Cornerstones

Matthew 21:33-46

What do y’all know about cornerstones?

I guess we don’t really think all that much about cornerstones these days… unless we’re commemorating some sort of edifice that we hope is going to be around for a long, long time. Most buildings come and go… we build them, we use them, we may renovate them once or twice and then “boom,” we knock ‘em down to make room for something else… maybe bigger and fancier (or maybe just another strip mall) which will, in due course be taken down to make way for the next new thing. So why take the time, energy and expense to lay a proper cornerstone? Who needs ‘em anymore?

I remember once visiting an old Anglican/Episcopal Parish in Stafford, Virginia… it’s called Aquia Church and it was built in the mid-eighteenth century, prior to the Revolutionary War. It’s a pretty place, with box pews and a triple decker pulpit… and the people were nice. But one of the things I particularly remember about my visit was walking around the outside of the building and coming across the cornerstone, dated January 1, 1757. It was made of sandstone with lines and lines of graffiti carved into its surface… dates and names of centuries-old vagrants and soldiers from military units that fought two wars on and around the Parish grounds, as well as some other more recent and mundane scribblings (e.g., Tom loves Sally). As I looked at the cornerstone, I thought of the tides of history that had ebbed and flowed around this building, as it sat unmoving and unmoved for two and a half centuries. Cornerstones are uncompromising.

A cornerstone serves to ground and orient a building. It sits at the lowest point at which the structure touches the ground and it forms the angle of the walls. In short, the cornerstone of a building, in many ways, determines and places limits on its size and shape. You can’t add additional floors to a building whose foundation was only intended to support a single story. And maybe that’s another reason we don’t use cornerstones on ordinary buildings that much anymore: not only is it arguably a waste of time and energy and expense, but it might, one day, become a limiting factor on what we’re building. We want to keep our options open in case we change our mind about what we’re building and how we’re going to build it. You know, it’s not just the Scribes and Pharisees who, in their short-sightedness and pursuit of expediency, fail to ground their endeavors upon a proper foundation. We, like the religious elites of Jesus’ time, have a tendency to “build to suit,” and we too are sometimes guilty of letting our appetite for worldly pursuits: for wealth and security and temporal success, cause us to neglect the underpinnings of our own lives.

The Scripture quoted by Jesus in our Gospel lesson today comes from Psalm 118, written (probably) by soon-to-be-King David around 1000 years before Jesus’ birth. “The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone. This is the Lord’s doing; it is amazing in our eyes” (vv. 22-23). This was not prophecy. This was not about the coming Messiah. David was probably referring to himself has having been chosen and anointed by God to lead God’s people despite having been rejected by then-King Saul and his henchmen. David was observing that God’s plan for our salvation sometimes—oftentimes—defies human logic. Who could imagine a ruddy-faced shepherd boy, without any sort of pedigree or sponsor, becoming the next King of Israel? But because David had built his life upon the solid foundation of faithfulness to God and God’s plan for the Kingdom of Israel, he was able to step up and do the work God had given him to do. “This was the Lord’s doing; and it is amazing in our eyes.” Nothing is impossible for God (Matt 19:26).

So… if nothing is impossible for God, then why are things in this world such a mess? Why is there famine, disease and pestilence? Why are there natural disasters? Why do nations wage war with one another? Why do people murder each other? Why is there insurrection and anarchy in city centers around this country these days? Where is God in all of this? These are fair questions. And you might simply chalk it up to bad actors not having Jesus as the cornerstone of their lives. And maybe you’d be right, in part. But here’s the thing: How many of us really do? Think about that for a minute. How many of us make an extra special effort to be dutiful to God on Sundays… or at least for about an hour on Sundays… but then kind of partition off our Sunday faithfulness from the rest of our lives, so that our duty to God won’t interfere with how we live our lives during the rest of the week? I’m just askin’…

“Well… our lives are always evolving,” we‘d be prone to respond. “We need to maintain our flexibility to meet the requirements of changing circumstances. God forbid we miss out on anything that might be coming to us,” right? Even if means bending the rules, or stretching the truth (just a little), or changing the way we treat people to maximize profit and efficiency. No wonder we’re wary of cornerstones… they might cramp our style… keep us from doing stuff we want to do… or place us at a worldly disadvantage. The fact is we live in a world where most folks build their lives on shifting sands (cf. Matt 7:24-27) without the benefit of a firm foundation. So, in a sense, I guess we have no one to blame for the state of the world but ourselves. 

So where is God in all of this? Remember: this is the same God who sent his own son to the vineyard, to die for the crime of showing us the way to eternal salvation, knowing all the while that we were weak… and stubborn… and afraid… and mostly unwilling to place our relationship with him at the center of our lives. What do you suppose would happen to this world if each of us “Sunday go to meeting” Christians was to start living into our vocation as Kingdom bringers… today… living every minute of every day to emulate the example Jesus set for us during his time in this earthly vineyard? Loving God and neighbor without reservation or condition, and giving generously to the least of these from the unbelievable largess that has been bestowed upon us by the Almighty? It’s no wonder folks sometimes look at Christians a little askance… “How can you say you’re a follower of Jesus and fall so short of the example he set?” And no, we’ll never be as good as Jesus. Jesus was the only perfect human that there ever has been, or ever will be. But we, and I mean each of us, could be doing a lot better job putting our relationship with the Almighty at the center of our lives, not just some days… every day. And if we did… how long might it take for people in need of a Savior (and we’re all in need of a Savior), to sit up and take notice and say, “I want some of that! I’ll have what she’s having!” How long might it take to slow, and finally reverse, the agonizing decline that has vexed humanity and Creation since the Fall and bring about the New Jerusalem, God’s Kingdom on Earth? How long might it be ‘til we see a day when the next Adolph Hitler or Osama bin Laden or even old Satan himself rears his ugly head and is immediately overwhelmed… vanquished… turned… by a people whose lives are built upon the cornerstone of God’s almighty love and righteousness? “Pie in the sky,” you say? Ah, but with God, all things are possible. 

I’ll close with a song by Harry Chapin entitled, “I wonder what would happen to this world?” Perhaps you’ve heard it before. It’s timely advice for all of us, I think.

I Wonder What Would Happen to This World
by Harry Chapin

Oh well, I wonder, yes, I wonder
What would happen
What would happen to this world?
Well, I wonder what would happen to this world?

Now if a man tried to take his time on Earth
And prove before he died
What one man’s life could be worth
Well, I wonder what would happen to this world?

And if a woman, she used a lifeline
As something more than
Some man’s servant mother wife time
Well, I wonder what would happen to this world?

Oh well, I wonder, yes, I wonder
‘Bout what would happen
What would happen to this world?
Well, I wonder what would happen to this world?

As I look around me there’s such strange things
There’s muggers and there’s jugglers and we are led by clowns
If an answer ever found us, would we change things?
Or are we just a people rotten ready for the ground.

And if our future lies on the final line
Are we brave enough
To see the signals and the signs
I wonder what would happen to this world?

We see the people, we see them marchin’ down
Do we join the parade
Or do we try and turn around
Well, I wonder what would happen to this world?

Oh well, I wonder, yes, I wonder
‘Bout what would happen
What would happen to this world?
Well, I wonder what would happen to this world?

Disciple children walk the streets, selling books and flowers
Can they be last ones with a semblance of a dream?
If we say that no one’s out there and we say we’re goin’ nowhere
And we avoid the question, is this all that it means?

Oh, if a man tried to take his time on earth
And prove before he died
What one man’s life could be worth
And I wonder what would happen to this world.

Oh well, I wonder, yes, I wonder
‘Bout what would happen
What would happen to this world?
Well, I wonder what would happen to this world?
Yes, I wonder what would happen to this world?

Lyrics © Warner Chappell Music, Inc

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