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Living Stones

May 5, 2014

“Living Stones” 1 Peter 2:1-10 © 5.4.14 by Tom Cheatham at First Presbyterian Church, Amory, MS. All rights reserved.

For a number of weeks now, our former next-door neighbors have been building their dream home on some family property, a raised lot just to the east of us beyond our back fence. We  have been watching the progress on the house. First, of course, came site preparation. Then the foundation and utilities. Framing. Roof. Windows. Now bricks are being put on. In all this time, as far as I know, the concrete did not pour itself nor did a piece break off and refuse to have a house built on it. I haven’t noticed any of the bricks jumping up from the pallet and fixing themselves to the wall after stepping off the truck or any of the rocks in the temporary driveway moving closer together to form a more solid surface.

But if rocks don’t walk, talk or think, what can the author of 1 Peter mean by “living stones”? Sure, we know about lava that in a sense is living stone, flowing molten rock that later hardens to add more land to the big island of Hawaii, for example. Or a diamond of exceptional quality could be called a living stone, as its facets sparkle and delight the eye and the newly engaged young woman. There is even a unique plant I read about called a “lithops” which is also known as a flowering or living stone. I’ve seen pictures; they look like rocks, a camouflage which fools animals who might otherwise try to eat them.

I suspect concepts like adaptability, liveliness, movement, and animation are in the writer’s mind. But there’s something else going on in the text that may escape us, given that it’s not our way of speaking. There is a connection between the description of believers as nursing newborns and the notion of Christians as living stones.

In Hebrew idiom, having children was building a house. Kids were living stones constructing the home. We find that in Psalm 127: “Unless the Lord builds the house, those who build it labor in vain….Sons are indeed a heritage from the Lord, the fruit of the womb a reward. Like arrows in the hand of a warrior are the sons of one’s youth. Happy is the man who has his quiver full of them. He shall not be put to shame when he speaks with his enemies in the gate.” Or the literal Hebrew of Sarah speaking about the plan to have Hagar act as her surrogate says that Sarah will be “built” by her servant girl having children (Genesis 16:2).

Jesus Christ, the firstborn Son, is the living stone at the corner of God’s spiritual house. We, God’s children by baptism, are living stones forming the rest of the structure. Drinking the pure milk of God’s Word, we grow and grow, increasing the length, width, and height of the Spirit’s temple, with Christ the sure foundation.

Living stones are adaptable, dynamic, changeable, and changing. They are lively and interesting, animated and vibrant, full of spirit. They would and do make a strange dwelling, but it’s the sort the Spirit chooses to inhabit. Each stone decides just where it fits, according to its shape and size and color and character, seeking out just the right partner above, below, and on all sides so there are no chinks or gaps in the wall. Should there be a change in the landscape that would cause other houses to sink or lean, the living stones move around to keep the dwelling straight and stable. They can also respond to the wishes of the one living in the house, should the owner want to reconfigure the dwelling.

I saw firsthand how living stones adapt in 1979. I was on the staff of Central Presbyterian Church in Mobile when the sanctuary was destroyed by a fierce hurricane. The windows were blasted out, the beautiful woodwork marred, the pews overturned, the carpet soaked. The static stone walls of the building could not withstand the fury of the storm.

But the Spirit still had a fit dwelling made of the living stones of Central Presbyterian. We met in the fellowship hall for months, sitting on folding chairs, using a lectern for a pulpit, a mediocre piano for music. The undamaged church across the street claimed the Presbyterians were being punished by God for our liberal theology; they tried their cruel best to shame us and sow doubt in our hearts. But living stones built into a house for the Spirit can withstand the brunt of wind and of ignorant criticism, take the heat of the hottest fire, endure the worst suffering, and continue to bear witness to the One who provides their pattern and purpose, namely Jesus, the stone thrown away by the builders.

But what the world regards as unacceptable and dishonorable, God claims, accepts, and lifts up. He honored Jesus in raising him from the dead, made him the precious living stone, the stone that gives life.

The writer wants his readers to know that they are also honored by God, despite their being regarded as nobodies by their families and neighbors. You may recall that the congregation was made up mostly of slaves and married women. Neither of these groups would have been accorded much notice or honor in the society of the Roman provinces of 90 AD. They could be ordered around by their masters and husbands and had little or no freedom. They were looked on with suspicion by their neighbors because of their new faith, which was strange and misunderstood. They could even suffer for their testimony. They were living stones to the Spirit, but worthless rocks to the culture.

The best way, then, for us truly to enter into this text is to reflect on our own experiences of rejection or being made to feel worthless and unwanted. When have you and I been regarded and treated as nobodies? When were you overlooked, ignored, passed by, left out? When have I been turned away, refused, reduced to an object to be tossed out, told in so many words I was worthless? All of us can recall such times, whether in the fairly distant past or maybe as recently as yesterday.

But how does it feel, on the other hand, to be honored unexpectedly? To be lifted up, listened to, made to feel valuable and helpful and needed? In the words of the text, to be treated like royalty? When we remember such times, we can know how thrilled the readers were to hear the elder’s encouragement as he named them a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people chosen by God. They may have been nobodies, non-people, to everyone else, but to God, they were precious and worthy. Their shame would be turned to honor, as in Psalm 23: “You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies, you anoint my head with oil, my cup overflows.”

Do and can such reversals really happen? Consider the story of Clair Patterson, a scientist from the middle of the twentieth century who endured ridicule for his findings. He was a stone that the builders rejected.

Patterson is known for two great accomplishments. He discovered the actual age of Earth, placing it at 4.55 billion years. And he defied the oil industry to fight for the removal from the environment of lead that was poisoning everyone, especially children.

The two may seem unrelated. But in his work on the age of the planet, Patterson measured the amount of lead in zircon crystals from a fragment of a meteorite. As he tried to do that, he kept getting wildly different results. Patterson realized that lead, such as in gasoline at the time, was contaminating many things in the environment.

Scientists on the payroll of the petroleum industry claimed the levels of lead were natural, and Patterson was for a long time considered a crackpot. Because of his insistence that lead was toxic, he lost funding for his projects; he was rejected for membership on a council charged to oversee matters precisely in his area of expertise.

After a great deal of time and effort, Patterson’s scientific work with lead paid off, leading to a ban on lead in products like gasoline, canned goods and paint in the United States. Because of his research, the EPA announced that all lead had to be removed from gas by 1986. By the late 1990s, lead levels in the blood of people in this nation had dropped by 80%. Finally by the 21st century, most of his recommendations were accepted by the US and other countries. He didn’t live to see all his efforts come to fruition, but his research was vindicated (see endnote).

Or how about the fireboat John J. Harvey, currently under restoration? It was built in 1931 and named for a firefighter who died battling a blaze on a ship in the harbor. The Harvey was among the most powerful fireboats ever in service, capable of pumping up to 18,000 gallons of water a minute. It served with distinction, but was finally retired in 1994.

On 9/11, though, the Harvey was reactivated. Alongside two other FDNY fireboats, it pumped water for 80 hours, until water mains were restored. A vessel thought no longer capable thus proved vitally important in a time of great horror and pain. Something discarded and old was useful again ( ).

Such reversals, small or large, are signals of how God can and does work in human life. He turns nobodies into somebodies. He turns shame into honor. He gives a feast and invites the lowliest to the best seats. He raises a crucified and rejected prophet and rabbi from the dead, proclaiming him to be both Lord and Christ.

In Barbara Wood’s historical fantasy The Blessing Stone, a beautiful blue egg-shaped stone with a diamond at the center is formed over time from fragments of a meteorite. It’s discovered by a proto-human in Africa and gives her wisdom to know how to lead her people. As it’s passed from hand to hand and generation to generation, it gives comfort to one, inspiration to another, faith or courage or confidence to still others. Each person sees in the crystal something different, but in every case, it’s life-giving.

What if we living stones blessed our neighbors in such a way, following Christ, the first living stone? What if our witness were so lively and open and exciting that those who feel worthless began to know that they were valued by God, those who were rejected knew they were accepted, the lost found, the ignored listened to and seen? What would the world be like if as priests we offered the sacrifices of our holy lives, putting away all malice and guile and deceit, instead showing the strength and beauty of love and peace and truth?

Lord, build us into such a house!


Endnote: Miriam Kramer, ;


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