The Church Cannot Die – Br. Keith Nelson

I Peter 2: 4-10

For several years, each September, I had the delight of meeting a group of Harvard first-year students enrolled in an introductory Humanities course. Somewhere between reading Plato, the Gospel of Matthew, and St. Augustine, their professor shepherded them over to the monastery for a field trip. Another Brother and I greeted them in our antechapel and we’d begin with an exercise: I opened the gates of the choir grille and invited them to wander wherever they liked for fifteen minutes in silence. I encouraged them to look, listen, smell, and touch – to let their senses lead the way. After being assailed with words and information in their first few weeks of college, they welcomed this task, letting fingertips play across the rough-hewn stones of our chapel walls or lying down on the cool marble floor. When we sat down to speak about their experience, their faces often radiated calm. One young woman exclaimed, “The stones seem almost alive! I could almost hear them speaking.” I asked, “What did you almost hear them say?” She thought for a moment, and said: “Be still – you can rest here.”

“Come to him, a living stone, though rejected by mortals, yet chosen and precious in God’s sight.”[i]The author of the First Letter of Peter takes up the image of a cornerstone and interprets it afresh in relation to Jesus, our Rock and our Refuge. The cornerstone – often inscribed with a date and ritually blessed – is the first stone to be laid in a foundation. It is the stone which orients the building geographically and orients the builders in their labor. The reference is to Isaiah’s chapter 28, where we read: “Behold, I am laying in Zion a foundation stone, a tested stone, a precious cornerstone, a sure foundation: ‘One who trusts will not panic.’[ii]The stability of a tested cornerstone will bear the weight of countless others. As they take their places, they participate in its fundamental strength. Jesus, the Head of the Corner, speaks to us as the stones of our chapel spoke to that young woman: “Be still: you can rest here.” He invites us, in the words of Mary Oliver, “to take our place in the family of things.”[iii]

The stones of our chapel on Memorial Drive are worthy, time-tested icons of the trustworthy stability of God. But the vocation of our sacred buildings – even glorious buildings whose walls are saturated with prayer – is to point us to the Builder of Heaven and Earth. We must not forget that the Builder’s primary materials – chosen and precious – have always been and will always be you and me. The Church is not an edifice whose worth lies in the heavy stone pillars of its oldest cathedrals. The Church is alive, moving, breathing, and living in the space between its members, however great that space may be. This is the paradox of living stone. What moves, breathes, lives, and walks the earth for a short time fades and falls: “All flesh is grass.”[iv] Stones endure in their simple, solid state for ages and ages; they are intuitive archetypes of changelessness. To be a living stone, then, is to stand with one foot gloriously planted in a temporal body in the brief time we are given and the other planted on the unshakable threshold of eternity.

Because she is built of these living stones, the Church cannot die.

The Church is a mystical Body because the Holy Spirit is its animating force, the miraculous connectivity binding each member into a Life larger and more liberating because it is shared with God’s triune Life. This is the mystery of Pentecost, the birth of the Church, and its continual rebirth in every age and every believing heart by the gift of the Holy Spirit. Even now – in a time heavy with lamentation – we are living stones, lovingly chosen and set firmly in place. To be a stone may feel quite unexciting. It is certainly less dramatic then to be blowing wind, or leaping flame, or even flowing water; these are the roles of the Holy Spirit. But to be a sanctuary for the Spirit of God – this may be the most exciting thing we can do with this fragile and precious life. To offer true rest to the restless and inspire genuine trust in the midst of paralyzing fear – this may be the most courageous thing we can do. And to promise one another that we will go on being the Church for one another and the world, however the foundations seem to quake – this may just be the holiest thing we can do in the time we are given by the hand of the Builder. Come, Holy Spirit. Amen.

[i] 1 Peter 2:4.

[ii] Isaiah 28: 16.

[iii] “Wild Geese,” by Mary Oliver.

[iv] Isaiah 40:6 & 1 Peter 1:24.

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  1. John Greenman on June 25, 2021 at 10:25

    In my elder years, I’m often troubled by the question of what to do. My tendency is to diminish my activity and spend much time in personal reflection even while I know keeping up physical activity is necessary for continued health. But it is no longer necessary for me to contribute labor beyond my home in order to make a living. So what do I do? Your sermon, Brother Keith, has an answer. Harbor the Holy Spirit insofar as that may be. Be indwelt by Jesus, “that he may dwell in us and we in him,” a fervent prayer. “Offer rest to the restless, and inspire genuine trust.” What a challenging yet wonderful daily plan. “To be a sanctuary for the spirit of God…may be the most exciting thing we can do in this fragile and precious life.” To be a living stone evincing the master builder surely is the highest calling. Perhaps, to be a threshold for someone to eternal life. Thank you, Brother Keith, your sermon meets my need squarely.

  2. Mary Naumann on June 25, 2021 at 09:54

    Lovely! Reminds me of the children’s song, “I am the church, you are the church, we are the church together.”
    Blessings, Mary

  3. Missy Carter on June 25, 2021 at 09:19

    So beautiful Br. Keith and I will look at each stone in a very different way. As we watch the building in Florida, collapsed with tragedy layered in the rubble, your words have special meaning. Thank you

  4. Alison on June 25, 2021 at 08:55

    This sermon is so beautiful, like a poem. I am reading this the day after the announcement of the discovery of the age of stars and to find myself with one foot on the unshakable threshold of eternity and yet part of a moving, breathing and living church just magnifies my wonder and love of God. I know I shall read this often and find both inspiration and comfort.

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