The Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost: Proper 22
October 8th, 2017
The Rev. Austin K. Rios
St. Paul’s Within the Walls
As I came to the end of the original Stations of the Cross, a route winding throughout the old town of Jerusalem and ending within the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, I felt something give way within.
It was as if I had finally reached the limits of my rational mind, as if the tracing of Jesus’ road to the cross had finally opened a place in my heart which could simultaneously grasp both the weight of generations human suffering and the liberating power of love.
Perhaps that opening had begun with the view of the ancient city from the Mount of Olives, the place where Jesus had been hailed with Hosannas, only to descend into the valley of darkness, enter the city, and be tried as an enemy of the state due to the double-edged sword of the politically motivated religious leaders of his day and the imperial aspirations and cruel justice of Rome.
I know that turning the corner where Jesus, while carrying the cross, was said to have seen his mother, caused me to lose my breath, and struck the hard rock of my rationality as if Moses were once more striking the rock in the wilderness, producing a flow of emotions and tears.
But the dam within me finally broke when I stood within the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and placed my hand on the stone that is remembered as the place where Jesus was crucified and died.
My knees gave way, and I fell upon the stone, feeling the worn area where countless other pilgrims had done the same.
Even though the church’s structure dwarfed the rock, and all the ornate overlay of denominational territorialism, pilgrim chatter, and economically motivated devotional aids could have served as a distraction, in that moment, I could see only the stone.
I could envision it under a clear sky, standing without distinction within what used to be a Roman quarry.
An earthquake had rendered the quarry unusable for its primary function, providing stones so that the builders could continue to expand and enrich Roman villas, civic structures and monuments.
Rather than abandon it entirely, someone had the bright idea that crucifixions could be carried out there, so it was coopted for that purpose.
“The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone.”
As my body weight fell upon that rejected stone… that cold, ancient testament to all the best and worst of human kind concentrated into a single time altering moment…I newly understood what Jesus probably meant when he said, “The one who falls on this stone will be broken to pieces; and it will crush anyone on whom it falls.”
How could I be anything but broken in the presence of such sacrifice, such injustice… such love and strength?
How could anyone upon whom the weight of that moment fell not be crushed?
I’ve been reliving that Holy Land experience all week as I read through today’s readings, and struggled to come to terms with the week’s headlines, especially the gun violence in Las Vegas, and discussions about responsive legislation and laws.
The nature of God’s law is a common theme running through all today’s readings, from the outline of the law given in the 10 commandments, to Paul’s claims about faith in Christ surpassing the law, and finally in Jesus’ parable about stewards who produce discord and destruction rather than the fruits of the kingdom.
So often when we hear the term “God’s law,” a set of stone tablets, or two, may come to mind, in homage to these community binding decrees given to Moses and shared with the people of God.
Some may even recall recent pushes to place, or retain in some instances, replicas of these 10 commandments outside American courtrooms, a misguided idolization of the form of the law that distracts from the much harder, and necessary, work of living into law.
The struggle between confusing and privileging the law’s form for its fruits is not a new one.
Israel’s prophets and St. Paul’s writings are rife with calls for the faithful to put aside their fetish for the law and return to divine wisdom, and Jesus himself speaks repeatedly about not making more idols, but rather continuing the divine mission of release of the captives, living into the redemption of all creation, and creating the fruits of the kingdom within the vineyard God has given us.
That is why Isaiah is so vehement in his criticism of Israel’s religious leaders, who pay lip service to the law, but manipulate it to their own advantage and to the poor’s demise.
That is why Paul finally concludes that a strict adherence to the law led him not to the freeing faith and love he knows in Christ, but to a moral rigidity that ended in his zealous persecution of others.
Jesus goes even further by exposing the limits of our human laws, and the way those laws are often designed to keep the empire humming and the powerful in power.
He takes up his cross as an innocent man condemned by those who claim to follow the law of God and Caesar, and is crushed under the weight of their collusion.
If that were the end of the story, our hope would dissipate, and we might be left to merely eke out a shadow form of life under the current system.
We might fall at the foot of that crucifixion stone never to rise again.
Thank God for resurrection, and thank God for the animating power of the Holy Spirit which binds us as one and keeps us mindful that God’s law is fundamentally about love, freedom, and redemption.
We live in a world that is full of tragedies, both natural ones that leave us exposed to the elements and our smallness, and human ones of our own making like mass shootings, wars, and social inequality.
As those who claim to follow the one who was crucified at Calvary, and the one who broke death’s strangle hold upon the creation forever, we are called to live by a new ethic, and a new law.
It is not as if we do not remember the laws of stone that Moses was given, nor see God’s hand and presence within them.
But our primary lens for interpreting how to act, how to be, and how to live is the Corner Stone called Jesus Christ.
We learn from him how to tend this vineyard of God’s called creation.
And in the places where the later legal code arising from the Decalogue became hardened after generations of misapplication and misinterpretation by the few who put their own power over and above God’s, we ask the question, “Does this prescription satisfy the dual commandment of Loving God and loving our neighbor as ourselves?”
Not an either/or, but a both/and…Loving God means loving our neighbor, and loving our neighbor and ourselves means loving God.
There is no other law for a Christian…and it is simultaneously easy to say and remember, and monumentally challenging to live out.
There is no checklist here, no way of satisfying such a law entirely.
Because the more you practice it, the more aware you become of all the ways you fall short of it…the more you move from surface satisfactions and explorations of religion into the bedrock of our deepest resistances to living fully into the kingdom of God here on earth.
That can be a heavy and crushing realization…and can lead to paralysis if we forget God’s grace and our ultimate call to being raised from the dead.
This community of faith’s primary purpose is to tell the truth about God’s law made known in the chief Cornerstone, to re-member the broken body into a spirit-filled whole, and to support and encourage each other in producing the fruits of the kingdom, even in the midst of a host of worldly challenges to its reign.
That is what baptism is all about…that is what Jesus is asking his listeners to do in today’s Gospel, and that is the way forward for us as a people.
In the book of Ezekiel, God promises the faithful “A new heart I will give you, and a new spirit I will put within you; and I will remove from your body the heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh.”
When I got up after falling in front of Calvary, I felt like my heart of stone was firmly upon the journey to becoming one of flesh.
Open and vulnerable for sure, but capable of growth, brimming with life, and re-oriented toward fruitfulness.
Charged with living out the law of God…the law of love, forgiveness, and exodus, once more.
I pray your heart is on the same journey, and that God’s grace will enable us all to tend the vineyard well and produce fruit together this week for the healing of the nations.