Scriptures: Psalm 118 ; Mark 12:1-12
(Based on Journey of Stones: A Sermon Series for Lent and Easter by Steven Molin)
As we continue our sermon series today, that started on Ash Wednesday, in this Journey of Stones, we are talking today about rejected stones. It's a terrible thing to be rejected. To be told in word or attitude or action that we're unacceptable or unworthy or unnecessary is a terrible thing indeed.
I want you to think back, if that has ever happened to you. Have you ever been turned down by the college of your choice, not chosen for the job you wanted, not selected by that special boy or girl? Maybe something even more simple and plain – always the last person picked for the team at school and recess.
Or perhaps they call you things. I have always been large, and by first grade, a lot of the kids were calling me Bubble Butt or Buffalo Butt. In middle school and I wrestled and played soccer, and in soccer I was known as the Tank, because I would just run over people. It was meant as a compliment.
Even my coach in wrestling in high school, his nickname for me was the Deceiver, because I would get on the scales – I wrestled at 185 – and I actually had some wrestlers from the other team laugh at me. But I was 21 and 7 for my record, using brains and skill. But I didn't have the “build” that typical wrestlers have.
Sometimes, even when folks are trying to be nice, there's an element of rejection in what they say and do. Over a lifetime, that rejection can propel us in one of two directions. It can either cause in us resilience and a determination to succeed – though I would warn you (although you people are already of an age you probably know this) to be careful it doesn't become the kind of perfectionism that can get in the way of things.
Or it can make us bitter, resentful, and jaded. The world rejected us, so we reject the world. Rejection can transform us into caring, sensitive, and compassionate human beings. Because we've been rejected, we know what it feels like, so we can empathize with somebody that's being rejected. Or it can leave us cold, judgmental, and angry. If you're going to criticize me, then I'll certainly find a way to criticize you. And since nobody's perfect, it's almost always easy to take that path.
As a case in point, let me share with you the words of Dr. James Dobson, written about one who was rejected. See if you can guess who it is, before I tell you. Dobson writes:
His life began with all the classic handicaps and disadvantages. His mother had been married three times; his father died a few months before he was born. His mother gave him no affection, no love, no discipline, and no training in those early years. She even forbade him to call her at work. Other children would have nothing to do with him. At the age of thirteen, a school psychologist commented that the boy probably didn't know the meaning of the word “love.” During adolescence, the girls would have nothing to do with him and he fought with the boys.
As a young adult, he failed academically and then dropped out of high school. He joined the Marines but the other Marines laughed at him and made fun of him. In time, he was court-martialed and thrown out of the military. When he eventually married, his wife belittled him, ridiculed his sexual impotence, and ultimately divorced him.
Finally, in silence, he pleaded no more. No one wanted him. No one had ever wanted him. He was perhaps the most rejected man of our time. Then, one day, he arose, went to the garage and took down a rifle he had hidden there, and brought it to his newly-acquired job at a book storage building. And shortly after noon on November 22, 1963, he sent two shells crashing into the head of President John Fitzgerald Kennedy.
That “most rejected man of our time” was, of course, Lee Harvey Oswald.
In Old Testament times, the Jews were a rejected people. All the powerful and mighty nations of the world looked at them and laughed; they dismissed Israel as an unimportant and dishonored people. Note that that didn't stop them from wanted the Jews' territory. Even today, Israel is surrounded by nations that hate them, belittle them, don't think they're human – but still want their territory, their land.
God had a different idea about them. In the Psalm which was read a few minutes ago, God spoke of the Jews as stones … important stones. “The same stone which the builders rejected has become the chief capstone,” as your translation says, or “cornerstone.”
Now a capstone, you may or may not know, is the stone that's in the center of an arch. It's usually bigger and a slightly different shape than the rest of the stones. It takes all of the pressure of both sides. It's critical. And just like in Jenga, if you take it out, the whole thing comes crashing down.
A cornerstone, in ancient times, before there were laser beams and electronic levels (not that those have helped me get it right), the cornerstone was more than just a place on which to write the date of the building. It was the most important stone in the entire structure. It alone would establish a building's ground level, and its accuracy as far as its shape. It alone assured that the foundation would be solid. The cornerstone ensured that all the other stones would be kept in line, straight, level and secure.
God said that the people of Israel would be the world's cornerstone, that ultimately they would be powerful and respected and honored. Well, they may have been God's chosen stones, but they were rejected by the rest of the world. That's part of what the words of the psalmist mean.
When Jesus is telling his parable in today's Gospel lesson, he is speaking to those same Jews, the ones who were chosen by God but rejected by the world. They were supposed to be cornerstones. They were supposed to be the moral and ethical and religious compass of humanity, giving shape and direction, though the giving of the Law and the Prophets. But they became compromised along the way.
God had provided them with everything they would need to be content and happy in this world; their only responsibility was to be faithful and righteous. When God sent prophets and priests to remind the Jews of their responsibility, the Jews had a history of rejecting them. They ridiculed them, and in some cases, they even killed the prophets. Even someone as great as Isaiah, legend says (outside the Scriptures) that he was finally shoved into a hollow log and cut in half. Not a good way to go.
Through the voice of this parable today, Jesus suggests to the Jews that they would even kill God's Son if he were to come. Guess what happened?
Now Jesus becomes the cornerstone. He becomes the most important stone in the church. He sets the moral standard. He alone holds the church together. Jesus is our cornerstone. Only he is the foundation upon which the Kingdom of God rests.
I heard, and I'm sorry I don't remember which teacher it was, on WDLM, but he gave a very interesting metaphor. He said there are three kinds of churches. The church that is focused on the individual member is about self-discovery, as you walk your path of faith. It's all about you.
Then there's another kind of church, which is very common today, and that is one that is focused on the church. That's usually about “what can we do together” and “look at what we did,” as a community. Frequently they're very insular. That is, they're very willing to take care of each other, but the only time they reach out is for the purpose of reminding people that “we're here.”
The third kind of church is the one that is centered on Christ. They care for each other in the love of Christ. They uplift each other, not so the church can do better, not so the person can discover themselves, but to glorify God. When they reach out in their mission and their contacts with the community and the world, their focus is on sharing the gospel, the good news of Jesus Christ, so that, not that they get noticed, but God may be glorified.
Jesus said, as he was rejected by the very people who were supposed to receive him, “Have you not read this scripture: 'The stone which the builders rejected, this became the chief cornerstone.'” We need to look at this passage and realize that we too have rejected Jesus as the cornerstone of our lives.
We can criticize the Jews all we want to, but we must come to terms with the fact that we too have not let Christ set the moral and ethical standard in our lives. For the most part, Jesus is not the cornerstone that holds us up, but rather the millstone that drags us down. His expectations are too great, we say, so we reject his claim upon our lives and do things our way.
I believe it was Saint Augustine who created what's called the pyramid of priorities, and each of us has one. Here is how it works: we list the six most important things in our life. Maybe they would be family, money, reputation, job, God, and health. But when you're asked to take two away, what would you have left? Maybe family, job, God, and health. Now eliminate two more. You see the dilemma, don't you? Augustine says that when you get down to that one final thing … that thing that you say is the most valuable … that becomes the god of your life. That becomes the cornerstone.
The way I like to put it is, in the Scriptures, particularly in the letters of Paul, coming from 1 Corinthians, our priority pyramid is to be our relationship with God, our relationship with our family, and then our relationship with our church community – our bigger family.
Often instead it's family, then God and church. Sometimes for pastors it seems to be church, then family and God. Sometimes churches seem to expect that it would be church, church, and church – not that you do here, that's one of the things that I love about you folks. But I've been in a church, I've led a church, where that was the underlying expectation. It was never spoken, but you could see it acted out.
You might say, “Well, Pastor, we're not ever faced with those sorts of choices, that Augustine gave, so it's really a silly exercise.” I disagree. I think we're faced with those choices on a daily basis, but we have become so accustomed to rationalizing our behavior, we don't see it as rejecting Jesus.
“We can't do that now, even if Jesus would like us to, because we have all this other stuff going on.” Another phrase that I heard once, that I like to throw out for you (as I have done before in sermons and I will keep using it), is: “Don't ever lose sight of the important, under the tyranny of the urgent.”
You know, “Columbine” has become synonymous with the anger and angst and disillusionment that seems to permeate our culture today. It was the first school shooting event, that seemed to start the trend that continues to this day, unfortunately. Two teenage boys – themselves supposedly rejected by their peers – went on a tragic rampage.
One of the people they encountered in the library that afternoon was a young woman by the name of Cassie Burnall. The story goes that with a gun pointed directly at her face, she was asked if she believed in God. She could have said, “No,” and lived. She could have rejected the One whom she believed to be the Cornerstone of her life, and the shooter would have perhaps gone to shoot someone else. But she said, “Yes.” And they killed her. You can read some of this in a book written by Cassie's mom, She Said, “Yes.”
Few of us, if any, will ever have to take that kind of stand. But our conflicts of conscience present themselves in everyday settings, like telling the truth on our income tax forms or not; being faithful in our marriage or not; giving our children or our grandchildren role models they can emulate or not; having integrity in every business dealing or not.
These days, how much control do we let the government have, and when do we reach the point that we must obey God rather than man? Those arguments are going on constantly, throughout the nation, for the last few months. These are some of the ways that we reject Jesus in this present age.
Each of you holds a stone in your hand. It's an important stone – perhaps the most important stone – because it is symbolic of Jesus as the cornerstone of our lives. Maybe you don't need to lay this stone at the foot of the cross, an indication of the times you have rejected Jesus. Maybe you will take that stone home with you. In your honest retrospection, perhaps you believe that you have not rejected Jesus in your daily living. Then please, if that's so, take the stone home.
But I know what I must do. There are far too many times when I know what Jesus has called me to do, but I don't. [Drops stone at the foot of the cross.] Fortunately, we can receive forgiveness at the foot of the cross. I would invite you at this time, if you are so moved, to come forward and put your stone at the foot of the cross. [People go forward and leave stones at the foot of the cross.] Remember that that stone represents rejection, but also remember the grace that we receive from God, through Jesus Christ. Amen.