Saturday, March 13, 2010

Let Us Write a New Chapter

RCL Lent 4C
14 March 2010

Saint Faith’s Anglican Church
Vancouver BC

[Joshua 5.9-12 is the focus text with reference to 2 Corinthians 5.16-21 at the end.]

After forty years of wandering through the desert wastes of Sinai and the dry lands to the east of the Jordan River, the people of Israel finally entered the land promised by God to Abraham and his descendants. During these forty years the people had experienced the ups and downs that we can easily imagine as thousands of people, grouped in tribal units, negotiate the distances and the challenges of a flight from slavery and a search for a home. Despite their experience of the Exodus, despite their experience of the giving of the Torah, despite God’s gracious provision of food and drink, the people were not united. When Moses died on the other side of the Jordan, it would have been easy for the tribes to split and go their separate ways. No doubt there were clans that slipped away from the main group, individual families that had had enough of quail and manna and dust and the threats from other peoples into whose lands the Israelites were entering.

Into the vacuum created by the deaths of Moses, Aaron and the first generation of those who had fled Pharaoh’s Egypt stepped Joshua and a new generation of leaders. Their scouts reported on the richness of the land before them and the fear that the inhabitants had of the approaching Israelites. Joshua made a fateful decision. Using the Ark of the Covenant as a symbolic focal point for the tribes, Joshua and his allies led the people across the Jordan River --- on dry ground just as the Israelites had crossed the Reed Sea in advance of Pharaoh’s armies.

According to the account in the Book of Joshua, the people find themselves at a place that will come to be known as Gilgal, a name derived from the Hebrew word meaning ‘to roll’ or ‘to roll away’. The shame of their slavery at the hands of the Egyptians, the blemish of their failure to trust in God’s purposes for them and the taint of their various forays into idolatry have all been ‘rolled away’ in the sight of God and, soon, in the sight of the various peoples who inhabit the land of Canaan. It is here at Gilgal that they enact two rituals that symbolize that the time of wandering has come to an end and a new phase in the life of Israel has begun, a time that will focus on the acquisition of the land and the establishment of Israelite control.

The first of the two rituals precedes our reading today. Joshua orders that all the males be circumcised in keeping with God’s commandment to Abraham as a sign of the covenant. For whatever reason this ritual has not been practiced during the wilderness journey and it is inconceivable that the people embark on their settlement of Canaan without fulfilling this commandment. It is this act, this re-commitment to the covenant, that occasions God’s words to Joshua that begin our reading today: “The LORD said to Joshua, ‘Today I have rolled away from you the disgrace of Egypt.’”

We then hear of the second ritual: the keeping of the feast of Pesach, the festival of unleavened bread. This ritual represents an act of thanksgiving to God for the gift of the land and its produce. As they celebrate this feast, the manna and quail that fed the people of Israel during their wanderings in the wilderness cease, as if to symbolize that the responsibility of feeding themselves has now been put into their hands. This land has come into their hands as God’s gift, God’s faithfulness to the promise made to Abraham and Sarah, but it comes with the obligation to work, to till the land and to care for what God has bestowed.

Up to this point in the story of the people of Israel as narrated in the Hebrew Bible, there have been several chapters. In the first chapter God chooses Abraham and Sarah to be the forebears of a new people, dedicated to God, who will be as numerous as the sands of the shore and the stars in the heavens. In the second chapter Abraham and Sarah’s descendants travel to the land of Egypt to escape famine in Canaan only to end up eventually slaves to the Egyptians who once welcomed them. In the third chapter Moses is raised up by God to free the people of Israel and to lead them back to the land of Canaan so that they can live out the promise made to their forebears. Now they begin a fourth chapter of their saga, a saga that will eventually include you and me as recipients of God’s promises made so many generations ago.

In each chapter the people have experienced a promise, a loss and the possibility of a future based upon their past but more than a mere re-creation of an imaginary golden age. In each chapter the people have been faced with the need to re-commit themselves to God’s future, even when that future is not entirely clear. In each chapter the people come to realize that God’s promises, while freely given, require hard work, imagination and sacrifice.

Today’s reading from Joshua invites us to consider the chapters of the story of which we have been a part. Our story has many dimensions. It is the story of how a national church established in a small northern European country came to be a global communion. It is also the story of how a church made up primarily of Anglo-Canadians came to be a church that brought together all the peoples, native and non-native, of founding nations and immigrants, into one national body. Another dimension recounts how a church founded in the footsteps of the Hudson’s Bay Company and the westward expansion of the Canadian nation came to be an urban, suburban and rural community of parishes that is known throughout the world, for better and for worse. Perhaps the story most known to us is the story of our congregation established in the growth years following World War II, flourishing in the heady days of the Fifties, steady during the Sixties and Seventies, changing in the Eighties and Nineties and exploring in the first decades of the New Century.

Just as the people of Israel had and have a story of many chapters, so we have a story that is moving into a new chapter, one that includes promise, loss and future hope. In each one the people of our church, our diocese and our parish have realized that God’s promises are freely given, but living into those promises requires hard work, imagination and sacrifice. When Joshua and the people crossed the Jordan River and entered the land of Canaan, they knew that they must first re-commit themselves to live as people of promise and that the future would build upon but not be the same as the past. While the stories of manna, quail and water from a stone would continue to be told in the new land, the people would need to plant grains to make the bread, tend flocks to provide the meat and dig wells to supply the water needed for their life.

We will need to do the same work in our own time and in our own way in order for our chapter to be written.

• We will need to exercise careful stewardship, not only of the physical and financial assets entrusted to us, but also of the skills and time of our members as we decide how we will continue to share in God’s mission in this part of Metro Vancouver.
• We will need to continue to worship together, on Sundays and weekdays, using forms of worship that honour our heritage as Anglicans even as we explore new ways of worshipping that might reach out to others.
• We will need to grow in evangelism, an evangelism that is willing to invite others, young and old, families and singles, to share in the life we have discovered here, to experience the good news of God in Jesus that we know gathered around the communion table and gathered around the coffee urn and teapot.
• We will need to continue to educate ourselves, whether in Bible study or prayer groups, whether in sermons or seasonal gatherings, about how God works in this world, in us and through us and for us.
• We will need to offer loving and compassionate pastoral care to members and non-members, to those who are content and to those who are discontent, so that Christ’s love may be known and made manifest.

No doubt this is a tall order, but I know that we are up to the task. We are, as Saint Paul says, a new creation; the old has passed away and everything has become new. May we live as we believe. May we work as we hope. May we find fertile ground in which to plant the seed so that we may eat the bread of life. Amen.

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