Joshua 3:7-17; Psalm 107:1-7, 33-37; 1 Thessalonians 2:9-13; Matthew 23:1-12 Oremus Bible Browser

In the name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen

At one stage there was a possibility that today there would be a really good sermon. It was about, um, gosh, time flies - about four weeks ago, I think - three weeks ago? And because I was following the lectionary as we were following the lectionary, and I thought, ‘Oh, I could skip ahead. I’ve actually got some time, there’s a luxury here. I can actually spend some time preparing a sermon.’ So I read through the readings for today and I wrote down one line. And I thought, ‘This doesn’t work at all, you can’t’, you know? It just didn’t happen anyway. So we’ve got the usual rushed job that’s cobbled together in the busyness of the week.

The line that I wrote down though - there was something that I rejoiced in when I read the readings, and what I rejoiced in was just the fact that the first reading comes from the book of Joshua, and I thought how appropriate that is. Because for weeks now we’ve been reading from the Book of Exodus, we’ve been reading from the Torah, the first five books of the Old Testament - the Law. And I thought, ‘At least I’m getting back and we’re just outside the Law!’ You know, there was just that delightful sense that I’m not coming back into the confines of the Torah, but rather into what unfolds from the Law. And the reading today from Joshua I think is a stunningly important reading.

At first glance and the first hearing of it, it can sound stunningly irrelevant. These people crossing a river, carrying a box, in order that they might drive out the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Hivites and so on and so on and so on. As soon as you see a list like that the opportunity’s there to switch off and say, “Well, they didn’t mention Fremantle; this has got nothing to do with me’. If you read through it quietly, read through it quietly and closely, then there’s a great - I think this reading is about movement. It begins with Joshua hearing, not only hearing the word of God, but believing it - it’s a good starting point. The word of God then points towards a movement and the movement is very much about - we’ll see that unfolding in the reading, the crossing of the Jordan - but there’s also a movement whereby Joshua asks those around him to draw near. So there’s this movement of people drawing near and then the narrative unfolds in movement, a movement that is aligned with the word of God. And then Joshua shares the word that he has heard - he shares it, he gives it to those around him, and he does this because he has heard, he believes, he has a knowing of the truth that, ‘Among you is the living God’; among you is the living God.

Then we come to the activity that is going to unfold from hearing the word, believing the word, drawing together and realising the word. And in that activity, the crossing of the Jordan, we see that it was carried out by those who were selected from among the community. It wasn’t carried out by someone, it wasn’t imposed from outside, it wasn’t ‘someone else will do it’, we chose those who would carry the ark and who would stand in the Jordan while we crossed: it was a common activity.

And as we read that first short reading what we might realise is that it is not a reading about a past event, it’s got very little to do with the crossing of the Jordan, it’s actually an everyday activity that is being given to us. The reading frames a movement in life. There's a mystical telling or a mythological story that is given to us to frame a movement in life - the crossing of the Jordan - and we’ll find, as many of us know, the Bible full of those life movements - leaving the Garden of Eden, surviving the Flood, the Exodus from Egypt, the return from Babylon, the following of the Advent star, the entry into Jerusalem, the wrestling quietly within in the Garden of Gethsemane. The road to Amaeus, the road to Damascus - these aren’t stories about things in history in other lands, they’re stories of life movements in us, as we seek to realise the words that we have heard. It’s a very different movement to wandering around Garden City. They’re movements about encounter and engagement, rather than movements of escape.

The second reading I think - again we can almost pick up one theme there. I think the second one’s about appearance. If the first reading is talking about life movement, then the second one is talking about how we appear. For what we have is Paul talking about how ‘we came to you’, and one simple thing to do is to get Paul out of the picture, put yourself in and then it becomes a reading about how I came to others, how I come to you. And Paul says that he comes not with flattery, so there is no pretence, there’s no shallowness. He comes with no pretext for greed, so he comes without his own agenda, he comes without ‘what’s in it for me’ being a dominant thought; and he comes also not seeking praise, he comes not to build up himself. Rather, rather he comes and he says, ‘We may have made demands when we came’, in other words, we may have spoken what is real, we may have said what needs to be said, ‘we were gentle, deeply caring’. When I read that I thought, caring takes on a completely different meaning when you put the word ‘deeply’ in front of it, because caring is in our world, there’s almost an expectation. But ‘deeply caring’ requires that we come from a different place. Paul also says he comes determined to share - determined to share. And he comes to share both the gospel, the fullness of life that he has heard and found, and ‘our own selves’: he comes to share his own self. So in terms of how we appear, there’s a wonderful checklist there for us to say, ‘well, how do I appear?’ And our appearance is often driven by where we are coming from, what our orientation is toward life, and what life movement have we engaged or encountered.

For Paul, his paradigm is summed up very much at the end of that reading: it is about encouraging, encouraging all to lead a life worthy of God. Paul’s paradigm is based on faith - ‘God, who calls you into his own kingdom’. And Paul’s paradigm is based on constantly giving thanks - that’s creative of his appearance. The question for us then becomes, so what is creative of our appearance? And I guess we can go about that in two ways: we can either check ourselves in a psychological mirror and say, ‘well how do I appear?’ and that might give us some clues as to the foundations that have generated that appearance, or we can look - because in each of us that divine seed is there - we can look for the foundations on which we have built our appearance, and then check it out in the mirror and see whether the two line up as well.

In the Gospel there’s a degree of difficulty to all this that has been added, and in the Gospel reading, it begins with a wonderful honouring of the Word. We’ve got one of these ‘Jesus’ encounters with the scribes and Pharisees’. This is the encounter that occurs for each of us when the Divine that is within us seeking to be fully realised hits the wall of the Church and feels crushed. This is the encounter that we have in the Gospel, an encounter with the scribes and Pharisees - those who are teaching us the way. And the wonderful thing about it is, Jesus says, ‘don’t throw the baby out with the bath water, the truth is there’. In the stories and the scriptures, the truth is there. It is held in the tradition - that’s the bit about passing on from Moses. It is relevant to your life, it is relevant to life, but be careful, don’t be sucked in, the way is not one in which you can believe what someone else tells you, it is rather a way of finding it for yourself. The word is true, but it is true when it is made real within you. It suddenly hits you that you can’t go to church.

I went to a few churches and just walked out again. It just made no sense; it made no sense at all, going to church, unless with those who were there, you could in fact know that you were becoming the church. And certainly for me in the English-speaking churches which seemed to be stuck back in the fifties, I just couldn’t do that. Where I could do it was in a Catholic church where the mass was sung in Tamil, because that way I could feel the Word rather than have it grating; I had to search for an understanding of it. That’s what we’re asked to do, is to search for an understanding and become it - and become it. And it’s as if this reading finishes, having said, ‘Now look, don’t throw the baby out with the bath water, but you’re the ones that need to hold this; you’re the ones that need to make this truth real.’

Everything is summed up - the movement in life and how we are to appear - is summed up in the words: ‘The greatest among you will be your servant’. The one who appears whole and fully alive, the one in whom the divine spirit fully is revealed, is the one who moves in service to others: giving of self and receiving fullness of life.

The Lord be with you.

Peter Humphris

Textweek 24th Sunday after Pentecost A