Costly Cornerstone, by Pastor Fred
On Wednesday, President Barack Obama appeared at the foot of the Tappan Zee Bridge outside of New York City to call on Congress to pass a $302 billion transportation bill that could support hundreds of thousands of jobs while repairing the nation's roads and bridges. While the Tappan Zee Bridge is safe, thanks to rigorous inspection and maintenance, the structural needs of the bridge are what need to be addressed. Unlike other major bridges in metro New York, the Tappan Zee was designed to last only 50 years, and carry about 40,000 vehicles per day. Now, 60 years later, it averages almost 140,000 a day!
The structural needs of a bridge can only be addressed by laying a new cornerstone, for a whole new bridge. Bridges and roads all across the country are aging – and, at this time for report cards, graduation time, the report card just out from The American Society of Civil Engineers for our nations’ infrastructure is a D+! The report estimates that the U.S. needs to invest $3.6 trillion in the next 6 years (by 2020), just to get our nation’s infrastructure up to a B grade.
The Tappan Zee Bridge may be one of the biggest projects in the country, but everyone knows, it’s the same story from one city to another – one road, one bridge, one water tower, one sewer system – one cornerstone, at a time. What are we willing to invest? Can we afford the price-tag?
Laying strong cornerstones is essential to a safe and well running infrastructure. The I-35 bridge collapse in Minneapolis in 2007 is a tragic memorial of the problem. A flaw in the design holding the beams together under the roadway was never discovered in its 40 year history, until afterward. And hundreds more were made the same way, with the same defective building blocks.
In our 2nd Reading today, Peter says that Jesus is “the stone that the builders rejected,” but, “has become the very head of the corner,” our cornerstone. Our lives would collapse, if it wasn’t for this rejected stone. Jesus builds a new house, a new structure, and he asks us to make an investment in this renewed infrastructure for the good of, not only ourselves, individually, but for the good of a new world, as a shared project.
Can we reform our spiritual homes on this new design, this shared project? We wouldn’t build individual bridges to cross the same river! We build one common bridge for all to travel. And the new building project is God’s design, because, as Peter says, we are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people. Just as God found Abraham and Sarah, and later selects the rejected Moses and Miriam, God first chooses us. Jesus, the anointed one of God, is “a living stone,” says Peter, so we too, are called to be “living stones,” and “let ourselves be built into a spiritual house.”
But what is this spiritual house, this shared project that we have been called to work on together? If we have been called to invest in it, what will it cost? And, can we afford it?
St. Stephen, martyr, paid the ultimate price for being part of the spiritual project of the early church. It was a story that, not coincidentally, paralleled the death and resurrection of Jesus on the cross. Stephen was a deacon at Holy Communion in the early church, he serves the bread and wine at their common meal, but he’s also a very gifted preacher, unafraid to speak truth to power. But, it’s the crowds that stoned him that draw my attention and fascinate me! They act just like children wanting to tune out the truth, or whatever they don’t want to acknowledge. We adults sometimes do it in jest – we cover [our] ears, and make a loud humming noise! Then, says Peter, the mob “all rushed together against him.” And Stephen, again, just like Jesus who forgave those who crucified him, kneels down and cries out, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.”
This rather horrible story, thank goodness, is not usually how we have to stand up for our faith, 21 centuries later. The truth revealed in the cross, and in the stoning of Stephen, and its unique power for compassion, justice and peace, is one amazing gift of the new spiritual house, Jesus the Son, offers. The false notion that, expelling the one can save the many, which Jesus and Stephen unveiled to the world by their courage, is exposed as only a temporary solution to our problems of holding together our house, and our society, because we will have to do it again – have to commit similar ‘sacred violence’ to right our wrongs, over and over again. Like children covering their ears and humming loudly, it only masks the origins of our own sin and dysfunction. What we reject, God reveals, and lifts up, as holy. The rejected stone has become the cornerstone, of our new and renewed life. Once we were not a people, but now we are God’s people, as Peter says!
As early as St. Paul, this truth began to shine through. Saul, his name originally, was actually there at the stoning of Stephen, and probably led the attack, which is the meaning of the mob laying their coats at his feet. But this event completely changed and transformed Saul’s life. Soon, Saul would be visited personally by the spirit of Jesus, and he would become Paul, one of the greatest defenders and followers of Jesus, and writer of the most books of the New Testament.
The “cost of discipleship,” in the words of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the cost of following Jesus, is never cheap. We are called to a high calling, beginning with our baptismal renewal, and, as Peter says, are renamed, “a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people, in order that you may proclaim the mighty acts of [the One] who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light.”
Peter spoke these words to the believers of Asia Minor, a forgotten, less-than, persecuted people, of little social standing. You’d think they might have been more appropriate for the Roman or Corinthian churches, but Peter knew they were equally suited to the least of these, of all times. The cost of our discipleship today, is costly in its own ways, for all who speak truth to power, for all who follow through on their call to be a holy and royal caste of faith-filled believers. We may not look or feel the part, most days, but together, we are living into the promise and realm of God that has been revealed to us, into a love that conquers death. We are part of a deeper truth, a reality that is still being born and is growing among us. “Like newborn infants,” Peter said, “long for the pure, spiritual milk, so that by it you may grow into salvation.”
It is not just words, this deeper truth, this royal priesthood and holy nation. But by our encounter with the cross, and the stoning, which touches some event in our own lives, we are transformed, and made ready for God’s radical acceptance of us, and we are changed forever. On that cornerstone, we build our new spiritual home.
The stones that we once reflexively, without thinking, so easily picked up – the stones that we used as we closed our ears humming, trying to wipe away the problem in front of us, that we thought would make all things right – even if it cost someone else – this is the stone that now transforms us. Our eyes, and our ears, are opened. Jesus has turned us around. The very ones society says to reject and step-on, to get ahead, are the building blocks to a full and grace-filled life.
What is the price we are willing to pay, for our lives of faith? What is the cost of our discipleship, as followers of the one who has become the cornerstone of our society and world?
“Once we were not a people, but now we are God’s people,” said Peter. That’s a bit of good news, that’s hard to put a price tag on!