The tribes who took allotments of land on the east side of the Jordan are finally going home after helping the other tribe conquer the land of Canaan, and they build an altar, somewhere near where they are going to cross back over the Jordan.
The tribes in Canaan think they're trying to build a second place of worship, away from the Tabernacle, so that they don't have to travel so far to make sacrifices. They rise up to make war against the eastern tribes and fortunately stop to ask questions before they do so.
It all comes out in the explanation: the eastern tribes didn't want anyone to forget that they fought for the land. They pulled out the practice of their fathers and forefathers and built an ebenezer - a an altar of remembrance - so that when their children asked why they had to go all the way to the tabernacle to worship, or when the western tribes' children asked why these strangers from across the river kept coming over into their land, someone could point to the altar and say, "See, your fathers and our fathers fought together and God gave them this land. It is His, and we all worship Him here."
Except, here's the thing. The stones could stand for generations, and they could represent what the eastern tribes wanted them to say, but only if someone said it first. The whole misunderstanding arose because no one was there to remind the western tribes of what had happened.
I've been thinking lately about living stones. Josh Garrells uses the phrase in his song, "White Owl": Every dream that you have been shown / Will be like living stone / Building you into a home / A shelter from the storm.
And I've been listening to him almost incessantly, so, frankly, living stones in my head. But that is just the background music.
On Tuesday evening we gathered together the Chorale that went to Poland this spring for a reunion. A significant portion of the group was able to make it, and we were able to have a little bit of time for people to share what God had been doing in their lives since the trip.
One by one, as they shared, I was reminded of the things we learned together as we traveled.
And I had this thought - we're living stones.
The Israelites set up piles of stones to speak as a remembrance of the things God did. But without a message to go with them, as we see in Joshua 22, they failed to tell the story.
But then I started thinking and trying to remember exactly what it was that Peter says about living stones. I looked it up: "As you come to him, a living stone rejected by men but in the sight of God chosen and precious, you yourselves like living stones are being built up as a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ." It's all in the context of the Church - and fitting that it's one of Peter's letters that uses the analogy. Jesus is the cornerstone, the one upon which He will build His church, but we are the walls, the steeple, the body - a spiritual house.
As I wander forward through history I begin to see that we didn't leave the piling of rocks back in ancient times. One has only to look at Notre Dame de Paris, or Westminster Abbey, or St. Paul's, or the National Cathedral for that matter, to realize that we've been piling stones as markers of God throughout the centuries. Problem is: one only has to look at the words coming out of some of those buildings to realize that the message has gotten confused along the way.
Perhaps then, we should pour ourselves into building piles of living stones, gathering around us other members of the holy priesthood who can remind us of what we learned, of what we want to remember.
But then we run into this: for all their faults in communicating messages, stones have one serious factor going for them: they last. There are still altars built along the Jordan River. We don't know exactly if one of them is the one from Joshua 22, but it's quite possible. If that one isn't standing, others from near the same time still are.
Living stones on the other hand, well, they're fallible.
Time, philosophies, and the evil one take their toll on living stones; making us wonder if perhaps they were never stones at all, but something false, like the lithops plant that avoids being eaten by blending in to the stony ground around it. And we're left wondering if it might have been better to build up stone walls as remembrances, rather than facing the disappointment and confusion that false living stones give us.
I haven't finished thinking about this whole thing, but I'm going to say no. Living stones are worth the risk. Because not only can they tell the story of what happened then, in that time that you're building the remembrance of, they can also tell the stories of what has happened since, and the new things that God has done.