Proper 26 (31) 2 Nov 2008 Vanderbilt Divinity Library Lectionary

Proper 26A/Ordinary 31A/Pentecost +25 November 2, 2008 Textweek

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

‘By this you shall know that among you is the living God.’ I just heard that again and sometimes during the readings your mind goes off and you think, I want to explore that further. The gospel reading that we’ve just heard – some of us have heard that a few times, and as I recalled I thought that that reading is often given a reading that seeks to make us smaller – it asks of us humility, and there’s a sort of Anglican version of humility that just makes people shrivel and shrink and eyes downcast, clothed in unworthiness, seeking to be a doormat to the world. But humility is perhaps the place where we might find our strength and our fullest selves. I say ‘might’ because it’s a place that I still seek; it’s not a place that I am familiar with. The best insight I have for that place of humility is the life of Teresa of Avila, and quite often as we recall the lives of others, they give us a glimpse of something that that’s what I seek on that on-going journey and they encourage us on the way.

I want to look more closely at the Old Testament reading, because it’s on that reading that I think the gospel is built, and I think we can see throughout the Bible – if you start with the book of Genesis, the rest is built on it. It’s not that the book of Genesis is the beginning, it’s more like a foundation – the next lot of stories retell, they build on it. By the time we get to the gospel, we are rebuilding on a wealth - a wealth of wisdom, a wealth of knowledge, and a wealth of tradition, retelling, seeking to make more clear.

So let’s look again at the Old Testament reading and the person of Joshua. This is a quick rereading: Joshua hears the word of God, and he has faith in the word of God. Twelve men are then selected to carry the Ark of the Covenant and are told of the crossing of the Jordan – they’re going to walk through the river. They too believe. The twelve then step into the river, the waters are parted and they walk into the middle of the river on the dry ground. Then all of the people cross the Jordan on dry ground. Now for some, hopefully for many, that story will remind or recall another story, the crossing of the Red Sea, and it’s that link that gives us a clue or flags the value of the story and the value of the scriptures. Not only are we invited to recall previous stories, stories that parallel the one we’ve just read, but we’re also invited to seek our story that parallels these stories.

The crossing of the Jordan and the crossing of the Red Sea are not coincidental events, and I would set aside the beliefs of many that think that these events are actual and that they are located in history. If you want to go down that path they become stories of another people, of another time, of another place, and therefore have of another meaning. These stories seek to illustrate life events, they seek to illustrate a process of life lived in accord with the divine word; they seek to illustrate something for us. They are not stories about anyone else; these are the stories of humanity; these are the stories of life. The crossing of the Jordan is a retelling of the crossing of the Red Sea, and it’s got some distinct and quite important differentiations. It’s not the same story, just as your story when you live your life and find fullness of life, your story won’t be the same as that of Christ; it will be different, and yet there will be parallels there.

The retelling of the crossing of the Jordan, to the first hearers, they probably appreciated more so that we, the link between the crossing of the Jordan and the crossing of the Red Sea, because in the original language, the authors have gone to great lengths to make sure that certain words are the same. If you have a look at the description of separating the waters, it says the waters formed a heap. It’s a really unusual word for water – try and heap water up. It’s exactly the same word in the crossing of the Jordan as it is in the crossing of the Red Sea - same process is being spoken about. So if we look to the iconography of the story, we then see there are even more parallels. The separation of the waters already takes us straight back to the beginning of time, to the stories in Genesis, where the waters were separated by the word of God in order for there to be dry land; the story of Noah and the flood - it’s a retelling and a reversal of that same story, that same life process.

Let’s come back to Joshua. Joshua was empowered by the word of God and by the commissioning of Moses; by the word of God and by the commissioning of Moses. Matthew, Kirsten, Frances, Elise, Eunice, Lia, Rhonda and Bill were commissioned last week through their confirmation by Bishop Kay. The question is, will they take us through the Jordan to the land of promise? Perchance if they did, the next question is, would we follow? Rather than hold them in the spotlight, let’s look to our own commissioning, our own baptismal call, our own baptismal promise, and seek both the Joshua within and also seek the place of those who responded to Joshua, within ourselves. Do we hear the word of God, or is it drowned out by other noise? Do we have faith in the word of God or is our faith and belief only a learned response that takes us as far as the church? Are we aware of the Jordan, the Jordan that we are called to cross, or have we been convinced by fear to stay exactly where we are? It’s quite telling – the current climate and we’ve got a story about crossing the river and the world is talking about securing the banks. It’s amazing isn’t it?

When Moses crosses the Red Sea and when Joshua crosses the Jordan, they both act in accord with the word of God, the word that became flesh and dwelt among us; they both follow Christ, and they do it out of time. To follow Christ is not to walk behind the bloke. Joshua did it, Moses did it; we are called to do the same. They also both acted not for themselves but for the good of the common. They weren’t seeking to cross for themselves; they were seeking a pathway whereby all could cross.

One of the distinctions in the activity between the two stories is the context in which they are set and told. The crossing of the Red Sea has got a military setting; it’s described as a military manoeuvre that outflanks the Egyptians. The crossing of the Jordan is described in a liturgical setting, with the twelve being described as priests, who carry the Ark of the Covenant, the word of God, on behalf of the people. What we can learn from that distinction is that the word of God has a place both in the midst of the world, as a power to overcome the forces of the world, and also in the midst of community, as a power to take us forward, to take us beyond, on our journey to the word of promise.

Both these narratives recall and retell for us the very process of life. They’re applicable to all life, to our life, and in each and every context. They’re not stories that are set aside in specific places, sheltered from the world, these are stories in the midst of. And that’s where Jesus speaks in today’s Gospel. He speaks to all, to the crowds and to his disciples, and he says that those who hear should listen and follow the teachings that come from the scriptures, but should not do so to become like those in the religious institutions. We are called to listen and to follow the teachings of the scriptures, but not so that we can become church-like. We do not come together to do what our teachers do; rather we come together to go beyond and to go further - to realise the person of Joshua within and to realise our Christ-likeness. We come together to know that among us is the living God.

And the Gospel finishes by saying we’re not called to exalt ourselves, nor to exalt the words that the world teaches. This is not about my sufficiency or my success; we’re called to carry the Ark of the Covenant for the community, to separate the waters of chaos as we journey together, forward, onwards, toward the promise of a new tomorrow for all people.

As we recall and honour the lives of those who’ve gone before us, we do get some sense, some real sense of life’s journey. It’s an interesting reflection, a valuable reflection, to look back to those whom we honour, to become aware of what they gave to us in order that our journey might continue - become aware of what was given, become aware of what was received and what was rejected; become aware of what it is that we will pass onto others when we find someone placing our name on the altar, on an All Souls’ Day in the future. What will the placer of our name have taken from us in order to further their journey towards the land of promise?

The Lord be with you.
Peter Humphris