Sunday’s sermon: The Sordid History of Stones

living stones

Texts used – Acts 7:54-60 and 1 Peter 2:1-10

  • There’s a great show on Food Network today.
    • No cable (like us)? Catch it on Netflix and Hulu
    • Show: Chopped
      • Premise: competitive cooking show
      • 4 competitors – usually professional chefs but not always
      • 3 rounds – appetizer, entrée, dessert  worst dish in each round gets cut (chopped)
      • But here’s the twist with this show. The contestants all have to use the same 4 ingredients, but they’re never typical pantry ingredients.
        • E.g.s
          • Appetizer: duck bills, young jack fruit in brine, strawberry flavored jerky, and hand-pulled noodles
          • Entrée: chicken in a can, canned clam chowder, tater tots, and skirt steak
          • Dessert: fruit cocktail, kale, cottage cheese, and marrow bones
      • Inevitably, there are a few clunkers along the way when your goal is to make a 5-star restaurant quality meal with such odd combinations and such challenging ingredients. But the incredible dishes that these contestants are often able to pull off are staggering. I mean, come on … there are nights when I stand there staring at the very normal ingredients in my pantry, and all I can come up with is, “Well, it’s a pizza night!” And yet these people take the most ridiculous food combinations, work a little culinary magic on them, and make them into something delicious. → truly a case of making the best out of a bad situation!
  • Bad situation = certainly what we find in our NT reading this morning  Those who followed along in the pew bibles may have noticed the heading for this little story: “The Stoning of Stephen.” Like I said … a bad situation.
    • BACKSTORY[1]:
      • Stephen = deacon in the early church – introduction in Acts: Stephen, who stood out among the believers for the way God’s grace was at work in his life and for his exceptional endowment with divine power, was going great wonders and signs among the people.[2]
      • Somewhere in those doings, Stephen ticks off the wrong people  people convince others to give false testimony against Stephen: “We heard him insult Moses and God.”[3] (definitely a no-no at the time)
      • Stephen is caught and dragged before the Jerusalem Council (same cluster of men who had sentenced Jesus to death not too long ago)  basically accused of blasphemy
      • And then, in response to these charges, Stephen gives the longest sermon/testimony in the entire book of Acts – even longer than Peter (which is saying something). Nearly all of Acts 7 is Stephen’s testimony to the incredible nature of who God is and God’s actions throughout the history of the Israelite people, down through Moses, King David, and the prophets.
      • Last bit = step too far: “You stubborn people! In your thoughts and hearing, you are like those who have had no part in God’s covenant! You continuously set yourself against the Holy Spirit, just like your ancestors did. … You received the Law given by angels, but you haven’t kept it.”[4]  Stephen’s last words before the part that we read this morning: Once the council members heard these words, they were enraged.
    • Stephen = considered the first martyr of the Church – the first person killed for his faith in Jesus Christ → And how did that frenzied mob accomplish their macabre task? By stoning Stephen to death.
  • Stephen’s murder joins a long line of troublesome events in the Bible surrounding stones.
    • As with Stephen, often used as a weapon
      • Stoning of many others throughout both OT and NT
      • Angry crowd that attempts to stone Jesus in gospel of Luke → strange story where Jesus somehow seems to “pass right through” this angry crowd unharmed[5]
      • Classic story of David and Goliath[6] → David slays the giant Goliath with a slingshot and a stone
    • Stones marked places in which people of Israel struggled with God
      • Stone altar built on the place where Abraham nearly sacrificed his son, Isaac, at God’s request[7]
      • Stone marked the place where Jacob wrestled with God until dawn[8] → renamed “Israel”
      • Pile of 12 stones marked the place where the Israelites finally crossed the Jordan River into the promised land … but only after they had wandered in the desert for 40 years and after Moses’ death[9]
    • Very often the idols that the Israelite people ended up worshiping when they turned away from God were idols of stone
    • Those who resisted God’s call/instruction = often referred to as having a “heart of stone”
      • Pharaoh in Egypt when Moses lead the Israelites out
      • Pass from Ezek: I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you. I will remove your stony heart from your body and replace it with a living one.[10]
    • And certainly closest to the hearts and minds of the disciples during Stephen’s time would have been the giant, seemingly-immovable stone that had sealed their beloved Jesus into what they thought was his forever-tomb.
    • Cannot neglect to acknowledge that stoning is a practice still used today
      • Mostly in Middle Eastern countries but also a few countries in Africa
      • Largely carried out as penalty for adultery → almost exclusively perpetrated against women because of the reprehensible lack of women’s rights built into the law
        • Men = buried up to their waist
        • Women = buried up to their chest
        • Sometimes, if you can escape, you can go free – but it would be a heck of a lot easier to escape if your arms were free → obvious gender bias
      • Some cases of being used to punish homosexuality as well
    • Yes, the history of stones throughout the Bible and even into today has not been a good one. It has been a turbulent history. It has been a bloody history. It is a history that has been marked with mistakes, false testimonies, willful delusions, and purposefully turning away from God.
  • And yet, we come across today’s passage from 1 Peter.
    • Text: Now you are coming to [God] as to a living stone. Even though this stone was rejected by humans, from God’s perspective, it is chosen, valuable. You yourselves are being built like living stones into a spiritual temple.[11] → Despite all of the negative connotations associated with stones – certainly in that culture centuries ago but also in our own – despite all of the mistakes, false testimonies, willful delusions, and purposeful turning away, God is saying through Peter, “I can use you. I desire to use you. You are precious. You are valued. You are not just convenient but instrumental in my purposes in this world.”
      • Fred Rogers: What interests me so much about the characters of the Bible is that they make mistakes but God uses them anyway, in important ways. Nobody’s perfect, but God can even use our imperfection.
        • Catch a glimpse of this in the reading from Acts this morning – one small line that you may have missed: Together, they charged at him, threw him out of the city, and began to stone him. The witnesses placed their coats in the care of a young man named Saul.[12] → “A young man named Saul.” Saul would later become Paul, one of the most prolific witnesses – if not the most prolific – in the history of the faith. Again, truly making the best out of a bad situation.
    • And that’s the thing about stones. Sometimes the most imperfect, the most malformed, the most cracked and jagged-edged stones are the ones that end up being the most beautiful, the most sought-after, the most precious.
      • Home building/remodeling world: current trend of granite countertops → Everyone wants granite countertops in their home. It’s the best. It’s the fanciest. It’s the prettiest. Incidentally, it’s also the most expensive option for countertops.
        • Most people’s preference: the granite that has veins of color running through it → gives the countertop an element of interest, makes it unique
        • But the thing about those highly sought-after, extremely expensive slabs with all the veins and color in them is that those veins are actually technically flaws. → natural fissures in the stone = “Fissures look like small lines of a different color than the base stone. Fissures occur naturally in the stone and are created during the rock’s formation. They’re not considered a defect, but an inevitable feature that often adds to the natural beauty.
      • Similar situation: stone used for landscaping or exterior work in homes = the more natural-looking, the better → That includes odd sizes, wonky shapes, and rough edges … just like the people of God: odd sizes, wonky shapes, and rough edges. But God assures us that we are living stones building God’s Kingdom here on earth piece by odd, wonky, rough, and precious piece.
        • Nadia Bolz-Weber: The jagged edges of humanity are what connect us to God and each other. They give us texture that God and others can grab onto. Our spiritual practices aren’t supposed to erase our identity – to smooth out those edges. → Those jagged edges just mean that we fit together more uniquely, more completely. And when we fit together – when we come together to build that holy Kingdom piece by jagged piece – we make a picture even more genuine and beautiful than if all our edges were as smooth and straight as cut stones.
  • Friends, the good news is that God claims us. God claims us with all our sordid histories and past mistakes, all our willful delusions and turning away. God claims us with all our rough edges and wonky shapes. God not only claims us, but God calls us treasured, not in spite of those jagged places but because of them. God claims us because God has a purpose for us in this world.
    • 1 Pet: You have become this people so that you may speak of the wonderful acts of the one who called you out of darkness into his amazing light. Once you weren’t a people, but now you are God’s people. Once you hadn’t received mercy, but now you have received mercy.[13] → By that mercy, by the claiming, by the power of that amazing light that has drawn us out of the darkness, we are made more than we could ever hope to be: living stones, active participants, cherished servants building the Kingdom of God. Amen.

[1] Acts 6:8-8:1

[2] Acts 6:8.

[3] Acts 6:11.

[4] Acts 7:51, 53.

[5] Lk 4:14-30.

[6] 1 Sam 17.

[7] Gen 22:1-19.

[8] Gen 32:22-32.

[9] Josh 4:20-24.

[10] Ezek 36:26.

[11] 1 Pet 2:4-5a.

[12] Acts 7:57b-58.

[13] 1 Pet 2:9b-10.

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