When I think of stone, I think of my seminary alma mater, Sewanee, (a.k.a. “the Mothership”) on top of Monteagle in Tennessee. Honey and I try to visit The Mountain during the Spring (School of Theology graduation) and Fall (Seminary Homecoming and the Dubose Lectures) just to soak in the ambiance. Sewanee is a pretty amazing place. Jointly owned and operated by twenty-eight southern dioceses of the Episcopal Church, Sewanee was founded just prior to the Civil War, destroyed by the Union Army as it moved through Tennessee, and then rebuilt after hostilities had ended. Sewanee’s founders intended it to be at least the academic equivalent of the big Ivy League schools in the northeastern U.S. and the undisputed hub of higher education below the Mason Dixon Line, hence it’s more formal name: The University of the South. And one of the first stipulations made by Sewanee’s chief benefactors was that the university should always include an Episcopal Theological Seminary. Today, Sewanee remains a highly regarded liberal arts university (the only one such owned/operated by the Episcopal Church), enrolling around sixteen hundred undergrads and one hundred or so seminarians in various theological degree programs.
As you pass between the stone pillars marking the boundary of “The Domain” you feel as if you’ve travelled through time—and across the Pond—to England. The campus’ architecture is predominately Gothic, with towers and battlements… pointed arches and stained-glass windows… stone crosses and finials… and shaded courtyard gardens. A bell tower chimes on the quarter hour and when there’s not a pandemic going on, you’ll likely see students and faculty members going about their business, often wearing black academic gowns over their street clothes. It’s cooler up on top of the Mountain than it is in the valley… and, as is famously portrayed on t-shirts in the University Bookstore, “Fog Happens” up in Sewanee. It really is another world… almost as if you’d been magically transported to Oxford or Cambridge in the late nineteenth century. I’ve heard people describe Sewanee as an “Anglican Theme Park,” and I guess it is. There are no less than five Episcopal churches within a couple of miles of each other, there on top of the Mountain. And everything (churches, academic buildings, even the frat houses) is made of stone. Local stone. Big blocks of it. Solid… dependable… permanent. I’m not going to lie to you, the massive, soaring, enduring architecture of Sewanee played a part in my call to ordained ministry back in the early 1980s. I wanted to be part of that. Design is meant to inspire, after all.
I love the metaphor in the Epistle today of the Messiah being “the stone rejected by mortals . . . by the builders” (1 Peter 2:7, cf. Ps 118:21-24). And not just any stone… a living stone! Better than the best! And yet, the builders couldn’t figure out a way to incorporate this living stone into their design. It seems this living stone was the wrong size… or the wrong shape… it just didn’t fit their temporal vision of how the world should work. “Love your enemies?” (Matt 5:43-48) Yeah, right! “Do unto others as you would have them unto to you?” (Matt 7:12) That’s risky! “Don’t judge?” (Matt 7:1-5) Well… sometimes folks need judgin’! And before we get all high and mighty thinking how much better we are than those “builders,” back in St. Peter’s day, we should ask ourselves this question: How many times a week… or a day… do we have the opportunity to build our lives upon the “living cornerstone,” of the Way of Jesus Messiah, perfect and indestructible… but choose, instead, a softer and less challenging foundation… one easier to adapt to our vision of how we think the world should work? How often do we set The Way of Jesus aside for the sake of convenience?
But that’s the worst of it… not by a long shot! Because it’s not just about our salvation, we’re talking about the salvation of the world here, about the coming Kingdom of God. If you’re a believer… if you’re a follower of the Way, then you’ve got to know that it doesn’t all begin and end with you. You’re supposed to be a Kingdom bringer. You’ve probably heard me say that we—all of us—here, collectively, constitute a priesthood of all believers. And that’s what the author of 1 Peter is saying in the Epistle today. The Church… and make no mistake, we are the church… exists to be a “spiritual house,” and a holy priesthood… to do our part to help bring about God’s plan for the salvation of the world. As the Body of Christ we, ourselves, were made to be living stones… with all the qualities of earthly stone: solid… dependable… permanent… but also filled with the fire of the Holy Spirit… as we live into the vocation we profess in our Baptismal vows… proclaiming by word and example the Good News of God in Christ, seeking to serve Christ in all persons, loving our neighbors as ourselves, striving for justice and peace among people and respecting the dignity of every human being. Are we up to that? We better be… it’s why we were made.
Living stones protect… and empower. Living stones nurture… and inspire. Living stones are grounded in the earth… and yet exist to reflect the light of God’s Kingdom. And that’s what you do, each in your own way—as parents and as children… friends and colleagues… as brothers and sisters in Christ… and as Kingdom Bringers—when you’re truly doing your best to listen and be obedient to God’s will. You are living stones! You are a royal priesthood, a holy nation, and proclaimers of “the mighty acts of him who called you out of darkness into . . . marvelous light.”
You know what to do. So, go do it! Go forth and turn the world upside down in the name of Jesus Messiah.
Thanks be to God. Alleluia, alleluia!