(a sermon for May 18, 2014, the 5th Sunday of Easter, based on Psalm 31: 1-5 and 1 Peter 2:2-10)
His name was Woody Dale, and his well-worn business card proudly proclaimed his occupation: “Treasure Hunter.” And when I asked him at the church office that morning how I might help him, he said, “Well, Pastor, maybe I can help you. I’ve come to find your cornerstone.”
You see, this church I was serving at the time had been built in the late 19th century – 1880, to be exact – during which time the congregation had placed a tin box beneath the church’s cornerstone that was filled with coins, mementos and various artifacts. They’d also left instructions that this box be unearthed and opened in a hundred years; the only trouble was, 100 years had already come and gone and the box was still buried, because no one had ever been able to find the cornerstone! Apparently, the cornerstone had never been properly marked, and though the 20th century church leaders had dug up ground around every corner of the church building, it was never located; and now, after nearly ten years of looking, they’d more or less given up on ever finding this tin box.
But not Woody; he’d found out about this years before and had made it his personal mission to find the cornerstone and the treasure buried within! And I’ll admit I was skeptical: you see, when you think of a “Treasure Hunter,” you sort of picture somebody like, say, Indiana Jones; but this guy… well, he probably saw the movie! Basically, Woody was what you might call a Florida beach bum, and he looked (and acted) the part: baggy shorts, Coors Beer T-Shirt, ratty beach hat covered with pins and buttons; three-day beard stubble on a face that was tan, tough and leathery from years of sun. The best way I can describe him is to say that he was “grizzled,” and with all due respect, I had my doubts he could find the way back to his car, much less find our cornerstone!
But Woody was determined, so when he asked if he could poke around the church with his metal detector, I said, sure, have at it; and when he left I figured that was the end of it. But a few days later, back comes Woody, all excited to tell me that he’d found the cornerstone! And he’s taking me outdoors to show me what his “Binford 5000” metal detector had detected, and yes, there was something! Of course, when we told the church historian about it, she pretty much dismissed the whole thing. It couldn’t be the tin box, she said, since church records indicated that the cornerstone had to be at the main entrance of the church, facing the street, which this wasn’t! Probably just a bottle cap or a lost piece of jewelry, she said, which actually kind of made sense but which also kind of insulted Woody, that we would doubt him! He just kept shaking his head and saying, “Oh, no, that’s the box, I know it!”
And so, one very hot afternoon in July, Woody, a couple of trustees and I dug, chiseled, yanked and pulled at a granite block stuck at about the worst possible angle… behind which was indeed, the tin box. It was exactly where our forebears had said it would be; come to find out, however, not only had the main entrance of the church essentially changed over the course of 100 years, so had the lay of the land: what we viewed as merely an access street was in 1880 the main road in town! It turned out that for all those years, the people of the church had been continually looking in the wrong place for their cornerstone, and it took Woody the treasure hunter to find the right one!
Granted, it wasn’t “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” but it was quite an adventure (we even made the papers and the evening news on three – count ‘em, three – different channels!); and in the years since, I’ve also come to see it as something of a parable. For it occurs to me that in life a great many of us find ourselves looking for treasure in all the wrong places; searching diligently and desperately but inevitably coming up empty, all because we never really knew where to look; never really understanding where our true cornerstone was to be found.
Architecturally speaking, of course, cornerstones hold both symbolic and structural importance, and that’s why it’s no accident that most of the great buildings of the world carry markings to indicate just where the cornerstone is. A cornerstone marks a point of origin; it signifies a time or place of transition; the beginning of growth and change. It also serves to join other stones together, and it represents the strength and form of the foundation; architects and builders alike will tell you that when the cornerstone is missing below, some identity (not to mention some integrity) is likely to be absent above.
It’s really not all that much of a stretch to say that regardless of what you’re building – be it a house, or a relationship, or a life – this same truth applies; and that it’s important that you build upon a true and solid cornerstone. And that’s no more important than for you and I who would call ourselves Christian; because for us, that true and solid cornerstone (the “rock and fortress” as our Psalm this morning puts it), this all-important building block on which our lives and living are built… is Christ himself.
In our reading this morning from 1 Peter, the early Christian church is compared to a spiritual house built upon “a living stone,” in fact the very stone which the builders rejected and yet became the cornerstone, the same stone that would make others stumble and fall: the living stone who is the risen Christ. It’s a powerful image, especially given that so much of Israel’s history and faith had been centered on the building and strengthening of a temple. I mean, for generations these people had been focused on matters of rock and stone and mortar, quite literally dedicated to a building project; albeit one devoted wholly to God, but still something that could and did crumble at its very foundation, the result of faithlessness amid the shifting sands of the world.
But now, says Peter, here’s a temple not built on a foundation as much as it is built upon a living presence; on the person of Jesus Christ, crucified and risen. Christ is that “living stone,” “a cornerstone chosen and precious,” and anyone choosing to build upon his name, Peter says, will have new life. Anyone connected to this cornerstone will themselves be living stones, part of the “spiritual house” that belongs to God.
By definition, that’s what we are, friends, as the church of Jesus Christ; we are a house of living stones, joined together at one common point and anchored by God’s own true and solid cornerstone who is Jesus Christ. It’s no small distinction: it’s what makes us, as Peter describes it, “a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people.” And it’s a treasure that comes to us in life and living: light out of darkness, life out of death, love and strength in times of hopelessness, joy in the midst of struggle, peace that the world can neither give nor take away; all of it, you see, comes about out of having been built upon this “cornerstone of a whole new world!”
It’s a powerful affirmation, and yet, there are so many of us who persist in seeking our treasure in other places, so many of us who dig deeply and repeatedly hoping to strike some sort of gold in our lives, but who ultimately come up with nothing. And the thing is, it’s not so much because we don’t know where the cornerstone is, or at least where it ought to be for us; more often it’s because we’ve convinced ourselves that we already know where the cornerstone is, even when in the act of digging again and again we keep finding out – again and again – that we’re wrong!
Lest you think I’m exaggerating, consider a survey taken a few years back amongst a group of people who in defining the core beliefs of their lives described themselves as first having “an allegiance to Christ.” What they found was that thirty percent of those responding claimed that nothing was more important to them than having fun and being happy. Forty percent agreed than an individual should be allowed to do anything as long as nobody else got hurt. And seventy percent of these Christians – seventy percent (!) – confessed that they loved money and possessions to the point where they often wondered if Jesus Christ truly held the central place of their lives! Incredible; we’re told we’re a “chosen race,” God’s own people; but so often the reality is that we’re anchored somewhere other than God’s cornerstone!
You know, we live in an era that is often referred to by theologians and others as “post-Christian;” that is, that by most indications the church these days seems to have a diminished presence and far less influence in the world, and that our culture just appears to be, shall we say, “less Christian” than it seemed to be just a few years ago. Well, let me say this; that the tragedy of these times, friends, is perhaps not so much that the world is “less Christian,” but that the Christians have started looking so much like the world that it’s getting harder to tell the difference!
The question for you and me today is this: where is our cornerstone? Is our “spiritual house,” and I’m speaking here both personally and corporately, standing on the solid rock of God, or on the shifting sands of modern life?
I know that most of us can confess to moments in which we’ve felt the foundation of our faith slip and crack beneath our feet; perhaps the result of some poor choices and faulty building along the way, or maybe just a false step or two! But by the same token, I also suspect that each of us have known similar moments in which we’ve been strong and hopeful and very clear about our identity as God’s people, times in which we have truly known “new life.” The difference is that these were the moments in which we found ourselves grounded in Christ Jesus, the true and precious cornerstone, and discovered the treasures of faith contained therein.
Indeed, there are many such treasures to be found in faith, beloved; but the challenge is for us to seek them thoroughly and faithfully at the stone that stands at “the very head of the corner.” Granted, that’s not always easy; just as over the years that church managed to lose its perspective and in the process, its cornerstone, so it is for us, especially given that life’s landscape is ever and always changing our perspective on things. But the good news is that by faith, prayer and some intentionality on our part, we can stay anchored and truly embrace this identity we’ve been given as God’s people, members of a chosen race and a royal priesthood.
Of course, it does take some time and growth for this to truly happen as it should. I’ve always loved the fact that Peter starts this section of his epistle by comparing these new Christians to “newborn babies,” who “crave pure, spiritual milk, so that by it you will grow up in your salvation.” It’s a good reminder that where faith is concerned, just as in life, we’re never done growing; and moreover, it’s true that whatever else there is that we’re seeking in this life and whatever else we’ve received, ultimately we’re all like children who long for something more; something that so often we cannot even name; but something that once we’ve tasted it, is what we know we’ve needed and wanted all along. “If indeed you have tasted that the Lord is good,” you want more, and you want it for all of life, and you’ll know that to have it you want to anchor yourself to the true, living cornerstone that is Christ our Lord.
It’s just as Peter says it to these “baby” Christians, and it’s what he says to us today: “Once you were not a people, but now, you are the people of God; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.”
We are the people of God, beloved, living stones who are even now being built into a true spiritual house. And so, let our thanks be to God who is the true cornerstone, the one solid rock on which we stand!
AMEN and AMEN!
c. 2014 Rev. Michael W. Lowry