What we see says a whole lot about who we are.
In fact: What we see makes us who we are.
In our daily lives, every situation and every person and every landscape can be seen differently. And what you see in a given situation or what you see in a specific person or what you see in a landscape before you – what you see, says a great deal about who you are. Going even further again: What we see in all of this makes us who we are. You just are a person who sees this, rather than that – or that, rather than this.
Perhaps we can get a little bit more specific. When you look out into the night’s sky and you see all those stars visible to the naked eye – when you see all those stars, which are just a fraction of the 300 billion stars that make up our galaxy – when you see all those do you see a universe that came from nowhere and is going nowhere? Do you see a universe that is accidental and meaningless? Or in seeing those stars do you see the mysterious and wonderful work of a God who gives the world as gift and grace. A universe within which we may find our own lives as gift and grace. What you see in those stars says a lot about who you are – it says a lot about the hope and peace that defines you.
We can bring this down to another level altogether, of course. When you see a dad dragging a screaming 7 year old through the parking lot at the grocery store, do you see a dad who has lost his temper; do you see a dad who is impatient; do you see child who is spoiled? Or do you see someone struggling to be a parent in the way that every parent struggles. Someone who knows how to love and is almost certainly learning daily how to love more faithfully?
Every person and every situation and every landscape can be seen differently. Yes, of course, there are certain objective facts to be observed, but to see merely those facts isn’t to see much at all. What you see in the world around you says a whole lot about who you are. In fact, what you see in the world around you probably says more about who you are than it says about the world you are looking at.
Our Old Testament scripture reading for this morning from Joshua tells the familiar story of the crossing of the Jordan River. God’s people are on the move – God is leading them toward and into this new homeland. And a significant moment on that journey is the moment when they cross the Jordan River – a river that marks the boundary of the new land. They cross the river, of course, without the advantage of a bridge; they cross the river, according to this telling of the story, at a time of year when the river remains swollen from rains and runoff.
In the telling of these events, the narrator wants us to see a similar water miracle as took place in the crossing of the Red Sea. In this narrative the waters are similarly dried up or heaped up at the moment the people make their crossing. God has allowed them safe passage across and through a threatening feature of the geographic landscape.
And after the people have made a safe crossing, Joshua tells the people to set up stones as a memorial of their entry into the land. We read in the narrative: “Joshua summoned twelve men, one from each tribe. He said to them. ‘Pass on before the ark of the Lord your God into the middle of the Jordan, and each of you take up a stone on his shoulder, one for each of the tribes of the Israelites., so that this may be a sign among you. When your children ask in the time to come, “What do those stones mean to you, then you shall tell them that the waters of the Jordan were cut off in front of the ark of the covenant of the Lord. So these stones shall be to the Israelites a memorial forever’.”
This story from the book of Joshua is interesting just in terms of this establishment of a memorial. God has touched their lives – God has done something for them – God has appeared offered a way of hope and transformation – and they want to remember it – they want to memorialize what God has done in a very concrete way. It’s the sort of things you want your grandchildren or your friends and their children to remember with you. Stones set up in the landscape become a reminder of the good and gracious thing God has done.
Of course this narrative moment raises all kinds of interesting questions about how we might memorialize the goodness of God as a congregation and as individuals – it’s an interesting enough question that I want to come back to it at some point. But I don’t actually want to focus on those first twelve stones this morning. I want to focus, rather, on this odd reference to a second set of twelve stones that we find in Joshua chapter 4.. verse 9. In the first place, as we’ve already seen, Joshua has twelve men, one from each tribe, pick up stones from the river and arrange them as a memorial of what God has done. Those stones were set up at a place called Gilgal.
But then there is another reference, a second reference to twelve stones. In our translation of the bible, it is actually added in parentheses – because in the original Hebrew it’s expressed as a kind of aside. Like other elements in the whole narrative of Joshua, these stones represent a kind of mystery. We read in verse 9: “Joshua set up twelve stones in the middle of the Jordan, in the place where the feet of the priests bearing the ark of the covenant had stood; and they are there to this day.”
So what’s up with these twelve stones? Why were they placed on the riverbed? Were these stones visible when the river was a full roar – or only when the river was much lower in the dry season? Why put up a second memorial when the first was already set up visibly on the land – and of all places, why in the middle of a river?
In reading the book of Joshua we should know that this is a complicated telling of the story of God’s people – and there are questions about how this story matches up with historical events. The book itself has been edited by different hands over time, from different points of view, and there are questions about how it all holds together. We just have to acknowledge some of these challenges when we read the book.
And in reading this reference to a second set of stones, it makes me wonder whether this second stones wasn’t added into the narrative late in the composition of the book. Of course it’s not impossible that Joshua had the people set up a second set of twelve stones in the middle of the river. But perhaps there was actually a very natural stone formation somewhere along the Jordan River – a very natural stone formation with 12 or so large rocks jutting up out of the river. And maybe it was out of familiarity with that ancient narrative – out of familiarity with the story of the crossing of the Jordan River – that those stones became associated the entry of God’s people into the land.
The modern mindset, of course, is a mindset that will see this as a betrayal of the narrative. Whether a person is a deep skeptic or a fundamentalist believer, the reply will be – just give me the facts, nothing but the facts. Either you can trust that the narrative is telling the truth about what happened, or you can’t trust the narrative.
Now there are some elements, certain facts within the bible (if we want to call them that) – certain facts that are fundamental to the story of God’s people. For example, if you try to remove the resurrection of Jesus from the New Testament, you may as well throw the whole thing out. The whole New Testament holds together around this claim and this reality – that the dead Jesus rose to new life.
But the second set of stones in the Jordan River isn’t nearly like that. To say that the stones were a natural formation, that they became associate with the ancient narrative, does nothing to betray the lines of the story. The people of God have, in some way, entered the land of promise. God has brought them there by miracle and by grace and by providence. Whether that second set of stones was set up at the time of the river crossing – or whether the stones were always there as a natural formation, doesn’t betray the narrative of God’s grace.
But here’s the interesting question for us, if we think about those stones as a natural geological formation, someone had to make the association between the stones and the story of the crossing. Maybe there were hundreds or thousands of people who walked past that natural rock formation in the course of their daily activities in ancient Israel. And the vast majority of those people, when they walked near that rock formation, probably said to themselves – “O look, a natural rock formation.” That’s what they saw. But at some point, someone who walked by that rock formation said to him or herself: “Look at that cool rock formation – are there twelve rocks there? Hey, that kind of reminds me of the twelve tribes, and how they had to cross the river.”
And suddenly we are back to where we began this morning.
What we see says a lot about who we are. Every person and every situation and every landscape can be seen from different points of view. What we see speaks volumes about who we are as a person – what we see, defines us.
Our individual lives and experiences teach us to see certain things. But our culture also teaches us to see certain things. And in some respects our culture may be helping us to see well:
We are finally learning to see women and men as equally able and worthy.
We are beginning to see those with disabilities as differently able.
We are starting to see the earth is not an endless source of resources to enrich us.
But on the other hand our culture often teaches us to see in ways that diminish us.
We see ourselves as consumers of products – as defined by what we buy.
We see individuals as outcomes of social policy, rather than as persons and moral agents.
Most important for this morning, our culture teaches us to see the world at a merely horizontal level – only in terms of our human thought and human choice and human judgment – our culture refuses the idea that we might see God’s presence and work in the world.
Half way through this season of Lent I began participating in an activity that was initiated by the United Methodist Church in the U.S. It’s called the photo-a-day project. And the point of the activity is to try and open our eyes – to help us see differently, to see with eyes attuned to grace and purposes of God. For each day in Lent, a word is provided, and the activity is imply to post a picture – whether on Instagram or Twitter or Facebook – a picture that links up with the word provided for the day.
It’s a kind of spiritual exercise intended to help us see the world from the perspective of the gospel, in terms of God’s nearness to our world in Christ. For me it has been an interesting exercise to keep my eyes open for deeper meanings in daily life – for those realities that might express in some way the nearness and reality of God. As we work toward the end of this sermon I thought I’d share just a few of the photos I’ve taken, and offer a word of reflection on each one.
We can interpret this word in many different ways. At one level it’s about an experience of being at home in the world – it’s about having our place at the dinner table, or our place at the office, or our place within the church. But our place can also be our house, or our apartment. How do we see our place – our house, our apartment? Do we see it as a place merely for us, or do we see it as a place that is for, or in service to, our neighbour. Do we see our house or apartment as place into which God by his Spirit may be welcomed through prayer. On a very different note, what of those who have no house or apartment, no place in that sense – do we see that Christ dwells, makes himself at home, with those who have no place, for he is homeless.
This is a picture taken in the Faculty of Religious Studies at McGill – the university being a context that we associate with knowledge. Growing in knowledge is so basic to human life. Each of us grows day by day in the knowledge of our world. For some, growing in knowledge or contributing to human knowledge is a part of a vocation as student or teacher or researcher. How do we see our knowledge? Do we see our knowledge as a resource that contributes to the wellbeing of others? Do we see our knowledge as a means to elevate our status? Do we see growth in human knowledge as a merely human endeavor, detached from the purposes of God, and from the requirement of obedience to God? Do we see our knowledge as knowledge of a world we inhabit as gift and grace, from God – do we see that our knowledge and our teaching can only find their fullness in service to Christ.
Well, this was a fun photo – and when I posted it I asked how long this snowman was likely to endure when the temperatures were hovering around zero degrees this week. There are many ways we could take this question of endurance. And one way is
to remember that very often, the people we see have had to endure some suffering in their life. Though it might not be visible to us, they may be enduring some grief or hardship right now. It’s so easy to make demands and have expectations for others that don’t take into account the things they have endured. But to see this possibility is to see each one as worthy of the compassion and grace and patient understanding that God extends to each of us in Christ.
What we see says a whole lot about who we are. What we see says a whole lot about what we believe. What we see makes us who we are. By the grace of Christ, may we begin to see with the eyes of faith – to see what God has done and is doing – to see the God who draws near by his Spirit. Thanks be to God. Amen.