Sermon for the 18th Sunday after Trinity: “Living Stones” preached at the Eucharist, Sherborne Abbey on Sunday, 8 October 2023 by the Reverend Robert Green (Philippians Ch 3: v 4b – 14; Matthew Ch 21: v 33 – end).
If you look at a plan of Durham Cathedral, and draw a circle around it including the cloisters, the centre point is a pillar in the South transept where one of the stones has been cut away. Why? Because “the stone the builders rejected has become the cornerstone”. The architectural centre of the whole building is a cutaway stone, and you realise that the planning of the structure has a deeply spiritual meaning. This verse from Psalm 118 which Jesus quotes in our Gospel this morning has many overtones, and being preceded by the Parable of the Vineyard, the chief priests and the Pharisees realise that Jesus was talking about them, and they were not pleased.
In the Parable of the Vineyard, we heard about the tenants of a vineyard who were determined not to let the owner of the vineyard have the harvest which was his due, so much so, that when he sent servants to collect the harvest, they beat them and even killed some of them, when he finally sent his son, who, the owner thought they would respect, they threw him out of the vineyard and killed him. The parable has clearly very messianic overtones as in the Old Testament Israel is frequently referred to as the vineyard, and in the parable, the Owner is of course God, the tenants are the officials of Israel, and the servants are the prophets, many of whom were killed, including the last of the prophets, John the Baptist. This parable is powerful enough, but linked with the quotation from Psalm 118 the ‘Son’ in the parable and the ‘Stone’ in the psalm are the same. The Son the tenants rejected, is vindicated when the owner comes and destroys them, and gives the vineyard to someone else. The Stone the builders rejected, is vindicated when it goes in place at the top of the corner. It is Jesus’s way of explaining what is going on then and there. It is his perspective on the very events he was involved in- rejected by those he had come to, but destined to be vindicated by God. No wonder the authorities were a little annoyed!
Just as an aside it is interesting to notice that the English word ‘son’ only requires two extra letters to make ‘stone’, whilst in Hebrew the word for ‘son’ which is ben only requires one extra letter ‘e’ to make eben ‘stone’. It may or may not be of significance, but for those who like to play around with words, the scrabble players amongst us, and crosswords addicts, I share it with you.
Let’s continue with this analogy of the ‘stone’, for we read in the first letter of Peter: “come to him, 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, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ” We are to become living stones based on our Cornerstone, Jesus Christ. As we gather in this magnificent building, day by day, Sunday by Sunday, crafted in stone hundreds of years old, the analogy is very real. Craftsmen have constructed this place so that as each stone is required to interlock and support each other to make the whole, not least in the intricate fan vaulting extending the whole length of this building, we as believers are to be living stones in the Church of God. As in a building each stone is necessary to complete the structure, so as a company of believers we may be built up into a spiritual house. Just as stones have to be shaped and carved to fit a particular space, so we too may need to be moulded into shape by God’s love to fulfil the particular purpose he has for us. This may involve big changes in our lives and much heart searching as we come to terms with what God is calling us to become. Paul in the Reading from Philippians spells this out as a process as he writes; ”not that I have already obtained all this, or have already been made perfect, but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me”. We are on a journey of faith, that will last throughout our lives so that we may become more and more moulded in the image of Christ, our Cornerstone.