A sermon by Keith Herron, Pastor, Holmeswood Baptist Church, Kansas City, Mo.
The Fifth Sunday after Easter
I Peter 2:2-10
May 18, 2014
Psalm 31:1-5, 15-16; John 14:1-14; Acts 7:55-60
As historical accounts attest, September 18, 1793 was a beautiful early fall day. President George Washington was decked out in his ceremonial Masonic apron festooned with the universal symbols of the Masonic square and compass. On this festive day, the president laid the cornerstone to the U.S. Capitol. It was a grand day filled with pomp and ritual, music, food, ceremonial corn, and wine and oil brought by the President’s fellow Masons.
But that fact has been overshadowed by an embarrassing fact because recently a search was undertaken to locate the cornerstone of the Capitol Building. The silver plaque unveiled by President Washington has also disappeared, never to be seen after this auspicious day. But on the southeast corner reads this promise from a plaque placed there on the centennial of that original dedication that reads simply:
“Beneath this tablet is the original cornerstone for the building.”
The only problem with that pronouncement is that no cornerstone was found despite a thorough excavation. Nothing! To the shock and embarrassment of researchers and historians alike, it simply wasn’t there.
For years, it was assumed that the centennial plaque’s message was correct. Historical records from 1793 noted that George Washington, our first President, had been present at the ceremony when the cornerstone was officially laid. The plaque was placed at this particular site on the hundredth celebration of this dedication because it was assumed this was the location.
In fact, they were hoping to find a time capsule full of precious artifacts from the period. But all their assumptions were wrong. After years of painstaking research, using advanced technological scientific instruments, they have yet to find what they were looking for.
Some wags have claimed that the absence of such a foundation stone might explain some things on Capitol Hill in our day. The missing cornerstone is a parable of our time, namely, that the moral and political foundation on which our country was created has been lost.
Cornerstones have always had a symbolic importance. They mark a ceremonial place of beginning. They signify a community’s hopes and dreams for the building and for how the building will serve the needs of the country. They give meaning to the mind of the designer and help join other stones in building the structure itself. The structural integrity of the whole structure can be traced to the foundation that’s laid and represented by a building’s cornerstone. It’s a way to signify a people’s vision for what will take place in and through the structure erected on this spot.
While we may not have laid such a ceremonial cornerstone to this structure, when you walk out the door, you cannot help noticing that our own sanctuary is in its thirtieth year, having been dedicated in 1984.
Cornerstones are laid in formal dedication ceremonies. Dignitaries give long, typically forgettable speeches. Many cornerstones are hollowed out and filled with important documents, newspaper clippings of the day, and items of interest to persons who may one day tear down the building, perhaps hundreds of years later. The date of the laying of the cornerstone is usually etched into the stone and the names of the dignitaries are carved into the stone as well. Then the stone is laid in place.
More importantly, a cornerstone is always set deep in the earth, and provides the building the support it needs to stand securely in place. It keeps the building from falling down on top of all who enter it. Its placement is the surety that the building will be a good building and not a dangerous place. So what does it mean when the cornerstone cannot be found?
If we’re honest, the lack of a proper cornerstone would explain the truth about most of us. It would explain why we can appear to be pious and righteous on the outside when the inside of our lives are shadowy and chaotic. It would explain why our lives are barren of the kind of fruit that Jesus claimed was the by-product of truly faithful lives.
Everyone needs a cornerstone in their lives. If your life was excavated and a search for a cornerstone was conducted, what would they find? The evidence for many of us is that our cornerstones are missing. The structures of our lives have foundation problems and cracks. We have misplaced values about vocation and home; there are forgotten children and what passes for a family is often a sham. People are wrapped up in their careers but not typically involved in their relational or spiritual needs. With no cornerstone, we are bodies without souls. We are lost in the world. We are disconnected from everything that gives life meaning.
Peter uses a common architectural concept to communicate a deep truth about how we live in relation to God. Jesus is the cornerstone. He plays off the inanimate, a stone, and brings it to life in his comparison. We think of a stone as being unusually lifeless, cold and mute.
Annie Dillard, essayist and naturalist, once wrote a collection of stories called, Teaching a Stone to Talk. In the story from which the book gets its title, she writes about an unusual man named Larry who lived on the same Puget Sound Island on which she lived. Larry was comically known among the local islanders for having a stone that he was trying to teach to speak. He kept the stone on a shelf in his main room and covered it with a small square of untanned leather. He removed the stone’s leather blanket for the talking lessons he gave the stone several times a day.
The use of the inanimate for the living is a powerful image here. Perhaps it points us to the connection God has with all things in the world. Perhaps it is Peter’s way of helping us know that God is in the center of all things and we are take our cues from that immense fact. But the use of the cornerstone as a statement of Christ’s importance in the world is also amazing. Christ is the one by which everything is measured and held together. Christ is the one who gives all of us an idea of who we are and then it is by him that we are sustained in the world. All of us need to go in search of our cornerstone and to then live according to his purposes in our lives.
Maybe that’s why I Peter begins this passage with the needs of spiritual babies.
“Get rid of all malice, and all guile, insincerity,
envy and all slander.
Like newborn babies, long for the pure, spiritual milk,
so that by it you may grow into salvation.” (I Peter 2:1-2)
Babies need what they need in order to set the direction of their lives. All kinds of problems develop when the necessary things are withheld from them at this point in their lives. Have you heard of children who did not receive the proper comfort from their parents when they were young? Have you heard of children whose bodies are irreparably damaged when they don’t receive proper nutrition?
Peter wants them to have all the essentials they need for their growth in Christ. If this describes the state of your soul, take the advice that Peter offers, “become like a baby and desire the pure, spiritual milk that will enable you to grow.”
There are some who believe that this entire letter from Peter is really a communal letter. That is, it’s a letter that’s written with the whole people of God in mind, not a letter meant to be read in the isolation of individualism. In other words, we approach the letter by asking: What does it say to us rather than to you or me? If this is a letter directed to the community of faith, what does it have to say to all of us?
Not only is Christ the cornerstone by which the world is held together, the strength and power of that stone that holds all things in their place, but we are also invited to become a part of the structure that God is building in the world. We are named by Peter to be “living stones” made in the image of God, and placed in the world to be a part of the larger picture of what God wants to do in the world.
Each one of us becomes a communal portrait of the community of God. Each one of us has a role to play and we are invited to place ourselves among the people of God in building the kingdom of God.
Welton Gaddy used this truth to encourage all of us “to come out our hiding places under bushel baskets and out of our cultural camouflage to serve.” He stresses that we are called to be “saints.”
That’s the third great idea Peter uses in this passage to remind us who we are. First we are spiritual neophytes, we are like the tiniest tender babies, who need to be loved and nurtured into being. Then we are made into living stones piled on top of the surety of Christ, our cornerstone. We are given a place in the kingdom and we are called upon to play our part faithfully. Only in responding to our calling are we ready to be useful to God. We are made into priests. We are God’s royalty, “God’s own people,” Peter reminds us. “Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people,” he tells us. Gaddy stresses that sainthood is not an honor bestowed by the church but a way of living required and made possible by Jesus Christ.
From nobodies to somebodies. From stone cold dead to living stones. Each one of us, having a place in the heart and purposes of God. God is inviting you to come join in the project. There’s a process that’s offered.
© Dr. Keith D. Herron 2014
 Peter W. Marty, “A House of Living Stones,” from The Christian Century, 4/24/96, 451
 Annie Dillard, Teaching a Stone to Talk, HarperPerennial,1988,87
 C. Welton Gaddy, “Saints Step Forward,” from Tuning the Heart: University Sermons, Mercer University Press,1990, 170-173
Intentional interim minister at Countryside Community Church of Omaha, Nebraska, the Christian partner in the Tri-Faith Initiative, a partnership with the American Muslim Institute and Temple Israel. He is author of Living a Narrative Life, Exploring the Power of Stories (Smyth & Helwys, 2019).