Note: This sermon is based on Joshua 3:7-17, the Old Testament text for November 5 (Proper 26A), which we did not use last week because we celebrated the Feast of All Saints.
What do these stones mean to you?
The people Israel, the people God has named and called to be God’s people, are at a turning point in their history. Back on September 17, the lectionary gave us the story of the Exodus, when God and Moses led the people through the Red Sea on dry land, and out of bondage in Egypt. In our schedule of Sunday readings, the Israelites have been wandering in the wilderness for about six weeks. But for the Biblical narrative, it’s been FORTY YEARS. People who left Egypt as babies have grown up, married, had children of their own, and could even be grandparents.
Just two weeks ago we shared the story of the death of Moses, at the end of the book of Deuteronomy. Now we’re beginning the book that bears Joshua’s name. This means we’re at the end of the Torah – the first five books of the Old Testament, the Hebrew Bible, which hold the great origin story of the people Israel and lay out how they are called to live. Moving from the Torah to the books of Joshua and Judges and beyond is a little like moving from the Revolutionary War era into early 19th century national history – if Moses is Washington and Jefferson, then Joshua is more like Monroe and Van Buren.
So Israel has survived years in the harsh, dry wilderness, and their future home lies spread out before them. Awesome. Wow. But it turns out there are people living in the Promised Land. So what comes next? A lot of war. While Moses was a prophet and spiritual leader, Joshua is a general. There’s a lot in this portion of Biblical history that we, rightly, find difficult to swallow – God’s word to Joshua is to kill everyone they meet, while God’s word through Jesus Christ is to love our enemies.
For today, though, let’s focus on this threshold moment. Listen, I’ve been to the Judean desert. It’s an incredibly harsh environment. Hot and dry and rocky, with minimal vegetation and only the most hardy and elusive animal life. And after far too many years out there, sustained only by miraculous manna, the Israelites are standing on the banks of an honest to God river. The Jordan river. Which is just a trickle in the dry season, but right now, it’s the rainy season, and the river is overflowing. The way ahead for Israel lies through a huge stretch of muddy shallow swift-flowing water. And it must have been so beautiful to them. All that water.
But the problem remains: How to get across? Israel’s journey to freedom began with a miraculous journey across a body of water; it’s time for another one. God tells Joshua, I’m going to make sure Israel respects you as the leader I have chosen. Call on the priests of the people, and have them carry the Ark of the Covenant into the Jordan River.
The Ark of the Covenant was the holiest object Israel owned. It was an elaborate golden box that held the Tablets of the Law, the Ten Commandments, written in stone by the very finger of God. It was a powerful symbol of God’s presence and God’s favor.
So the priests take the Ark and walk before the people into the Jordan, into all that muddy mess. And as their feet touch the water, the river… stops. Instead of continuing to flow downstream, the waters begin to pile up, as if a wall of glass were holding them back. The priests carrying the Ark walk ahead, into the center of the river bed, and stand there, on dry ground. And the people Israel follow them and pass them, crossing the Jordan without getting their feet wet.
Let me take the story a little farther than our lectionary text. When everyone has crossed over, God says to Joshua: Choose twelve men from the people, one from each of the twelve tribes. Have each of them find a stone, here in the middle of the Jordan, in the riverbed. Carry the stones out of the river, take them with you. And when you make camp tonight, make a pile of those stones, to help you remember this day. So Joshua summons twelve men, one from each tribe, and tells them what to do. And they take their stones; and then, finally, the priests carry the Ark out of the riverbed, and the waters of the Jordan return to their place, flowing and overflowing as they were before.
When the people made camp, at a place called Gilgal, the twelve stones were set up as a monument. And Joshua told the Israelites, ‘When your children ask their parents in time to come, “What do these stones mean?” then you shall let your children know, The Lord your God dried up the waters of the Jordan for you until you crossed over, as the Lord your God did to the Red Sea,* which was dried up for us until we crossed over, so that all the peoples of the earth may know that the hand of the Lord is mighty… These stones shall be to the Israelites a memorial for ever.’
The Israelites are on brink of a new chapter in their history. They’re uncertain what lies ahead, what they’ll be able to carry forward from their past into a new way of life, whether they are really many enough and strong enough and bold enough and faithful enough to go where God is leading. And in this moment, God gives them a saving act – that miraculous crossing of the Jordan – and says, Remember this. And build yourselves a nice pile of rocks, to make sure you remember it.
What do these stones mean to you?
There are several times in the Old Testament when people raise stones to commemorate important events. Later in the Book of Joshua, Joshua will ask the people, As you settle in this new land, are you going to stay faithful to God, or start worshipping the gods of other nations? And Israel says, We will serve our God! And Joshua raises a stone to remind them of their decision, their commitment, saying, ‘This stone shall be a witness against us, if you are unfaithful to God.’ Much earlier, in Genesis 28, Jacob raises a stone at the place where he had the dream-vision of angels going up and down a ladder from heaven – a vision of the active presence of the Divine on earth. Several generations after Joshua, the prophet Samuel raises a stone as a monument to celebrate a victory against Israel’s neighbors and perennial enemies, the Philistines. This stone is given a name, Ebenezer, meaning “Rock of Help,” for as Samuel says, Thus far has God helped us.
This practice of raising stones has several purposes. It marks a moment as significant. You don’t raise a stone for just any old thing. Raising a stone says, What has just happened, or what we have just done, is important. It matters. And raising a stone, creating a physical landmark linked to an event or moment – it proclaims something to the future. It says to the people, Remember this day. In Joshua 4, that’s made explicit: Joshua tells the people, When your children ask you, What do these stones mean?, tell them. Tell them how God stopped the river so that we could end our long wandering, and enter a new land and a new life. Raising a stone is both celebration and commitment. The stones raised in Scripture mark victory, revelation, covenant, deliverance. The stones say, Remember – and live accordingly.
The stone monument in Joshua 4 is all this, and a little more. Because unlike those other stones, this isn’t one large stone but a pile of stones, a cairn. A representative of each of the twelve tribes contributed to the cairn, choosing a rock from the riverbed and carrying it to Gilgal. The monument represents both a significant moment in salvation history, and the people’s unity in experiencing and responding to that moment.
Our Gospel story today is a provocative parable that a lot of people have questions about. I preached about it in 2014 and when I looked back at that sermon, I didn’t have much to add; if you’re worried about the girls who didn’t get to go to the party, I’d love to hand you a copy of that sermon, or point you to some other great commentaries on that text.
But I’m preaching on Joshua today because this text is speaking to me. I’m laying this story before us today – spending perhaps a surprising amount of time talking about rocks – because I feel like this year this story is a little bit about us.
What do these stones mean to you?
This story makes me think about our stones – the literal ones. Having this year’s fall giving campaign happen within the frame of our parish conversation about a capital campaign has made me particularly aware of the history inscribed in the buildings and land around us. The rocks of our walls – piled up in 1964 as the church was built – they’re rough blocky golden native stone of Wisconsin. These granite boulders – one, two, three – they’re glacial erratics, brought to Wisconsin from somewhere farther north by the Great Ice, and left when the ice melted away, about 10,000 years ago. I don’t know whether the one outside sits where the glacier left it. The two that form our altar base and our baptismal font were moved here from Turville Point, over on Lake Monona, the home of one of the founding members of this congregation. Visible signs of the generosity and commitment of Henry Turville and of all that first generation of Dunstanites, who piled stones together, both literally and metaphorically, in this place, to say, God gave us this beautiful place. God called us to be a church together here. Thanks be to God.
And this story makes me think about our metaphorical stones too. All the ways we each bring contributions and pile them up to build something together. Our pledges of financial support, sure, in this giving campaign season. We’re still in the middle of our campaign – hoping to gather in all pledges by next Sunday – but so far a whopping 68% of you have increased your pledges. I’m just staggered by that, and really hopeful about what that means for our budget and our ministries next year.
But there are so many other ways we pile our stones together, friends: All the people who will bake and decorate and set up and clean up for our much-anticipated Pie Brunch next Sunday. All the time and energy and art supplies and warmheartedness and commitment – on the part of teachers, parents, kids – that allows us to have Sunday school. All the voices of people and instruments raised in beauty and praise in our worship today. All the hopes and ideas and intentions and observations that have gone into our discernment and visioning work towards a possible capital campaign to improve our property. In so many ways, we become greater than the sum of our parts, by the alchemy of God’s grace.
I’ve said it before: In some ways this is just another year at St. Dunstan’s, and in other ways it’s a very unusual year. We’ve been growing slowly for a while but suddenly we’re at the point where some Sundays, we actually have to sit next to each other – and we might even have to start sitting in the front row! And we’re thinking big thoughts together about our identity and our future and our mission. This is a really exciting time to be rector of St. Dunstan’s. And also, a little nerve-racking.
What do these stones mean to you? We stand on the brink of a new chapter, uncertain what lies ahead, what we can carry forward from our past and what new gifts and new challenges we’ll encounter, wondering whether we are really many enough and strong enough and bold enough and faithful enough to follow where God is leading. The stones piled up by those who built this place, stone by stone, year by year, tell me, We have come this far by God’s help. And we’re still building – and building anew: piling together our contributions, literal and figurative, to mark this strange, holy, joyful moment of celebration and commitment. To remind ourselves to remember, and to tell the story of this time. And to be a sign to us that God keeps making a way.