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Calvary Episcopal ChurchPhoto of Peggy Gunness
Memphis, Tennessee
May 2, 1999
The Fifth Sunday of Easter

A First Sermon in a New Parish
The Rev. Margaret B. Gunness

2nd Reading: 1 Peter 2:1-10

Eternal God, you have created us for yourself,
and we are restless until we find our rest in you.

Well, here we are at last. And what I want to say to you first and foremost this morning is thank you. Thank you for calling me to join you here at Calvary Church. Thank you, Doug, for your sense of excitement and commitment in having a Vicar by your side. Thank you, the people of Calvary, for the incredibly warm and thoughtful welcome you have given to me and Peter and our family. Thank you for the trust you have placed in me and for your willingness to help me live into that trust. And thank you for your own commitment to the ministry that God has called you to undertake in this extraordinary parish. I must confess that from the very first conversation I had with Doug, some seven or eight months ago now, I have had a compelling sense of being called by God to come here, called toworship, work and pray, in your midst, and called to come as well in response to some need deep in my own soul. And now today it all begins. So thank you, all of you, for giving me the honor of becoming a part of this great parish of Calvary Church here in the heart of Memphis.

As I was anticipating this first Sunday morning with you, there was one particular memory kept coming totally unbidden into my mind. It was of a time some 30 years ago now, when I took our kids to an old church in Salem, MA. It had recently been converted into a museum which portrayed that period in colonial America when many young women were accused and tried for being possessed by evil spirits. At the beginning of the tour, everyone was invited to stand in a circle in the darkened foyer of the church around an in-laid red glass frame on the floor that gave off an eerie red glow and made us feel that we were standing together around a witch's fire. And as we stood there, everything became still and hushed. And then, as if from nowhere, into the silence, a reverberating voice spoke out and said, "Welcome...to the Salem Witch Museum." Well, the kids eyes got big as saucers, and then one of them blurted out in a small, trembling voice, "Thank you. I'm very glad to be here."

Today, I feel that if the voice of every one of you were somehow silenced, these very walls would still reverberate with the voice of your warmth and your welcome. So to these very walls, I too, would reply with my eyes wide open, "Thank you. I'm very glad to be here."

But now I have a question for you, and it is this: Who are you? Who are you, Calvary Church, here in the heart of Memphis? Do you know for sure? And, you members of this congregation and of this parish, why are you here? What are you longing for? What are your fears and what are your hopes? And when you pray and listen for God, what do you perceive that God needs of you - here in this place and now in this time? I'm eager to learn these things about you, because, you see, today I become a part of you, and today you and I begin to build up all that we will become together. So "Who are you?" also becomes today "Who am I?"

But to put the question into an even larger context, I think that ironically these may well have been the same questions that were in the minds of the people of that fledgling church which the apostle Peter was addressing in his letter that was read this morning as our first lesson. So hear again what he wrote to them, perhaps in response to their own search for the source and anchor of their identity:

Come to Christ to that living stone, rejected by many but in God's sight chosen and precious; and like living stones be yourselves built into a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood...

What he is saying is that the people of that church then, just as the people of this church now, are a people who are called - specifically and intentionally called - to come to Christ. And yet the image Peter chooses is surprising: "Like living stones, be yourselves built into a spiritual house." Essentially, he is saying that we are called to be a people of stone! Now, I don't usually think of Christians that way. Stones are hard and heavy; they're cold and lifeless. I once heard a story about such human stones. It's a story about some ancient Jewish scholars who were having a debate similar to that conundrum of "How many angels can dance on the head of a pin?" But the question of their debate in this instance was, "If God is all powerful, can he then create a stone so heavy that even God himself cannot move it?" Well, any way you answer that question implies a limitation to the power of God. So the scholars were stumped, until one very wise rabbi spoke up and said, "Yes, there is one stone that God has created that at times even God cannot move. That stone is the human heart."

You and I are called to be a people of stone, but not of this immoveable kind. No, we have been called to be living stones - warm, vital and pulsating, strong yet supple in the hands of God. This is what that letter to the early church says, living stones. And to take it further, you and I and countless others before and after us, are the very stones which will be built into a spiritual house, a holy temple, God's own people. And we are told never to forget that Christ is our cornerstone, that Christ is the foundational rock on which the strength and stability of the whole structure depends. Apart from him, we have no form or grace, no comeliness or purpose. Our value, as the people of this parish church, depends entirely on how we are built on the foundation of Christ and on how we are fitted together in relationship with one another. This is a wonderful architectural image of the community of the church. All of us have been called here to be together a people of stone - integrally related to each other and yet dependent, each and all, upon the strength and utter reliability of Christ, the cornerstone.

One last story comes to mind. It is said that years ago, the German writer Heinrich Heine was visiting some of the great cathedrals of France with a friend, and one day as they stood gazing in awe at the grace and power of Notre Dame, the friend questioned, "Why is it that we can't build cathedrals like that any more?" After a few moments of thought, Heine answered him and said, "Well, my friend, in those days people had convictions. Nowadays, they only have opinions."

People with convictions are people of stone. And this very sense of conviction is the quality I have already begun to see in you. Now we have been called to continue to build the church together, and I rejoice in the challenge that lies before us. So once again, I thank God for calling me into your midst, to be one more stone in the building up of the church in this place and in this time. Let us pray.

O God of unchangeable power and eternal light: Look favorably on your whole Church, that wonderful and sacred mystery; by the effectual working of your providence, carry out in tranquillity the plan of salvation; let the whole world see and know that things which were cast down are being raised up, and things which had grown old are being made new, and that all things are being brought to their perfection by him through whom all things were made, your Son Jesus Christ our Lord; who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever.

Copyright 1999 Calvary Episcopal Church

2nd Reading: 1 Peter 2:1-10
Rid yourselves, therefore, of all malice, and all guile, insincerity, envy, and all slander. Like newborn infants, long for the pure, spiritual milk, so that by it you may grow into salvation- if indeed you have tasted that the Lord is good. Come to him, a living stone, though rejected by mortals yet chosen and precious in God's sight, and like living stones, let yourselves be built into a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ. For it stands in scripture: "See, I am laying in Zion a stone, a cornerstone chosen and precious; and whoever believes in him will not be put to shame."  To you then who believe, he is precious; but for those who do not believe, "The stone that the builders rejected has become the very head of the corner," and "A stone that makes them stumble, and a rock that makes them fall." They stumble because they disobey the word, as they were destined to do.
But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God's own people, in order that you may proclaim the mighty acts of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light. Once you were not a people, but now you are God's people; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy. (NRSV)

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