The Cornerstone

Today, Southminster celebrated our 60th Anniversary, with a special worship service, brunch, and kick off to our capital campaign to expand our facilities. It was a great day. Thank you to everyone who made it possible. This pastor is grateful. 

The Cornerstone

A missionary enterprise,
a symbol of love,
built with warm red brick walls
and welcoming doors,
but powerless until peopled,
it beckoned to a new neighborhood.

The people came, and suddenly,
they were no longer strangers and sojourners
but fellow citizens with the saints
and members in this new household of God.

The mission prospered,
the congregation built again in brick—and again—
classrooms and offices and a sanctuary
and they moved the steeple with the cross.
Still nowhere did they lay a cornerstone.

Never can they recount beginnings
by the opening of an ancient box,
but with Christians everywhere they rejoice
in the Cornerstone in which all are joined,
fellow citizens with the saints,
members of the wide household of God,
and partners in mission.
—written by Catherine Tomison Walker
Nov. 30, 1976 for the dedication of the new sanctuary

cathie.jpg

with Cathie Walker (author of the poem and one of the hymns we sang) today at the celebration  (image courtesy of Carolyn Blackhurst)

Ephesians 2: 17-22
Mark 12:1-12

I tend to preach the biblical texts assigned in the Lectionary, which is a collection of readings, intended to help people learn the biblical story. I confess that I almost left the lectionary for today’s 60th Anniversary celebration. Because a story of wicked tenants did not seem auspicious. But I stuck with it.

And then I found a poem Cathie Walker wrote in 1976 for the dedication of our current sanctuary. And it all came together. Thank you, Jesus. And Cathie.

I don’t know what experiences you have with cornerstones. I first learned about them when I was in High School. My alma mater, Lewis and Clark, in Spokane, has a cornerstone laid by Teddy Roosevelt.

roosevelt.jpg

Teddy Roosevelt at my high school! (Image here)

Cornerstones, historically, are the first stone laid during a building project, so that the rest of the construction would find their reference point from that one stone. Over time, they became more ceremonial, with dignitaries on hand to put time capsules full of newspaper articles and such into the stone for future generations to discover, so they can look back and remember.

In Cathie’s poem, she describes Southminster and points out that we never laid a cornerstone when we first built. And that it wasn’t an oversight.
Listen to her words:

Never can they recount beginnings
by the opening of an ancient box,
but with Christians everywhere they rejoice
in the Cornerstone in which all are joined,
fellow citizens with the saints,
members of the wide household of God,
and partners in mission.

And so I’ve been thinking about cornerstones—what it is that anchors us, what is it that gives us the sight lines to know how to build our lives in the directions we feel God is calling us?

When Southminster was founded, 60 years ago, it was a very different world. A world where identity was largely received—by that I mean that if your parents were Presbyterian, you were likely to be Presbyterian when you grew up too. The Mission Board of the Presbyterian Church could build a building in a new neighborhood and trust that people would come to fill it. It was a culture that valued tradition. Hard to imagine that happening today.

Today, we live in a world that values experience over tradition. There is less trust in institutions, which used to be the mediator of traditions, and so even if we like the idea of traditions, we have lost connection to them. People will not just show up to fill an empty new church unless there is an experience and a reason for them to be there.

60 years ago, as Southminster was being built in a newly built neighborhood, many of those homes were getting their first television sets, which had 2 channels (in Boise, at least).  Today, my satellite TV has more channels than I can count. And I don’t think my kids will ever pay for satellite or cable TV because they now watch what shows they want, on demand, on their lap tops or phones. Limitless entertainment. Music. News. Sports.

Today a person takes in more information in one day than a person in the medieval world would have received in their entire life. We’re drinking information from a fire hose, people.

This minor history lecture discursion is only to point out that as we, Southminster at 60, try to focus in on our cornerstone—it is a very different challenge than our brothers and sisters in Christ faced in 1956.

To claim Jesus today requires us to look for him in a crowded field, with voices coming at us from all sides. Voices that want our time, our money, our allegiance, our energy. And while some choice is good, too much choice can paralyze. When the church is just one of many options available to us today, being the church looks, feels, and is different than it has been at any moment in our past. Our lives are anchored in so many things, it can be hard to know just where we get our strength.

I often hear a wistfulness for the past, for the time when everyone was in church and we had 400 people registered for Sunday School. When church didn’t have to compete with soccer and baseball and ballet and work and fishing and whatever else.

And it’s okay to remember those days and even to mourn what we have lost. But what I hope you hear in this depiction of our current reality is that the changes didn’t happen because we were unfaithful stewards. The world has changed around us at a pace faster than perhaps any other time in history and we are doing our best to adapt. This is not a time to look for blame, or to seek a magic bullet. This is a time to acknowledge the situation on the ground and to move forward in hope, trusting that the Cornerstone that was laid is still solid, and that even as we adjust course, we do so anchored in the One who called us.

As it says in Ephesians:
“So he came and proclaimed peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near; for through him both of us have access in one Spirit to the Father. So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God, built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the cornerstone. In him the whole structure is joined together and grows into a holy temple in the Lord; in whom you also are built together spiritually into a dwelling-place for God.”

In the midst of a changing culture, a changing world, we are anchored to a foundation of the apostles and prophets—2000 years of church history and 60 years of Southminster history.

As I was putting this service together, even as I recognized the differences in the world around us, I was more struck by the similarity in who we are as a congregation over time. The Call to Worship from the 1980’s sounds like a Call to Worship I could have written today. The Litany of Dedication from 60 years ago, which we will rededicate a little later in this service, lifts up hopes the charter members had for this congregation that you have been living out, all these years later.

Comforting the sorrowing,
strengthening the weak,
offering hope for the despairing…

It may play out in different ways and places today than it did in 1956, but it is anchored in the same Cornerstone, and likely seems familiar to you as you think about our ministry. It is the same Lord who calls us, who equips us, and who sends us out.

The parable this morning tells of a landlord who leased out a property to some tenants. Then he sent a series of servants to collect the rents. And the tenants keep killing the servants. And the landlord keeps sending other servants. Again and again and again.

I read this passage and it occurred to me that if the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results, then we should question the landlord’s wisdom. In our culture today, I think we would expect the landlord to start arming his slaves with assault rifles and bullet proof vests as he sends them to collect the rents.

And so the consistent refrain of mercy, as the landlord keeps approaching in mercy and with humility and weakness, reminds us that human wisdom doesn’t always apply to God’s motives. We keep expecting force. God keeps coming to us in humility and meekness—even to death on a cross.

Yet the tenants keep expecting the landlord to come with violence. When asked what the owner will do, the answer is “he will come and destroy the vineyard.

And I think, really? Is there anything in the actions of the landlord so far to suggest that?

It’s as if our tendency to violence and retribution gets read into our expectation for God’s behavior. Clearly the tenants had, for a cornerstone, a God of violence and retribution.

And so they built up a very unstable world for themselves—
one where they thought they owned someone else’s vineyard;
one where they thought they’d inherit the vineyard if they killed the son of the owner;
one where they experienced gift, grace, and mercy and kept expecting violence and retribution instead.

If your cornerstone is bad, the rest of the construction will be too.

60 years ago, the Mission Board of the United Presbyterian Church in North America, in a ‘missionary enterprise’, built a vineyard, I mean a church building, on Overland Road in Boise, Idaho, trusting that people would come and share God’s love, mercy, and grace. And people did come.

As Cathie wrote:

The people came, and suddenly,
they were no longer strangers and sojourners
but fellow citizens with the saints
and members in this new household of God.

And their cornerstone was Jesus Christ. And so rather than believe the church was something that they built by themselves, they recognized they were just laborers in God’s fields, and they responded with grace. They paid the denomination back for the construction of the building so that the church could build other new churches, in other new neighborhoods.

Southminster also decided, at the very beginning, that we would always give 10% of our budget to support the work of the denomination. Every year, we send that money off to help pay for mission co-workers, disaster relief, Youth Triennium, peace and justice work, and everything else the church does at a national level. When your cornerstone is solid, you can build on a good foundation with abundance and hope.

“In Christ, the whole structure is joined together and grows into a holy temple in the Lord; in whom you also are built together spiritually into a dwelling-place for God.”

I look forward to being laborers in God’s vineyard with you as we move into our next 60 years. Thank you for your faithfulness that has brought us to this moment. Thank you for continuing to seek God’s voice as you seek your Cornerstone. Thank you for building on a solid foundation. I’m excited about where God is calling us in this new era.

Amen.

(thanks to David Lose and his presentation at the Idaho Discipleship Conference last week for much of the insights about the culture of tradition versus culture of experience)

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