One afternoon, not long ago, I stood outside our church, on Madison Avenue, watching as workers in a lift assessed the integrity of the spires. They had gathered quite a pile of rubble. It did not bring me great joy, as you can probably imagine. Quite the opposite. Something in me, surprising almost, felt grief. Of course, we love this old place. These stones hold memories. Perhaps in some way they still groan and sigh with the songs of the saints who have gone ahead of us. I’m not being sentimental, or at least not entirely. While some modern-day versions of spirituality pretend to be indifferent to place, our tradition of faith links presence with place.
But especially with people in those places. . . .
It goes way back. If you remember, Jacob associates his experience of God with a place. A place you could return to, again and again. A place where, if you’re not careful, you might stub your toe – ouch! That’s how God meets Jacob, in a place. He heaps together a pile of stones, pours oil upon them, and says, “Surely the Lord was in this place and I did not know it!” But now he knows it and he memorializes that place with oil and stone. That memory remains in the stone, seeping into pores too small for the eye to see. It doesn’t wash away easily.
Jacob, you might also remember, was a fugitive when he first met God in that place. But that place and that presence changed him from a fugitive on the run to a pilgrim on a journey. It wasn’t only stone that was anointed, but perhaps God dressed the chapped, burnt, dry skin of a fugitive with the ointment of loving kindness.
Perhaps we, too, could testify with Jacob, of wounds soothed, of anxiety eased, of restless spirits given safe harbor.
When we see our stony heap sag with age or crumble, something in us feels that decay. Historically, many of the psalms were composed after the destruction of the temple: “For your servants love [the destroyed temple’s] very rubble, and are moved to pity even for its dust” (Psalm 102:14). It’s the memory in the stone.
Or the memory of the living stone within our hearts. We remember God in this place – we remember loved ones who sang with us in the same pew. On All Saints Day, this coming Sunday, we will speak the names of loved ones and friends who have died in the year past. One day we will join them and perhaps our names will be spoken with a sigh . . . and our names, now as sighs, will sound out in this place, on the lips and hearts of those who loved us and knew us.
We are stones in God’s house. Living stones. And Christ is the corner stone. Another psalm, often quoted by New Testament writers to explain Christ’s significance, declares that the stone the builders rejected has become the cornerstone, the beginning of a new community, a new society of friends (Psalm 118:22).
Our church spire is undergoing assessment and, in the near future repair. But perhaps it is not only the stones of our aging campus that are groaning – or sighing or singing.
As I look out at our community on a Sunday morning, sometimes I get a glimpse of the cornerstone that the builders rejected – it was thrown into a heap, outside the main part of the city. It was called a “slag heap” – but that’s where the God of salvage and salvation seems to go when God wants to build a new community.
Jesus, who was without sin, stayed with tax collectors and sinners. Jesus, whose home was in heaven, tented among us. Healed those who had leprosy. Befriended those who were excluded. Became a prisoner as well as the prisoner’s friend.
God seems to be remodeling the church from the inside out. New stones, perhaps stones that others of a more “orthodox” or “establishment” disposition rejected, continue to come together to enjoy hospitality, family, prayer, and study. People of different hues and colors. People of different accents and narratives. People in recovery. People who are well-adjusted. People who struggle to pay rent. People who are well-off. People who pray for their children in college and people who pray for their children in prison.
In this place, the God of salvage and salvation meets us.
So perhaps, as you hear updates from our Spire Restoration Team, as we salvage this building, and you think of the stones, take a moment to prayerfully remember the salvation house that God has made, is making, and will finally bring to completion in Christ – the stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone.
And God is still building.
Rev. Robert P. Hoch, Ph.D.