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 A Cornerstone for the Ages

Sermon - 10/2/11
Daniel E. H. Bryant
First Christian Church, Eugene, Oregon

Matthew 21:33-43

I want to take you back to March 10th of this year, when we discovered that we had this Cornerstone with a time-vault in it. We made a big announcement to the press that we were going to remove that Cornerstone in order to get to the time-vault. And so we had all of the press gathered there, and we brought in a stone-mason to help us free it up, and he was sawing away on it to get it loose, this big anticipation as we waited. We were chiseling away, hammering on it, doing everything we can to get it to budge. And of course it wouldn't budge. We waited, the press was waiting, and we couldn't get it out, so I made something up on-the-spot about how firm of a foundation we have :).

The next day, finally, through some more work, several of us working on it all day long, we finally got it out in order to get to that time capsule that I'll come to in just a moment. Our Centennial Committee decided that this would be the Sunday (Oct 2nd) on which we would put it back. Only the stonecutter who originally told us that he'd come and bring his tools and he would enlarge that space for the time-capsule, never returned our phone calls. I have finally found a stone-cutter who can do it, but it was too late to get it done for this Sunday, so we're going to postpone it and do it next Sunday.

So the stone that we couldn't get out when we wanted to, is the stone that we couldn't put back when we wanted to put it back :).

In any event, when I began to prepare for this Sunday (that I thought was Cornerstone Sunday), and I looked up the scripture that I had selected back in January (without knowing any of this, as I didn't know we even had a time capsule then), the lectionary passage from Matthew 21, the parable of the vineyard (in which the owner sends his son to collect the fruit and the tenants revolt and kill the son, an obvious reference to the crucifixion), but then Jesus concludes that story with this verse: "Have you never read in the scriptures the stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone?" :) "This was the Lord's doing, it is marvelous in our eyes". Right!

 ‘Listen to another parable. There was a landowner who planted a vineyard, put a fence around it, dug a wine press in it, and built a watch-tower. Then he leased it to tenants and went to another country. 34When the harvest time had come, he sent his slaves to the tenants to collect his produce. 35But the tenants seized his slaves and beat one, killed another, and stoned another. 36Again he sent other slaves, more than the first; and they treated them in the same way. 37Finally he sent his son to them, saying, “They will respect my son.” 38But when the tenants saw the son, they said to themselves, “This is the heir; come, let us kill him and get his inheritance.” 39So they seized him, threw him out of the vineyard, and killed him. 40Now when the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those tenants?’ 41They said to him, ‘He will put those wretches to a miserable death, and lease the vineyard to other tenants who will give him the produce at the harvest time.’

42 Jesus said to them, ‘Have you never read in the scriptures:

“The stone that the builders rejected
   has become the cornerstone;
this was the Lord’s doing,
   and it is amazing in our eyes”?

43Therefore I tell you, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people that produces the fruits of the kingdom.


I wish he had said, instead of 'rejected', the stone that "wouldn't cooperate", or something to that effect :).

Well, inside of that stone, we're going to place a new time-capsule that we've constructed, a little bigger than the original.

The 1911 time-capsule on the right, and the slightly larger 2011 time-capsule on the left.

We'll do that next Sunday (Oct 9th).

That brings up the second surprise that the time-vault had for us. So I'm a smart guy, I invited the press back to OPEN the time-capsule, and reveal what the congregation had left for us 100 years ago. So in the worship service, we take it out, the press is there and everything, we opened it up, and we found a Bible. That's good, that makes sense.

The Bible being removed from the 1911 time-capsule.

The only other item was 3 pages of church letterhead -- that are absolutely blank.

Evidently they used disappearing ink in those days, without knowing it :). I remember thinking at the time two things: first of all, do we really want to invite the press the next time we have an event? :) And secondly, to have nothing but the Bible in the cornerstone of the church, well, that'll preach, as they say. That'll preach.

As the motto of our movement, back in the 19th century, said: "We have no book but the Bible; no creed but Christ". And given that this is the 400th anniversary of the first King James Bible (one is on wonderful display at Northwest Christian University where you can see one of those Gutenberg Bibles) I find it interesting that this Bible, the one our leaders chose to put in that time-capsule is not a King James version (remember, this would have been on the 300th anniversary), but the American Standard Version. It's the most recent translation of the Bible in English they had at that time. That too, will preach -- to make the good news relevant, contemporary for this age, we have to continually update the word of God.

Well, since this was to be our Cornerstone Sunday, and given that this is the first Sunday in a hundred years that the cornerstone has not physically been on the property (because it is still with the stonecutter) maybe there's a sermon there too: the absent cornerstone of our faith that is still present with us in spirit. So let's go with that :).

What is that cornerstone? Like the empty tomb of Easter, we have nothing this morning but the vacant space where that stone was to remind us that he is arisen:

So the authors of the New Testament used this image of the cornerstone for the risen Christ, not only here in Matthew and in the parallel accounts we find in Mark and Luke (also the same story) but also in Acts. And then again in 1 Peter. They use the same quote that comes from Psalm 118: "The rejected stone has become the cornerstone".

I invite you to look at this in your Bibles, take a look in there. Look up Matthew 21, and verse 42, I want you to observe the footnote. Remember how I always tell you, pay attention to those footnotes. Well, this one you can actually ignore -- but I'm going to point it out, then ignore it :). After the word 'cornerstone', you should see a little tiny letter, I think in your version it would be the letter "b", and down at bottom of the page it says for the letter "b": keystone. You know what a keystone is, right?

In a Roman arch, the Keystone is the stone in the middle that holds the arch together. In Greek, the word literally means "head of corner" (stone doesn't even appear in the definition). Evidently that can also mean a cornerstone. In the Hebrew, from Psalm 118, the Hebrew word also means 'head of corner'. And in Hebrew, when Psalm 118 was written, there were no Roman arches, at least not in Palestine, so that's why I think that 'cornerstone' is the correct translation, because that is what is referred to is Psalm 118.

So I want to go to Psalm 118, and this is an "entrance" Psalm. It was a part of a high, holy, festive day, when the people of God were headed up into the Temple. Remember, the Temple Mount is on top of the hill in Jerusalem. In verses 2-4, instructions are given of who is to participate in the reading of this Psalm. It says "Let Israel say. . .", so the nation, ". . his steadfast love endures forever". "Let the House of Aaron say. . ", that would be the priests, ". . let us steadfast love endure forever". "Let those who fear the Lord say. . ", and everyone joins in again.

It's a responsive reading, or perhaps they chanted it. And the King, or perhaps High Priest if in the absence of the King, would have been leading this processional, and is the one who would speak, in verse five, "Out of my distress I called upon the Lord", and then it refers to a time of calamity, when the people of God called on the Lord for their protection. And God responds, and they survive or are victorious, whatever the case is.

And then we come to verse 19, and so the King says: "Open to me the gates of righteousness that I may enter through them and give thanks to the Lord". Then the priests respond: "This is the gate of the Lord, the righteous shall enter through it". Then the King in procession proceeds in through the gate, and they would probably then continue on through the reading. "I thank you that you have answered me, you have become my salvation, the stone that the builders rejected. . .", as they're walking by this stone, the Cornerstone, see, ". . has become the chief cornerstone, this is the Lord's doing, it is marvelous in our eyes".

So what is the message of this Psalm in that setting? That God has chosen us, a rejected people, and saved us from our enemies. And the followers of Jesus, in those first few decades after the crucifixion and resurrection, are trying to make sense of what has happened, trying to understand why Jesus was crucified and why they, with their message about Jesus, were rejected by so much of their world, including their own religious leaders. And they found the answer in this Psalm.

In claiming and reinterpreting this Psalm for the death and resurrection of Jesus, they're making three claims. First, his death was not God's doing. It was the world's. And second, his resurrection was not the world's doing, it was God's. And so third, God's affirmation of the world's negation has made Christ our cornerstone, the one on whom and around whom our faith is built.

Now, besides being a nice image, what does this mean concretely? And if that pun wasn't obvious enough, how do we cement this into our faith story? :)

For those of you who have been reading John Dominic Crossan's book, "The Greatest Prayer", I'll refer you to the Epilogue of that book. Skip everything else and read it :) For those who have not read it, we still have copies available, the author is going to be here next Sunday if you want to get an autographed copy, there will be opportunities to do that. But at any rate, Crossan, in that Epilogue, notes that throughout scripture there are what amounts to two conflicting images of God. There's one of violent God who achieves peace by slaughtering God's enemies. And there's one of a non-violent God who achieves peace through justice.

And if think one of those images is the old image out of the Old Testament and the other is the new, enlightened image out of the New Testament, then you have read neither. Or at least haven't read them very well. Because both images are throughout scripture, and as Crossan notes, Revelation (which concludes the New Testament) is the most relentlessly violent book not just in our Bible but in the canonical literature of any of the world's great religions.

Nor is the non-violent image of God limited to the New Testament. Some of the most powerful images we have of a non-violent God are taken out of our Hebrew scriptures. Swords that are beaten into plowshares. The lamb that lies down with the lion. The garden of peace and tranquility in the in the creation story.

So if both of those images for God are there side-by-side, how do we choose among them? Do we simply, as Crossan notes, create a 'divine cocktail' of so many parts of a violent God and so many parts of a non-violent God? And he says no, that Christ is for us, as Christians, our norm. We are not just people of the book, we are people with the book. And the book points to Christ, not Christ to the book.

Thus, Christ is the revelation by which we, as Christian people, interpret the Bible, not the other way around. That's why John's gospel begins "In the beginning was the Word, the Word was with God from the very beginning, and became flesh and dwelt among us".

So does Christ reveal to us a violent or a non-violent God? I think the answer is pretty clear. The stone rejected by the world has become our cornerstone. Never forget that the powers-that-be didn't reject Jesus with a really harshly-worded resolution, right? They said some really nasty things about him. No, they crucified him. They tortured him. It was with the most brutal act of violence.

And God responded, not with retaliation or retribution, but through the ultimate act of forgiveness and love. Raising Jesus into new life, and remember it is never about the body of Jesus, it is about the body of the people of God. It is about the whole world.

This is the cornerstone of our faith. By the way, if you hear anything familiar next Sunday when Crossan is here, just remember you heard it first from me :).

For me, the point that Crossan makes so powerfully clear is the need to take the challenge of Jesus seriously. Not just as how we live as individuals, but how we live as a community, how we live as a people, how we live as a nation, how we live as a world. And if the message we proclaim is to have any relevance, then, for our age, not just for 100 years ago, when our Cornerstone is opened once again 100 years from now, then we must be able to show how Christ can be good news for the entire world, demonstrating real salvation to real problems. From troubled marriages to the troubled environment.

If Christ truly is good news for the world, then the way of Christ must be a cornerstone for more than our personal faith, more than for this building. The way of Christ, the way of non-violence, the way of peace through justice, the way of love shown through compassion and forgiveness, this way of living that retaliates with love instead of hate, that sends bread instead of bombs, that gives life instead of death, must become the cornerstone of our community, of our nation, and our world.

100 years from now, when our descendents remove that cornerstone, and open up that new, shiny, stainless-steel time vault, with it's expensive plastic archival-proof packages :), and it's iPhone (with video), when they open this time vault, what will they find?

A world with more violence, hatred, and fear? Or a world with more love, peace, and hope?

I guess it all depends on what we leave behind.


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