Life Becomes Liturgy

Joshua 3:1-17
David A. Davis
July 22, 2018
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Before I read the second scripture lesson, I want to share with you two biblical conundrums that I am very aware of this week. Well, there’s a whole more than two that plague me on a regular basis but two that are relevant to the Book of Joshua. I’m preaching four sermons this summer from the Book of Joshua. Those four selected passages may be the only four in the Book of Joshua that are not full of descriptions of battle, destruction, and lots of death. I just want to own up to it, my pastoral preacher’s choice and be honest with those of you who may choose to keep reading from the book during the rest of the sermon. Also, a few weeks ago I preached on the story of Rahab and the deal she struck with the spies she hid from the king. I highlighted the concluding almost passing comment in the book on Rahab: that Rahab, a non-Jew and her family have lived in Israel ever since. Then here in the story of the Jordan crossing that you are about to hear, the reader comes upon Joshua’s exhortation for the people to know the presence of the living God. That exhortation comes with a list of tribes and peoples that will be driven out, that will be excluded. The promise is that God will provide the land just for them. The lasting promise of God vis a vis the land of Israel and the radical command to welcome the stranger and embrace the foreigner forever embodied by the Samaritan that tradition calls good.  A textual, biblical, theological, geo-political contradiction that, like Rahab and her family, has pretty much been around ever since. So there you have it. Anyone wanting me to further address those two biblical knots is about to be, at least for today, disappointed.

What does water look like when it stands in a single heap? “The waters of the Jordan flowing from above shall be cut off; they shall stand in a single heap.” The description of the single heap of water occurs twice here in Joshua 3. As the feet of the priests bearing the ark of the covenant dipped into the edge of the Jordan River “the waters flowing from above stood still, rising up in a single heap far off.” The heap of water was upstream at the city of Adam, about 18 miles north of Jericho. So Joshua and the priests and the entire nation of Israel crossing over into the Promised Land didn’t get to see the heap of water. They didn’t get to see what a single heap of water looked like either. Only the water flowing away to the south and the dry river bed beneath their feet.

There are places today in Israel/Palestine where the Jordan River is more like a trickling stream. It must have been more robust in antiquity but probably not a river akin to the “Mighty Mississippi,” even if the text does refer to the Jordan overflowing at the time of the harvest. Nonetheless, when it comes to this Jordan River crossing into the Promised Land, the ears of tradition are obviously supposed to perk up and recall the salvation story of Moses and the people crossing the Red Sea; that story of the saving act of God. It is never to be forgotten by God’s people. The next chapter in Joshua tells of twelve stones being gathered and placed to commemorate the crossing and twice Joshua tells the people to tell their children for generations to come about the twelve stones and the Jordon River crossing. “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.” The crossing of the sea out of Egypt and the crossing of the river into the Promised Land.  Both never to be forgotten.

Here in Joshua chapter 3 the remembering part is clearly more important than the miracle part. Yes, there is that puzzling image of a standing, single heap of water and the river quickly running dry as the priests carrying the ark just start to dip their toes in the water. But the “main character” in the crossing over is the Ark of the Covenant. The chapter is filled with instructions related to the Ark and seeing it and following it and bearing it. “By this you shall know that among you is the living God,” Joshua said to the people. When the people crossed over, they couldn’t see the water all heaped up. What they saw was the Ark, on dry ground, in the middle of the Jordan. The Ark held there for all to see while they entered the Promised Land. The Ark standing watch as the people passed by. As the people passed by that sign, that symbol, that ark bearing the presence of the Living God. It was just a river crossing. It was a liturgical procession. Here in Joshua chapter 3, it’s more liturgy than it is miracle. A liturgy intended for remembrance.

I went to see the documentary film this week “Won’t You Be My Neighbor” that tells of the life, career, and ministry of Mr. Rogers. It is a behind the scenes look at him and his television show on public television that ran for decades starting in 1968. You may have read that the movie is surpassing all expectations. It is quite a balm of kindness for these days. I grew up with the early Mr. Rogers. I knew he was a Presbyterian minister, but I thought it was only a Pittsburgh thing. A local show on channel 13.  There were other things back then that I thought were only in Pittsburgh, like Heinz ketchup and Super Bowl trophies. I learned a lot from the movie. I enjoyed listening to the Pittsburgh accents from Fred Rogers wife and the others interviewed. I only teared up about six times, not because of memories but because of his gospel of kindness, and self-acceptance, and loving one another, and welcoming all children. I never knew that Mr. Rogers was ordained by the presbytery of Pittsburgh to be an evangelist of all things. And when you stop and think about, he really was. Through that show preaching Christ’s gospel of kindness and love without ever mentioning his name.

Of course over and over again in the movie there were clips of him coming into the house, taking off his jacket, putting on the sweater, changing his shoes, feeding the fish. Young Mr. Rogers. Old Mr. Rogers. Sure it was kitchy, but the movie affirms there was always a method and purpose behind everything Mr. Rogers did and said. Even that opening routine, that same introductory routine helped a child know what to expect, to remember what was coming, and to enter into a time of watching, listening, learning. I don’t know how often I watched him make that entrance when I was very young. But there was something about it that is etched deep within me. It is like there was liturgy to that show. Somehow rooting love and kindness and self-worth in generations of children.

The Lord told Joshua that this was the day that the people would begin to see that God was with him like God was with Moses. Joshua told the people that this was a day to know that God is present and is living among them. All of the instructions related to the crossing and the memorializing of it were intended to help the people know and celebrate and remember that God was with them. The Lord, through Joshua, was designing a liturgy to attest to God’s saving act, God’s saving grace, God in and among God’s people. Rooting awareness of and gratitude for God and God’s presence in generations yet to come.

The word “liturgy” technically means the work of the people. God’s people and the work of acknowledging all that God has done. Etching deep within not just gratitude for God’s presence but a longing to never forget that presence. Planting deep within not just a sure and certain comfort of resting in God but a yearning to see over and over again sure and certain signs of God’s saving grace in the world around. Nurturing deep within not simply a satisfaction or a joy in ritual or things spiritual but stirring a holy confidence that a life filled with radiant kindness, love, and grace actually represents the very presence of God to others. Not just this service of worship or that, not just this holiday or that, not just this order or that rite, but liturgy that is life. When life becomes liturgy.

In one of her books on preaching, Barbara Brown Taylor describes the work of the preacher as being a “detective of divinity.” It is the task of helping people to look into their very ordinary lives and still see the extraordinary presence of God. In her book An Altar in the World, she calls it “the practice of waking up to God.” She makes the argument that the Bible is full of people who “encounter God under shady oak trees, on riverbanks, at the tops of mountains, and in long stretches of barren wilderness. God shows up,” she writes, “in whirlwinds, starry skies, burning bushes, and perfect strangers. When people want to know more about God, the son of God tells them to pay attention to the lilies of the field and the birds of the air, to women kneading bread and workers lining up for the pay.” Barbara Brown Taylor is describing an awareness and a gratitude for God’s presence and God’s grace. An awareness and gratitude so rooted within that you carry it with you. She is describing the liturgy of life. God’s people and the work of learning, remembering, celebrating all that God has done.

A while back I had met a young university graduate who stayed here in town and took a job on campus. He didn’t worship here but our paths happened to cross from time to time over the span of a few months on the street, at a few gatherings, and even a meeting or two. One day he invited me to grab a coffee. When we got together he asked for my help. A college friend was getting married and they asked him to get ordained online for the occasion so he could officiate. “So what do I do?” he asked. He had no idea where to start, what to say, how to go about it. He had googled already: “How to officiate a wedding.” He didn’t think to do what one online ordained officiant did recently. One of you told me about the wedding where the person bragged about learning what to do and what to say for the occasion by watching TED talks. I will spare you my riff about not going to a dentist who got licensed online for the occasion of my cleaning. And I tell seminarians in worship class that when it comes to marriage the church has been in service to the civil authorities since the very beginning. So we shouldn’t kid ourselves or think we have the corner on the market.

My point is less whiny and more subtle. It has to do with the church teaching, modeling, shaping, passing on to each generation, a liturgy of life. Most couples are surprised when at some point in the conversation and planning I point out to them that “it’s really not all about you.” It’s not about an occasion, it’s about life. And when it comes to love and relationship and forgiveness and grace and family and getting old and being a spouse and being a parent and falling down and getting up and dusting your life off and saying you’re sorry and in sickness and in health, and in joy and in sorrow and trying to figure this all out, all this life and death stuff… you can’t just do it by yourself. We’re not that good. None of us is that good at it. I don’t know about you, I tell them, but I don’t know how you can do it without God’s help, God’s presence, God’s grace, God’s wisdom, and the hope of God’s future.

The “occasions” for which a community of faith provides a liturgy (at the time of baptism, at the time of confirmation, at the time of marriage, at the time of death, Easter, Christmas, each Lord’s Day for that matter), the occasional liturgy is intended to provide a kind of template for the liturgy of your life. To root deep within you an awareness and gratitude for God and God’s presence for all of your days. To take with you. To save it for later. To have it when you need it. It’s never been about perfect attendance here. It is about knowing God out there. Passing on to our children, not a perfect creed, or right doctrine, or dusty tradition, but some notion, way deep within, far beyond words, that God is in them and will never forsake them. Etching, planting, nurturing deep within the awe and wonder of God’s love. “By this you shall know that among you is the living God.”

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