A Stone As Our Witness

Paula Northwood November 19, 2017

Scriptures Joshua 24:22–28; 1 Peter 2:4–7a

Will you join me in a spirit of prayer? Eternal God, Rock of Ages, we invite you to be the architect of this spiritual house. Amen

A friend once told me they went to a play at the Howard Conn Theater, and I said, “That theater is part of my church.” And they looked at me like I was nuts. “What church?” they asked. “Plymouth Congregational Church.” And they said, “There’s a church there?” I wondered, Are we invisible?

Recently I walked across the street to get a coffee and, while I was waiting for the light to change, I overheard one person ask another person, “What’s that building over there?” And the one said, “You mean the building that looks like a fortress?” And I wanted to say, “Hey, that’s my church and it’s not a fortress! It’s warm and welcoming!” But I shouldn’t have been listening in on their conversation to begin with, so I kept quiet. Sometimes I look at our beautiful church and try to see it with the eyes of someone who has never been inside. Are we a fortress? Do we look like we are trying to keep the world out?

In the verses that lead up to our text this morning we have a wonderful and rich rendition of history. Joshua recalls Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebekah, Jacob and Esau, Moses, Miriam and Aaron. He reminds them of years under foreign occupation and oppression, and how God was faithful through all these difficulties. Joshua wants them to renew their covenant so he reminds them of their promises to God and he writes it down in detail and then he takes a large stone and sets it up in a sacred place as a witness.

This stone, this rock shall be a witness, for it has heard the words of the covenant and will hold God’s people accountable. Now, this is a curious thing to have a stone as a witness because, well, most of the stones I have held are pretty quiet. But the more time I spent with this passage the more I realized we use stones to witness many things. For some of you, you need only to look at your hands. You have a precious, glittery stone that witnessed your marriage vows. For others, it’s a gem that reminds you of a beloved place, a time or person. We do use stones as witnesses. We use stones to mark where we have laid to rest our loved ones, and those headstones carry messages of time and love. Throughout history humans have piled up stones, made cairns to mark special places. Celtic Christians have used stones to indicate sacred places where the veil between the worlds is thin. Indigenous North Americans used Inukshuks, those rocks stacked to look like a person to indicate a special place or to show the way, the right path.

Plymouth’s spiritual ancestors, the Pilgrims, landed on the shore of a new land—at least new to them—and named a rock Plymouth, and although much of that story is mythical, you can see a remnant of the rock today in Plymouth, Massachusetts. Supposedly the Pilgrims used a rock to witness their new beginning.

Almost one hundred and ten years ago, when the members of this church moved from downtown Minneapolis out into the country—to this location—they looked for a special kind of granite that was like that used on the congregational churches out east called Cape Ann granite. I have our archivist, Mary Welfling, to thank for researching this for me. The members were prepared to have some shipped out to Minnesota when they found a quarry in St Cloud that had a similar kind of granite.

They carefully chose what kind of stones and style to build this house of worship. It’s called seam-faced granite and they used it again when the chapel was built in1946, and most recently again when the education wing was built in 2006. I encourage you to take a closer look at it when you leave the building. It’s beautiful rock, and each piece is unique. It’s put together like a jigsaw puzzle.

It takes all different kinds of shapes and colors to build this church. But does the rock of our building stand as a witness to the love of God or as a mighty fortress? Does it welcome the neighbor or does it say: Members only?

For most, this place is a safe harbor. I love this place: the openness of Jones Commons, the embroidery that tells a different story for every season, the varied pieces of artwork and the music that echoes through the hallways. The stained-glass windows evoke a sense of awe and reverence. For me, this truly is a sacred place, but if our neighbors do not find it inviting and open and welcoming, then we need to take a second look at how we can cultivate a different image. Of course, our banners help tell people who we are . . . but are there other things we can do? Maybe there is a clue in our New Testament scripture?

The apostle Peter uses the stone metaphor when he speaks of “living stones.” He wasn’t talking about rocks you find on the ground. These are cut stones, hewn to precise dimensions for the construction of a building. First, Peter speaks of Jesus as a living stone even though Jesus was rejected by those in power. He was put down and kicked around and crucified. Thankfully, their verdict was not the last word. Instead, Jesus becomes the foundation stone, the cornerstone of a great religion, and then Peter goes on to say we (you and me) are to be “living stones.” Living stones—it’s an oxymoron, a deliberate pairing of contradictory words. I love this image because I love stones. I collect them. I’m always looking for agates when we go up north. But how are we to be living stones? There is a clue in the words that follow: We are to be a holy priesthood.

You might be thinking, “Well, I’d rather be a stone than a priest.” But we are all called to be living stones (awake, alive), a priesthood of believers. Lately, we’ve been celebrating 500 years since the Reformation. The priesthood of all believers is one of the things that Congregationalists and Baptists have in common. Our spiritual ancestors said: “No more needing to go through a priest to talk with God. We have a direct line!” As a community of faith, we discern how to live out our covenant with God in this time, and in this place. We are each given spiritual authority and responsibility to carry out the work of the church. This is true for Baptists and for Congregationalists.

So friends, we are living stones, chosen by God, precious, valuable and useful. The building that houses the Fellowship Missionary Baptist church is north of us by six miles or so, but a number of their living stones are right here, right now, worshipping with us. We are grateful to you because together we build a more perfect spiritual house. We need each other, maybe now more than ever. Image this spiritual house built stone by stone, story by story, held together by God’s promises. God’s love, grace forgiveness and hope. Picture that spiritual house into which we are built. It is nothing like any building we have ever seen before because during the week these stones, drop and scatter and go out in all directions. These are living stones!

Once when I was at a low point in my life, I didn’t know what I was going to do next. I didn’t have any family that I could turn to. I had lost a number of my friends. My resources were draining away . . . spiritually, economically and physically, but then a living stone invited me to check out her church. “Come see my church.” That’s all she said. She was not famous, only faithful. She was not a saint, only steadfast in her belief that everyone had something to offer. You know people who have been living stones for you. They are the ones who have been a witness, a cairn, an inukshuk, a pile of rocks to point the way. Steady. Rock solid. Unmoving in their love for you. That’s a living stone!

I ask you to consider what kind of living stone are you? When you imagine yourself as a stone, what do you see? One of the foundational stones of these walls with a modest, even rough, exterior but granite strength inside to hold others up? Or are you a rock that reconciles? Lord knows we need this. We need people who can bring people together. We need voices of civility that can disagree without disrespect. Or are you a pebble that is persistent, persuasive or even provoking? Like a tiny pebble in your shoe that annoys, we need people who can tenaciously speak, write, and protest the injustice around us. Or are you a polished, shiny gemstone that is generous and joyful? We need people to give not only their money, but also their time and energy to make this world a better place. We need people to shine and sparkle!

My friends, the call today is to be alive, passionate, awake . . . to be a living stone that steps up, stands up, doesn’t move or get shaken easily, stops injustice, speaks against evil. What kind of living stone are you?

We love this jigsaw puzzle of stones we call Plymouth Church, and we want to share them. We do not want to be invisible nor seen as a fortress. We want to be open and welcoming. We want people to know that we are unapologetically Christian but we are open to other ideas and faiths. We encourage a spiritual connection that transcends difference. We are affirming to the LGBTQ community. We love people who are differently abled. We support people dealing with addictions. We celebrate theological dissonance. We are politically diverse. We welcome different understandings of God and the Bible. We are making every effort to unlearn racism, dismantle the walls of structural/institutional racism, and build a more just society. We are striving to tear down the dehumanizing culture that shaped us. We have a long way to go but we are actively working on it. We can do all of this because of our covenant, a promise to walk with each other in the ways of God, ever seeking truth and loving unconditionally.

This week, we celebrate Thanksgiving. Let us give thanks for all the living stones that have gone before us. As our scripture said, to you then who believe, know that you are precious in God’s sight and like living stones, let yourselves be built into a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer peace, love and hope to this city. May it be so. Amen.