Broadway Christian Church · Columbia, Missouri
The Worship of God · April 29, 2012
Litany of Praise
Based on Psalm 23
The Lord is my shepherd, I shall want for no other thing.
He makes me to lie down in green pastures; leads me beside still waters,
restores my soul, and leads me in right paths for the sake of his name.
Even though I walk through the darkest valley,
I fear no evil; for you are with me; your rod and staff, they comfort me.
You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies;
You anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows.
Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life,
and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord my whole life long.
Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Ghost;
As it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be,
World without end. Amen. Amen.
Holy God, we give You thanks and praise this morning. Your love is unfailing in unanticipated circumstances. Your faithfulness endures in unexpected places. Your mercy is unlimited in undeserved ways.
Help us to look and see with eyes wide with wonder. Let us see this Easter season, how resurrection is exploding around us in sunshine, and blossom, and springtime emerging. Christ is risen and is everywhere present in our world.
Lead us to green pastures where we might be fed; to pools of water, which can nourish us forever. Shape our path to lead us into your presence. All that You have made is beautiful and good, and You have entrusted it to us whom You've created in Your image.
Sadly, our wisdom has led us to choose hunger over the feast You prepare for us. We thirst in the deserts when we could drink deeply from your grace. We stumble off those paths that lead us to Your holy presence.
Yet You, O God, continue to seek us out, to shepherd us into Your kingdom, preparing a feast for those who often do not respond to Your gracious invitations. Teach us to live these words that Jesus taught his first disciples saying...
Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed by thy name. Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread and forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors. And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil: for thine is the kingdom, the power, and the glory, forever. Amen.
The next day their rulers, elders, and scribes assembled in Jerusalem, with Annas the high priest, Caiaphas, John, and Alexander, and all who were of the high-priestly family. When they had made the prisoners stand in their midst, they inquired, “By what power or by what name did you do this?” Then Peter, filled with the Holy Spirit, said to them, “Rulers of the people and elders, if we are questioned today because of a good deed done to someone who was sick and are asked how this man has been healed, let it be known to all of you, and to all the people of Israel, that this man is standing before you in good health by the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, whom you crucified, whom God raised from the dead. This Jesus is
‘the stone that was rejected by you, the builders;
it has become the cornerstone.’
There is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among mortals by which we must be saved.”
As we continue to travel through the book of Acts and the titles for the Risen Christ, we hear another speech from Peter. It is very much like the other speeches in Acts that present the simple gospel message: God sent the truth in the flesh in Jesus, he was rejected by the world, crucified, and then vindicated and exalted, a continuing presence received by faith. In the midst of those speeches, we find the Church applying titles to him, ways that they hope to describe the meaning of his life. And today, we have another one.
There are several places in the story of Israel in which the word cornerstone is used. Often it refers to the way God grounds us. In other cases, it refers to people of virtue and example who anchor our house, our building, and our people. But the way that cornerstone in used in this speech from Acts is very particular.
Here is the difference between this use of cornerstone and others: This cornerstone wasn’t always a cornerstone; it became one. How it changed is the whole point.
As Christians struggled to make sense of the death of the messiah, an event that was entirely unexpected, they reached back into the history of Israel to find a parallel. Where could they find a similar predicament in which God’s chosen one was sorely afflicted, even unto death, but was eventually vindicated?
What they found was the story of the siege of Judah, the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple, and the long exile in Babylon. And then there was the return, the eventual rebuilding of the city walls and temple.
All this is embedded in Psalm 118:22:
The stone that the builders rejected
has become the chief cornerstone.
The rejected stone, of course, is Israel. And the chosen one, afflicted, becomes the cornerstone of the future.
It is a metaphor of reversal, and Christians appealed to it as the perfect description of what happened to Jesus, the suffering messiah. Jesus, the living stone, was rejected and afflicted, but now as the great reversal, the stone has not only been vindicated but serves as the foundation, the chief cornerstone of the new temple not built with hands.
The Jews had exile and return, and Christians had crucifixion and resurrection. Both found a way to understand how God transforms suffering into hope. This is the great martyr tradition; the suffering of the innocent has redemptive power. And any community that has suffering or tragedy, as a part of its legacy, must find a way to reconcile it with their faith. The stone that was rejected becomes the chief cornerstone. For the church, that is Jesus.
I love the way that the late Archbishop Oscar Romero of El Salvador put it before his martyrdom:
This is the difference between the master builder and the worker:
We are workers, not master builders; ministers, not messiahs.
We are prophets of a future that is not our own.
Romero’s keen insight was a simple one, that the cornerstone is already laid, that we are the workers who build on top of that, moving toward a future already put in place.
I so often think that people confuse the Christian enterprise with creating the foundation rather than building on one already there. Imagine the grace of knowing that the heavy lifting is already done. And then imagine how differently we understand our purpose in the world if we trust that the cornerstone is already in place.
The challenge, I think, is that we confuse the master-builder role with the worker role. We mistakenly think we have to establish the foundation when in reality we don’t; the cornerstone is already laid. Our response is to receive it and then build on top of it. And that confusion, it seems to me, is the source of so much anxiety or resignation. Let me explain what I mean.
When you think that it’s up to you to lay the cornerstone – of your life or of the world – you’re bound to do one of two things. Either you’re going to work yourself to death trying to create something you can’t (like you’re God), or life will seem so impossible that you’ll throw up your hands, check out, escape, give up, resign yourself to an uncontrollable fate (like you’re powerless). On the one hand, you forget that God is God, and you’re not, trying to control everything, delude yourself into believing you are somehow the manager of the universe, it all depends on you and it’s all on your shoulders. On the other hand you assume that everything is pointless, that nothing you do matters, you’re a meaningless little pawn in the big picture.
Neither of these responses reflects a Christian view of being in the world. We are not God. And we’re not nothing. Well, what then?
We are a house of living stones, says the epistle of I Peter (2:5). The temple that was destroyed has been reconstructed, but this time it’s not bricks and mortar. This time it is a spiritual house. And Christ, the stone the builders rejected, has become the chief cornerstone of that living house built of living stones. We don’t make that so. We accept and receive it as so.
We Christians say that’s grace, what God has provided before we do anything. In faith, we receive what has already been given. We don’t make it, earn it, or take credit for it. We don’t justify ourselves or create our worth. We receive what’s already given in faith and gratitude. That’s why we say we are saved by grace through faith.
What a spiritual relief it is to know, in your guts, that Christ is the cornerstone of your spiritual house, no matter what.
Once we know that we’re the workers, not the master builder, we can and will do much. I think this truth is especially crucial in our time, when so much swirls in chaos around us at the speed of light. We need to have that grounding, that center, that foundation, in order to move through the world – not only sanely, but also faithfully, lovingly, and hopefully. We don’t need to be a messiah, because we already have one. Rather, we are a house of living stones and Christ, the one whom the builders rejected, as become the chief cornerstone.
This really helps us understand the nature of Christian community, doesn’t it? The essence of our belonging to one another has to do with the foundation we share; every stone is related to the cornerstone. We all belong to Christ, and by virtue of that relationship, we belong to one another. And that’s why people who are so very different can find community together. In human terms, we may not have a lot in common. But in spiritual terms, we’re all joined together in Christ.
I think of the many different ways we belong to this particular spiritual house at Broadway. Some people find their connection primarily through large-group worship. Others connect through classes, groups, choirs, ministry teams, events, or service projects. But no matter how you connect, we all belong to this spiritual house through our connection with the cornerstone. That’s the real source of our unity.
The unity of the community is not based on agreement, alikeness, or uniformity – that would make Christian unity a human accomplishment. If that were the case we would just be another association of like-minded individuals, birds of a feather flocking together. No, the true unity of the community is not an achievement. And it’s not merely tolerance of differences.
The reason we know unity is a gift from God is because it is conspicuous against a backdrop of diversity. If we were all the same that wouldn’t be unity, it would be uniformity. Instead, we are many and one at the same time. And there is only one reason that happens, because this spiritual house rests on the same cornerstone.
I want to share an image with you that matters to me. Years ago, I was on an archaeological dig in Israel in a place called Caesarea. It’s on the coast and, in the ancient world, it was the primary Roman port in Israel. King Herod had constructed deep anchorages in the bottom of the harbor, and those were the structures we happened to be excavating during my summer on the underwater portion of the dig.
What happened was that anchorages existed for the purpose of mooring an entire Roman fleet. Ships would drop anchor and then pull themselves alongside an anchorage. When you’re in the water and drop anchor, it appears as though you are pulling the anchorage to yourself – because everything is relative, it appears so. In reality, you are actually pulling yourself to the anchorage.
And that’s what happens when we recognize Christ as the cornerstone of our spiritual house. By God’s grace, we are anchored to the cornerstone in the first place. By faith, we pull ourselves closer to him by degrees.
Where my faith comes into play is the degree to which I’m pulling the line taught. Sometimes, I find myself drifting, while other times I sense myself snuggly anchored. Most usually that’s not the result of God’s side as much as my own; my spiritual practice is waning, my priorities are confused, or I’m distracted. The line goes slack.
As long as the line is slack, we are more subject to the impact of windy circumstance or currents, events that can destabilize us. Rapid change and relative chaos seem threatening because we’re not strongly connected. If we have started to drift then our own random thoughts get away from us and start to swirl in our own heads. They work on us and we become worried or afraid, doubting if we’re adequate or have what we need.
The spiritual life is tricky; it is filled with false illusions. Though we face real external challenges that often must be faced with courage and tenacity, the real problems are often not external at all; they live inside of us.
These inner phantoms emerge in direct proportion to our connection to or disconnection from our center, the cornerstone. Human nature being what it is, we often believe that something on the outside is the real source of our anxiety, so we double our efforts to change or control things about our environment. The real problem, though, has to do with my connection to the anchorage. Am I connected firmly to that inner reality of Christ? On what foundation does my spiritual house rest?
I want to invite you into a time of prayer-meditation around the cornerstone image of Christ. So I invite you to close your eyes. If you go to sleep, that’s OK!
Imagine that you are walking through a beautiful forest. It is a cool, sunny day, with a gentle breeze and you are enfolded in the branches of the trees. You hear your own footsteps on the path, the sound of the birds. You smell the leaves. Soon the path leads out of the forest into an open meadow with tall grass. You walk through the meadow, full of wildflowers, until you come upon a gurgling stream. The sunlight reflects off the surface of the water as you step on the stones to cross over. You head down a gentle hill to a valley below, and there is a beautiful blue lake, and beside the lake amidst a grove of trees is a small cottage with a front porch. You know this place and feel free to enter by the front door without knocking.
It is cozy inside, with a fireplace, a rocking chair, and a little kitchen with lots of windows. There is a door that opens to the lower level, and you walk down to a special room. You go inside, and it smells earthy here, musty. You sit on a chair that faces the center of the dirt floor. And there you see the original foundation stones of the cottage. They are ancient, hand-carved, and filled with special inscriptions and names. You somehow know what they mean and reach out and touch the smooth face of the stone. You’ve done this before, long, long ago. It is very quiet, this place, and you feel safe, connected and hopeful.
As your hand rests on the stone, you sense your connection to everything beneath and above it. After a long time, you stand up and leave the room, go back upstairs, out the front door, and walk up the gentle hill to the meadow. You cross the glittering stream over the rocks until you enter the path into the forest.
And as you walk, you think of the stone, how you’re still connected, wherever your journey leads you, how it’s there, always there, with the whole world resting on it as it has forever.
The stone that the builders rejected
has become the chief cornerstone.
And now, may the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the fellowship and communion of the Holy Spirit be with you all now and forever. Go in peace. Amen.