The text for this sermon is Joshua 3:7-17
Do you remember when you graduated from High School? I don’t remember walking across any stage or receiving a diploma, but I remember vividly the unique feeling of the summer after I graduated. It was as though everything had changed and yet nothing really had changed. I was still the same kid that had to get a hall pass to go to the bathroom just a week before, but now my parents were letting me go camping for the weekend with friends, only, no adults. After graduation I was given more responsibility for myself and my future and also more freedom to make wise decisions and very, very, very bad decisions. I can remember the exhilaration of realizing how great the possibilities were for my life, but also real fear about whether I could realize any of those possibilities without some monumental mistake screwing it all up. Clear to me now, in a way not possible then, graduating from high school was a huge transition in my life.
All of our lives, as different and unique as they are, contain many of these huge transitions. Some transitions we understand at the time that nothing will ever be like it was before. Others, we only see in retrospect how much life changed after one particular innocuous event. The crazy thing about transitions is that in the midst of the change that we are swept away in, we are still the same person, with the same gifts, faults, wisdom and stupid thinking. The best gift any of us can receive in a transition is to be surrounded by patient, loving, and caring people centered on Christ and willing to walk with us as we navigate changes.
Our hope is that in the church we find those people. Which is why we emphasize transitions in our worship life together. They are moments to mark an event as important, to pledge publicly our support for our brother or sister, and to pray that God leads them where life seems to be taking them. This is what weddings and funerals are about. Baptisms of infants also contain our promise to walk with the parents bringing their child forward. Honoring graduates today gives us an opportunity to remind these young people, that whether they pop out of the gate running, or stumble for the first few miles, we will encourage and support them.
The church comes by this support of people in transition honestly. It is deeply embedded in our sacred scripture. The story we read in Joshua is about an important transition in the life of Israel. It occurs at the end of the forty years of wandering in the desert that God demanded of the escaped slaves of Egypt before they could receive the Promised Land. The Promised Land was not an empty space waiting for them. The seven nations of Canaan occupied it and they were well aware of the intent of the tens of thousands of Israelites that were on their border, the other side of the Jordan. The book of Joshua is a book of battles against those nations. It is interesting that where the Israelites cross the Jordan it is barren desert on both side. Transitions are like that, right. They mark a point where everything changes, but still so much stays remarkably the same.
The transition happens at the Jordan River. On one side they are slaves of Egypt. On the other side they will be inheritors of the Promised Land that is meant for God’s chosen people. We forget how difficult in the ancient world crossing a river could be, especially for thousands of people moving into enemy territory. There would be no bridges out in the desert. Individuals might cross on rocks lying in the river, but for huge masses of people this was impractical. Armies might be ferried across by boats, but this wasn’t possible for Israel either. Just like God helped the fleeing slaves of Egypt cross the Red Sea, God would help their children cross the Jordan, by stopping the river in her tracks.
The ritual God commanded of them in their crossing, is what is of interest to us today. The priests carried the Ark of the Covenant to the center of the Jordan. Trusting that the waters would part for them and keep them dry. They stood in the middle of the Jordan with the Ark while twelve representatives of the twelve tribes of Israel placed stones in the center of the dried up river, around where they stood. Then the people crossed in the path of the priests, carefully moving around them as they remained standing in the center of the Jordan. Imagine the flow of all these people walking in the shadow of this mysteriously damned river. When all had crossed the priests carried the ark to the shore. There they built an altar to God, a memorial of twelve large stones like pillars. The Jordan was then released by God and flowed again.
This ritual was important for Israel. Everyone that crossed knew the difficult days of war ahead and had to trust the promise of peace in the future. Simply crossing the Jordan wasn’t enough, God wanted them to cross in a way that reassured them that God’s presence could be relied upon. The God who could stop a river from flowing, had their back. The twelve leaders of the twelve tribes who brought stones forward and built an altar at the end, was a reminder to all that they were a united community. Life was going to change drastically, but if they stayed together and trusted God in the lead, they would be okay.
This is what the best rituals in the church that mark our transitions do. They cause us to pause in a busy life long enough to thoughtfully consider an important moment in our life. They remind us God has our back in our anxiousness about the change we face. They gather the community around us to pledge their ongoing support when we will need it the most.
A memorable ritual for me was my ordination. It was the moment I became yoked to the church. I was ordained at Grace Lutheran Church in Toledo, Ohio, in the sanctuary where I was confirmed, married, baptized my kids, buried my grandparents and will likely say goodbye to my parents, too. The pastors who laid hands on my head in that ritual, who prayed fervently that I might be a good leader for the institution they loved, was our bishop at the time, Cal Holloway, Pastor Redfern who first championed my call when I was in his confirmation class, Pastor Jacobs who had become a loved part of the congregation after I left, and Pastor Kai Nilsen, who had become a model for my own pastoral leadership and now a good friend. The congregation gathered were people who had known me in Toledo since my childhood, friends from Columbus who wanted to encourage me, family who had always made me feel loved. I remember clearly kneeling in 1999 in that space, as the pastors and everyone prayed fervently for me and my call.
At the end of the ritual, I felt changed, ready for the responsibility God had called me to shoulder. At the end of the ritual I felt exactly the same, just as likely to say the wrong thing at the wrong time and make a mess of it. At the end of the ritual I knew regardless of my strengths and weaknesses, God had my back. God’s people were united to support me.
There is an important role that churches play in transitions for people of faith. As we enter our own Jordan Rivers, we should do so relying on rituals to give us confidence. There is liberating encouragement that is won from the evidence that God is paying attention. There is strength gained in knowing there is a community of people who want good from us, who believe in us, and who sacrifice to serve us. If we let God lead and surround ourselves by the people of God, God will find dry land for us. Amen
The text for this sermon is Joshua 3:7-17