United Presbyterian Church of West Orange

“We are Living Stones”

 May 7th, 2023

 Rev. Rebecca Migliore


        Take out your rock.  Maybe you have been holding it in your hand and it is reflecting back your warmth.  Maybe it has been beside you and is cool to the touch.  Some might be rough, some smooth.  What color is it?  What shape is it?  How old do you think it is?  Think for a moment about how it might have come to be. 

        Rocks and stones are powerful images.  We talk about God as our Mighty Fortress, our Rock and Redeemer.  Rocks and Stones piled atop one another can provide protection, or as walls demarcate borders.  They can be used to build roads, or aqueducts, or homes.  Rocks and stones are tiny pieces of the great high mountains, the earth that has been compressed for thousands, millions of years, eons of time.         

        Most of us think of rocks as silent—but they tell a story of what has happened on our planet.  And I, a child of the 70’s, can never talk about rocks without hearing Jesus Christ Superstar playing in my mind, “Why waste your breath, moaning at the crowd, Nothing can be done to stop the shouting, If every tongue was still the noise would still continue—the rocks and stones themselves would start to sing—Hey Sanna, Ho Sanna, Sanna, Sanna Ho.”  This is Jesus in the Palm Sunday sequence—based on the gospel of Luke’s account (Luke 19:40) which reads in part “if all were silent, even the rocks and stones would lift their voices.”

        In the first letter of Peter he expands on this image—calling all of us, living stones.  Reminding us that rocks and stones are used as the foundation, the cornerstone of buildings.  We are to become stones like that in our own lives, strong, able to carry heavy burdens, setting the floor for others to build upon.  With our very lives we, like the rocks and stones, lift up our voices to witness to the greatness of God, to the graciousness of Christ, to the ever changing movement of the Spirit in our world.

       And by our study of scripture, by our fellowship with one another, by our wrestling with the problems of our day in the context of the gospel story, by our ministries with those around us, we are crafted, like stones washed smooth in a river, tumbled and rubbed by the currents of life.

        But not all images of stones are positive.  Remember that childhood rhyme that “sticks and stones may break my bones, but names will never harm me.”  The sticks and stones part is true enough, we can do much harm to each other.  And we all know now that name calling can harm as much as anything else.  The letter of Peter talks about how stones (meaning the truth, meaning our lives) can be a stumbling block.  And our story from the Acts of the Apostles chronicles the most horrendous use of stones—to kill.  To batter someone to death.  Often a community project.  Everyone picking up a stone and hurling it at the offending party.  Doing it again, and again, and again, until the ultimate price was paid.

        The stoning of Stephen is a difficult story to read, much less preach on.  Is it just a record of how much danger the early church faced in their world?  Is it a way of underlining the fierceness of the religious fight happening between those who believed Jesus was the Messiah and those who did not?  Is it part of the message I keep hearing from Scripture in the last few weeks?  The message that we get to decide how/if resurrection makes a difference in our lives. 

        We are all holding stones, I have made it literal.  But it is a metaphor for the truth.  Our lives are like stones.  Are we going to use them for protection, building up?  Or for destruction, snuffing out?  Are we allowing ourselves to be refined by God’s justice and God’s grace?  Are we smoothing out our rough edges?  Are we finding ways to gather with other stones to construct a better place?  Or are we just in the way, tripping up others?  Or worse yet, are we using our own power, to bruise, to cut, to pummel, to beat down, to harm?


        It is a stark contrast.  That brutal, bloody scene of the death of Stephen.  And the images that are so beloved from the First Letter of Peter that we speak them aloud at almost every baptism service.  “But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people, in order that you may proclaim the excellence of [the One] who called you out of darkness into God’s marvelous light.”

        I am reminded of Moses’ last words to the people of Israel as they stood on the precipice of finally stepping onto the promised land (and Moses will not get there with them)—“I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses.  Choose life so that you and your descendants may live” (Deut. 30:19).  Go right or left.  Go forward or back.  Choose life or death.  Choose to live your life as a blessing or as a stumbling block, a harm to others.  That is the choice.

        Ah, but God sees all.  God knows us.  God knows that life is rarely so cut and dried.  There is choice other than life and death.  To do nothing.  To stand by.  To be there, not really participating, but not really helping either.  And we see this choice in our Acts reading in the person of Saul.  Saul, who will one day, tell us that he was a Pharisee of the Pharisees.  Saul, who was so adamant in persecuting those who followed the way.  Saul, who along a road to Damascus found himself blinded by the light and presence of Jesus.  Saul who would become Paul and would change the course of Christianity by insisting on including Gentiles as well as Jews in the emerging church.

        You could be forgiven for having missed him.  In the melee of everyone picking up stones and surrounding Stephen and throwing those missiles of hate, along with hurling words of insult.  You might have missed the young man, who was tasked with guarding the coats (and valuables) of those who were meting out their form of justice.  He was the lookout man.  He was there seemingly removed from the action.

       But make no mistake.  This was a choice as much as any other.  And it reminds us that to do nothing, to say nothing, is to do and say multitudes.

        We live in a world that cries out for us to do and say something.  We cannot have the sun rise without another story of guns and gun violence in this country.  We cannot turn around without another instance of shocking actions of racism, anti-semitism, anti-immigration, anti-LGBT, just to name a few of the ways we beat each other down.  We are increasingly seeing the damage that we have wrought on our earth.  We see on our screens the devastation of war and famine and plague.

        We have a choice.  We can use our rocks as protection and foundation, as part of the many rocks that it takes to build the kingdom.  We can use our rocks as destruction and vengeance, as part of the many rocks it takes to destroy lives and community.  We can decide to put our rocks in our pockets.  To hide our light under a bushel.  To pretend that “all that” has nothing to do with us, nothing to do with our lives, nothing to do with our church.  Each is a choice.  Not a “final answer,” as we see in the life of Paul, thank God.  But we make the choice for today.  We make the choice about how we witness to God, how we show the love of Jesus, how we follow in the Spirit.

        Come let us be living stones.  Come let us choose to live, and live abundantly.  For we are chosen and precious.  Once we were no people, but now we are God’s people.  And as God’s people, let us lift our voices, lift our lives, crying out our witness—and to God be the Glory.

        May it be so, Alleluia, Amen.