The Quarry of Love
27 August 2017
Not far from where I live is the Thomas Hart Benton house, which is now a curated state monument, his studio preserved exactly as he left it so that people may observe the last snapshot of a great artist at work. But although the neighborhood is full of signs pointing to the location, it’s hard to pick the house out from its surroundings, because its natural state is so similar to the nature of many other houses around it. “Built of native limestone,” the tour blurbs say, which, when you look at other houses in the neighborhood, seems like ironic understatement: you wonder if there’s any native material but limestone in Kansas City. Some houses are made of stones so undressed that they look as if they had been dug straight out of the ground and plastered into place; some even have retaining walls in front with stones studded along the top like crenellations. “Welp, we’ve got all these rocks, might as well make a front gate out of ‘em too,” you can imagine the masons saying.
These houses look sturdier than their brick neighbors, like extensions of the earth on which the whole city is planted; as if nothing could shake them. They look immovable, cemented permanently into place.
It’s that sense of bonding, earth to earth and house to home, that drives the metaphor of today’s readings. “Listen to me, all who follow after the right, who seek the Lord: consider the rock from which you were hewn, the quarry from which you were cut. Consider Abraham your father and Sarah who gave you birth. When I called him he was but one; I blessed him and made him many.” From the native stone of Abraham and Sarah, a people was built. And what holds them together is their covenant with God. “Lift up your eyes to the heavens, and look at the earth beneath,” says the Lord. “Even if all that you see is shaken, my deliverance will be everlasting and my saving power will remain unbroken.” For a nation of wanderers, the permanence of stone is a poignant image of Israel’s faith.
To this day, it is still a Jewish custom to bring small stones to visit a grave: mementoes, tokens of trust, statements of the bond between people living and dead. Covenants too foundational even to need a commandment about them.
So it’s not a fanciful whim on Jesus’s part to call his first confessor “Rocky.” The rock from which the church is hewn, the quarry from which it is dug, is a man who looked at Jesus and was given a thunderbolt of insight: this is the Anointed One, the Son of God, the Prime Mover of the whole earth. Jesus tells him, “I will build my church out of your native stone, and death will have no power against it. Whatever you bind together is bound in heaven too; whatever you undo is undone in heaven too.” That is some serious power and authority.
It’s worth noting that in the passage immediately following, “Rocky” makes a serious mistake. After declaring Peter to have this great power and authority, Jesus — the Prime Mover — says that he is going to Jerusalem, where he will have no effect at all; he will be powerless in the hands of the religious authorities, who will disbelieve him, and scorn him, and put him to death. “And he will be raised on the third day” must have been so incomprehensible as to pass by Peter’s ears unheard. He grabs Jesus and says, “No, this is not going to happen!”
Jesus’s response? “Out of my way, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me.” The rock, the cornerstone of the church, is suddenly a stone in the path to be tripped over. So much depends on where you find the rock!
It’s little wonder that in the first letter attributed to Peter, he tells the church, “As you come to the Lord, who is the living stone, rejected by humans but chosen and precious in God’s sight, you also, like living stones, are being built into a spiritual house, offering spiritual sacrifices that God declares acceptable.” Remember the rock from which you were hewn and the quarry from which you were cut.
The word “spiritual” crops up in our reading from Romans, too. “I appeal to you, brothers and sisters,” Paul says, “by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship.” Some translations use the word “reasonable,” which hardly seems like a synonym to us. We think of the “spiritual” as something fugitive and airy, intangible, ungraspable, unbound to matter. But that’s not what Paul or Peter or Jesus was thinking.
The Greek word gives us a clue. It’s a form of the word logos, which you may recognize from its translation at the beginning of the gospel of John: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was from God.” Logos survives in our language as a designation for a discipline or science: biology, psychology, theology — all the reasoning about a subject that can be put into words. But it means more than that: it means not just description but initiative, a force that creates and shapes as well as defines. It’s not just the rocks that happen to be lying around in the masonyard ready for building; not just the landscape from which we scout a quarry. It’s the very intention that formed those rocks out of stardust and prepared them to be bound together and built into a house. It’s a mindful force more durable than the earth itself.
Your spiritual worship. The worship you were made to give. The worship that makes total sense for who you are, that makes total sense of what you are. A worship that represents complete continuity between the covenant of Abraham and the covenant of Peter, because it is acceptable to the God who made us, who loves us and redeems us.
This is both comforting and deeply unsettling. On the one hand, if our offerings of worship come from the deepest stuff of our being, then we cannot fail to please God by giving them. Even if, like Peter, we wind up like a rock in the path to be tripped over sometimes. God does not ask of us a worship that we have to drag in whether we like it or not, that seems counter to who we are or subject to arbitrary critique by other people. God asks a worship that is quarried out of our own earth, love that is native and not trucked in from afar.
On the other hand, it would be a whole lot easier if our buildings, both our physical church buildings and the buildings of our habits, were as durable as the faith God wants to give us. It would make it so much easier if buildings maintained themselves, if churches never fell apart or became bewildered by change. It would be so much easier if we never had to wonder what to do.
Heaven and earth might indeed wear away. We worry about that a lot in these days.
In times like these, it helps to remember Peter, imperfect and perfect both at once. And to pray with the Psalmist: “The Lord will make good his purpose for me. O Lord, your love endures forever; do not abandon the works of your hands.”