June 21, 2014

The Stone and the Mortar


Text: 1 Peter 2:9: “But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation God’s own people, in order that you may proclaim...”

Out in the middle of massachusetts is a part of the world ambitiously known as the Pioneer Valley. For a long time I thought it had been given that name because it was the first place settled in the great westward movement that eventually spanned the continent, but I have since learned that the pioneers for whom the valley was named actually arrived there from the south, by coming up the Connecticut River. And the “valley” in the Pioneer Valley is of course the valley of the great river, the Connecticut.

Wherever they came from, those first pioneers were nothing if not optimistic people. They settled where they did, in Springfield and Northampton and Agawam and Deerfield, because the land itself was in the plateau of a great river, and seemed promising for agriculture. But of course what they found when they put their plows in the field was, well, rocks—hundreds and thousands and millions of rocks.

You might choose to be pretty disappointed by the constant sound of rock scraping against the plow blade, or by the immense effort that it took to pull each one of those rocks up out of the ground and move it out of the way. Instead, those settlers chose to do something they had surely never seen done in England; they piled the rocks along great long lines, dividing field from field and property from property with fences made of stones.

I’m sure you’ve seen these as you drive out in the country. The dry stone fences still stand, hundreds of years after they were first built—the single-width ones setting off field from pasture, and the double-width ones setting apart plot from plot. In many places they are long since grown over and collapsed, but they are still there, a testament to the ability of determined people to make use even out of obstacles.

You may know that they’re called dry stone fences because they aren’t held together by cement or mortar, only by gravity. Of course, they managed to get in a lot of practice putting these fences together, and eventually a series of best practices emerged; and a truly practiced fence builder would know just how to assemble the infinitely varied shapes of the stones together like a puzzle so that they would hold together without the need of anything more than their own weight.

Today’s readings make me think of those stone fences, because there are plenty of images of stones in the texts we’ve heard. They are stones both of hate and of vindication, stones used to kill and stones used to build. In Psalm 31 we get one of the many instances of how the bible describes God as a rock, a thing that is solid, elemental, unbreakable, certain. And then all throughout the reading from Peter’s epistle we get a sort of all-time Rolling Stone greatest hits—the cornerstone of the temple in Zion, in Jerusalem; the stone the builders rejected; the stone of truth that makes the wayward stumble.

These lines from scripture have to feel a little familiar, a little favored here, in this place that is so distinctively a little stone church. The stones of this place give us a kind of visual and tactile reminder of the permanence with which our ancestors associated God and granite. I am sure that had they chosen to build this place out of brick or wood, the people who put this church here could have built a much, much larger space. They chose permanence over grandeur, substance over size.

But this place is not a dry stone fence. And that is probably a good thing. Because if you go out into those fields west of here, you will see that in many places the ravages of time, the harshness of the elements, or simply the neglect of the decades have often brought the ruin of those fences. With nothing to hold them together, eventually the stones tumble away from each other.

Peter says that we are called to be living stones in the new temple. The stones of this building aren’t just made of granite; they’re made of flesh and blood. We are not meant to simply inhabit the place. We’re meant to be building something here, something out of ourselves, something together. We are not meant to be consumers of church. We’re meant to be builders of the kingdom.

The difference between what those pioneers did and what we’re supposed to do is revealed for me when Peter leaves the metaphor of stones and starts talking to the baptismal community of the church in new terms. We are a royal priesthood. We are a holy nation. We are God’s own people.

It’s hard to know if we really believe that in our bones. We don’t feel particularly holy. We don’t feel especially royal. And we are too aware of the damage done by an older style of Christian triumphalism to be too eager to make the claim that we are chosen in any way and for any purpose. We feel rather more accidental, or maybe even apologetic. We are just here because of our own needs. We don’t dare imagine that we are required, or even encouraged, to expect others to be interested in what we do.

That would make us just stones. Royal priests, holy citizens, God’s own children—those are just categories. They’re great categories, honorable distinctions—but if that is all we are, we’re just stones. Gems, maybe, but stones nonetheless.

What makes them—what makes us-—living stones, what builds us into something, is what Peter writes next—which reminds us that we have not been given these distinctions merely for our own happiness or contentment. We’ve been given these things for a purpose-— “in order that you may proclaim.” That is our purpose.

What we are supposed to proclaim is what God has done for us. We can’t do that very well if we’re hazy on what that is, or don’t make space in our own hearts and our own schedules to reflect on what it means to have this sense of the possibility of the sacred somehow rooted deep within us. That is what it means to be brought from darkness into light. And that is what we are meant to proclaim; that through this faith we have had activated within us a greater sense, a grander sense, of the fullness, the value, the dignity, the worth of each human life, if only because God was willing not just to die for us but to live with us.

That purpose is the mortar with which we can build something out of these stones. It is the glue that holds us together as we reach as far as we can into the world and share with the world what we have found her by serving the world in God’s name. It is what makes us more than just a social club or a gathering of friends. We can never stop building so long as we have this news to share, this truth to reveal to the world around us; to bring them here to these stones so that they might be built into something together with us. Amen.