Monday, May 23, 2011

Limestone and Living Stones

I gave this sermon at Good Shepherd, Houlton, Maine yesterday.  It was a gorgeous sunny day,the first sunny day in what seems like forever rain.  Izzie and I took the long way home down Route 1.  When we stopped for dinner in Machias, I think Izzie had had it with being in the car, but after a short walk and some dinner, she settled in the back seat for a snooze.

The Sermon

Moritzbrunner Altar (limestone)
Wikipedia Commons
There is a bit of a chemistry lesson in this sermon.  Don’t panic.  There’s not going to be a quiz and I think the lesson will be relatively painless. After all if we’ve managed to get past the second coming yesterday, and I don't know of anyone taken by rapture at 6 pm, then thinking a bit about how living stones get formed shouldn't be nearly as fearful.  In a very physical and scientific sense, as well as a metaphoric one, we are all living stones.  Our own bodies, especially our bones contain a lot of calcium. So does limestone.

Limestone is a form of calcium carbonate (CaCO3) called calcite.  It is often made out of coral or the bodies of other living things, although it can also be precipitated out from groundwater depending on several factors, including the water temperature, how acidic or basic the water is, and what the concentration of CaCO3 is in the water.

Limestone is a common building material, and you can find it in many landmarks around the world, like the Great Pyramid in Giza, Egypt.  Many medieval churches and castles in Europe are made of limestone.  It is easily available and relatively easy to cut into blocks or carve into statues. It is also long-lasting and stands up well to weather, but not acid rain. Train stations, banks and other structures from the 19th century are often made of limestone. Limestone was also a very popular building material in the Middle Ages since it is hard, durable, and often is found nearby in easy to quarry surface deposits.

But all of this is about dead stones.  They may be stones made out of the skeletal remains of living creatures, but dead never-the-less.  Peter calls us living stones, and we are.  Now I know that this building is made of wood, but imagine it as being built of living stones: you and all those who have gone before you. You are the building blocks of this body we call the church. Some of you are the solid stones that form the walls and keep out the storms, some of you are a bit fancier and might have been carved into interior spaces, fluted to please the eye or made into chambers that resound with music.  Yet no matter what your function is, it is needed.  It is needed because it is part of this foundation of living stones that started with the disciples including Stephen, and his stoner Saul, and with the words of Peter, we are called to become a holy  priesthood, building this spiritual house we call the church.

And Paul, that Saul who persecuted the followers of  Jesus, speaks of Jesus as being the cornerstone for our living stones. Now when you make a stone building, the cornerstone (also called the foundation stone) is the first stone set in the construction of a stone building.  This stone is important because all the other stones are to be set in reference to this stone.  So the position of the corner stone impacts the whole building.  In our New England, the corner stone is more likely to be made of granite, a more common type of stone, rather than limestone as it is stronger and not so subject to erosion from acid rain and so many of our churches are made of wood instead of stone, but the cornerstone is there non-the-less, only it is usually more of a ceremonial stone set in a prominent place on the outside of the building with an inscription on it usually with the date the building was constructed.  Sometimes there is a time capsule included and sometimes the ceremony of laying the cornerstone includes placing an offering of grain, wine, or oil under the stone, reminiscent of both Old and New Testament  times.

The grain, wine and oil were symbolic of the produce and the people of the land and how they earned their livings. This in turn derived from the practice in still more ancient times of making an animal or human sacrifice that was laid in the foundations. I learned that this practice wasn't so ancient in a cultural center in Fiji where we were told of how enemy warriors used to be buried under the four corners of the foundation of a building. Their strength would make the foundations strong.

While looking up materials about cornerstones i came across this report from The Cork (Ireland) Examiner of 13 January 1865: (Wikipedia)

“...The Deputy Provincial Grand Master of Munster, applying the golden square and level to the stone said ; " My Lord Bishop, the stone has been proved and found to be 'fair work and square work' and fit to be laid as the foundation stone of this Holy Temple".' After this, Bishop Gregg spread cement over the stone with a trowel specially made for the occasion by John Hawkesworth, a silversmith and a jeweller. He then gave the stone three knocks with a mallet and declared the stone to be 'duly and truly laid'. The Deputy Provincial Grand Master of Munster poured offerings of corn, oil and wine over the stone after Bishop Gregg had declared it to be 'duly and truly laid'. The Provincial Grand Chaplain of the Masonic Order in Munster then read out the following prayer: 'May the Great Architect of the universe enable us as successfully to carry out and finish this work. May He protect the workmen from danger and accident, and long preserve the structure from decay; and may He grant us all our needed supply, the corn of nourishment, the wine of refreshment, and the oil of joy, Amen. So mote it be.' The choir and congregation then sang the 100th Psalm.”

In the Eastern Orthodox tradition, and in some Western Churches as well, the cornerstone is a solid stone cube upon which a cross has been carved. In the top of the stone a cross-shaped space is hollowed out into which relics may be placed. If no relics are inserted in the stone, the inscription may be omitted, but not the cross. We are reminded as we look at these buildings that Jesus is the cornerstone. And he is the cornerstone of how we build our lives and our communities.  If we try to use some other cornerstone, we risk putting up a foundation that is not true and risks falling down.

Auden speaks of limestone in his poem, In Praise of Limestone, where he mentions geology, and history and ends up with a religious questioning. I'll only recite a part of the poem, but I recommend the poem to those of you who like to wrestle with layers of meaning.

................. these
Are our common prayer, whose greatest comfort is music
Which can be made anywhere, is invisible,
And does not smell. In so far as we have to look forward
To death as a fact, no doubt we are right: But if
Sins can be forgiven, if bodies rise from the dead,
These modifications of matter into
Innocent athletes and gesticulating fountains,
Made solely for pleasure, make a further point:
The blessed will not care what angle they are regarded from,
Having nothing to hide. Dear, I know nothing of
Either, but when I try to imagine a faultless love
Or the life to come, what I hear is the murmur
Of underground streams, what I see is a limestone landscape.

Christ, the cornerstone of our faith, is a faultless love; a love whose resurrection made a promise of our own resurrection to come.  Christ is the cornerstone, whose resurrection promises us a home, a dwelling place, with Him and with the Father: a place prepared for each of us, where the foundations have been well and truly laid. We, the living stones, are called to build block by block the church, which grows in spite of our own imperfections. We, the living stones, are called to become perfect because the cornerstone was laid true.  The cornerstone in whom we are able to get a glimpse of God our creator.  Our precipitation or laying down of our own calcium carbonate into the underground stream of living water leaves a legacy of our faith to those who follow and the pattern of the divine architect will continue being built until it reaches perfection when we are in God’s time.