I have spent the better part of this week contemplating rocks and stones. On Tuesday afternoon Sue Troy and I traveled to the Stony Point Conference center for a workshop on next year’s Horizon Bible Study. The first thing we did after we arrived was to stretch our legs by walking their beautiful outdoor labyrinth. It is outlined in stones, all different kinds and sizes, which guide the walker along a turning path to the center. There, one finds a pile of stones, which may have been part of the original design, or may have been laid there by people who walked, a tangible sign of their time of walking meditation.
Later that evening, at our first session, the leader introduced the study by showing us a beautiful photograph of a stone wall near her home in rural Kentucky. She talked about how such walls are built, and what it is they need as a foundation. Images of stones, cornerstones, and foundations, returned again and again in our study.
There are stones that have been thrown and stones that have been built upon. There are stones we have to remove from the soil if we want to plant a garden, and stones we have to lay carefully if we want a house to stand strong and true. Stones as decoration, stones as weapons, stones as memorials, stones as foundation… all these are found in scripture and in our world.
Our passage from 1 Peter quotes Psalm 118, where we read:
“The stone that the builders rejected has become the chief cornerstone.” ~Psalm 118:22
Today, cornerstones are largely ceremonial in nature. They are placed in a prominent location on newly constructed buildings. They usually bear the date when the building was completed, and they may carry some other information, images, or quotes. The cornerstone on the Liberty Avenue side of our building says, simply, “1958.”
Some cornerstones say more. After 22 years of hard work, my friend S. paid off the mortgage on her building, which houses 6 apartments as well as her business. To mark the occasion, her staff presented her with a brick cornerstone to place in the front hallway. When they asked S. what it should say, she asked for the date and a quote from a Melanie song: “Some people say I’ve done alright for a girl.”[i]
But the original purpose of a cornerstone is functional, not ceremonial. As the first stone set in the earth when laying a foundation, its placement determined everything else that happened during construction. Every other stone was placed in relation to this crucial first stone. It determined the position and the direction of the entire structure.
“The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone.” For followers of Jesus, this verse tells his story, it rings true. Jesus, who came among us to show us the love of God in the flesh, who spent his time teaching, healing, feeding, and welcoming all people into his vision of God’s kin-dom, was rejected by both the religious and civil authorities of his day. We see this very same dynamic in our first reading from the Acts of the Apostles, in which stones are not used for building, but for killing. But the powers and principalities did not and do not have the last word. In this resurrection season we celebrate the fact that God affirmed Jesus’ life and God’s victory over death. Jesus is our cornerstone. Of course, the question for everyone who claims this is: Is Jesus a ceremonial, memorial cornerstone? Or is he our true cornerstone—our constant reference point, the one whose life and witness determine the shape and soundness of our lives and witness?
If, our passage tells us, we have indeed seen and tasted that the Lord is good, if we want with all our hearts for Jesus’ way to be our way, then we will come to Jesus as “living stones,” and let ourselves be built into his spiritual house. If Jesus is our true cornerstone, we will allow him to inhabit us. We will take him as the source of our identity as Christians.
But that phrase, “living stone,” is really so strange… how can a stone be living? Does it have something to do with being chosen and precious? Can we be both solid and shapeable? Can we be strong and teachable? Can we be firm and loving? Can we allow Jesus to determine our direction and our purpose? Is this how we affirm our identity as those who see Jesus Christ as our cornerstone?
Knowing our identity is a life-changer. In 1957, Melba Pattillo Beals was a 17-year-old African American student living in Little Rock, Arkansas. Melba came from a family that highly valued education. Her mother had been one of the first African American women to graduate from the University of Arkansas, where she earned a PhD. Melba had come to believe that the education she was receiving at Horace Mann, an all-black high school in Little Rock, was inferior to the one the students were receiving at the all-white Central High School. After the Supreme Court ordered the integration of Arkansas schools, Melba and eight other students enrolled in Central. There they were met with not only with angry mobs of white students and parents who tried to block their access to the classroom, but also with the opposition of the governor, a segregationist, who sent in the Arkansas National Guard to keep the black teenagers out. Eventually, President Dwight Eisenhower sent in the 101st Airborne Division to ensure the students access to their education. The Little Rock Nine, as they were known, endured daily insults such as being spat upon, being verbally harassed and physically assaulted. There were some white students who did extend themselves as friends and helpers, but many others were vicious. A segregationist attacked Melba by throwing acid in her eyes in an attempt to blind her.[ii]
Throughout this ordeal, Melba was inspired by the words of two people in particular: one, the soldier assigned to protect her, and the other, her grandmother India. The soldier told Melba, “In order to get through this year, you will have to become a soldier. Never let your enemy know what you are feeling.”[iii] Seeing herself as a warrior enabled Melba to put on a stoic demeanor, no matter what was said or done to her. But it was the words of her grandmother that transformed her experience. Grandmother India told Melba, “We are…God’s ideas… you must strive to be the best of what God made you.” Melba was given the gift of knowing clearly her identity. Her grandmother had reminded her of the rock-solid truth that she, a young African American woman in search of a good education, was “God’s idea.”[iv]
Scripture tells us that every human being is God’s idea, because we are created in the image of God. Just as we are created in that image, we also share in the image of Christ as a living cornerstone. When we understand ourselves to be chosen and precious, it’s not about assuming Christian superiority over others. Instead, it is about that very same ministry of teaching, healing, feeding, and welcoming all people into Jesus’ vision of God’s kin-dom. To be a living stone is to be made for service, to all God’s people. To be a living stone is to show the love of God in the flesh.
Our world desperately needs us to do this work. And this is our identity. This is what we have been created for. We are chosen and precious; solid and shapeable; strong and teachable. With Christ as our cornerstone, we know our direction and our purpose: showing the love of God, in the flesh. Thanks be to God. Amen.
[i] Melanie Safka, “Brand New Key,” released October 1971.
[ii] “Melba Pattillo Beals,” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Melba_Pattillo_Beals.
[iv] Melba Beals, Warriors Don’t Cry (New York: Simon Pulse, 1995), 10; cited in “Commentary on 1 Peter 2:2-10 by Jeannine K. Brown, at https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=3254.