“Mosaic”

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Rev. Jocelyn B. Gardner Spencer

August 24, 2014 – Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost

Scriptures:  Isaiah 51:1-6; Romans 12:1-8

 

You can start with almost anything: pebbles, rocks, broken dishes, sea glass, ceramic tiles, marbles, shells, gemstones, minerals, buttons, beads, seeds, dry beans, bottle caps, scraps of paper.

You collect all the little pieces, and you sort them by color—reds and yellows, blues and purples, greens and grays, browns and blacks and whites and oranges and every color in between.

You collect all the little pieces, and you sort them by color, and then you lay them out, one at a time. You pick up each little fragment—some round, some square; some jagged, some smooth; some even, some irregular—you pick up each little fragment, and you find its place. You surround it with other pieces so that they fit together just right. The curved side of one fragment accommodates its bulging neighbor. The bright color of another piece is complemented by a neutral one beside it. The flat edge of one is matched with another straight-sided piece. Several triangular ones fit together just so. Each fragment, each pebble, each rock, each broken shard of china, each shell, each seed—each piece, no matter how unusual or ragged, becomes a part of the overall design.

I’m talking, of course, about mosaics. This form of art has been around for more than 4,000 years. In ancient Mesopotamia, Persia, and Arabia, in Greece and Rome, in Israel and Palestine, in Jordan and Egypt, in Syria and Lebanon, in Italy, Turkey, France, Spain, Hungary, Romania, Ukraine, Russia, and beyond, artists and craftsmen created mosaic decorations for homes, tombs, streets, palaces, and many, many synagogues, mosques, and churches.

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Mosaic of Christ in Karye Museum (Chora Church), Istanbul. Photo: Dimitry B.

For our Christian ancestors, mosaics were used to surround worshipers in imagery—Bible stories, important church leaders, religious symbolism, nature’s beauty. Much in the same way that stained glass did in later centuries, mosaics brought faith to life in communities where the vast majority of people were illiterate. The worshipers may not have been able to read the Bible, but they could look at those tiled designs and know something of God’s beauty.

Mosaics have been a form of devotional art for a very long time. They are simple in principle, yet beautifully complex in their completed form. They can be made from many different materials, which means they can be made in many different parts of the world. Their versatility means they can be used on floors, ceilings, walls, tables, urns—almost any surface at all.

But this morning, as I think about mosaics, I’m not thinking about their wide geographic spread or their long and colorful history. I’m thinking about the process by which they are made, because that process itself is profoundly beautiful.

If you want to make a mosaic, you collect up a whole boatload of miscellaneous little pieces—fragments of glass or porcelain, mismatched buttons and beads, motley collections of pebbles—and you lay them out, each one it its place. You gather up all the bits, broken and ill-assorted as they may be, and you turn them into something beautiful.

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Thistle mosaic next to the Scottish National Portrait Gallery, Queen Street, Edinburgh. Photo: dun_deagh.

The prophet Isaiah understood about mosaics.

When Isaiah made the prophecies we heard today, his people, the people of Israel, were coming off an experience of serious trauma. They had been overrun by the Babylonian Empire several decades earlier. Their cities were decimated; their houses were ransacked; their fields were torched; their animals were slaughtered; their temples were destroyed. Many people were killed in the fighting, and many of those who survived were carted off into exile in Babylon. Those who remained behind were left to fend for themselves under the heel of foreigners who cared little for their welfare.

Eventually, political fortunes changed and the exiles were allowed to come back, to return to their ruined homeland. When they did, they found devastation everywhere. And into that cavernous, echoing, shocked silence, Isaiah spoke. Listen to me, my people! Look to the rock from which you were hewn. Look to Abraham your father, and to Sarah who bore you. Isaiah picked up the story of his people’s exile and return, and he set it down next to the story of Abraham and Sarah. He reminded his people of their patriarch and matriarch—of their years of homeless wanderings and of their ultimate homecoming into the land God had promised; of their years of barrenness and of their ultimate status as the forebears of a great nation.

He lined up his people’s stories of exile, and next to them he placed the stories of Isaac and Rebekah, of Jacob and Rachel and Leah, of Moses and Miriam, of Joshua and Caleb, of all the foremothers and forefathers who had gone before. And as they looked at that vast mosaic of stories, Isaiah’s people began to see a great pattern emerge—a pattern that was marked by the dark, jagged stones of deep and painful struggle, but also by the sparkling gems of great and glorious blessing.

Listen to me, my people! said Isaiah. God will comfort all the waste places, and will make the wilderness like Eden, the desert like the garden of the Lord. God’s salvation will be forever, and God’s deliverance will never be ended. And as they looked some more, Isaiah’s people began to see that in that great pattern, the rough, tear-stained fragments of loss were far outnumbered by the glowing stones of salvation.

If you want to make a mosaic, you collect up a whole boatload of miscellaneous little pieces, and you lay them out, each one it its place. You gather up all the bits, broken and ill-assorted as they may be, and you turn them into something beautiful.

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Mosaic of St. Thomas Aquinas from the tabernacle of St. Dominic’s priory church, London. Photo: Lawrence OP.

The apostle Paul understood about mosaics.

When Paul wrote the words we heard today, his people, the people of the early church in Rome, were struggling with discord in their ranks. Some people were thinking more highly of themselves than they ought, claiming to be wiser, or holier, or just plain better than their sisters and brothers, and these conflicts were eroding the unity and collaboration of the community. Divisions had arisen between rich and poor, between Jew and Greek, between followers of Paul and followers of other teachers.

And into that discordant cacophony, Paul spoke. I appeal to you, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, not to think of yourself more highly than you ought to think. We have gifts that differ according to the grace given to us: prophecy, ministry, teaching, generosity, diligence, cheerfulness. Paul picked up the generous heart of the giver, and he set them down next to the clear eyes of the leader—and lo and behold, they fit together just so. He picked up the logical mind of the teacher, and he put it down next to the fiery passion of the prophet—and what do you know, the colors complemented each other beautifully. He lined up the people’s gifts, and as they looked at that vast mosaic of abilities, the Roman people began to see a great pattern emerge—a pattern that contained as many colors as they had ever seen, and then some.

I appeal to you, brothers and sisters, for as in one body we have many members, so we, who are many, are one body in Christ. And as they looked some more, the Roman people began to see that all those gifts, taken together, created a pattern of great beauty and depth—a pattern so much more lovely than a plain, solid color could be.

If you want to make a mosaic, you collect up a whole boatload of miscellaneous little pieces, and you lay them out, each one it its place. You gather up all the bits, broken and ill-assorted as they may be, and you turn them into something beautiful.

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Mosaic of paradise, Church of San Vitale, Ravenna, Italy. Photo: Lawrence OP.

And doesn’t that sound a lot like what God does with us?

God gathers up all the bits and pieces of our lives, all the shards and fragments of our stories, and makes them into something beautiful. God sorts out all our gifts, all our myriad passions and interests, all our varied skills and abilities, and makes them into something greater than the sum of its parts. God collects all our false starts, all our failed dreams, all our disappointments and sufferings, all our joys and successes—and God puts each one in its place, and somehow, the overall design turns out to be more beautiful than we could possibly imagine. In the hands of such an artist, each of us becomes part of the greatest mosaic of all, the mosaic of God’s people, God’s world, God’s love, God’s salvation.

Thanks be to God.