Preaching from CWS member Rhonda Miska to the Collaborative Dominican Novitiate in St Louis, USA on the Fourth Sunday of Easter.
The cornerstone is the one that is visibly most perfect and strong, without blemish or dent. No.
The cornerstone is the one that everyone agrees is the best and most beautiful. No.
The cornerstone is the one carefully chosen by a team of experts after they carried out thorough research. No.
The stone which is builders rejected has become the cornerstone.
It isn’t too much of an exaggeration to say that Scripture is one long narrative of God turning our expectations upside-down and choosing places and people and things that just don’t make sense to our way of thinking. Moses was a murderer on the run. David was the youngest son, and a shepherd was the one anointed to be king. Jesus came from the poor backwater of Nazareth – and the people scoffed “can anything good come from Nazareth?” Over and over, God chooses people, places, and situations that don’t make sense from our perspective to show God’s power. Hannah’s prayer which is echoed in Mary’s Magnificat rejoices in the great reversal, the wealthy hiring themselves out, the hungry filled, the rich sent away empty. Instead of choosing the best, the brightest, those voted “most likely to succeed,” it seems that God consistently does just the opposite. Jesus praises God for hiding things from the learned and revealing them to children. The stone which the builders rejected has become the cornerstone.
This line is repeated through the New Testament, like a refrain. These words from Psalm 118 are quoted in three of the gospels, in Acts, and in Paul’s writings. Clearly, as the early followers of Jesus were trying to make sense of the trauma of the crucifixion, the astonishing joy of the Resurrection, and the coming of the promised Spirit, this was a line of Scripture they returned to again and again. All of their expectations of who the Messiah would be as a military hero had been subverted. What was logical, what was reasonable, what made sense, what the experts and learned people would have predicted was not how God chose to act. The stone which the builders rejected has become the cornerstone.
If I am honest, this is not the message I prefer. It pushes me to a place of discomfort. As you all know by now, I am a lover of lists, strategies and research – ideally kept organized on my trusty clipboard. As Gina once noted, I prefer it when things are spreadsheetable. If I were designing a building, my instinct would be to go for the cornerstone the expert builders agree is best.
And yet it seems the God who loves us into being is not a God who conforms to our expectations and goals and plans. It seems the God who loves us into being is a God of mystery, surprises, and subversions. This calls forth in us a stance of curiosity, risk, and radical openness to the unexpected.
A willingness to be off balance.
A willingness to see the world in an upside-down kind of way.
A willingness to believe God is present in illogical places.
A willingness to act in ways that might make others scratch their heads.
A willingness to suspend disbelief when it seems where the Spirit is calling us is not what the dominant corporate maximize-profit-minimize-risk mindset would advise.
This is especially true in this adventure we call religious life. As Franciscan Sister Sarah Kohles said recently about religious life, and the challenge of explaining the vows as freeing and life-giving, “there’s something about our life that makes no sense.” Tony Gittins said to at the ICN that we should “pray for to desire a spirit of adventure” and a willingness to be seen even a little bit nuts by those who with unconverted eyes.
God’s mission that has us that has existed for 13.8 billion years and is far bigger and grander than our own individual and corporate vision. God’s mission does not conform to any one culture, and certainly not to the capitalist belief in endless growth and that bigger is always better. Sister Carol Zinn, speaking at an assembly of women religious from around the world, said “the need for flexibility, error, change of direction, shift in planning, and even the presence of failure demands a freedom, courage and fearlessness beyond what many of us are used to offering.”
Freedom, courage, and fearlessness describe the Franciscan Sisters of Mary’s discernment journey which led them to answer the Spirit’s call to completion. When Franciscan Sister of Mary Sandy Schwartz came to speak to our class, she spoke of how her community moved from working with a consultant who had worked with businesses to a spiritual director consultant who understood their charism and communal discernment. As they chart the path of completion, they are committed to loving one another. Sister Sandy spoke of a ritual when they scattered wheat to symbolize their letting go and trust in God for the continuation of mission. “We didn’t dig a hole and plant it,” she said. “That is not how God works. We had to throw it the seed to the wind. It wasn’t up to us. That is very significant.”
Sandy told us, “In our world, success is measured in largeness and numbers. I used to think of small and frail as not very good. I am glad to be here. I grow in pride for my congregation. I know God is calling us to be faithful in this as well. This is another way we are a pioneering congregation.”
The stone which the builders rejected has become the cornerstone. When we look with converted eyes, we can see the goodness and power of God in the witness of the Franciscan Sisters of Mary.
Another call to see the work of God in unexpected people and places for me has come from the writings of Chris Hoke, a jail chaplain, gang pastor and author. Like Greg Boyle who we saw speak last fall, Chris writes movingly about his homies, and the ministry that incarcerated men offer to one another. One inmate, Neaners Garcia, spent much time in solitary confinement in Washington State Prison. A man of deep Christian faith, Neaners spent long hours of prayer and Scripture reading while in the hole and would go to great lengths to reach out to other inmates in solitary. He would take individual wrapped fireball candies that he’d purchased in the prison canteen, crush them into a fine powder, and then would tie them to threads he’d gleaned from his pillowcase or underwear. Then, avoiding the watchful eyes of the guards who would punish him for this infraction, Neaners would painstakingly thread the flattened Fireball under the crack in the heavy door to the man in the next cell.
“It’s not just about candy,” Neaners said. “For those homies who don’t got nobody, who are all alone in the hole, that’s love. That’s communion, man.” Chris compares this sharing of sweet powdered fire to a sacrament, an act of humanity and connection in a place of abuse and inhumanity.
Neaners, and the other inmates Chris accompanies, don’t have credentials or education. More often than not, they have shaved heads and covered with tattoos – again, not those anyone would vote “most likely to succeed.” These men would never be awarded grant funding, would never create a strategic plan, and would never incorporate their ministries as 501c3s. But they undeniably are manifesting God’s reign in dark and difficult places. Chris argues that “Street leaders like Neaners can teach churches a lot about practices of spiritual adoption, discipleship and mission” as gangs excel at recruiting, initiating, and forming their new members for missions. Where society looks at gang youth like Neaners as dangerous, disposable and worthless, Chris looks through converted eyes as sees potential, passion, spiritual hunger and skills honed on the streets that can be repurposed for building up rather than destroying life.
The stone which the builders rejected has become the cornerstone. When we look with converted eyes, we can see the goodness and power of God in the witness of Neaners ministry to his inmates.
One way of looking at conversion is gradually coming to see ourselves, others, and the world in God’s upside-down way. Yesterday when I went to the optometrist and had my eyes checked, the doctor had me look through different lenses. As she clicked through lenses, the blurry letters projected onto a screen suddenly came into focus and were legible. Maybe the Christian life is one where our lenses are slowly refined by God so that our eyes are more open to see the reversals, to see the Kingdom of God present and alive in unexpected people and places, to see the potential in the stone rejected by the builders, to seeing a story of hope and possibility where unconverted eyes only see a messy and meaningless blur.
For me, this means asking God for the grace to catch myself when I make assumptions or snap judgments and to remain curious about what God might be up to in a situation or person – and sometimes that person is me. It means following my friend Jeannine’s advice to pray for surprises, remaining open to the possibility that a gift might come from a person or situation I wouldn’t expect. It means asking God to continually convert the way I see.
What does it look like in your life today?
(Photo credit https://www.microsoft.com/en-us/store/p/dazzling-stained-glass/9nqnpgk0xkfh)