Texts: Psalm 118:19-24; 1 Peter 2:1-10
It was a little over thirteen years ago that this congregation began a discernment process regarding membership. Some of you remember this well. Many of you weren’t here 13 years ago. The question at hand was whether the congregation could openly affirm persons for membership regardless of sexual orientation. It was a thorough process, lasting about 10 months. It involved study of scripture and church documents and the science of sexuality, listening to faith stories, especially those of gay folks, meeting in small groups. It was not a new discussion here, but it did result in a first time official vote to be a publicly welcoming congregation. That was February 2007 – a coming out moment of sorts for the congregation.
Five years ago, without need for much further processing, the congregation voted to clarify that sexual orientation was a non-factor in the hiring of church staff, and that pastors were affirmed to officiate at weddings of opposite and same sex couples.
Yesterday a number of us rode a hay wagon through downtown Columbus anywhere between zero and five miles per hour, with a whole lot of zero at the beginning. We passed out 4000 packets of seeds to people lining the streets for annual Pride march. The packets included the words: “sowing seeds of love.”
In the spirit of Pride weekend, I want to invite us to reflect on this journey we are still on as God continues to sow seeds of love among us that grow in surprising ways. If we have an annual Pride Sunday it would be good to do enough advanced planning to hear more from the voices of queer folks.
For today, you’re stuck with this straight guy. And so I come to this the only genuine way I can. As a straight person deeply indebted to the queer people in my life. As a blind person learning how to see. As someone whose faith has undergone a major dismantling and new birth from a teenage fundamentalist-ish to whatever I am now.
As a centering text I want to use this odd little line from Psalm 118. Verse 22. This is how it goes: “The stone the builders rejected has become the cornerstone.” It’s short enough we could all say it together. So repeat after me: “The stone the builders rejected has become the cornerstone.”
It’s a mini-parable. And like other parables, it draws from images of everyday life. At least the everyday life of those who first heard it.
We can imagine a group of builders, building, a building. Builders building a building. Using the abundant and sturdy material of their day – stones. The stones are carefully selected to fit just right, one beside the other. Then, after the foundation is laid, the next row up. Expert masons may chisel and trim each stone to just the right dimensions. The building is taking shape as planned, strong and true. Built to last. But then the builders come across a stone that just won’t fit. No matter how they turn it, no matter how they try to chisel it to size, it won’t sit straight on the line. It won’t break along the right plane. That’s one queer stone. The builders have work to do, and there are plenty other stones. They toss it aside and think nothing of it. And, as they keep building their building, there it sits.
The stone the builders rejected.
The Psalm in which this appears, 118, is a psalm of thanksgiving. It was recited after the Passover meal, and likely recited by pilgrims as they made their way to the Jerusalem temple. What the Psalmist is especially thankful for, is deliverance from one’s enemies. The Psalm speaks of being surrounded on every side, those surrounding are like bees, ready to sting. But the Lord takes the side of the one being surrounded, and cuts off their enemies. Deliverance, salvation, victory. This was the experience of Israel surrounded by powerful nations. Passover was a celebration of deliverance from enslavement in Egypt. It was the experience of individuals facing those who sought to harm them.
It’s important to note that the Psalm is written from the perspective of the stone that had been rejected. “The stone the builders rejected has become the cornerstone.” Verse 22. Followed by verse 23. “This is the Lord’s doing, and it is marvelous in our eyes.”
This little parable, tucked away in Psalm 118, becomes one of the most quoted passages from the Hebrew Bible in the New Testament. One of those times is in 1 Peter, which we read – which identifies the rejected stone as Christ, which has become the cornerstone. The rejected stone becoming the cornerstone is quoted four other times in the New Testament.
In other words, when those who witnessed the life of Jesus were looking back into their own tradition to try to understand what it was they had experienced…when they were looking for some kind of continuity between what they had inherited, and this burst of Divine presence they had undergone, this was one of the primary handles they found. They recognized this as what they had witnessed.
The prestigious builders of their time, the Roman Empire, the religious elite, had built a structure that had no place for the way Jesus moved in the world and who he moved with. And so he was rejected and met a violent end. But God wasn’t done. The stone the builders rejected became the cornerstone. Around the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus forms a community committed to his ways, inhabited by his Spirit, loyal to the kingdom which he preached and enacted. This is the Lord’s doing and it’s marvelous in our eyes.
From where I stand, I see strong parallels with the way queer folks occupy the place of Christ. Queer people know something about having no place. About being targeted with violence.
But there’s a translation issue here that impacts the meaning of the Psalm. The words for cornerstone are technically “head of the corner”. This has led a few English versions, like the NIV, to translate it as capstone. Like the head is the top. It’s not a great translation, but we might see it as one step in the process of how God has worked among us.
The capstone is the top row of stones that line the building. Or, if you’re building a pyramid, the singular top stone. Like the builders rejected this stone, and then realized they needed it after all, that it did have a place, that it had an important role to play in their building, and it’s given a prominent location. The capstone. The parable becomes about inclusion, which is largely how the church has spoken about its relationship with lgbtq persons.
But the more common translation, and the one I find much more interesting, and true to my own and other’s ongoing experience, is “cornerstone.” If the stone the builders rejected becomes the cornerstone, then it’s no longer a story of inclusion at all, at least not in the way we’ve imagined it. This is more along the lines of what Mark named as the Rainbow Christ in the midweek blog.
The cornerstone is the first stone laid of a building, and all other stones are set in relation to that stone. It sets the course. It defines the layout. I have never built a stone building, but I have done a lot of ceramic tile work. And I can tell you, you better get that first tile right, because every other tile is set it relation to it.
So, in this scenario, if the builders are over here doing their thing, and toss this stone out, God comes along and says, OK, I’m going build my own building, and I’m going to start with this one. If any of the other stones want to be a part of what God is doing over here, they’ll need to join up with this whole different order of things.
So here the question for straight folks isn’t so much “Are you willing to include within the building those who have been previously excluded?” The question is rather, “Are you willing to have the structures of your life, your faith, your view of what is sacred..are you willing to have these dismantled in order to be included in what God is building in this world?”
There’s a direction we could take this metaphor that I’m not going to go, at least right now. It has to do with the actual organizational structure of the church, and the denominations around the country that are splinting and splitting over this “issue.” Methodists are in the throes of that right now. Mennonites in our own slower way. We could look back at the founding documents of Mennonite Church USA in the early 2000’s about how this denomination was literally, in writing, built on the exclusion of queer folks in how we wrote our membership guidelines as a compromise for how we might hold together. We could see as lamentable, or necessary, the separations that have come out of this. We could look back at the 1st century and ask if there was another way for those Jewish followers of Jesus to relate to fellow Jews in such a way that didn’t split them off from one another, or if it was a necessary move of the Spirit, with reconciliation and reparation to happen another day. That’s a discussion for some other time.
Where I want to land this mini-parable/metaphor is on the personal and interpersonal level. About what happens within us when the structure we thought represented the holy, the good, the Divine, gets challenged.
Because faith, and religion, as it grows within us, develops a kind of structure. There are foundational beliefs and values we pick up, and on those is built a structure of the sacred. This building tells us about what is good, what is right, what is natural, how God has ordered this world. And, very importantly, where we fit into it all – or whether we fit into it. We internalize this structure, this narrative, and it informs what we think about ourselves and others. It shapes our attitudes and actions. It is a source of meaning, and much comfort, because it all fits together, or distress, because it doesn’t.
For most of its history, and still in most places today, there is no room within the Christian sacred structure for different sexualities and gender expressions to be seen as a gift from God. As being a manifestation of the image of God.
And I don’t assume that we’re all at the same place on this, and this is where I have empathy for folks who struggle with this. Because it really can challenge the whole structure of faith. If it doesn’t fit in the sacred structure, in the holy order of things, then there’s much more at stake than just accepting or rejecting this one belief or value. The whole building is suddenly under threat of being shaken.
To change the metaphor just a bit, but to keep it in the realm of construction, for many forms of religion, understandings about gender, sexuality, maleness, femaleness, and God’s created order, these understandings are a load bearing wall in the house of faith. Move that wall, and the house collapses. And that’s a terrifying thought.
This can be a terrifying, or at least confusing, thought experienced by straight and gay folks.
This is why, I may be so bold to say, this is why, lgbtq folks are one of God’s great gifts to this world. Because we are challenged to confront our sacred structures, and we are challenged to ask what is most important and what really is the foundation, the cornerstone on which all this is built?
In this question there can be a tremendous grace.
Like when my brother came out to our family and we were all gathered in my parent’s living room, having a conversation about where we were at with this. My brother’s partner said this to us:
“It’s taken me 40 years to accept myself for who I am, and I’ve been thinking about it every day. So I understand if it takes you a while.”
And so it could be that the more solid and firm that structure, the more dismantling needs to be done, until we’re left with what matters most. If we allow it to happen, if we let down our defenses, those stones get taken apart, and we come face to face with the Christ among us.
This is not really a story about stones, it’s a story about people. It’s a story about relationships. It’s a story about love, which is from God, which manifests itself in this world in ways we can neither anticipate nor control. And when that becomes what’s most important, amidst the rubble of what we thought held the cosmos together and gave it meaning, then we have something to build on.
I think that’s important enough to say again. You know this isn’t about stones. It’s about people, about relationships, about God-given love, which is so much wider and life-affirming than we can imagine. And when that becomes what’s most important, even if everything else is in disarray, then we have something to build on.
And Spirit comes along as the master builder, and she starts with that as the cornerstone, and the re-building process begins. Sometimes out of the same elements of the old structure, just in a different place. Sometimes there’s room for all kinds of new stones, and spacious rooms.
If you are someone for whom the affirmation of lgbtq people has always been normal, with no tensions between that and your faith, then God bless you. I’m so glad you can’t relate at all with this sermon.
If you’re someone whose life has been turned upside down, whose faith has been dismantled and rebuilt, if you are a queer person who has been pushed to the edge, perhaps near suicide, because you saw no place for yourself in the house the church built, and you’ve found life on the other side, then may your story of grace and courage be told far and wide.
And if you’re someone who just doesn’t quite know where they’re at on all this, then thank you for your willingness to worship here and keep listening and building relationships of love and respect — with a bunch of queer-affirming Mennonites, which, thanks to the haywagon float, more of Columbus now knows is not an oxymoron.
The Psalmist says, “The stone the builders rejected has become the cornerstone. This is the Lord’s doing, and it is marvelous in our eyes.”
God is indeed building something marvelous within us, and among us. Thanks be to God.