Look to the rock from which you were hewn, and to the quarry from which you were digged…  For the Lord will comfort Zion; he will comfort all her waste places, and will make her wilderness like Eden, her desert like the garden of the Lord.  (Is 51:1-3)

This fall, students from the Historic Preservation program of the University of Pennsylvania will be conducting a close-up examination of the brownstone exterior of our church.  Their professor told me that Saint Mark’s was a good place for the students to learn because our stone has at least one example of anything and everything that can possibly go wrong with brownstone.  I’m so glad we can be of help!

I once asked an architect what she could tell me about the maintenance of churches, like ours, made of brownstone.  “Well” she said, “I can tell you there’s a reason they stopped using brownstone to build buildings!”

Brownstone is soft and porous.  It is susceptible to the punishments of the weather.  It expands and contracts and flakes and scales.  If it isn’t laid properly, it crumbles fairly easily.  Maybe you could say brownstone is a lot like us: its weaknesses are pretty obvious.  And yet, 160 years ago they started building this church with it, and we are still standing.

The prophet Isaiah knew about the weaknesses of God’s people.  “Your iniquities have made a separation between you and your God, and your sins have hid his face from you.  For your hands are defiled with blood and your fingers with iniquity; your lips have spoken lies, your tongue mutters wickedness,” he said.  The prophet will go on to catalog the shortcomings of God’s children – at least one example of anything and everything that can possibly go wrong, it would seem.

Despite our magnificent achievements, we do not seem to be much better off, all these aeons later.  As a society, we are struggling in America not to make a scandal of just putting a roof over people’s heads and keeping it affordable.  We have made an almost catastrophic spectacle of the simple matter of shelter.  Is it any wonder that we have not managed to avoid wars, feed the hungry, educate our children very well, or reach some civilized common understanding about the rights of un-born children?  We are brownstone, at best.

The weaknesses of the church are, by now, so commonplace as to be jokes: - her hypocrisy, her pride, her facility at abuse, her sexism, her homophobia, her unseemly relationship to money.  Perhaps all churches should be built of brownstone – as reminders of who we really are: soft porous, prone to failure; the church can crumble fairly easily, too.

If the church and society can be compared to brownstone, so can each of us in our own lives.  We know our weaknesses and our failures.  We know, too well, how easily we crumble, how susceptible we are, not only to the weather, but to things like easy credit, temptations of infidelity to the ones we love, anger because it makes us feel righteous, cheating as long as we don’t think we will get caught.  In any given congregation, or perhaps on any given block in this city, there must be close to at least one example of anything and everything that can go wrong in a person’s life.  Brownstone.

To which the prophet Isaiah says, “Look to the rock from which you were hewn.”  He is talking about Abraham and Sarah.  They are the first crucial pivots in the story of salvation.  From almost the first pages of scripture – just after the splendor of God’s creation – we see how things are sliding away from God.  Exiled from Eden, Sodom and Gomorrah are not far away.  But with God’s promise to Abraham that he would make him a father of many nations, hope is kindled again.

Catholic minded Christians have heard in the prophet’s words a rallying cry for the papacy and a church that rests on the sure foundation of Peter’s confession of faith, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God!”  To which Jesus famously responds, “Simon, son of Jonah, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church.”

For many of us, however, it may not be much consolation to look to either Abraham or to Peter as we contemplate the soft susceptibility of our lives to all that wears us down, and chips away at us from either the inside or the outside.  This, I suspect, is the case, at least in part, because we are largely exiled from the story of our own salvation.  Shaped, as we have been, by a democratic, consumer society, we have gotten good at convincing ourselves that we more or less shape our own lives and our future.  What is salvation to those of us who are masters of the universe – or at least those of us who can get whatever we want at Walmart?  Concern for what happens to us after death ranges from paying for funeral expenses to helping our kids avoid inheritance taxes, to deciding where we want our ashes scattered – and not much further than that.  The idea that we could or should be changed, somehow, in this life or the next, seems odd – unless it is a diet or an exercise plan we are talking about.

We may be soft and porous and susceptible to all kinds of dangerous forces, but we have learned to accept ourselves for who we are, flakes and all; we’ve learned to like ourselves.  Or at least we’ve learned to put up with our selves and our weaknesses.  We’ve learned to stop thinking that God has anything more in store for us than rolling us off the production line and sending us on our way.

And this is a problem.

Because God has more in mind for us than a program of historic preservation.  He can do more for us than halt our decay, repair our cracks, and replace the chunks that fall off.  We may be brownstone, but God hewed us from his own quarry, and it was his hand that first shaped us, no matter what’s become of us since.

And the story of salvation is the story of a God who sees in you and in me the building blocks of a new creation – the kingdom of God - this is why he has called us to be a part of his church.  He knows that with our wars, our weapons, our money-grubbing, our disloyalty, our selfishness, our abuse of one another, our ruination of the earth, and on an on, we have made a wilderness even of Eden, and a desert of what was the garden of the Lord.  And he knows that in our more honest moments we can see this too.  He knows that we are crumbling, flaking, scaling.  He knows how soft is the stone of which we are made – after all he first formed us out of the mud.

But God remembers why he made us – for love’s sake, in his own image, by his own breath, with his own hand.  And he never meant for us to be so worn down by the weather and everything else.  He never meant for us to stray so far from Eden, though he must have known that we would.  Which is why he hewed us from the Rock of his beloved Son – carved, perhaps, out of the same side that would later be carved out by a soldier’s spear.

And our salvation is this: to discover in our weakness the true rock from which we were hewn; to see, as we begin to think that we will crumble to bits, that we have been carved out of rock that is strong when we are weak, that sees light where we are covered in darkness, that brings healing where we can only decay, and that knows life where we could only die.

Look to the rock from which we were hewn, and see that though they beat him he does not crumble, though they kill him, he is not broken, though they lay him in a tomb, he cannot be held there.  And we thought we were brownstone!  Look!  Look to the rock from which you were hewn.  He is the rock that makes of Peter a prince of the church, even though he is brash, and sometimes stupid, and not sufficiently steadfast in his faith.  Look to the rock of Abraham’s faith – the rock on which Sarah finally bore a son, and on which Isaac was not killed.

See how soft and porous we are – you and I!  See how weakly we crumble in so many ways!  And look, look to the rock from which we were hewn, and see that we will be re-made into something better than our old selves.

Look to the rock from which we were hewn, and see how God is already fashioning us into a new people who are stronger than we thought we were.  See how he calls us to build a city within this city where the hungry are fed, where all find a welcome, where hope trumps despair.

Look to the rock from which you were hewn and see Jesus, and know that you are more than you believed you were; that when you crumble and all the kings horses and all the kings men could not put you or me back together again, he still can!

Look to the rock from which you were hewn and see how the church still stands despite her fragile stones.

My brothers and sisters, we are brownstones, it is true.  We are flaking, scaling, crumbling, weak.  To grow up is, in some ways, to learn that this is true.  But it is also true that this is not all we shall ever be.  Just as the brownstones of this church, laid properly and given care form something stronger, better, holier than they could be, so God has built us into a stronger, better, holier people than we could ever be, by calling us together in his church, and reminding us ever to look to the rock from which we were hewn.

God would have good reason to give up trying to build his kingdom with such wearisome stones as us.  But instead he calls us to look to the rock from which we were hewn.

Look to the rock from which you were hewn, and to the quarry from which you were digged.  

Look to Abraham your father and to Sarah who bore you; for when he was but one I called him and made him many.

For the Lord will comfort Zion; he will comfort all her waste places, and will make her wilderness like Eden, her desert like the garden of the Lord; joy and gladness will be found in her, thanksgiving and the voice of song!

Lift up your eyes to the heavens, and look at the earth beneath; for the heavens will vanish like smoke, the earth will wear out like a garment, and they who dwell in it will die like gnats.

But God’s salvation will be for ever!

Preached by Fr. Sean Mullen
24 August 2008
Saint Mark’s Church, Philadelphia

Posted on August 24, 2008 .