Sunday, October 4, 2020
In seminary, I had the opportunity to travel to the Holy Land, and one of my most vivid memories was going to the Western Wall, which is what is left of the Second Temple in Jerusalem, originally built in 515 BC. What struck me is how large the temple stones are! It is truly an engineering marvel to see how people were able to cut, transport, and build with stones that massive that long ago. Go home and Google it to see what I’m talking about! In fact, one of the largest building blocks in the world makes up part of the foundation of the Western Wall, measuring 45 feet long and 11 feet high, 8 feet deep, and about 275 tons in weight!
Remember last week, I told you that Jesus is telling these parables in the context of Holy Week, and Jesus is teaching these parables in the temple when the chief priests and Pharisees come in to question him. Jesus and the people gathered around him likely were looking at these very large temple stones as he is speaking. He had some powerful and instructive visual aids right there for his teaching! What is more, Jesus is quoting Psalm 118, which was used in worship as a liturgy for people who wanted to enter the temple. Here in the temple, Jesus is trying to connect his teaching, ministry, and mission as a legitimate continuation of all that the Hebrew scriptures, the law and the prophets talk about. And not everyone believes him. In fact, the religious authorities, in particular, flat out reject him. They seem to be trusting in their own ideas and more worried about their own egos than recognizing that God might be doing a new thing in Jesus.
If you have ever tried to build anything, even simply with Legos or Lincoln logs, you know that a strong foundation is important. The bigger blocks need to go on the bottom or the weight of the subsequent blocks will topple over. The biggest block, especially the cornerstone, is meant to bear the most weight. It can withstand pressure that other blocks can’t. Preaching to a somewhat hostile audience, Jesus points to these big stones and asserts that we ought to build our lives on him as the cornerstone and produce fruits of God’s kingdom, rather than relying on our own strength or wisdom. As Christians, we confess still today that Christ is the cornerstone, that is, the center, of our lives. Jesus ought not to just be a nice nick knack on our walls or in a corner cabinet, a decorative sconce…Jesus is the thing that holds our lives together. Other things that we put our trust in or try to build our lives on and around simply at the end of the day can’t bear the weight or withstand the pressure. Kingdoms may crumble and fall, but the Word of our Lord stands forever as the prophet Isaiah says.
Now, with all of that background, go back and read Jesus’ difficult parable of a landowner whose tenants kill the slaves and then finally the son. The tenants only seem to care about what they can get for themselves. They have no respect for the landowner or the son. But they are tenants. What they have responsibility for is not theirs, but the landowner’s. And the story is particularly tragic, because no one benefits from their selfish actions, including themselves. They essentially reject what would be most beneficial for them and their situation, just as builders rejecting a cornerstone sabotage the whole building project.
While we can wrestle with the violence in this parable and wonder about what it might mean for us today, I think a key question for us today is whether we have built our lives around Christ the cornerstone or whether we are living life on shaky ground. Do we treat Jesus like a decorative addition to the building of our lives, or is he an essential building block? A few years back, I had the honor of presiding at the funeral of a woman who was 100 years old. She was a woman of strong faith who even at her advanced age had spearheaded a project of weaving plastic shopping bags together to make mats for homeless people to have to sleep or sit on in her nursing home facility. When I met with the family and they talked about all of these “old fashioned” things their mom/grandma/great-grandma enjoyed…roller skating, square dancing, collecting antique dolls. The way they spoke about her connection to the church was rolled into that list of hobbies. In as gentle a way as I could, I told the family that church was not just a club or a hobby for their loved one. Christ was the center of her life! Christ made her who she was, a kind, generous, and servant-leader to the end of her death! Those other things she enjoyed in life may now be passe or irrelevant, but Christ never goes out of style or is irrelevant! I truly worry at times that in the breakdown of trust in institutions we see in our younger generations that somehow many people have picked up the message that church is just an option of something you do if you have enough time. It’s a nice but kind of old-fashioned idea like square dancing. In these parables, I hear Christ calling us to be witnesses to a life built on and around him, and sharing with others the difference that makes in our lives. Christ confronts the powers like those religious authorities, the Pharisees, that seem more concerned about maintaining the traditions and rules of the institution than bearing fruit, living out the teachings of the Hebrew scriptures in ways that are lifegiving for the world and give honor and praise to God.
The great thing about a reliable, solid cornerstone like the one from the temple is that it can bear a LOT of weight. These days, we come to Jesus with many burdens. We’re tired of the division in our country and anxious about this presidential election, we’re tired of the pandemic, we’re worried about our physical health, mental health, the economy, whatever is going on in our personal lives. I can think of nothing more timely or relevant for the world to know than that Christ our cornerstone can bear the weight of all of our burdens. Christ took all of our burdens to the cross and left them there so that we might be raised to new life with him, free from all the anxiety, the fear, the obligations that weigh us down! We are free to serve God and his kingdom bearing good fruit because we rest our lives on the cornerstone of Christ! Thanks be to God! Amen.