Song of Reflection
Inspired by Joshua 1: 1-9
When I picked this scripture, I definitely wasn’t thinking that it would be the basis for the annual church conference pastors report. This Joshua sermon series that we are beginning today is meant to follow our Exodus sermon series. Like theVH1 series featuring past celebrities to offer an update on their current professional and personal status, the book of Joshua updates us on all the people we left wandering in the wilderness.
Most notably, Joshua begins where Moses’ life ends. It is upon Moses’s death that YHWH commissions Joshua to finish the work begun in the ministry of Moses. YHWH commissions Joshua to cross the Jordan whereupon, “every place that the sole of (his) foot treads upon I have given to you, as I promised to Moses.” Moses’ led the people through a painful process of chaotic discernment, but Joshua, who implements the strategic plan clarified in the wilderness wander. Specifically, Joshua will lead the tribes of Israel in the conquest of the west side of Jordan, after which he will oversee the distribution of the conquered land to the twelve tribes.
In Joshua’s story, we witness what the commentary describes as “a triumphant finale to the Bible’s foundational epic of liberation; the savage goal toward which God’s creation of Israel and delivery of Israel from slavery in Egypt appears to point from the start.” Like Moses’ commissioning, Joshua’s commissioning is packaged with words of encouragement. In verse six, we read the phrase, “Be strong and of good courage…” which is repeated in verse 7 as “only be strong and very courageous,” and finally restated in verse nine as a question, “Have I not commanded you? Be strong and of good courage; be not frightened, neither be dismayed…” Above all else, the integrity of Joshua’s mission will depend on his ability to remain courageous and bold as YHWH works though him to reclaim the land that until this point has been experienced only as promise and never in presence.
As Walter Brueggemann writes in his book The Land: Place as Gift, Promise, and Challenge in Biblical Faith, “The entire memory of this moment for Israel is one of Israel’s cowardice, ineptness, and incompetence in the face of the land. Israel was ill-prepared and ill-qualified. Clearly, land-entry, whatever its historical character, had little chance of success. What an enormous promise of success and prosperity is Joshua 1:8 in the face of such possibilities. The memory affirms that Israel characteristically acted in fear, tried to avoid receiving the promise, or tried by a clever strategy to minimize the risk.”
Driven by promise, Joshua begins at the precipice of an arrival that has haunted the Israelites for generations. Carried by the sacrifice of their ancestors, the lessons of the wilderness, Moses’s leadership, and the laws of YHWH, the Israelites prepare to enter the ambiguity of a new beginning.
In the story of this new beginning, the question raised is this, “What is the promise God has made to the people of The Land?”
This is not a question answered once and set aside. There is no shelf waiting to store this question that we might be released of its weight. This is a question designed to be carried softly, generously, attentively. This is an inherited question intended to accompany each of us, evolving, drawing us more fully into loving relationships with ourselves, with one another, and with all of creation until the time comes for us to pass them on to the next generation of questions bearers.
These methods of engaging the question offer insight into the answer to the question itself. For as convenient as it would be to define The Land’s promise as a stagnant and concrete vision or goal, the Israelites’ journey, and the footsteps we now follow them in make this preference unlikely.
Brueggemann explains that “Israel’s destiny is fearful, and Israel would rather not face it. In the land entry tradition, Israel is driven by promise and summoned by fulfillment to ambiguous places of newness when old places seem more assured, simple, and manageable.”
The inconvenient probability that promise is experienced as an opportunity worth risking everything seems closer to the truth. A promise inspiring reckless loyalty to a vision worthy of strength and good courage despite the probable impossibilities of it all. This means that promise is not The Land or the site plan, or even the people who find sanctuary settled into the reality of where we are and the map of where we think we ought to be someday. A promise is neither achievable nor reachable. A promise is a gift itself, found like a ribbon threaded through the process of trusting that God goes with us as we seek to embody a new way of being in the world. A promise is what holds us together regardless of whether we know where we are going or why we might be going there. Promise inspires us to keep showing up because we trust that whatever we do or don’t do, ultimately it is God who is at work through this Land, these plans, and these people.
Living into this promise, being ‘pastor’ in this chapter of The Land’s story is not burdened with the task of carrying an infallible vision derived through study, skill, and spiritual superiority. Surrendering to promise as a process opens the posture of the pastor as one who holds space for God to communicate through the community the vision and to break down that which we have built up when we are unable to reconcile where we thought we were going with where God is inviting us to be led. This requires strength and courage, which I often admit that I lack; the will to tear down a dream to live into our future.
As a spiritual leader in a time of pandemic, political instability, and climate crisis, I strongly identify with the scene in The Lord of the Rings when Frodo laments his placement in history. “I wish this had not happened in my time,” Frodo confesses. “So, do all who live to face such times,” Gandolf responds, “but that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given to us.”
The truth is that the world we knew when planning a dream not yet named The Land, is not the world where we now find ourselves planting the physical seed we now know as The Land. I lament that our world has shifted so suddenly and sharply that the bridge between a dream we once had and the work we are now doing evades our collective minds. This new land we enter is neither assured, simple, nor manageable. It is a destiny of which we are fearful and would rather not face, but, in the land-entry tradition, we, like Israel, are to be driven by promise and summoned by fulfillment to ambiguous places of newness when old places seem more assured, simple, and manageable.
In this new world in which we wake, we find as many challenges as we do possibilities. While we are accustomed to helping others experiencing hardships, the current realities of the world have spared none of us from participation in its turmoil. We will need to walk slowly in this storm, lest we lose the presence of one another and the sight of who God is calling us to be in this place at this time.
This is no predictable pastoral report because the world has shown us how utterly unpredictable it can truly be. I cannot guarantee that we will be worshipping here together next week, let alone map out goals in 2021 that I believe we could realistically meet. My prayers have been swallowed whole and returned to me in small, chewed up pieces I am only now beginning to recognize.
That dismay, my dear friends, will not cause you to abandon the journey we have begun.
That exhaustion, my dear friends, will not blind you from the deep hope planted in this prairie landscape.
That death, my dear friends, will not steal you from the work God has called you to in this place.
These are prayers risen to the surface of a story that has pulled us deeper into the darkness than we had ever planned to go…and; still, the light remains in each turn of the page.
This new page has words written that I have yet to decode, but I see its texture, color, weight, and wear. This page coming will require our feet to tread softly and our dreams to be held lightly. We will do the best we can as grasshoppers in the presence of the abstract and powerful giants.
And, it will be the promise of God’s presence through all things that assure us that even when we feel lost, we are right where we are supposed to be as long as we are together.
My ‘ask’ of a community standing on the steep edge of 2020 looking down at 2021 is that we fall gently together into the new year, not into what we need it to be but into whatever its lessons help us to become. No matter what traumas or challenges stands before us, we must never doubt that we will be better because of the lessons they bring.
Let us find rest in the journey, knowing that we receive the promise in the presence of a process that continues to soften our hearts and slow our pace so that others might catch up and join into the journey we ourselves have entered. Let each step we take in the days and years to come to be patterned in the promise;
God is here.
God is here.