Sometimes one wonders just what the lectionary creators had in mind when they paired together certain scriptures. Often there is a clear theme that presents itself. Other times, not so much. This week, the theme holding together three of the readings seems to be…stones. Rocks. Stones used to injure, stones used to protect, stones as obstacles, as building material, stones used to point to spiritual realities.
As you may be aware, I’m a week away from starting a Sabbatical that will include a fair amount of time on the farm where I grew up; doing some farm and garden work with my parents along with times of study and writing. A certain segment of my mind has gone to anticipating and preparing for that time. When I think of stones, I think of a couple different ways that stones have been a part of our farm.
One of the spring projects on the farm when I was young was walking the fields for stones. This involved pretty much what it sounds like. Before the spring planting, before the fields were covered with crops, three or four of us would walk up and down the fields and pick up stones. Our fields grew good crops, but they were also pretty good at producing stones. These stones would appear after the fall ploughing had turned the soil over, stones that had made their way up through the earth during the process of freezing and thawing, expansion and contraction, that causes a slow motion heaving of objects up to surface. Those objects being stones. Originally formed under the massive pressures of the earth now climbing up toward the light of day. Despite the poetry of their heroic and improbable journey, they were not welcome. They were a major obstacle and hazard for farm machinery and didn’t exactly aid in the kind of harvest my dad and uncle were interested in. So they had to go. We would walk the field, with one person puttering along in a bobcat, and everytime a stone was spotted it would be chucked into the bobcat bucket, which, when full, would be dumped at the edge of the field, and the process repeated many times. Occasionally there would be the massive stone that simply could not be moved. These stones became a part of the geography of the farm, and the person driving the tractor for planting and harvest needed to have a knowledge of where these permanent fixtures were located. Otherwise, they would be not so gently reminded with the jolt of steel machinery encountering unbudging boulder.
The other way that stones were present on the farm was that they formed, and still form, the foundation of our barn. Before poured concrete foundations, or cinder block became more common, these barns were built on field stone, stacked carefully together, with each rock chosen just for the void needed to filled in that spot, held together with mortar. I imagine at some point on the farm there would have been a walking the fields for stones for another purpose. They’re a major pain lying there with the crops, but in order to have a place to keep the crops protected, you’ve got to have these stones providing a firm base to hold up the barn.
Stones are some of the main characters in three of today’s scriptures.
The Acts reading rather abruptly throws us into the middle of a mob scene in which Stephen, the first martyr of the early church, is the recipient of people’s anger and rage and, stones. Stephen had been chosen by the apostles to lead up food distribution within the growing Jerusalem church. When they would gather together, these early Christians would often bring as their offerings actual food, the harvest of their fields, or purchased goods, to be distributed to those in need. It was a pantry system that needed quick distribution because everything was perishable. There had been complaining that the Jewish believers were being favored over the Greek believers in the food distribution. Faced with this problem, the apostles say, “It is not right that we should neglect the word of God in order to wait on tables.” This is kind of a loaded statement, which seems to assume there is some kind of conflict, or order of importance, between preaching (the word of God), and serving (waiting on tables). It’s hard to know just what they mean by it, but what they do ends up being a pretty good leadership decision. The apostles appoint seven others with spiritual gifts in this area to head up the Jerusalem food pantry/community meal, Stephen being the leader of these.
Maybe it’s just his personality, maybe he was inspired, or maybe it was through his daily encounter with need and poverty, but Stephen can’t keep his mouth shut. He comes out with some pretty harsh words to say against the Jerusalem authorities and ends up provoking a crowd of people, which leads to his death by stoning. The first martyr of the church, following in the footsteps of Christ, wasn’t an apostle dedicated to the “word of God,” but the lead waiter on tables, the chair of the board of the food pantry.
The book of Acts makes considerable effort to present Stephen’s death as an echo of Jesus’ death. In his final moments he declares two phrases that were also on Jesus’ lips on the cross. “Lord, receive my Spirit,” and “Lord, do not hold this sin against them,” an echo of Jesus’ words, “Father, forgive them, for they don’t know what they are doing.” This appeal to forgiveness rather than an appeal to vengeance seems to be part of the very foundation on which the early church was built. The power of Christ, the power of the church, was its power to serve and its power to forgive and not get caught up in the cycle of vengeance, to present a completely different way of structuring relationships.
The first phrase that Jesus and Stephen say, “Into your hand I commit my Spirit,” is a reference to a Psalm, Psalm 31. The irony of Stephen calling this out, with rocks clutched and hurled at him, is clear enough in looking at the Psalm. The Psalm says, “O Lord, be a rock of refuge for me, a strong fortress to save me. You are indeed my rock and my fortress. Into your hand I commit my spirit.” When the Psalmist, and Stephen, are under attack, they seek refuge in the sturdy, protective, steadfast love of God, the most solid gift we’ve been given. God’s love is like a rock, even when we humans misuse these rocks and other parts of creation to inflict harm.
One chapter into his letter to the believers spread out throughout Asia Minor, after speaking to them about new birth, resurrection, suffering, and salvation, Peter’s mind turns to stones. He gives us a clue that he is taking us into the territory of paradox when his first reference has to do with living stones. “Come to Christ, a living stone, though rejected by mortals yet chosen and precious in God’s sight, and like living stones, let yourselves be built into a spiritual house.” Stones are many things, but one thing they are not, as far as I have ever known, is living. But this is only the beginning of the apostle Peter’s extended stone meditation. He follows this up by quoting three stone scriptures. First from Isaiah, then from the Psalms, then another passage from Isaiah. Choosing them carefully from the pile of scriptures to select from, as if he’s trying to piece them together just so, to build some kind of structure out of these words themselves. The series goes like this: “For it stands in scripture: ‘See, I am laying in Zion a stone, a cornerstone chosen and precious; and whoever believes in it will not be put to shame.’” That’s the first Isaiah stone. Then Peter says, “To you then who believe, he is precious; but for those who do not believe, ‘The stone the builders rejected has become the capstone,’ and ‘A stone that makes them stumble, and a rock that makes them fall.’”
This letter may or may not be written by the actual apostle Peter. It could have been written in his name by a next generation follower, but I find it interesting that a letter bearing Peter’s name has a section that meditates on stones. Peter’s name means rock, given to him by Jesus himself after Simon Peter had confessed faith in him. When Jesus gives you a nickname, you probably spend some time meditating on what in the world it might mean. Jesus had asked Simon, “Who do you say that I am,” and Simon had answered, “You are the Christ.” Jesus had then responded, “Blessed are you Simon son of Jonah. I tell you, you are Peter, the rock, Rocky, and on this rock I will build my church.”
Peter must have wondered what this meant. Catholics and Protestants have understood this verse differently. Catholics emphasize that Peter is the rock on which the church is built. Peter, despite his shortcomings, is the head of the church, the first pope. Protestants interpret Jesus’ words as meaning that it was Peter’s faith, his confession of Christ, that is the rock on which the church is built, a faith shared by all who give a similar confession.
However Peter interpreted this phrase himself, and his new name, the letter bearing Mr. Rock’s name meditates on Christ as the living stone.
If living stone is a paradox, so is the way these stone scriptures are used to refer to Christ. Christ is “a stone that makes them stumble, and a rock that makes them fall.” I would expect more of an emphasis on Christ as a firm foundation, but Peter imagines Christ more like one of those big boulders out in the field, that one that just won’t budge. That obstacle that sticks out of the ground that you try and avoid. One could be minding one’s own business, going about one’s regular routines, up and down the field, following the normal pattern of things, and all of a sudden be jolted and tripped up. This is certainly what had happened to Peter and his fishing buddies back in the day. They had an unanticipated collision with Christ that jarred them out of the plans they had for themselves. Now they were all in.
Christ is also “The stone that the builders rejected which has become the cornerstone.” This verse from Psalm 118:22 is one of the Old Testament verses most often quoted in the New. It seems like a riddle kind of a verse, but was probably pretty easily understood for those who prayed it as a part of their liturgy. Israel had been oppressed by the various empires of their time, nations building themselves up through warfare and conquering, and Israel, the nation whose laws taught justice, compassion for the poor and stranger, had been rejected. But they still believed that the ways of justice and God’s steadfast love for all people were the only things worth building on, even though the big builders of empire had other plans. “The stone the builders rejected has become the cornerstone. Jesus, and the next in line, Stephen, living the way of forgiveness, were rejected by builders who wanted nothing to do with them. But this becomes the very cornerstone of a whole new structure that was being built – the church.
What do our relationships look like when we build them with justice, forgiveness, kindness, and compassion as the cornerstone – values too easily rejected? Peter would call these living stones, built into a spiritual house. Joel Salatin is a farmer in the Shenandoah valley of Virginia who believes we need to be building forgiveness into not only our human relationships, but our relationship with the earth. Here’s what he has to say about it. “I believe one of the most fundamental things that we are supposed to do as stewards of the landscape, is build forgiveness into the system. You can call it resililiency, flex, or whatever, but I like to call it forgiveness. We know there’s going to be bad things that happen. There’s going to be floods and hurricanes, there’s going to droughts. And so part of our responsibility is to bring that forgiveness, that redemption, into the landscape, and make it more resilient. So when it floods, the soil isn’t going to leave us. When it’s dry, there’s enough organic matter – one pound of organic matter holds four pounds of water – so as we lift our organic matter, then our water retention is much better, so that in a drought, our grass can continue to get moisture longer into the season” (For a clip of Joel Salatin talking about this, click HERE)” He talks about different ways that his farm builds forgiveness and resiliency into their animals and the way they do business, so they don’t get shocked when commodity prices or fuel prices fluctuate. Their strong network of relationships with those who buy their food protects them from those forces, builds forgiveness into the system. It’s the cornerstone of how they do business.
This is one of the things I want to be considering back on the farm this summer. Those things which are too easily rejected, which we too easily build our lives without, as being the very key for what we need to be building.
Within Peter’s stone meditation he includes the idea that we, ourselves, are living stones. That we together are being built into a people, a new sort of structure, which reflects Christ. A shelter, a refuge, a people who live by the laws of mercy, forgiveness and compassion. You are living stones.