A sermon based on Joshua 3:7-17
given at Mount Vernon, Ohio on November 2, 2014
by Rev. Scott Elliott
As I mentioned in the newsletter, this weekend marks the one year anniversary of the beginning of our ministry together. I started as your pastor on November 1, 2013 and hey the good news is that after a year and a day we are still standing– the church and I–you are obviously sitting.
In honor of this important anniversary –and I do I expect there to be many, many more anniversaries together– I wanted to start off, of course, with some jokes. Here’s the first one: Which area of Palestine was especially wealthy? The area around the Jordan River, where as we just heard in the reading, the banks are overflowing. You’re gonna love the second joke: When did the Jordan River get angry? Every time someone crossed it. And because we Christians like things in three, in honor of the Trinity here’s a third really bad joke: Which Bible character had no parents? Joshua, because we are told he was the son of Nun . . .
I hope “none” of you were wishing in this second year together that we’d not have any more terrible jokes. Because so far in this new year 100% of the sermons have begun with me “josh”-ing around. In fairness the three jokes I told do relate to the River Jordan and to Joshua who are both featured in the Bible story we just heard about the river’s waters parting so that the Hebrews could cross over to the Promised Land.
Most of us think there is only one parting-of-the-water story in the Bible, the one with the Red Sea, when Moses leads the Hebrews out of bondage and into freedom, out of Egypt and into the wilderness, out of chaos and into Yahweh the living God’s presence. But obviously today we heard another parting of a body of water story (There are actually two more in 2 Kings).
In today’s lesson Joshua leads the Hebrews out of the wilderness and into the Promised Land, out of nomadic wandering into a homeland, out of chaos and into heightened awareness of Yahweh – the living God’s– presence.
Each of these parting-of-the-water stories involve a transition, the end of one thing and the beginning of another. Each involves delivery – crossing– where there is a heightened awareness of the living God’s presence. God is present in both the end in Egypt and the beginning in the wilderness with Moses, and God is present in both the end in the wilderness and the beginning in the Promised Land in today’s story. And of course God is present in the story’s miracle of the crossing itself. In fact it is in that threshold time, the crossing, that our focus is most drawn.
God is in the troubled places of the past, and in the promised places of future for sure, but it is in the now-of-the-miracle of the transition that God’s presence resonates most strongly. We seem to see and experience it best there.
The spot we cross– and anachronistically inserting a symbolic play on Christian words into this Hebrew story – the cross itself – is where the miracle and the promise of new life for Christian’s begin, right? We are drawn to the hope of the demarcation of transitions, the cross-point because it is there that the promise of transformation begins to unfold.
The Ark in today’s story is taken into the Jordan by the priests and the water parts. The Ark represents the very presence of the living God. God’s presence when lifted up and put before the congregation makes it possible to go from the wilderness nomadic life, through the water into the Promised Land. As Joshua points out in the story the congregation knows the presence of the living God is among them. In the miracle of the parting of the water, the “make-way” for the Promised Land, God’s presence is most especially felt.
Whether we think this miracle is historic fact or symbolic metaphor, either way, the very basic truth to this story for the people of God is that when we know the presence of the Living God, when God is held up our lives individually and collectively begin to be transformed. The story is meant to show us God’s presence is so powerful even a nation can be transformed.
If we fast forward to the New Testament we find that the way for Jesus’ ministry is made by John the Baptist who is out in the very same Jordan River that God made way for Joshua and the Hebrews in our story. John is having folks come into the river to be baptized. A part of that is John calling people to reenact Joshua’s river crossing as a protest movement to re-take the Promised Land from the brutal Empire of Rome. 1. And baptism as a part of the protest was a way to circumvent Rome’s temple elites’ fees and monopoly on mediating God, repentance and forgiveness of sins.
So coming into the river, experiencing baptism, and re-crossing the river were seditious acts of protest meant to symbolize a re-taking of the Promised Land from Rome and its religious lackeys.
And I love this part, Jesus who’s real name was Yeshua – which in Hebrew actually means Joshua– can be heard as the new Joshua since in a sense Jesus takes the handoff from John mid-river leading us to the ultimate cross for Christians, his own crucifixion with a whole new Promised Land: which if we follow His Way is supposed to be heaven here on earth for everyone; where our love is so great everyone gets enough–their daily bread and love. Jesus for us becomes known as the living presence of God himself–God incarnate in humankind. Love personified as best in can be in human form. Kinda cosmic metaphoric stuff if you think about it.
When I sat down to write this sermon, in addition to a lot of bad joke telling, I was thinking about how great it was to have God opening a crossroad for Joshua and the Hebrews as our Lectionary text today.
“Liminal” is a word sometimes used in theological circles for thresholds. Liminal is a place or initial stage of a transition. This church worship service is meant to be a liminal space, a time and place that serves as a threshold from our everyday lives into an especial awareness of the presence of God. The music and words and silence and prayers are moments to help us cross over to the Promised Land of our salvation, not salvation from hell or damnation, but salvation from our lesser way of being. It’s meant to make us better people here and out there. This space and our order of service are meant to bring us over the threshold into the vibrations of God’s presence to better ourselves. In a sense worship is sort of an hour long Promised Land before we go back to the wilderness bringing that better being-ness to the rest of the week to the betterment, the salvation of not just us personally but all of the world from it’s lesser way of being too.This is so that one day here on earth heaven breaks out and all get enough.
I thought it was great – even mystical– that we had this text this morning because we are moving today from our first year together into the next one. Which is actually a bigger deal than it may sound. Common wisdom is new pastors and their congregation get to know one another the first year and from that threshold they tend to move into shaping and forming their ministry together.
In the liminal time of our first year, as the waters have parted for us to cross from one minister to the next, there has been a whole lot of love vibrating wonderfully in the air. The overwhelming majority of folks here have gone out of the way to be thoughtful and kind in this time of settling into ministry with me as the new pastor. I appreciate that– a lot. I am deeply grateful to you and to God for this church and this ministry. And we have accomplished so much together already in this threshold year!
In addition to getting used to one another we have had a whole year’s worth of dynamic worship services together– with beautiful music, wonderful readings, heartfelt prayers and sermons that have challenged all of us as the Holy Spirit has called us to consider a number of Bible texts anew.
We also welcomed and added a number of wonderful new members and hosted a slew of visitors, all of whom have added their bright lights to the glow of Christ in our midst each week. We’ve also continued our strong missions and ministries including an education program that has bloomed under capable leadership, great volunteers and our much needed new nursery attendants.The Children’s Sunday School and Adult Forum are going strong–it is quite impressive what Christian Education ’s done in a year.
Our dedicated Mission and Service folk have continued to oversee and guide our efforts to bring food and care to those in need, and they are already working on a Back Bay Mission trip in May and looking our church presence at festivals on the square and how we might help add to our compassion and care for the homeless. We also had a strong showing at the Pride Parade and in support of the GSA at the fairgrounds.
The Church and Ministry folk have helped us through a number of special worship services including Reign of Christ, Advent, Christmas, Pastor Installation, Ash Wednesday, Maundy Thursday, Easter, Summer Breakfasts, 180th anniversary and a totally fun and special Pet Blessing. They have also been busy working on creating new art ministries and commissioning a much needed baptismal font.
The Diaconate has been gracious and present preparing and serving communion and tending to the needs of the membership as Shepherds and at memorial services. This can be difficult and demanding work, but the deacons have been hard at it.
As good stewards we’ve done a remarkable job tending to the care of the building with the Stewardship team has overseen all sorts of needed repairs and modifications including a new tile floor in the back parlor; Larry’s awesome painting in that parlor and the office and the nursery and the front doors; new concrete out back; a security system; a shed to hold gasoline powered equipment; coat pegs in the hallways; stair rails on the chancel; pamphlet holders; the phone system upgraded; roof slates replaced; drain pipes fixed; bricks re-mortared; a new sign; the bell repaired; a new front parlor sofa; stained glass windows maintained; and a complete inventory of all of the items in the building. It is remarkable what Stewardship’s been doing and overseeing! On top of which we have studied and sought help, and done preparatory work, for projects to come like fixing the roof over the education building and shoring up the bell tower and fixing the stucco and sidewalks. Of course Larry and Scott have also tended to the regular care of the building and grounds. All of this stuff needed to be done to keep the church campus in good order.
It is very impressive that so much has been done this year; and it got because of our leaders and dozens of volunteers were involved. All of this stuff it took oversight and plenty of meeting time and good hard work by your church council and its officers–with support from the church staff and many of you.
If you want to see the Living God’s presence, the God we call Love’s actions in the crossroads of our transition just consider not only all the things we’ve done but the loving way in which they got done. This place is soaked with love. The very basic truth to THIS story of the people of God is that we know the presence of the Living God. God – who is love– has been held up in our lives individually and collectively– we have mattered much.
Religion is about relationship, how we relate to one another here and in the rest of the world. Jesus’ message can be boiled down to this: God is love, believe in love, love love and be love. . . God is love, believe in love, love love and be love. In other words, relate to all that is with love.
That’s why when Jesus talks in the gospel about rewards it is for those who are choosing doing just that, those who are being love in the here and the now. For Jesus the parting of the chaos of the river of life (as it were) does not come about by victorious quibbles about God’s existence, who God is or what beliefs are correct. At the end of the day the liminal moments for Jesus are in the little miracles we accomplish by being love in the world. That’s where the Living God of Jesus is present . . . in love. That’s where the transformative work we do occurs . . . in love.
In the year ahead we have plans to consider expanding our transformative work even further through love. So we are looking into the possibilities of creating: a support ministry for parents, a worship service for developmentally disabled, a family and youth theatre project that connects youth to the community, a week of mission work repairing buildings in Mississippi, an inter-faith summer peace camp for children, a grandfriends project connecting children with older generations, an ecumenical youth group, a greater commitment to helping house homeless women in the winter, a senior citizen ministry and several art-based ministries.
This a lot of new stuff on top of all what we already have in place. We are looking at these love based ministries and missions because this is a church where love happens. The more of us who get involved, the more of the plans to consider these new ministries can become plans to do these new ministries.
It’s a small church following a big God, led by a lot of very capable leaders, and so we have been doing, and plan to continue doing, wonderful things in the community. And as we’ve been hearing for the past few weeks, we need pledges of help and resources. We need everybody’s involvement.
As a consequence of this church’s loving work since I’ve been here so far, children have been tended to; youth loved; people educated; needy fed; the building got repaired; justice championed for LGBTQ, women, people of color and economically hard hit; souls were spiritually nourished; all were welcomed; the Gospel was preached and people saw and heard the good news in our words and in what we do.
We are crossing over into the Promised Land of a new year together with our living God at the helm. If we follow God’s lead we will experience God’s presence. Indeed Christians are supposed to be love, a modern day Ark bringing God’s presence into the world and into the chaos of turbulent rivers of life, as well as into the Promised Land – which at its fullest potential is meant to be heaven on earth now. That is, heaven brought about by love for everyone ally and foe, stranger and friend, believer and unbeliever. It’s all about love!
May we continue to follow the God we know as Love’s lead into what I sure hope and pray are many, many years in ministry together! Thank you for our great first year together and for the promise of an even better year ahead. . . . AMEN!
1. Tatum, Barnes, John The Baptist and Jesus: a Report of the Jesus Seminar, Sonoma: Polebridge Press, (1994), 36.
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