05/10/20 “Living Stones”

1 Peter 1:3, 2:2-10

My brother Craig has several college degrees. One of them is in geology. He loves to collect rocks and stones. I think his wife finally put her foot down and made him move his collection outside, because he had hundreds of specimens.  When I needed some stones for a children’s message at church, he graciously gave me an assortment, along with a geology lesson about how each one was formed.  He didn’t turn me into a collector, but he did teach me to look at rocks and stones differently and to pay attention to the stories and lessons they tell.

In our passage today, Peter piles one metaphor on top of another, but the one that is front and center is the image of stones. In just four verses, he describes Christ as five different kinds of stones: Christ as a stone that causes stumbling and a rock that causes a fall, Christ as the cornerstone, Christ as a rejected stone, Christ as a “living stone.” As my brother taught me to do, I spent the week looking at these different stones, turning them this way and that, to see what they can reveal to us about Jesus and about our lives as his followers.

Rocks and stones are common in the Bible. A quick word search turns up 175 verses about stones and another hundred about rocks. My brother tells me that the difference between rocks and stones is mainly size. Rocks are big and hard to move. Stones are smaller pieces of rock. In Scripture, God is a rock—immovable, permanent, a fortress, an impenetrable refuge. People can hide in rocks, and God makes water spring from them. A rock is where we want to build our house, and a rock is what a tomb was carved from.

When Jesus called the apostle Peter the rock on which the church would be built, he was suggesting that Peter would be just as immovable. I wonder if Peter thought about that as the cock crowed on the night when he denied knowing Jesus. I wonder if the author of 1 Peter, whether it was the apostle himself or someone writing in his name, intended the connection when he used the same Greek word to describe how a crucified Savior would be a rock over which some would fall.

Stones were used as memorials to places where God had appeared and moments when God had acted. Jacob used a stone to mark his encounter with a ladder full of angels while God stood next to him, promising land and descendants and God’s constant presence. The Israelites made a pile of stones on the Promised-Land-side of the Jordan, so that the story of the ark of the covenant being carried across would never be forgotten.

Stones were used for more every-day purposes, too. They were used as building materials and weapons and tablets on which were written the laws of a people. They were made into altars for worshiping the one true God and fashioned into idols that were anything but. They were made into well covers and millstones and water jars, some of which would come to hold miraculous wine. The courtyard of a judge in Jerusalem was paved with stones, and one sealed a tomb in a garden.

According to Peter, Jesus is a stone. He’s the cornerstone. Before the advent of modern construction, the cornerstone was the first stone to be set in a foundation. All the other stones would be set in reference to this stone. The position of the entire structure was determined by  that cornerstone.

Jesus is a stone that makes some people stumble. The idea of worshiping a crucified man was just not something some people could accept. And even those who believed in theory fell short in the obedience department. Catching your toe on that stone will cause you to take a tumble in your faith walk every time.

Maybe that’s one reason Jesus was a rejected stone—kicked out of the way as a dangerous obstacle to an otherwise unimpeded journey. Or maybe it was that he didn’t seem attractive enough to keep—soiled as he was by the dirt of the road, grimy from hanging out in places where others weren’t all that clean—in their morals, in their lifestyles, in their backgrounds. Maybe those without eyes to see rejected what looked like the geode my brother gave me—so ordinary-looking on the outside but beautiful and full of light to those who look closely.

Peter draws most of his metaphors from Scripture. He quotes Isaiah, who first sounded God’s warning that God would be a rock causing Israel to stumble, and God’s promise “to lay in Zion a foundation stone, a tested stone, a precious cornerstone.” It was the psalmist of Psalm 118 who declared that this cornerstone would be a rejected stone.

Cornerstone, rejected stone, stumbling stone: these are all images we’re familiar with. But what about those “living stones”? What did he mean by describing Jesus as a “living stone” and calling us to become living stones ourselves?

To find out, I decided to go rock hunting—or rather, stone hunting—to find these living stones that Peter refers to. Peter leans so heavily on Scripture that I started there. I was sure I’d find that he had relied on someone else’s words about “living stones.”  But, no—there are no living stones anywhere else in Scripture.

There is, though, a story in Nehemiah that gives us a clue. Nehemiah and his crew had begun to rebuild the walls of Jerusalem.  But, of course, there were skeptics, one of whom was a local official named Sanballat. He was one of those guys who’s threatened by the achievements of others.  So, as the Jews began rebuilding, he began his ancient version of a tweet-storm, disparaging Nehemiah and his team, mocking them and calling them names in front of his peers and associates.  “What are those feeble Jews doing. . . Will they revive the stones out of heaps of rubbish, and burned ones at that?”

As so often happens in Scripture, truth is accidentally spoken by the least-likely speaker. For that is exactly what the Jews are doing. They are taking the stones of the burned and broken walls of Jerusalem and using them to rebuild and restore. They are making them useful, making them productive—in a sense, giving them new life. Is this what Peter had in mind? That living stones are ones that can be revived and made new. That they can be given a new mission and new purpose. That they can be made new, even in the midst of trial, even when it looks like all is lost, even when it looks like death and destruction have won the day.

That’s our only clue about living stones from Scripture. But, fortunately, our God is an incarnational God. Our God speaks to us through the people and objects that are all around us. So, I continued my stone-hunting expedition, and I found some living stones!

The first one I found is the Living Stones Quartet. It’s a gospel quartet, and they’re great! You can listen to them in all the usual places like Spotify and Facebook and YouTube. It’s not so surprising to find a Christian singing group named after Peter’s living stones, except that this isn’t your usual gospel quartet. This one is made up of four young men in India, where just 2% of its 1.4 billion people are Christian. Imagine being that kind of stone—one that could so easily be buried and unrecognizable amongst millions of other stones or, worse, rejected because you’re so different from the other stones.  And yet, these young men sing of their life in Jesus to people in their own country and around the world.

Living stones rejoice at the life that is in them—life made possible by Jesus’ life, death, resurrection, and ascension. Living stones know who gives them life, and they want to share that life and that joy with others.

I found some more living stones near Cusco in Peru. They’re called the Living Stones of Sacsayhuaman (sock-sa-YOU-a-mon). They’re enormous blocks of stone, some weighing hundreds of tons, and they were transported up a mountain and stacked on top of one another by the early Incan people. The builders weren’t known to have wheels or draft animals. There’s no evidence that jack levers or other tools were used. And yet, these stones are so closely fitted together that you can’t even slide a piece of paper between them.  When the Spanish conquerors tried to figure out how the Living Stones of Sacsayhuaman had come to be, the Incans could offer only two explanations: the earth had helped them, and the stones wanted to be moved.

Living stones want to be moved. They don’t want to stay where they are or how they are but are willing to be changed. They hope and trust that they can be changed. They’re willing for someone to fit them into their place in a community where they will be changed.

I found my last living stones in the deserts of southern Africa. They’re pictured at the top of the screen. These beautiful living stones are not stones at all. They’re plants. Most of the plant is buried deep in the ground, to protect it from drought in a place that can get practically no rainfall at all. These living stones can’t survive alone; they need other plants nearby for pollination to occur. Each one has a pair of leaves, tightly joined to one another. Between the leaves there’s a slit called a leaf window. Through that window, light penetrates deep inside the plant. And, from that window emerge sweet-smelling flowers.

Living stones are deeply rooted in what is life-giving and life-preserving. They open themselves to the light and allow it to flood the deepest parts of them. They are joined together in community, which allows them to grow and spread and thrive. In the midst of harsh surroundings, they are beautiful and invite others to discover what makes them so.

“Come to the Lord, a living stone . . . and like living stones, let your selves be built into a spiritual house.” Through Scripture and through the world around us, we learn how to be living stones in the likeness of Christ. We line ourselves up with Christ, our cornerstone. We offer ourselves to him, wanting to be moved and changed and obedient. We offer the broken stones of our lives to be revived and repurposed into something useful and beautiful in the world. We join together in community, to become stronger and more fruitful than we can be alone. We sink ourselves deep into the life Jesus offers us, we take in the light he shines on us, and then we share our joy with others. May it be, that when the world around us goes hunting for living stones, it will find them in us. Amen.

~~ Pastor Carol Williams-Young