The Reverend John Allison
October 4, 2020
Christ Church, Hudson
Years ago I lived at the end of a narrow, little street just outside of the town where I worked. Each morning, I would carefully back out of my driveway, very much aware of the large looming light post that stood directly across from my home. I say “carefully” because the post was situated just so that I had to maneuver my car fairly precisely to avoid hitting it. When I first moved to this house I found its proximity annoying—not just because of the awkwardness it caused in getting in and out of the driveway but also because of its glaring brightness at night. But over time, I learned to live with it. It became a figure in the background of my awareness and largely ceased to have any relevance to me.
Then, one morning, when I was unusually distracted and not following my usual routine, I got in my car and reversed down the gentle slope of my driveway and, bam! Crash! The sudden, unexpected jolt of awakening to something that, up until that moment, I’d only known abstractly. The weight, the solidity, the gravity of this looming giant that had faded from my day-to-day consciousness literally stopped me in my tracks, literally shook me up as I felt the force of its solidity reverberate through my body.
I share this story because for the last several months I’ve been feeling a similar sense of an impending weight, partly driven by the fear and loss that has been borne of the pandemic, partly by the acrimony and division inherent in the build-up to the presidential election and partly by senseless violence and loss of life in so many of our cities. I could go on and on. These months have been times of heaviness, of weight, and this week in particular with the surpassing of 200,000 dead in this nation alone due to the pandemic and the ugliness and rancor on the political front—not to mention the news that our president and other members of his administration have been infected with COVID—this has been a week where I’ve felt, reverberating deeply in my body, the impact, the crash, the gravity of loss.
This imagery of weight and gravity has given a kind of form to my experience as I’ve reflected on Jesus’s words from Matthew’s Gospel. In allegorical reference to the stone that the builders rejected becoming the cornerstone he says, “The one who falls on this stone will be broken to pieces; and it will crush anyone on whom it falls.” Bam! Crash! I know what that feels like. We all know what that feels like.
It’s important to understand that Jesus’sm reference to the stone is, in fact, a reference to himself, to his identity as Christ, and that, as such, there is an implication of Jesus breaking us to pieces, crushing anyone who doesn’t recognize him as the “cornerstone.” But it’s here, for me at least, that the metaphor is not so helpful. We have a responsibility in this. One commentator says this stone is best not envisioned as a divine projectile aimed at transgressors but rather a force of nature that exposes our ethical clumsiness and signals moral gravity. It helps even more to understand the larger context in which Jesus is speaking—and for that matter to whom he is speaking.
Known as the parable of the wicked tenants, this passage can be perplexing to say the least. It helps to understand that just a day earlier Jesus had triumphantly entered Jerusalem and promptly went to the temple, where he overturned tables and called it a den of robbers. Our passage today is a continuation from last week’s reading and takes place the morning after Jesus had cleansed the temple. He is again in the temple and is teaching a group of his followers. The temple priests and elders have approached him and demanded to know by whose authority he has done these things. Today’s reading is the second of three parables he tells in response, and it’s traditionally been understood as an allegory in which God is represented as the landowner, the land of Israel as the vineyard, and the Jewish religious leaders as the tenants; the Old Testament prophets are the slaves sent to collect the produce from the tenants and Jesus is the son killed by the tenants. The new tenants of the vineyard are generally assumed to be the Church, and at various times throughout history this parable has been used as justification for the displacement of the Jewish people. One thing we must keep in mind, however, is that Jesus is speaking very specifically to the temple leaders and not the crowds of Jews who were following him. We must also remember that these events follow Jesus’s healing of the blind and the lame and that it is the outcast and the poor whom Jesus has proclaimed as favored in God’s sight. The priests and the elders have failed to recognize Jesus for who he is. As the parable implies, they’ve failed to heed the prophets as well and have not returned the harvest of the vineyard to the landowner—essentially the priests and elders have not returned to God what’s rightfully his. They have not loved as God has loved them.
What the Pharisees and temple leaders value, namely the Law and their status, has been supplanted by Christ. Christ is the stone that has been rejected that will become the cornerstone. To be fair, this is a hard lesson. For the Pharisees, their very existence was based on the Law and traditions of the elders and here was Jesus turning their world upside down. And this is something we’re all susceptible to. There are aspects of our culture that have, in effect, become the cornerstone of the life of the individual. We build our identities around our professions or where we live, or who our family is, whether we are a republican or democrat—maybe even where we go to church. Paul says something like this in our reading from his Letter to the Philippians when he lists his achievements before his conversion: “If anyone else has reason to be confident in the flesh, I have more.” And he then proceeds with a long list of attributes that show him to be one who would have been quite admirable in his culture. “And yet,” he says, “whatever gains I had, these I have come to regard as loss.” Paul realized there was something more, that the foundation on which his life rested was not so firm. In his encounter with Christ on the road to Damascus he experienced a major shift in his relationship to the Holy. What had been the cornerstone of his identity crumbled and in its place was a new identity grounded in Christ—a whole new way of being based not on status but on love, on justice, on mercy.
In our society, as in Paul’s, and even in Jesus’s society, we sometimes seek to make a cornerstone out of that which is less than firm, from cultural constructs that shift and turn and crumble in time—maybe ordinary privileges that we may no longer enjoy because of the pandemic. What looms in the background of our consciousness, however, is something more, something of weight and substance in which we are grounded. We know this abstractly, like I knew there was a light post at the end of my driveway, but there are times, moments when we experience it concretely, when the substance of the Holy stops us in our tracks. Then we realize we are loved and that, in turn, we are called to participate in that love—God’s love, God’s justice, God’s mercy.
Many times over these last months I’ve felt a jolt. I’ve felt it in my body. But that is not the cornerstone. Such loss has real weight, such heft that there is a temptation to build from it. But building from fear, or anger or even apathy—any of a number of the feelings engendered in such violence—is a path that ultimately leads to destruction. What we can build on, what is the foundation of our life in Christ is that we are loved and, in turn, we are called to love. That’s the cornerstone. That’s the stone we so often overlook that in the end is our true ground, the ground of our being. Love. As we prepare for Holy Communion and later, as we step outside of these walls, ask yourself how Christ has called you to participate in that love. Where does the gravity of his love call you to something more? That’s the true foundation on which we stand as we seek to live into our full stature in Christ. Amen.