark against Casino Gambling

Scripture for the 5th Sunday of Easter includes Acts 7:55-60; I Peter 2:2-10; John 14:1-14

I love the image the apostle Peter uses in his letter: living stones. We at St. John’s have a vested interest in that image, thanks to the decision by our forebears in the 1890’s, to build a church, not a wood frame wood-clad church like many in New England, not of brick (like the nearby Congregational Church was in those days), not of well-behaved quarried stone like our neighboring Episcopal church in North Adams, but of native field stone, each one struck by the blade of a plow as Stone Hill was cleared for farming. I like to think of the delicious inconsistency that each stone in this house of prayer was cursed by a farmer before it got to us. Now, that’s redemption! Reclaimed stones from the reject pile make a place for the perpetual renewal of reconciling love. It’s an image just made for preaching.

Is it a coincidence that in the readings we have from that first-century apostolic world there are killing stones as well as living stones? St. Stephen had so much apostolic zeal that he lacked a basic instinct for self-preservation. He was all about advancing the Kingdom of God in Jesus Christ, and that threatened some of his neighbors enough that they buried that project (and Stephen) under a pile of stones. Truly, each of those stones carried a curse. Rather like, in our own day, stones thrown at a building site for a new mosque, with the cry, “Not in this neighborhood!” Or the stones that shattered thousands of windows of Jewish shops and homes on Kristallnacht.

St. Peter’s image of Jesus as a living stone came to him by way of the Hebrew Bible, quoted three times in this one passage, one verse from Psalm 118 and two verses from the book of the prophet Isaiah, where the coming of a Messiah is being longed-for. You might be surprised how often those two books (Psalms and Isaiah) are quoted throughout the New Testament, as portions of the Hebrew Bible provide the infrastructure, the imagery, the vocabulary for the Christian scriptures.

But even without that religious pedigree, stone is an effective metaphor. Ancient, strong, useful, instrumental as tools and material for building, blades for cutting, flint for igniting fire, and beautiful to the eye. We have stone as an archive of evolution, a result of vast processes and pressures that have formed it; yet the stone we have is being reformed by vast processes like crushing tides that reduce stones to sand, and pressures like the frost that keeps raising and heaving buried strata—not to mention pressures of civilization, blasting its way through ledges, fracking its way through whole regions of shale. Stone is a rich and powerful symbol of human life on planet Earth.

And where stone has special traction in the New Testament, not always self-evident to later generations, is that about the year 70 in the common era, the imperial Roman army completed its devastating obliteration of Jerusalem by demolishing the great stone temple, leaving no stone unturned in their campaign to eradicate rebellion, leaving, as Jesus is remembered to have foretold, not one stone standing on the holy mount.

Losing that central temple drove Jews out of the city by the thousands, into a diaspora that circled the Mediterranean Basin. The fall of Jerusalem moved Judaism into the towns and villages where synagogues gained new importance, but even more so into the homes of Jews the world over, making of Judaism a religion observed in the home, at the table. Since the Jesus movement had risen within Judaism, the devastation of the temple mount did also to Christianity, for Christianity, what it did with the Jews: relocate a virtual temple within the human breast, within the home and at the table, and within the local community.

You might say that history had set the stage for the necessity of living stones, people embodying the vision of the Kingdom of God as Jesus taught it, people animated by his Spirit, people committed to fellowship with him and with one another, people hungering to feed the hungry, people emptying their closet of that second cloak to clothe whoever needs it, people recognizing the call to proclaim in the marketplace the urgent demands of justice and mercy.

Where is this sermon going? The need for living stones is evident on a frontier of social justice today, one that is closer to us than we might think.

Our Diocese is renewing its push to gain signatures on a petition to put casino gambling on the November ballot as a referendum question, allowing the voters to decide whether to confirm or to contest our state legislature’s permitting casino gambling. Many of you signed the petition the first time around, so don’t sign it again—but I’m hoping (and Bishop Fisher is hoping) that you’ll consider taking today a blank petition form and collect signatures of MA-registered voters in whatever circles you’re comfortable doing it, perhaps a book group, a bridge club, a family gathering. This effort will ensure that the required number of signatures goes over the top, and happens during these weeks in which the State Supreme Court is considering the constitutionality of placing casino repeal on the ballot. At the end of this service, you’ll find me standing at the table where the petitions are available, ready to offer you a minute or two of coaching in the fine art of collecting signatures.

“Like living stones, let yourselves be built into a spiritual house,” a temple with doors and windows fully open to the world where new jobs are needed, and we must do better than casinos can to meet that need. Casinos suck the local economy dry. They foster addictive gambling. They knock the stuffings out of the real estate market, and strain a community’s capacity to enforce the law and maintain public safety.

Is this really our business? Here we are in the bucolic Berkshires, where no one plans to build a casino. Isn’t it for Springfield to decide how to put its own house in order? I found that argument compelling for a while. But the spiritual house we occupy is the Diocese of Western MA. Like our Father’s house, this one has many dwelling places. Springfield is one of them, and is our see city, and the presence of our Bishop and Cathedral there places us there too.

It will not be enough to oppose the billion-dollar casino that MGM wants to build there. If it is the city’s desperation that propels them into the arms of MGM, the many other communities of Western MA, and of the Commonwealth as a whole, must learn to think and care and act as one, to build support, living support, a cornerstone of hope with strength that is felt where it is most needed.