On Being Living Stones

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Sermon for the Anniversary of the Dedication of the Abbey Church, May 9

The abbey church has been a profound delight for me to pray in since I first visited here to discern if I had a monastic vocation. I’m still here, so maybe I do. I missed out on the Anglo-Catholic setup we once had which I am sure was also beautiful, but I deeply appreciate the simplicity of our worship space that has nurtured me and many others for many years. Our church is something to celebrate.

Much as I love this building and its space, I think the best way to celebrate it is to reflect on how we can be the Church with the help of this Church building. Solomon admitted that the temple could not contain God since not even the heavens can contain God. Moreover, we hope we don’t need Jesus’ ministry of throwing money changers out of our church. Peter gives us a powerful image for how we can be the church: “like living stones, let yourselves be built into a spiritual house.” (1 Pet. 2: 5) In being living stones, we imitate Jesus who was the stone rejected by the builders. This reference to Psalm 118 is used many times in the New Testament, often by Jesus himself. It means that the life and teaching of Jesus that was rejected by nailing Jesus to the cross has become the basis of a whole new culture and way of life in Jesus. We are called to be living stones built by the Holy Spirit into a new temple supported by Jesus, the cornerstone.

Stones are solid and surely we are to be solid in our commitment to Christ and to each other. It is the solidity of stones that makes them strong enough to support each other. We need to be as strong  as that if we are going to support one another. Stones, however, can be rigid and rigidity makes them hard and cold. Such stones are dead. But Living stones are vibrant so that they resonate deeply with each other. Unlike dead, rigid, stones, living stones are permeable to each other and most importantly to Christ.

Although our abbey church isn’t built with actual stones, but is mostly built of wood and brick, may this church that we celebrate today open us to each other and to Christ so as to transform us into living stones receiving life from the rejected cornerstone.

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Christian Community (3)

vocationersAtTable1The best-known image of the Church in the New Testament is the analogy of the human body with the Church which is the Body of Christ (1 Cor. 12:12-28). The implication is that as the various parts of a body add up to a unity, the various members of the church, different as we are, also make up a body. This analogy suggests each part must be well-coordinated with all the others. We can see this readily—and impressively—in athletic maneuvers such as acrobatics or in the artistry of a ballet dancer or musician. This image suggests a deep intuition on St. Paul’s part into mimetic desire. Just as each part of the human body must be sensitive and synchronized with each other, so must each member of Christ’s Body resonate with one another. As with the body, this resonance needs to be preconscious, an ongoing awareness of and sensitivity to the other members. The most essential elements of this sensitivity are accepting the other members and not overstepping limits. St. Paul says one part cannot say it doesn’t need another part. His extension of the analogy to a list of various ministries in the church makes it clear that if a foot wants to be a hand, the body won’t walk very well. Neither will the body work well if a foot is amputated. These destructive outcomes happen if the parts of the body fall into mimetic rivalry. The comic character Bottom in Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream is a perfect example of overstepping boundaries. At the rehearsal of the play to be performed before the Duke’s court, Bottom first accepts the part assigned to him but then demands every other part as it is doled out to the cast. The absurdity of Bottom’s demands is clear enough if we try to imagine him doing all the parts in the play himself. It is the same absurdity if the neck tried to do all the walking.

Another image of the Church comes in the First Epistle of Peter. The author envisions the community of Christ as a “holy house” made out of “living stones.” (1 Pet. 2: 5) This image reminds us of St. Paul’s admonition that individually and corporately we should each be a Temple of God. (1 Cor. 3:16) It is significant that Peter calls the building a house and not a temple although it is a place where priestly ministry takes place. I see here a hint that Christ’s household is not a place set apart but a place for everyone, sort of like the City of God that doesn’t have a temple because the whole place is one. We have a sense of unity-in-diversity in this image as well. There are many stones and each has to be in its proper place or the house collapses. The stones are not inert but living, vibrant. Again each living stone should resonate with all the other living stones, another powerful image of mimetic desire working constructively.

Another biblical image that I don’t recall seeing used as an image of the Church, but one that could be, is that of the vine and the branches (John 15: 1-9).Here, we are all to be connected with one another through our rootedness in Christ. This image stresses our resonance with the Desire of God but also our connectedness with others through God’s Desire.

These images of the Church complement one another. The Body of Christ has possible pantheistic overtones if taken too far so that the distinction between us and Christ is blurred. But we are, all of us, called to act the part of Christ in the world. The body is dynamic. It can be still for a time to meditate, but usually it is going places and doing stuff. This body and should go out and minister to people in need. The image of the holy house made of living stones is more static. The dynamism is in the living stones while the building stays in one place. This holy house is to be open for the Holy Spirit to fill it and just as open for people to enter and be in it. That is, we are to be living stones creating a loving environment of hospitality for all. The image of the vine and the branches is the most contemplative. While the other two images emphasize the relationships between the members, the image of the vine and the branches emphasizes the grounding of all members in God. It is an important corrective to the pantheistic pitfall of the Body of Christ image.

In themselves, these images are inspiring ideals. The reality is something different. St. Paul himself knew this full well. Just before presenting the Church as the Body of Christ, he had castigated the Corinthians for their disorderly and exclusionary suppers where some gorge themselves in front of their poorer and hungrier brothers and sisters. This same epistle began with Paul’s outrage over the divisions within the church with its party slogans that reinforced the divisions. Likewise, Luke’s claim that “the whole group of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one claimed private ownership of any possessions, but everything they owned was held in common” (Acts 4:32) was wishful thinking as the subsequent story of Ananias and Sapphira makes clear. Rather than throwing out these images as unrealistic, we need to keep them before us as models we constantly fail to live up to. Without these images, we would just act like the Corinthians without a second thought. We will have to look again at the reality in relationship to these ideal images.

Then there is the matter of the stones. These living stones aren’t just any stones. The cornerstone had been rejected by the builders. What does this mean for the other living stones we are supposed to be? That is another question for further reflection.

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Stumbling over Living Stones

Cemetary2With the help of a Salvation Army-style trombone, Bob Dylan sings with his wry humor that “they” will stone you for “trying to be so good” or when you’re “tryin’ to go home,” for “walkin’ on the floor,” for “walkin’ out the door,” and even when you are “young and able” or sitting “at the breakfast table.” Given the way his fans turned on him time and again for not singing what they wanted, it’s no surprise that “they” will stone you “when you’re playing your guitar.” Seems like “they” will stone you no matter what you do or don’t do. Then, after stoning you, they “will say you are brave” and then “they’ll stone you when you are set down in your grave.” As if “they” haven’t stoned you enough already. In the refrain, Dylan sings that he “wouldn’t feel so all alone/Everybody must get stoned.” Usually, persecution is “they” (i.e. everybody) against a victim, such as what happened in the stoning of Stephen. But if everybody gets stoned, then everybody is a victim and there’s nobody left to be “they” who will stone you. If we all become Stephen, not only do we get stoned; we “see heaven open and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God” (Acts 7:56). This was the moment of epiphany for Stephen that transformed him into a forgiving victim like Jesus. In his speech to the Sanhedrin that outraged his listeners, he was not exactly a model of tactful diplomacy.

In his first epistle, Peter identifies Jesus with the living stone rejected by the builders that has become the cornerstone in Psalm 118. Jesus identified himself as this cornerstone at the end of his parable of the evil workers in the vineyard who ganged up on the owner’s son and killed him. (Mt. 21:33-41) Stephen was killed by stones the builders rejected and left outside of Jerusalem when they were building the temple. Jesus was threatened with stoning several times and escaped until his time had come and he gave himself up to the cross. When Jesus says that he is the way, the truth and the life and that nobody can come to the Father except through him (Jn. 14:6), he is saying that the only way to God is by way of the stone that was rejected. Rejected by whom? If we think it is other people who have rejected this living stone, we are probably right but we fail to understand ourselves in this. Moreover, we are rejecting the people we blame for these rejections and so we stumble over them and they stumble over us. Speaking for myself, I don’t like being rejected and I don’t instinctively feel that being rejected is the way to God. I would rather be the keystone in my own scheme of things. So, actually, I reject this living stone all the time and I stumble constantly over my fantasies of being the cornerstone of my own life. Much as I like Bob Dylan, I’d rather leave him all alone rather than get stoned.

But Jesus the living stone is abundantly forgiving and he waits for us to stop stumbling around and come to him. Peter tells us that it turns out Jesus is building “a spiritual house,” “a holy priesthood” out of each one of us and he is building it out the parts of us that we reject, out of our failures, not our successes, which makes our failures our successes. Well, Dylan said “there is no success like failure and failure is no success at all.” Stones can be hard and dead, useful only for stoning people. Our hearts can be just as hard and we stumble on our stony hearts until we come to the living stone who wants to make us living stones. Living stones don’t pick up stones to throw at other people; they pick up stones to build into the spiritual house. In this spiritual house, there are many dwelling places where there is room for us to grow further into the abundant life of Jesus the living stone, enough room that we do not need to stumble over one another and yet a house where we are all together and we don’t have to be so all alone.

The Good Shepherd in the Desert

goodShepherdIf Jesus is the “living interpretive principle of scriptures, as James Alison says, then the Parable of the Good Shepherd who leaves the ninety-nine to search out the one lost sheep should be a powerful and accurate interpretive lens for other passages in scripture.

In the RoCa lectionary, this Gospel is coupled with a tense episode in Exodus 32. As he comes down the mountain with the tablets of the Ten Commandments, he finds that Aaron has set up a golden calf for the Israelites to worship. God tells Moses to get out of the way so that his wrath can “burn hot against them.” Doesn’t sound like a good shepherd.  Instead, it is Moses who acts out the part of the good shepherd by interceding with God, as Abraham did earlier to avert the divine wrath from the people. At the end of this same chapter, there is another narration of Moses coming down the mountain. This time, he is so furious he breaks the tablets and then rallies the Levites to his side to slay thee thousand people who were worshipping the golden calf. Although Moses claims to be doing God’s work, what we have is a narrative of human rather than divine violence. Moses doesn’t look like a good shepherd this time, but the morning after this monstrous slaughter, Moses intercedes with God to forgive the people although it is a bit late for the three thousand who were slain. This strange doubling of narrations seems to point to a debate in the Jewish tradition moving in the direction of unveiling God’s love for God’s people.

In 1 Corinthians 10, St. Paul refers to this incident by saying “we must not indulge in immorality as some of them did, and twenty-three thousand fell in a single day.” (He ups the death toll.) In isolation, this is about the chilliest verse in the Pauline epistles but in its sacramental context, it is much more in keeping with Jesus the Good Shepherd. Leading into this verse, Paul says that “we were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea, and all ate the same supernatural food and all drank the same supernatural drink.” This, in turn, recalls the reinterpretation of the Flood in 1 Peter where the water corresponds to the baptism that delivered Noah and his family and delivers us now. The Genesis story clearly indicates a social meltdown with a few, probably the intended victims, escaping. The Exodus story refers to the social meltdown in Egypt that lead to the expulsion of the Israelites. In the desert, the Israelites had their own social meltdown centered around rivalry between Moses and Aaron. (Arnold Schönberg’s opera Moses and Aron portrays this rivalry with great insight.) For both Peter and Paul, baptism is the deliverance from the surrounding sacrificial society into the Kingdom centered on the Eucharist, the new way of gathering without need of victims and certainly not needed the slaughter of three thousand. Paul is not, then, warning his readers against a wrathful deity but against a wrathful society that will engulf them if they return to its sacrificial ways, just as a relapse into the wrathful society of Egypt lead to a meltdown in the camp and the deaths of thousands.

Jesus the Good Shepherd does not strike dead those who re-enter a sacrificial society that today manifests hardness of heart to the extent of trying to prevent fundamental ministries such as feeding the hungry. Instead, Jesus enters into the heart of the society to bring back all who are lost. Rather than starting a bloodbath, we should intercede for all such people as Moses did and follow Jesus in searching for the lost.

See also: The Communal Good Shepherd