Sermon: Look! It’s a Cornerstone

April 25, 2021

Psalm 23
Acts 4:5-12

by Eric Anderson

It thought itself the ugliest stone on the face of the Earth – or at least on Hawai’i Island, which was all the world it knew.

It had initially formed as part of the roof of a lava tube, just a part of the flowing hot rock that had cooled at the top, forming a roof over the lava stream below. So it had a bit of a curve to it from where it had been part of that ceiling.

But it hadn’t stayed there, or it wouldn’t have become a separated stone. Some combination of shaking and heat loosened the roof of that lava tube, and it had fallen and floated – if you can imagine rock floating on rock – it had floated on down the lava stream.

That was both rather exciting and rather frightening. The stone expected that it would just be melted again and become solid later on, but that’s not what happened. The lava river reached a pali, and the stone fell down the cliffside with the pouring rock. When it hit the bottom, it bounced off some harder rock and flew and rolled off to the side, where it landed with its dish-shaped curve down. It laid there for some time, and while it did the lavafall sprayed it with hot rock that cooled on top of it. It built up a knobbly, glassy, bulbous sort of cone.

The stone felt like it had put on a clown hat in the middle of a very solemn meal. It felt… ridiculous. Ugly. And sad.

Years went by. The eruption that had formed the stone – and its hat, which was also part of te stone – ended. The stone remained basically unchanged, except that some of its glassiness faded over time. The stone didn’t think that was an improvement.

One day some people came by. It was a family building their hale. They needed stones for its foundation. They picked them up and carried them off one by one. One of them found the stone – our stone – and got very excited. They picked it up and showed it to the others. Everybody got excited and the stone found itself carried away to the hale itself. The people carefully arranged and rearranged a section of their foundation wall so that they could place the stone in it, with the knobbly cone down, held firmly by the stone around it, and the curving dish part facing up and extending just a bit out from the wall.

The stone thought this was all very mysterious and didn’t see what there was to be excited about.

It didn’t learn until after the wooden hale walls had risen and the roof thatch applied and the family moved in. As night fell, the people crushed nuts and poured the oil into the shallow dish of the stone. Then they dropped a length of dried twisted grasses in and applied some fire to the end sticking out. Light glowed softly throughout the hale. The children played as their parents settled them into bed. They sang lullabies. Eventually, they extinguished the kukui lamp when it was time for everyone to sleep.

This happened night after night for years. The ugly rock had become a pohokukui, a shelf that brought light to the house. It was no ugly stone. It was the light bearer.

Why were Peter and John in front of this Temple court? For that we have to go back to chapter 3 in Acts, where the two of them had come up to pray and found a man being carried in by his friends so that he could beg for alms. Peter had told him, “I have no silver or gold, but what I have I give you: in the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, stand up and walk.” The man was healed and pretty much danced into the Temple with Peter and John, who explained to everyone that he had been healed by the power of God through the name of Jesus, Jesus whom God had raised from the dead. This got them arrested and, as we start this section, tried.

Although this was the first encounter since the resurrection between Jesus’ followers and the Temple authorities – that’s who held this hearing – this is not the first time that the priests, elder, rulers, and so forth have heard this particular quote from Psalm 118. And I don’t just mean that they were religious leaders and so of course they were familiar with the ancient hymnbook of Israel. Jesus quoted it to them while teaching in the Temple, as described in Luke 20, making it the punchline of a rather pointed story about people who had abused their power receiving their just deserts.

Well. That might not have been the most… conciliatory… thing that you could have said, Peter.

There was really only one way that this could go. Jesus had quoted the verse – against the priests and Temple hierarchy – and he had been arrested, handed over to the Romans, and crucified. That option was definitely available again. D. Mark Davis observes in his blog Left Behind and Loving It that there was a wide gap in power between the council and the apostles: “Verse 14 sets the tone for the power dynamics over this whole chapter: ‘They perceived that they are unlettered and ignorant men.’ The phrase in Greek is suggestive, ἀγράμματοί καὶ ἰδιῶται. These are plural nouns, which if we transliterated them into English adjectives would be ‘a-grammatical and idiotic.’

“This whole inquiry is rooted in the assumption that the ruling judges are looking down at powerless idiots. The irony is that the powerless idiots have something that the ruling judges don’t: The name of Jesus, whom these judges had rejected, but who has now returned with power. And the undeniable evidence against the judges is simply a man, who was once lame and is now walking.”

It turned out that that evidence was critical. The judges and rulers could not deny that divine power had been displayed. They could not explain it, and they could not control it, but they did have to respect it. In contrast to their earlier swift condemnation of Jesus, they simply threatened Peter and John against repeating their preaching about resurrection and Messiah, and let them go.

Luke describes them in that moment as simply being confused. They didn’t believe in resurrection – they were most of them Sadducees, who rejected that theology – so the story of Jesus’ resurrection made no sense. They were people of education, wealth, and power, and they were being confronted by Galilean fishermen, who probably spoke with an accent they sneered at and should never have been able to quote the Psalms or think theologically about them. Most of all, they should not have been able to summon healing power – God’s healing power – through the use of a human being’s name, especially that human being’s name, connected with the title “Christ,” or “Messiah,” or “Anointed One” in English, that they had explicitly rejected.

It’s no wonder they were confused.

As Mitzi J. Smith writes at Working Preacher, “Religious folks who have confused the power of position with the power of God are more likely to reject the power of God operating in others who lack similar position and rank (cf. 4:13), despite how God might use them. We should maintain some humility considering our fallibility, mortality or human condition no matter how high we might climb in institutions. Only God is infallible, inscrutable, and absolutely God.”

However much I would love to be infallible or inscrutable, the simple truth is that I am absolutely not God. And unless God has decided to become incarnate once again, you’re absolutely not God either.

So let’s look for some cornerstones, or if you prefer the Hawaiian imagery, a poho kukui, a stone lamp, that we might miss if we mistake ourselves for God. Our faith is based upon rejected stones becoming the key of the structure and the source of light. Why should a “wandering Aramean,” as it says in Deuteronomy 26, become a nation? Why should a relatively small group of people living in the hill overlooking the eastern Mediterranean receive the active attention of the Creator of the universe?

Why should the name of Jesus invite God’s power to heal? Why should one-time frightened men – Peter and John ran away the night Jesus was arrested, you might recall – why should one-time frightened men find courage? Why, above all, should a carpenter-laborer from a Galilean village become identified as the Savior of all the world?

Why?

Because God is God, and God chooses cornerstones and light bearers in ways I don’t understand, and that probably no human being understands. God takes all our customary ways and assumptions and processes of thinking and says, “Let’s do it this other way,” and leaves our heads spinning. God makes the ugly stone carry the light. God makes the rejected stone the one that supports the whole structure. God receives the despised and rejected people, and makes them whole.

D. Mark Davis writes, “…the grand reversal of the resurrection – the rejected stone has become the cornerstone – is precisely the power of making broken lives whole. ‘The name of Jesus’ is neither a magical incantation nor a slogan for intolerance regarding other religious paths. It is the way. The way is the way of humility and self-giving, it is the way of eschewing coercive power. It is the way of laying down one’s life for others, of taking up the cross, of being a follower of Jesus.”

It is the way often rejected, often scorned, often honored in speech but not deeds. Ultimately, it is the way God has blessed.

Amen.

Watch the Recorded Sermon

The video above includes the entire service of April 25, 2021. Clicking “Play” will jump to the beginning of the sermon.

The prepared text and the sermon as preached are… similar. They are not the same.

The image is Christ Between St. Peter and St. John (the apostles named in the Gospel reading), painted between 1507 and 1520 by Fernando Yáñez de la Almedina – www.pintura.aut.org, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=7669417.

Categories Sermons | Tags: , | Posted on April 25, 2021

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