A reflection on the readings for Proper 26A: Joshua 3:7-14
There is a point in time, in the late afternoon, when the light in the church is particularly beautiful. This time of year the sun, moving south on the horizon, pours in through the stained glass windows. Colored beams of light reflect off the walls with a vibrancy that takes my breath away. This sacred space of prayer, embraced in a mosaic of light.
The first mosaics were made in Mesopotamia, twenty five hundred years before Christ. They were decorative embellishments of terra cotta or mother of pearl. The art died out but reappeared in ninth century Greece as floor decoration. Geometric designs of pebbles were cheaper than rugs. Floor mosaics told stories. Before long the pebbles gave way to cut stone, enabling greater detail in the design. Over time this art form spread from Greece to Turkey and Egypt. Some of the finest examples of mosaics were unearthed from the ruins of Pompeii, buried under the destruction of the volcano Vesuvius in the year 79. In the fourth century the Christian emperor Constantine lifted mosaics from the floor to the ceiling, with colored glass replacing the stone.
In churches, mosaics became the Bible for everyday human beings. One did not need to know how to read nor did one need to rely on words, instead the story was told in images of colored glass.
Terry Tempest Williams, in her book, Finding Beauty in a Broken World, begins with a reflection on mosaic. She is in Italy learning the art of creating mosaics – of carefully placing stone next to stone until it tells a story in picture. From creating mosaics in Italy Williams takes us to Bryce Canyon Utah, where she is studying prairie dogs, and then she takes us to Rwanda, where she is helping a group of artists work with a small village to rebuild after the genocide of 1994. Williams weaves together these three disparate stories into one compelling reflection on life, violence, and hope.
As an author, Williams is an advocate for justice, for healthy relationships between the environment and humankind. Finding Beauty in a Broken World is written in short paragraphs, like meditations in a journal. She reflects on how the natural world and the human world collide and connect in violence and in beauty. From the violence of broken glass and stone, a mosaic, beauty, is created. She writes with gentle emotion, about the intersection between arrogance and empathy, tumult and peace, constructing a narrative of hope.
“Mosaic celebrates brokenness and beauty being brought together…..A mosaic is a conversation between what is broken. “
Over the last five weeks we have celebrated the Season of Creation, a liturgical invitation to reflect on the world around us and our role as God’s partners in creation. Now we return to the season after Pentecost, also known as Ordinary Time, and to the scripture readings assigned for Sunday mornings. As we reflected on Genesis and stories of land and water, the readings from the Ordinary Time lectionary moved through the story of Exodus. When we left it, six weeks ago, the Israelites had crossed the Red Sea, finding new life as a people freed from slavery. The story continued, revealing their struggle as they wandered for forty years in the wilderness. There were stories of hunger and complaining, of Moses going up the mountain to receive the ten commandments, and then last week, with the promised land in sight, Moses dies, never stepping foot on the land he worked so hard to get too. Now, in this reading today from Joshua, we hear of the people preparing to enter the promised land. It’s a story, on the one hand, of a people preparing for war – to conquer the Canaanites who live in this land. And on the other hand it’s a story of God’s presence. Leaving us to wonder what this means to us. Where is God in the midst of war, violence, and brokenness?
A group of us in the parish gather every Monday or Tuesday night to watch video recordings of the PBS series, Women, War, and Peace. This five part series tells stories about the violence of war, in particular the violence waged against women. It is often painful to watch. But these are also stories of women taking control of an egregious situation and transforming it into hope. One story portrayed the women who testified at The Hague in 2001, the first time rape was condemned as a war crime, and the perpetrators were convicted of this crime. Another story showed women, both Christian and Muslim, uniting in a stance of peaceful prayer, to end the violence of war in their country. A powerful story of non-violent action, led by mothers, grandmothers, and daughters, insisting that the violence end, using only the power of their presence and the power of prayer. This week we will hear the story of women in Afghanistan.
These true stories are like mosaics, out of brokenness comes hope, and the possibility of healing, transformation, and sometimes, forgiveness. They are powerful, beautiful stories.
Sometimes, in the midst of war, people will claim that God is on their side. Certainly that is the lens through which this story in Joshua is told – God, it seems, stands with the Israelites and supports their battle against the Canaanites. But maybe it’s really a story of how we humans want to believe that God is behind our actions. Early Europeans, arriving in this country used the same argument against those who lived here first – claiming that the they were bringing civilization and a just society and a proper religion to the “natives” – a claim that justified violence to oppress people and force them into submission…not to mention the countless other examples we could site where humans claim God endorses their acts of violence.
A social justice perspective of God offers us another perspective, reminding us that God has given us free will. With the gift of free will we humans are free to decide how we will behave. The gift of free-will reframes for us a common biblical phrase, the one where God says, “I am with you.” Free will, considered from this perspective, tells us that God is with us, but that does not mean that God endorses everything we do. In this perspective, a just God journeys with us, hoping that we will align our lives and all we do with what God desires.
Over the last five weeks the Gospel of Matthew has told stories of Jesus being tested by the Pharisees, who want to catch him in an act of treason so he can be arrested. The Pharisees are challenged by Jesus, to change their selfish ways. Last week, had we been following the regular lectionary readings, we would have heard the Pharisees asking Jesus a crucial question: “Lord, which commandment is the greatest?”
This is trick question. In the Bible there are 613 commandments. Regardless of which commandment Jesus claims as the greatest the Pharisees are prepared to argue against him.
Jesus deftly side steps the trap – he responds: “You shall love the Lord your God. This is the greatest commandment, and the second is like it, You shall love your neighbor as your self. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”
In other words, Jesus summarizes the intent and content of all 613 commandments into these two. What God desires is that we, love God, love self, and love others!
Toward the end of the book, Finding Beauty in a Broken World, the author quotes the famous William Sloane Coffin, a Presbyterian minister and peace activist. Perhaps his words are words to live by, he said: “The world is too dangerous for anything but truth and too small for anything but love.”