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Storied and Story-telling People: An All Saints Sunday sermon

 “Marker Moments: Celebrating our Stories”

A sermon preached at First Presbyterian Church of Boise, ID

Nov. 2, 2014

Joshua 4:1-7

When the entire nation had finished crossing over the Jordan, the Lord said to Joshua: 2“Select twelve men from the people, one from each tribe, 3and 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.’” 4Then Joshua summoned the twelve men from the Israelites, whom he had appointed, one from each tribe. 5Joshua 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, 6so that this may be a sign among you. When your children ask in time to come, ‘What do those stones mean to you?’7then 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 forever.”

—–

When I sit down to put on my socks and look down at my foot there is a small discolored spot right on the inner part of my foot.  You might not see it as scar but that is what I know it to be.  And every time I see that scar I remember my year of living in the Philippines where I got the scar.  I was there as yearlong young adult volunteer in mission after college and there are many stories of that time but I particularly remember one night.  I would say I was on an island but the Philippines is a collection of thousands of islands so you are always on an island.  I was on the island of Mindoro that night and we had been there for several days and we were living out of our backpacks going back into remote villages and learning about the culture, and after a long hard day we got to what looked like the very traditional image of a collection of huts in a rice field.  This little village was all bamboo huts rising up out of standing water surrounded by rice.  And we were spending the night here in this little community.

I had spent the whole day miserable.  I had one of those ear infections where it felt like someone had taken a letter opener and punched it through my ear.  I was exhausted and had grown numb but we were far from doctors or medical care and so you just continued on.  We had been trying to delicately walk through these rice fields but I will tell you that big ugly American feet do not skillfully traverse rice fields.  It was a hard day.  So then we were to sleep in this small bamboo hut that was about 8’ x 8’ and there were 8 of us sleeping in it.  The guy who was sleeping next to me – well I wasn’t sleeping, but the guy next to me was and he kept rolling over and putting his arm and leg around me.  And if you don’t know this about me already, I’m an introvert.  I do love you all – but I love to go home to my own space too!  Introverts struggle in the Philippines because there is no individual space there, it’s not a culture for introverts and if you try to get off by yourself they think something is wrong with you and seek you out and crowd around to talk about it.

So here we are and I’m miserable and in pain and I’m down about being here at all.  I rolled out from under the guy next to me and went for a walk in the rain – of course it’s raining because there are only four seasons in the Philippines: hot, hotter, wet, and wetter and we were somewhere between wet and wetter at the time.  And there was a massive thunderstorm I can see out on the horizon probably out over the ocean and lighting was flashing and I could just barely hear the slight rumbling of it… and that was all demonstrative of my mood.  And I remember walking and standing in the rain and talking to God, I remember being upset with God, upset at feeling abandoned.

“God I think I’m here because of you.  I think you wanted me to be here to learn and to serve and I think if I’m here doing your work, but you could have my back and help me out a little more.”

And I felt… abandoned.  Not complete but still – abandoned.  Do you know what it’s like to feel radically alone when you’re are surrounded by people?

I remember feeling that aloneness and frustration and questioning.

I do not know what happened the rest of the night… I seem to have blocked that part out but I know that after spending some time there in the morning we walked out and to hiked most of the day to get the Oceanside where we were going to stay to have some reflection time of what we had seen and learned the last week.  So we walked to the ocean and we set our bags down and I changed into a bathing suit and ran out to the ocean.  Now the Pacific Ocean is a very poorly named ocean.  There is nothing passive about it.   Particularly the day after a storm and there were huge rolling waves crashing on the beach.  And it was the most therapeutic thing I could do to dive into those waves.  It was like being a kid again diving again and again head first into those waves and letting them crash against me.  It was cathartic and I beat my frustration out on those waves and it was a baptismal water kind of moment, being washed clean, renewed, refreshed.

And it had become night and walked up that beach and the stars had come out.  And I was feeling alive – the yuck that was in me had fallen away, I had this sense of calm and comfort.  I had a sense of awareness that I wasn’t alone and I looked up and a shooting star went by but I swear to you it was God winking at me.  No hindsight.  Right in that moment it felt like God looking me in the eye and winking at me with a smile saying, “Andrew, my beloved, you are not alone, you have never been alone.”

So every time I look at that scar.  Every time I see it I see far more than just a spot on my skin that didn’t heal.  I see that memory from the time when I got that scar.  I feel that memory.  I am taken back to that moment in the water when I realize that I wasn’t alone.  And that is exactly what is happening with Joshua and the Israelites in our story today.  There journey – their journey out of Egypt to Promised Land – began at waters, at the Red Sea.  The time in the wilderness began with God parting the waters for them to enter. And forty years later on the other bookend of their journey Joshua leads them through waters again.  By God’s decree the ark – a abode of God – passes before them into the Jordan and the flow of the river is cut off so that they may walk across the land into the Promised Land beyond the river.  God is right in the middle of the water, in the turbulence, in the chaos of their journey and says, “I am here with you, I will get you through this.”

And when they get to the other side they are told go back to the middle of the river where the priests were with the ark and get some stones – not some small rocks  but stones you have to haul up on your shoulders – and take one for each tribe and carry them across to the other side of the river (your side of the river) and create a tower of the stones.  Do this so that it will be a tangible reminder to you, you will see it and remember that in the middle of the chaos, of the challenging times, of the questioning times, of the times when you aren’t sure how you will carry through the day, build it so that in the middle of such times you can remember that you have been there before and you do did pass through, you did survive, and I was there with you all the way to the other side, from beginning to ending you were not alone.

And the even better part is that the memorial of stones isn’t just for them – though we need such memorials and reminders in our own lives.  But this is also for their children and their children’s children.  So in the time to come, Joshua says, when your children ask you what those stone mean to you.  “What’s that?”  “Why is that there?”  You can tell them a story.  THE story.  “Ooooh, that. Yes.  A wonderful question, dear one, let me tell you a story.  Come on, gather around.  Sit here on my lap… let me tell you about a journey your parents went on… your grandparents went on… your great-great-grandparents… let me tell you the story.”

It’s our story too.  And that is the point of it all.  We are a storied people.  God writes us into God’s story.  So we hear the stories of those who came before, and we pass on our stories to a generation that will create their own as well.  And as you read through the Old Testament you will notice that God liters the wilderness and the landscape of the Israelites with such reminders, memorials, altars in the wilderness – scars on creation if you will – that remind us that in the hardest times of our lives we are not alone.  God desires to be a God that is in the midst of the waters, God lives with us in the waters, God lives FOR us in the waters, and we will be carried through.

On this All Saints Sunday we think about all those who have come before us.  Who has been a saint for you?  Who is someone particularly dear to your heart who taught you something of love, of grace, of carrying through the hard times?  Who has helped you to know that you are not alone?

We celebrate the saints in our lives, we celebrate those who told us a story of what the “stones” meant to them.  Who wrote us into the story of creation, wove us into God’s tapestry of life.

But we are also story-tellers.  For whom have you told stories?  Where have you placed yourself so that children and adults alike might ask you to tell them your stories?  How have you helped invite people into God’s story who have felt too alone to be a part of it?  Who have you woven into the tapestry they were excluded from, who are you being a saint for?

God has called us into God’s story, to be a people who are storied and story-tellers.  People who are ministered to by the saints even as we are saints to one another.

Who are you celebrating, and who is celebrating you?

Thanks be to God, Amen.

A Child’s Journey to Faith

I just got back from a week in Florida (thanks to my wife’s work that paid for the trip).  We spent two days at Disney and the last ride we went on was Epcot’s Spaceship Earth.  As it took us through major breakthroughs of inventiveness in history we saw a scene of Michelangelo painting the Sistine Chapel.  Meredith’s first and only comment was: where is the nursery?

It was funny but also made me think some on the church and worship and faith formation.  Meredith is a young 4 year old.  Some studies say she is quickly reaching the age where her primarily concept of God will be “locked in” for the rest of her life.  And yet at this time she has spent far more time in a church nursery than its worship space.  (Honestly she mostly thinks church is about a room full of toys and a room with cookies and juice.) This makes me engage two related trajectories of thought:

1) Given that for most church going children Meredith’s experience of church is not unusual, how does our nursery care fit into faith formation?  Is it no more than child care, or does it have some intentional focus to ground our children in knowing God’s love?  Has the church been guilty of not thinking about children as disciples until they reach a certain age?  What exciting and life-giving ways might we (are we) actually engaging that responsibility?

2) It reminds me yet again how important parents are in their child’s faith formation.  Throughout child and youth development stages a parent is her or his child’s primary educator, nurturer, preacher, disciple-maker, and companion on the journey.  How does the church help equip and support our parents in faith formation and nurturing ways to pass on that faith?  How do our parents actually engage that task?   Because they(we) are forming their (our) children’s faith even if only by lack of attention or unintentional messaging in their language, choices, and way of life. (This doesn’t have to be all bad – you may naturally and without thought model the way of Christ in your child rearing, however speaking for myself I find it a particular challenging place to live God’s love at times.) It is for this reason that we as communities of faith need to support each other in our journeys: equipping, affirming, and holding one another accountable

What do you think?  How are we doing in engaging children in forming their faith and relationship to God? What are some exciting ideas to expand our engagement?

Advent: Illuminate Joy!

Yesterday we illuminated joy through music and drama – all ages gathered to tell the story of Advent and Christmas.  And, because it just happens that way, the light of Advent shone particularly well through the eyes of our children.  Children teach us much about joy.

And I’m reminded again of King David bringing the Ark back to Israel after its long time in captivity and exile (I’d love to say more about that because it’s among my favorite stories but alas it’s too off topic today).

Here is the story of the ark’s homecoming with David in 2 Samuel 6:

 

So David went and brought up the ark of God from the house of Obed-edom to the city of David with rejoicing… David danced before the Lord with all his might; David was girded with a linen ephod. 15So David and all the house of Israel brought up the ark of the Lord with shouting, and with the sound of the trumpet. 16As the ark of the Lord came into the city of David, Michal daughter of Saul looked out of the window, and saw King David leaping and dancing before the Lord; and she despised him in her heart…20David returned to bless his household. But Michal the daughter of Saul came out to meet David, and said, “How the king of Israel honored himself today, uncovering himself today before the eyes of his servants’ maids, as any vulgar fellow might shamelessly uncover himself!”21David said to Michal, “It was before the Lord, who chose me in place of your father and all his household, to appoint me as prince over Israel, the people of the Lord, that I have danced before the Lord. 22I will make myself yet more contemptible than this, and I will be abased in my own eyes; but by the maids of whom you have spoken, by them I shall be held in honor.” 

 

I think sometimes we believe worship must be refined and dignified.  It should have an element of perfection.  So we dress up in good clothes, we sing happy songs, and we wear smiles on our faces regardless of the conditions of our hearts.  We script pretty prayers and make sure all is decent and “in order.”  We worship in a way that would meet the approval of Michal.  And then David – with all his ruddy and youthful exuberance – bursts in leaping and dancing and carrying on like a common drunkard.  And we often, like Michal, look on with disdain while we miss that what David is drunk on is the joy of the God’s presence and power and steadfast love.  God doesn’t desire orderly worship so much as passionate and authentic expression of our hearts.  So we weep when we feel like weeping and sing when we feel like singing, and we stumble, and leap, and dance to the Spirit’s calling.

We make ourselves contemptible to the sensibilities of the dignified while expressing with great honesty our lives before God.  Because this is as it should be – we do not live to please the conventions and rules but the one who binds us together in loving community.  And who better to teach us that then our children.  Who better to teach us to dance to the Spirit’s call then those who have not yet been forced to conform to the social norms but are willing to fling wide the gates of their hearts in joy and sorrow before all.

This advent may our children illuminate joy for us all – for a child shall lead us!