Sunday, October 12, 2014

A Way Out of No Way: Sermon on Joshua 24:1-15


 Scripture can be found here...

“Can’t get there from here.”

Anyone who has ever lived in New England—and most everyone who has traveled there—has heard this. It’s said in a Down East accent, meant to evoke a grizzled, salt-wrinkled guy in waders who’s just stepped off his trawler, and who is trying to “help” hapless travelers who are utterly flummoxed by the Maine coast.

“Can’t get there from here.”

Have you ever said that to yourself?

Maybe you were really on an actual road, with a co-pilot trying diligently to read and interpret an incredibly confusing map, to no avail. Lost. (This may only apply to those of us over a certain age).

Or maybe you had depended on your brand new GPS, one you’d even affectionately given a name (Greta). And instead of leading you to the cool restaurant/ brewery, she’d led you to a dark hill, in the middle of the woods, in the middle of Nowheresville, PA. (This may apply to family members of the person in the pulpit).

Or maybe your GPS was of a different kind—the internal kind, the inner voice, that said, “Sure, you should definitely try out for the team, or try to get into this graduate program, or apply for that job, or ask that girl out.” And it became evident—over time, eventually, or maybe sooner than that—that you had somehow been misdirected. That this plan, this road, this map, was not going to work out. Not at all.

Can’t get there from here.

For some of us, these are distant memories. Even fond ones, memories that we draw upon in conversations over coffee that start, “You wouldn’t believe what I used to…!” Memories shared from the perspective of the good land of plenty in which we are now planted and flourishing.

For some of us, these are not memories at all. They are the present vortex, the crucible in which we live, study, work, and toss and turn all night long, so that the next day of living, studying, and working is made all the more dreary and long. For some of us, we are living “Can’t get there from here,” right now, and it’s awful. Just awful.

Allow me to introduce to you, one Joshua. Joshua, whose name in Hebrew means, “YHWH is salvation.” Joshua, who took over for Moses, once it was clear that Moses, personally, was not destined to cross the toll-bridge that led from the desert wastes to the land of promise.

And before Joshua, there was Moses, who heard the voice of God in the middle of a desert wasteland, speaking to him from a burning bush, and who, as a result, worked alongside God to lead God’s people out of slavery in Egypt, and into freedom—and also forty years of wandering in the desert wasteland.

And before Moses, there was Joseph—the hated second-to-youngest son of Jacob, whose brothers were so jealous of him they turned him into a kind of “Gone Boy,” selling him into slavery and telling their father he was dead. Joseph, who worked alongside God as second-in-command in Egypt, to make a home, to provide food, not only for Egyptians, but for his own remorseful, traveling, long-lost family.

And before Joseph, there were Abraham and Sarah. Called at ages 75 and 65 to uproot themselves, to leave home, family, and gods behind, to follow and enter into covenant with a new God, the God YHWH, who promised them children, and land, and blessing.

And before Abraham and Sarah, there was Noah, called at the age of 600, for God’s sake, to craft an ark to save a faithful remnant from the destruction of the floodwaters, to help that remnant to pass through the waters to a new beginning.

At each stage of this story—this story of God’s people, which also happens to be our story—at each and every stage, any one of these people could have said, must have thought, had to have believed:

Can’t get there from here.

Can’t become a mother at age 65-plus, never mind moving all around to God-only-knows-where.

Can’t go from being a hated boy sold into slavery to being the second-highest ranking official, in a country not even your own.

Can’t singlehandedly walk into Egypt—where, by the way, you’re wanted for murder—and say to the Pharaoh, “Let my people go,” and expect him to take you seriously.

Can’t get there from here.

There is an African-American folk saying, “Our God can make a way out of no way.” And that means, if you are a slave in Egypt or a slave in Montgomery, and you are longing for freedom, God can make that happen. God can make a way, even if it seems there is no way. That is the gist of the long speech Joshua has just made to the people of Israel. He goes through their salvation history (not backwards, like I did), and he reminds the people. God did this. And this. And this. And all that time, we were thinking it could not be done.

Who could save an entire sampling of God’s creative powers on a single boat? (Noah—with God’s help.)

Who could go from being a small family consisting of one childless, retirement-age couple to being a great nation? (Abraham and Sarah, with God’s help.)

Who could climb out of the hole of hatred and find, not only power, but integrity, faithfulness, and forgiveness? (Joseph, with God’s help.)

Who could speak for a group of slaves and be heard? (Moses, with God’s help.)

In each and every instance, the temptation—the strong temptation—is to say, no way. There is no way. We cannot get to that promised land of safety, of fullness, of reconciliation, of freedom. Can’t get there from here.

And yet. So the story goes.

Joshua recounts all the history of God’s people. And he includes a less savory part, the part often known as the “conquest” of the land. And it amounts to some serious chest-thumping. We beat those guys, and we beat those guys, and we annihilated these other guys, and look. “Weee are the champions, my friends. And weeee’ll keep on fighting, till the end.

Weeee are the champions. Weeee are the champions!

No time for losers! ‘Cause weeee are the champions! Of the world!

And they are!

And yet, in a fashion decidedly atypical for the commander of a conquering army, Joshua takes great care to say, “We didn’t do this. God did it.”

And if we look at our passage, we see all kinds of signs that, while there was violent conflict, there was also some measure of restraint, some effort to frame God’s victories differently.

God, speaking through Joshua, says: “… it was not by your sword or by your bow. I gave you a land on which you had not labored, and towns that you had not built, and you live in them; you eat the fruit of vineyards and oliveyards that you did not plant.”

This is tricky terrain. I walk upon it, and invite you to walk with me, with tremendous trepidation. Here we are, with a part of the story that makes us wonder how we are to connect with it, and live into it. And it makes sense, as Joshua asks us to consider in his speech—his last speech, by the way, his deathbed speech: who will we serve?

Joshua: his name in Hebrew means, “YHWH is salvation.” Do you know how to say Joshua in Greek? Jesus. Jesus and Joshua: “God is salvation.” God saves. God makes a way where there is no way. God even makes a way through a sticky, prickly, thorny passage like this, which simultaneously asks us to accept a story in which God’s people claim their right to a land with no concern for its native inhabitants, and also to serve a God whom we claim to see reflected in Jesus of Nazareth.

Can we get there from here?

Can God make a way from stories of conquest to the stories of the table we find in the accounts of our New Testament Joshua, Son of Joseph?

Can God make a way for us to find, in this little snippet of God’s story, some continuity with the God who is pleased, as Paul tells us in our first reading, when we persevere in suffering, and open our doors to strangers?

Can God make a way for those of us who feel we can’t get there from here? Whatever we might mean by that?

God not only can; God does. As for me and my household, ours is not to ignore these passages, or try to wish them away, or pray them away, or pretend them away. Ours is to read them with empathy. Empathy for the fervent hopes of a people who had traveled those desert wastes for many, many years. Empathy for their fear that God’s promises might all come to nothing. Empathy, even, for the dying warrior Joshua, a human man who has spent his whole life way out on a limb. A man whose bones probably need to be in the ground before a new day can dawn in which a new set of ears can listen for the words of YHWH. A man who is but one in a great cloud of witnesses who listen and discern what are God’s desires and dreams for God’s people in a new day, today. 

And even some empathy for ourselves, as we claim these stories as our own, even as we struggle to recognize ourselves in them.

These are our stories. We are in there. We are the tired ones. We are the frightened ones. We are the ones who wander through stages, and years, and false starts, and the wrong job and the wrong major until—zing!- we figure out where we are meant to be. We are the ones who wonder, can we get there—wherever our personal “land of promise” might be—from here?

We are the ones to whom God makes the promise: I will make a way for you. I will make a way with you. We are the ones who call Jesus “the Way.” We are the ones who are asked, even today: who will you serve? And we are the ones who are privileged to have a moment, an opportunity, to take a deep breath, and give our answer.

Thanks be to God. Amen.

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