Christ Episcopal Church, Valdosta
“The Rejected Cornerstone” (Matthew 21:33-42)
October 8, 2017
Dave Johnson

In the Name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

You are in fifth grade and whenever you are hanging out in your bedroom your radio is tuned into the local Top 40 hit station.  It is a beautiful spring evening and your window is open, an occasional cool breeze enters your room with the scent of freshly mown grass and that sense of hope that accompanies spring reawakens in your heart.  A song comes on the radio that immediately grabs your attention, immediately resonates with you.  You are too young to relate fully to the lyrics but the driving chord progression of the electric guitar connects with you on a deep level.  A young man from Gainesville, Florida named Tom Petty sings:

You know, sometimes I don’t know why
But this old town just seems so hopeless
It seems I remember the good times
Were just a little bit more in focus
But when she puts her arms around me
I can somehow rise above it…
Hey, here comes my girl
Here comes my girl
(From “Here Comes My Girl” on the 1979 album Damn the Torpedoes)

That song reverberates through your mind the next day at school when you see a girl in class you have a crush on—“here comes my girl”—although she’s not your girl (and never will be).  A couple years later you are in middle school, in the throes of the chaos of adolescence, and another song comes on the radio by this same artist, another song that immediately resonates with you:

The waiting is the hardest part
Every day you see one more card
You take it on faith, you take it to the heart
The waiting is the hardest part
(From “The Waiting” on the 1981 album Hard Promises)

As you journey through middle school and high school you continue hearing hit songs from Tom Petty.  Then you get married at age twenty-one.  You spend nearly all your money on your honeymoon and do not want to “waste” money on a hotel, so you drive straight through the night from New Jersey to Oklahoma to begin your senior year of college with your bride curled up asleep in the passenger seat.  And in the cassette player you play Tom Petty’s Full Moon Fever album over and over again… “’Cause I’m free…free fallin.’”

Fast forward to your mid-thirties and you are taking your kids on your annual camping trip in Shenandoah National Park.  You crank Tom Petty’s greatest hits album in your minivan and sing along to every song.  In your late thirties you go through a particularly stressful season in your life and find unexpected comfort in an album Tom Petty wrote during the most stressful time in his life:

I got a room where everyone can have a drink
And forget those things that went wrong in their life…
Look deep in the eyes of love
Look deep in the eyes of love
And find out what you were looking for
(From “Room at the Top” on his 1999 album Echo)

As you learn more about Tom Petty you realize that his songs not only resonated with you and millions of other fans, but also with other music icons like Bob Dylan, Roy Orbison, Stevie Nicks, and George Harrison.  You learn that in 1994, several months after the tragic death of Kurt Cobain, Tom Petty reached out to the bereaved drummer of Nirvana, Dave Grohl, and invited him to play with him on Saturday Night Live, a gig that reinvigorated his love for playing drums.

Several years later you are in the final stages of a search process for a church in South Georgia, and as you await their decision you are reminded again that “the waiting is the hardest part.”  After a few years in South Georgia you take your kids and a good friend to see, yes, Tom Petty in Atlanta.  After listening to his greatest hits on so many road trips, you finally get to see him and his legendary band The Heartbreakers live.  With your arms draped over one another’s shoulders, you cheer and sing along to “Free Fallin”” and “Learning to Fly.”  It is one of the best concerts you have ever attended—life giving, full of joy, unforgettable.

Then you are visiting your son in Athens, Georgia and you find out Tom Petty has died.  And you realize that someone whom you have never met but whose songs have been a recurring part of the soundtrack of your life, will never sing another song again this side of heaven—and it hits you really hard.  Even if you are not a Tom Petty fan, I suspect that you have had similar experiences with other artists whose songs resonated with you since your childhood, whose singing days on earth are over.

Unfortunately, like many boys, Tom Petty had a tortured relationship with his father, who wanted him to be like his brother—athletic, excited about hunting and fishing—and was disappointed that Tom was interested in music instead.  Unfortunately this disappointment, fueled by alcohol, escalated to anger and abuse.  In Warren Zanes’ biography, Tom Petty recalls a particular incident that happened when he was very young:

When my father got home later, he took a belt, and beat me.  He beat me so bad that I was covered in raised welts, from my head to my toes.  I mean, you can’t imagine someone hitting a child like that.  Five years old.  I remember it so well.  My mother and my grandmother laid me in my bed, stripped me, and they took cotton and alcohol, cleaning these big welts all over my body…That was one of the first ones.  But there were many, many more (Petty: The Biography 20).

Until his father’s death, and afterwards, Tom Petty tried to process the rejection he endured from his father.

The Bible does not turn a blind eye to rejection.  In fact, God often chooses the rejected.  This was the case with Moses, whose father was never in the picture, who spent forty years in the desert working for his father-in-law as a shepherd.  And this was the case with David who was rejected by both his father and brothers, and who also was a shepherd when he was called by God and anointed king—and became the greatest king in the history of Israel.

In today’s gospel lesson Jesus tells the Pharisees and chief priests a very dark parable about rejection.  A landowner leased his vineyard to others while he travelled, and when he sent servants to collect the produce, the tenants beat and killed them.  This happened twice.  Then Jesus continues:

Finally he sent his son to them, saying, “They will respect my son.”  But when the tenants saw the son, they said to themselves, “This is the heir; come, let us kill him and get his inheritance.”  So they seized him, threw him out of the vineyard, and killed him (Matthew 21:37-39).

Then Jesus quotes the psalmist, “Have you never read in the scriptures: ‘The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone; this was the Lord’s doing, and it is marvelous in our eyes’?” (Matthew 21:42; Psalm 118:22-23).

Throughout the Old Testament God sent prophets to Israel to call them to turn away from their sin and turn back to God.  All of them were mistreated by Israel, just like those sent by the landowner in Jesus’ parable.  Then, just like the landowner in the parable, God sent his Son, Jesus—“They will respect my son”—but they did not.  And on Good Friday Jesus was rejected, seized, beaten—“covered in raised welts”—thrown out of the vineyard of Jerusalem, and killed.

But Jesus was raised from the dead, so that “the stone that the builders rejected” indeed became “the cornerstone” not only for a new church, but for a new world.  This fulfilled a prophecy given seven centuries earlier by Isaiah, “See, I am laying in Zion a foundation stone, a tested stone, a precious cornerstone, a sure foundation’” (Isaiah 28:16).  And shortly after Pentecost the Apostle Peter preached: “This Jesus is ‘the stone that was rejected by you, the builders; it has become the cornerstone’…there is no other name under heaven given among mortals by which we must be saved” (Acts 4:11-12).

You see, the gospel is very good news for the rejected.  While some of you have been rejected—perhaps like Tom Petty rejected by your father, or rejected by someone else—God has not and will not reject you.  At the Last Supper, Jesus, the rejected stone who became the cornerstone, said, “You did not choose me but I chose you” (John 15:16).  Moreover, God has invited you to be part of the church, a community of rejected stones, misshapen stones, broken stones all built together upon the Rejected Cornerstone, Jesus Christ, as scripture says:

So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God, built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the cornerstone (Ephesians 2:19-20).

God takes special delight in calling the rejected to be a part of his family.  The Apostle Paul put it this way in his First Letter to the Corinthians:

God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, things that are not, to reduce to nothing things that are, so that no one might boast in the presence of God (1 Corinthians 1:27-29).

Back to Tom Petty for a moment…the final song on his beautiful 1994 album Wildflowers is entitled “Wake Up Time.”  It hearkens back to his difficult childhood and the lingering effects of rejection:

You spend your life dreaming, running around in a trance
You hang out forever and still miss the dance
And if you get lucky you might find someone
To help you get over the pain that will come
You were so cool back in high school, what happened?
You were so sure not to have your spirits dampened
But you’re just a poor boy alone in this world
You’re just a poor boy alone in this world

But the very short refrain is full of hope:

And it’s wake up time
Time to open your eyes
And rise and shine

The gospel is good news for the rejected, good news for all those who feel stuck in an “old town (that) just seems so hopeless,” good news for all those who know “the waiting is the hardest part,” good news for those who long to “forget those things that went wrong in their life.”

Jesus, the Rejected Cornerstone, calls out to all the rejected—calls out to you—to “look deep in the eyes of love and find out what you were looking for”—“to open your eyes and rise and shine.”