I have not preached or added a sermon for a while, but this morning I shared this story and sermon as a part of worship in a smallish church I attend here in Vermont. I love this story…..
When I went to seminary I took all the classes you would expect.
Courses on the Bible.
A class on Church History.
And, being Presbyterian, I also had to take a year of Hebrew and a year of Greek. The l original languages in which the Bible was written.
Oh yea…even a class on preaching.
And, I was introduced to words I had never heard before which, when I first heard them, I had to look them up to see what they meant.
The difference between consubstantiation and transubstantiation.
But looking back, the course which had the biggest impact on both my faith and my ministry was entitled The Gospel According to Mother Goose. And the primary book for the class was The Uses of Enchantment by Bruno Bettleheim, who was a Professor at the University of Chicago and a psychologist who worked primarily with autistic children.
Two insights from that class continue to shape how I think and how I read the Bible.
- The first insight was and is the power and importance of stories in our lives.
The stories we tell and how we tell them are not just about back then, but they continue to shape our understanding and our values and how we see the world. The stories we tell about our nation. And, about our families. And, about ourselves. Experientially, we all know the power of the stories. When your family gathers or you are with good friends who you have known for a long time, how often do you tell stories which begin with “Remember when…” not just to remember, but to remind yourself and each other of who you are and what you value.
- And second, I learned the Bible is primarily a story…or a series of stories.
Stories, first told then written down to make sense of and give meaning to events that had already happened. In Hebrew scripture looking back from the Exodus and later from the Babylonian exile. In Christian scripture, looking back from the experience of the resurrection and telling the story of Jesus and what it meant to be a follower of Jesus. We misread and misunderstand the Bible when we read it as a newspaper or as a textbook.
So, with that I have a story to tell you.
From Hebrew Scripture.
The Book of Joshua. Chapter 4.
But, before I begin a two minute Bible study.
First, to put Joshua in context,
Moses, the great Patriarch of the Jewish people – Jewish baby floated down the river in a basket to be found by Pharaoh’s daughter and then raised Pharaoh’s court. Later in his life confronting Pharaoh and leading the Israelites to freedom through the Red Sea. Wandering in the wilderness. Given the 10 Commandments. Moses had just died, within sight of, but never reaching the Promised Land, and Joshua was named as his successor whose responsibility it was to lead the Israelites on the last part of their journey to theIr journey.
Second, Joshua and Jesus are the same name.
Joshua is the name Hebrew. Jesus is the same name in Aramaic. A name which means God saves. Any Jew, hearing the story of Jesus would immediately connect that story to the story of Joshua. So, keep that in mind as you hear this story and then read and think about the stories of Jesus’ ministry.
And, now the story…
From the Paul Alcorn translation of the Bible.
After what felt like a lifetime of wandering in the wilderness, here they were.
Standing on the bank of the Jordan River.
The wilderness, with all it meant and all the hardships experienced there, behind them.
The Promised Land and the hope of new life in front of them.
Like children (or maybe even like some of you! on Christmas morning, they couldn’t wait.
Just as they were about to plunge into and to rush across the river, Joshua tells them to stop.
What? Stop now?
When they were so close.
“Stop.” Joshua says again.
“Before you cross the river, have one person from each of the 12 tribes pick up a stone. Put it on their shoulder and carry it across the River. When you get to the other side, put all the stones you have carried in a pile.”
Then, with the exasperation that comes with a lifetime of wandering in the wilderness and just waiting for this moment, the people ask, “Why?”
And, here is Joshua’s response…
“So that in the days to come, when you are settled and safe in the Promised Land and you are walking along the river with your children or grandchildren, they will see this out of place pile of stones and ask “Mama/Papa/Nana, what is that?” and in that moment you will have the opportunity to retell the story of slavery and freedom, and of God’s walking with us through all that time in the wilderness and the gift of who we are and where we are.”
But, believing as I do that the Bible is not just about then, but also about now.
And, not just about them, but also about you and me.
And, also knowing the purpose and power of good stories.
The question becomes…
What pile of stones are you building which would cause another to stop and to ask why?
And, what will you say when they ask?
What story will you tell?
Mama, you don’t even know her. Why did you do that for her?
I did it because that is how I would like to be treated if I found myself facing her circumstances. Or how I hope you would be treated if you ever found yourself in a moment like that.
Papa, if I spoke up I would be the only one.
Remember what we just sang in church. This little light of mine. I’m going to let it shine. Hide it under a bushel, No. All around the whole wide world.
I believe that.
Nana, they don’t even live near us. Or look like us. Why do you care about them?
Because I love God and believe that each of us is a child of God which makes them family.
My sisters and brothers.
Take a stone from the river, Joshua instructed.
Place it on your shoulder and carry it across.
Then stack them one on top of the other on the other side.
So that, in the days to come, when you pass by with your children and your grandchildren and they see the pile of stones and ask why, you will be given the chance to tell the story.