“Of Rivers and Stones”
A sermon by Rev. Aaron Fulp-Eickstaedt
At Immanuel Presbyterian Church, McLean VA
Anniversary Sunday, October 13th, 2013
Joshua 4:-19, 19-23; I Peter 2:4-5
Our first passage of scripture is from the book of Joshua, it’s a book which is historical in nature. At least it recalls the settling of Canaan. Joshua is a problematic book, because it does seem to advocate the people of God moving in with force and forcibly removing those who were currently inhabiting the land, and not just forcibly removing them, but killing them. One way to deal with the book of Joshua is to understand Joshua in light of the new Joshua, Jesus. And as you hear these words of scripture, listen for the deeper message in them.
When the entire nation had finished crossing over the Jordan, the Lord said to Joshua: ‘Select twelve men from the people, one from each tribe, and command them, “Take twelve stones from here out of the middle of the Jordan, from the place where the priests’ feet stood, carry them over with you, and lay them down in the place where you camp tonight.” ’ Then Joshua summoned the twelve men from the Israelites, whom he had appointed, one from each tribe. Joshua said to them, ‘Pass on before the ark of the Lord your God into the middle of the Jordan, and each of you take up a stone on his shoulder, one for each of the tribes of the Israelites, so that this may be a sign among you. When your children ask in time to come, “What do those stones mean to you?” then you shall tell them that the waters of the Jordan were cut off in front of the ark of the covenant of the Lord. When it crossed over the Jordan, the waters of the Jordan were cut off. So these stones shall be to the Israelites a memorial for ever.’
The Israelites did as Joshua commanded. They took up twelve stones out of the middle of the Jordan, according to the number of the tribes of the Israelites, as the Lord told Joshua, carried them over with them to the place where they camped, and laid them down there. (Joshua set up twelve stones in the middle of the Jordan, in the place where the feet of the priests bearing the Ark of the Covenant had stood; and they are there to this day.)
The people came up out of the Jordan on the tenth day of the first month, and they camped in Gilgal on the eastern border of Jericho. Those twelve stones, which they had taken out of the Jordan, Joshua set up in Gilgal, saying to the Israelites, ‘When your children ask their parents in time to come, “What do these stones mean?” then you shall let your children know, “Israel crossed over the Jordan here on dry ground.” For 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 he 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, and so that you may fear the Lord your God forever.’
Our second reading is a brief passage from 1 Peter, a letter from Peter to the persecuted church. Just two short verses from the second chapter.
Come to him, a living stone, though rejected by mortals yet chosen and precious in God’s sight-and like living stones let your selves be built into a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.
I love Norman McLean’s marvelous book A River Runs Through It, which was made into a movie by Robert Redford. If you’ve read the book or seen the movie you know that it is about- a Presbyterian minister in Montana and his two sons. It’s actually autobiographical. McLean’s father is the minister, he is the older brother and in the movie version, Brad Pitt plays his prodigal younger brother. That may be why so many women I know love that movie.
A love for fly fishing ties the three McLean men together–the movie has gorgeous scenes of them out on the river fishing, their fly rods whipping, the line curling behind them in graceful arcs, the fish rising to the fly and being reeled in. Those are beautiful scenes, but after a while you begin to understand that the river stands for more than just the physical place where the 3 McLean men met.
It is a metaphor for the way life moves along, the way it flows and changes. You follow the progress of the sons’ relationship with the father and with each other and with their father. You watch the course of their lives as they grow into adulthood, as the decisions they make shape them and eventually lead to the younger brother’s untimely death.
A river is a marvelous metaphor for the story of an individual life, for the narrative of a nation, for the history of a church.
They say you never step in the same river twice. When speaking of a literal river that’s a way of communicating the truth that each drop of water moves on down the line on its way from the headwaters where it originated in snow or rain down to the sea or lake into which it empties. Each drop of water moves down the line. It’s also a way of saying that the riverbed itself changes over time as the force of water and debris passes through it. It’s a way of saying that water levels rise and fall, currents ebb and flow. Sometimes silt builds up. The water gets replenished or it dries up, but as time passes the river, though it is in the same basic spot, is never quite the same. The water keeps moving. The river keeps changing. Heraclitus was right; you never step in the same river twice.
That’s the way of rivers. That’s the way it is with us, too. Think about the way both technology and society have changed over the past 100 years. Some of you can remember the days before television, when you gathered around the radio. Not many now can remember that, but there are some. You gathered around the radio to hear the news of the day or to listen to a show. You can remember slow Sabbath Sundays when you ate dinner together when you gathered with family and sat on the porch. Some of you here are too young to recall the days before email and cellphones and Skypeing and videogames, but let me assure you, those days existed.
Back then you wrote letters, or you made phone calls with a rotary phone and you made sure to make those calls after 7 on Sunday when the rates where cheaper.
More than twenty years ago, when Judith and I were dating during our seminary days, and she was in Glasgow for a year abroad, we didn’t have the benefit of Skype or email or cellphones. So we wrote letters. Five letters a week, each way. And we still have them. And when our girls get to be 30 or 40, they may read them. But now we talk on the cellphone and we send each other text messages. The river of life just keeps flowing.
Think about the way your own life has changed. You are still in some ways the same person you were as a little kid. You retain those memories. There are things that remain constant. Several weeks ago, I did a memorial service for Connie Dixon. She liked to describe herself as a teenager trapped in an eighty year olds body. Maybe you know somebody like that. Maybe you are somebody like that. Be that as it may, the truth is that life brings changes. Our bodies change over the years. Our minds do, too.
Scientists tell us that every seven years or so all of the cells in our bodies get replaced, so that in fact, we are, at a cellular level, different people than we were seven years before.
Life changes and it brings changes. You watch people come and go. You say goodbye to loved ones at deathbeds and in memorial services or when they head off to new adventures in other places. You become an empty nester. I never thought that would happen to me. You develop new friendships. You welcome spouses, in-laws, children and perhaps grandchildren and even great-grandchildren into your life. The river of life just keeps flowing. You never step in the same river twice.
You never step in the same church twice, either. This church has been in existence for 52 years now. The church I served in North Carolina was founded in 1775, so they just had their 238th anniversary— and in September I was asked to come back and preach for it. I told them, “You’ll never believe this, but the church I’m serving now is very excited that they are 52 years old.” Think about the changes that church has seen over the years; as history has progressed through, for instance, wars, from the Revolutionary War on up through our latest wars.
They’ve seen new buildings and changes in their current structures. You don’t have to be 238 years old to have seen significant change. Think about the way this congregation has changed, how the physical structure of these buildings has changed. We started at Franklin Sherman, with just a small band of charter members. Then moved into the church house, worshipping in the basement, then in the first sanctuary in what is now the choir room. And an education building that was built and taken down. And then as the 80’s began; the construction of this sanctuary and in the mid 90’s the building of this Meeting House. So physically, this church has changed.
But of course the church is not just the buildings, it is the people. And they change, too. Pastors come and go. Congregation members come and go. Death takes some. I don’t know how many funerals we’ve had in the past 8 and half years, but there’ve been too many. I look out today and I see a number of faces that weren’t here eight and half years ago when I first stood in this pulpit. I miss the faces of members who have died, suddenly or after a long illness. I miss the faces of members who have moved on as they moved away. I miss the faces of members who have drifted. And there are faces out here, including my own, which look different. Some of you have a little less hair on top, grayer at the temples and in the beard. You never step in the same church twice.
Programs change, too. We’ve taken on some new initiatives, we’ve continued some other things, and as part of our strategic planning initiative we are now beginning to look at ways we can move in new directions missionally.
Programs change. When I was back in North Carolina in September, I shared with the people there that I love what they did this past Lent. The pastor decided that he wanted to preach a sermon on “epic fails” of the bible. And so he picked out 7 different characters that he considered to be sort of epic failures. And he started each sermon series with a video interview of those characters. One of them was Judas.
I watched those video interviews. I read the sermons. And on Easter Sunday morning they did something remarkable. They had Jesus emerge from the tomb. He was a youth. He emerged from the tomb and then after Jesus emerged, one by one, each of the epic failures came out and Jesus, played by a young man I had baptized, embraced each one of those failures, ending with Judas. And I have to say, that when I saw that Easter Sunday morning sunrise service video, I wept. I wept because of the power of the message, but I also wept because of the testimony it provided of the way life goes on. The church goes on. The river just keeps moving.
Our scripture text for this morning is about a river; perhaps the most famous river in the bible. And it’s about the people of God who stepped into it and through it. And it’s about stones, stones that they set up to remember that event, stones that they set up to remember God’s presence in the past, but also to celebrate God’s ongoing activity in their lives. The river would change, they would change, but they could remember that God would go with them. That God who was with them then, could and would go with them into the future.
The story goes like this: Joshua succeeded Moses, who died on Mount Nebo before he could enter the Promised Land. Well Joshua invited the people to go pass through the river of Jordan into Canaan. The waters parted and they passed through the river on dry ground and that recalled for them the crossing of the red sea. And then Joshua told them to gather up 12 stones from the middle of the Jordan River, one for each of the tribes of Israel. And they pilled those stones up in a place called Gilgal. And Joshua told them, whenever your children ask about these stones; tell them about how God saw us through.
It strikes me that that’s what Anniversary Sunday is about at its core. At Anniversary Sunday we come back to this place. We come back to Gigal and we remember the ways God acted in our past and celebrate how God is at work in our present. We look for ways God will lead us into the future.
Anniversary Sunday is coming back to this Gilgal by the river of life and touching the stones that we set up to remember. I thought about what the stones are that we pile up and I think one way to view them is that they represent the memories we have of what God has done here. And I would encourage you to think about some of those memories at this time. Think about the worship services that touched you, the study groups that you were part of, the time you spent going to Anacostia to serve, the bologna sandwiches you made for Bologna Bunch. Think about trips. Think about mission trips that you took as a youth, or as an adult. Think about ski trips and the fun you had on those. Think about difficult conversations you had that ended in reconciliation and new insight. Think about how in this place we’ve watched relationships begin, and we’ve watched some end. Think about weddings and funerals and baptisms. All of those are memories. They are touch stones that bring me back to times and places when God has been at work. That’s what the stones are about.
I don’t know what the stones are for you; I suspect we might have some of the same stones. But I also think about what the author of 1 Peter said, to a church facing difficulty, the author of 1 Peter said, you are stones. “Come to him, a living stone, though rejected by mortals yet chosen and precious in God’s sight-and like living stones let your selves be built into a spiritual house.” In other words, you and I are stones.
As I think about all of the different touch stones I have, I remember that they’re all tied to people; they’re all tied to people like you. Because they’re all tied to people who in their own way embodied love in their lives, I believe they’re also tied to the cornerstone, the one who showed us what it means to live and serve and love. Come to Him then, a living stone.
In Jesus’ name. Amen.