So I looked at our lections for this coming Sunday (Easter V), and ended up closing my eyes and trying to find a way to not have to accept them. The first lesson we get to hear? The stoning of Stephen. Yes, that’s right, the first martyring of the new church. We see this young man filled with the Holy Spirit, looking up into the sky and seeing God revealed there… and being dragged away and stoned to death. And then in the gospel reading Jesus says, let not your hearts be troubled. Um, yeah Jesus. Riiiiiight. So that was my first reaction.
I do notice a thread running through these readings, and it didn’t exactly leap out at me, but just sort of sang softly to me as I read them through, and then again in a different order. And the thread isn’t exactly pretty shiny golden thread – which, if you do fiber work, you know is impractical and annoying because those pretty shiny metallic threads like to snag and break at every possible opportunity. Rather, the thread is normal, pedestrian, boring. It is stone. Rock. It’s around us all the time, but we don’t always notice it. We need rock. We build on it. We build with it. We depend on it. Since dirt is pretty much ground-up rocks, rock is where we came from, and it is where we end up going (remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return). Sometimes it looks grand and glorious, like the craggy mountains in the poem that we heard quoted in last Sunday’s sermon at my parish. Sometimes it points to our past, like a fossil or a chunk of amber that contains a leaf or a bug. Sometimes rock is sparkly and irresistable, like glittering diamonds or rubies or sapphires. Sometimes it is modern, like the concrete and asphalt that make up so much of our cities in America. Sometimes is is simple and sweet, like a stone washed in the river.
The first hint comes in the collect, and it is oblique. We pray in the collect for the knowledge and grace to steadfastly follow in the steps of Jesus. And rock is steadfast. It can’t help it – rock can’t be anything but steadfast. Steadfast doesn’t have to mean unmoving; in fact, the way the word is used in this collect, we are in motion. Like a stone being carried by the waves of the ocean, we are faithfully trying to walk in the footsteps of Jesus. Faithfully, strongly, perfectly. Does this mean we never wander? Does this mean we never see anything exciting on one side of the path or the other? Of course not! This collect is our prayer as the body of Christ come together for worship. We are asking for the perfect knowledge of Jesus so that we can follow in his footsteps, but we know we are humans, and God knows we are humans.
Of course, the next rocks we encounter in Sunday’s readings are very different. They are steadfast and strong – to the point of killing someone. And Stephen? His words show that he is steadfastly following in the footsteps of Jesus, even to the point of asking God’s forgiveness for the very people who are killing him. I really don’t know if I could do this. I try to imagine what it must feel like – the anger, the frustration, the helpless rage – and I wonder whether those give way to resignation once I know there is nothing more I can do to save my life, and at that moment, I could find the peace to pray for forgiveness. Or is it more likely I would fight to the very end? I just don’t know, and I have a hard time even imagining.
The psalm for this week gives us several different images of rocks, as does the epistle reading. We have stones that make us stumble and fall. We have a strong rock, stone built into a castle and a tower in which we can find shelter and safety. We have the stone on which a strong building is set, a cornerstone. We have a stone that is chosen and precious, a living stone on which to build a spiritual house. We have God as a stone, and we have false prophets as stones, and we have Jesus as a stone. And we are invited and challenged to become living stones ourselves, to become like Jesus who is chosen and precious. Because the truth is, every last one of us is chosen by God and is precious in God’s eyes.
In the gospel, the stone is somewhat hidden again. The rock – the living stone – is what forms my Father’s house, where Jesus has prepared a place for all of us to dwell. Just as our homes in this world are built at least in part from rock, our spiritual home in God’s kingdom is made from the living rock as well. Of course, this makes me think, what on earth is living rock like? And I guess the answer to that is, nothing on earth. Living rock is the foundation for our hearts and souls, the cornerstone of the home of our spirits. And that is God’s love for us.
I do see another thread that weaves through these lessons, and this one does shine and glitter. This thread is light. Jesus says in the gospel that the Father will be glorified through the Son, and this gives an image of light, both in the word glorified and in the word Son, which sounds like sun. And the epistle reading reminds us that Jesus has called us out of darkness into his marvelous light, very like the prophecy from Isaiah that we hear each year at Christmas:
The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light;
those who lived in a land of deep darkness— on them light has shined.
In the psalm, we ask for God to make God’s face to shine upon us, to save us in God’s loving-kindness. (And don’t you just adore loving-kindness? Is there any better compound word ever?) And Stephen, dear Stephen. Stephen has a vision of heaven, of the glory of God. I like to imagine that what he saw was something like what Peter and James and John saw at the top of the mountain at the Transfiguration, or perhaps like what the people by the Jordan River saw when Jesus was baptized.
So what are we to make of this? We have images of stone and images of light. We have God as a castle, a place of safety, and we have Jesus as living stone, calling us out of the darkness. And I think there is a message of great comfort here, along with the challenge. We are called to come out of our dark places, out of our dry, desert places, into a life of abundance. (Remember last week? I came that you might have life, and have it abundantly.) But this can be a frightening thing. We know our dark places; we are intimately familiar with our desert. They may not be completely pleasant – in fact, they may be filled with hardship and pain – but we know them and we understand them, and leaving them is scary. But it is God who calls us out of the darkness. It is God who yearns for us to join God in the light, who asks us to let our hearts remain untroubled. God promises us that God will always be there for us, to give us shelter and safety, to give us the chosen and precious and living cornerstone on which to build our spiritual homes. And when we know this – from the top of our heads to the tips of our toes – we can come out of the darkness, and in the light, we can find the footsteps of Jesus to walk in, on the path to eternal life.
As we walk on the Way that is Jesus, God’s face will shine upon us. And in God’s loving-kindness, we will be saved.