Crossing Over 11-5-17 All Saints Day

Joshua 3:7-17 And the Lord said to Joshua, “Today I will begin to exalt you in the eyes of all Israel, so they may know that I am with you as I was with Moses. Tell the priests who carry the ark of the covenant: ‘When you reach the edge of the Jordan’s waters, go and stand in the river.’ Joshua said to the Israelites, “Come here and listen to the words of the Lord your God. This is how you will know that the living God is among you and that he will certainly drive out before you the Canaanites, Hittites, Hivites, Perizzites, Girgashites, Amorites and Jebusites. See, the ark of the covenant of the Lord of all the earth will go into the Jordan ahead of you. Now then, choose twelve men from the tribes of Israel, one from each tribe. And as soon as the priests who carry the ark of the Lord— the Lord of all the earth—set foot in the Jordan, its waters flowing downstream will be cut off and stand up in a heap.” So when the people broke camp to cross the Jordan, the priests carrying the ark of the covenant went ahead of them. Now the Jordan is at flood stage all during harvest. Yet as soon as the priests who carried the ark reached the Jordan and their feet touched the water’s edge, the water from upstream stopped flowing. It piled up in a heap a great distance away, at a town called Adam in the vicinity of Zarethan, while the water flowing down to the Sea of the Arabah (that is, the Dead Sea) was completely cut off. So the people crossed over opposite Jericho. 17 The priests who carried the ark of the covenant of the Lord stopped in the middle of the Jordan and stood on dry ground, while all Israel passed by until the whole nation had completed the crossing on dry ground.

All Saints’ Day is a wonderful holy day, a beautiful celebration of life and death. Christians know that death is not failure. Death is not a bad thing. Death is not even the end. It is an end, but not the end, and today we celebrate God’s love that is stronger even than death. I studied the Joshua reading for today. It does not refer to death, actually, but the image of Crossing Over, crossing over the river Jordan, crossing over from life to death, has symbolic significance for talking about the end of life’s journey. Let’s talk about it some more after we hear Jesus from the Sermon on the Mount bless all of our loved ones in the passage known as the Beatitudes. Listen for the Word of God for you this day.

Matthew 5: 1-12 Now when Jesus saw the crowds, he went up on a mountainside and sat down. His disciples came to him, and he began to teach them. Jesus said: “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for   theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted. Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled. Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy. Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God. Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God. Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.

November 5, 2017

Crossing Over

[Each person receives a small stone at the door to the sanctuary.]

Did you all get a stone? Please hold the stone in your hand for a bit during the sermon, remembering any loved ones you want to remember today. My stone today of course is for my mother. Would like to tell somebody whom you’re holding a stone for real quick? Turn to a neighbor and tell them whom you are remembering. I ask you to hold a stone today thinking about the tribes led by Joshua crossing over the Jordan River on dry ground, as we remember those who crossed over from life to death.

I also ask you to hold a stone in honor of the Jewish tradition of laying a small stone on a grave when they visit a loved or respected one who has died. Do you know why they do that? Nobody is totally sure, but some possibilities are that when the tradition started, the gravestones were actually made out of a pile of stones. Visitors added stones to the mound to show we are never finished building the monument to the deceased loved one.

Another reason people leave a stone is tell other visitors that we were there. It suggests the continuing presence of love and memory as strong and ensuring as a rock. The rock is a reminder of God’s presence too, the Rock of Israel, whose love is stronger than death. Some people also leave a note in crevices in a headstone, and the stone may have been a way to hold down a note when there was no crevice. When the note blew away, only the stone was left.  I visited a graveyard this summer in Massachusetts where they had graves on a hill call “Author’s Ridge.” Louisa May Alcott, Nathaniel Hawthorne and Henry David Thoreau were buried there, and people left stones at their graves, but many people also left pens or pencils as a tribute.

One other possible meaning of the stones that I will mention is an ancient tradition. Shepherds needed a system to keep track of their flocks. Some days they would go out pasture with a flock of thirty, on other days with a flock of ten. The shepherd would carry a sling over the shoulder and in it keep the number of pebbles that corresponded to the number in the the flock, as a reminder of an accurate count. When we place stones on the grave, we are asking God to keep the departed’s soul in God’s sling. So today as we hold these stones, we are adding the name of our loved one, the pebble of the soul of our departed to God’s sling.

 

God is often associated with the land for the Hebrew people and in the Bible. Our passage for today from Joshua may sound a little familiar because it is so resonant of the story of the Hebrew people crossing the Red Sea on dry land following Moses. Though that story appears earlier in the Bible and is more prominent in our memory, some commentators say this passage from Joshua might actually have been written earlier and been the model for the Moses story.

Moses, you will remember, led the Hebrew people across the Red Sea into the wilderness, but after wandering 40 years in that wilderness, he died before the people went into the promised land. That job was left to Joshua, who led the people across the Jordan, again with God’s help. God stops the Jordan from flowing when the people step into it with the Ark of the Covenant. Later, after our passage, God instructs the 12 tribes of Israel to take big rocks from the riverbed and stand in front of the Ark of the Covenant protecting it from the waters. They take these 12 large rocks onto dry land as a monument and memorial to actions in helping the people of Israel in their journey to the promised land.

 

We all have our ways of remembering, our ways of memorializing and honoring our loved ones. I think of my mother every Saturday morning when I used to call her on the phone on my morning walk. I sometimes call my brother or just hold her in my prayer during that time. Peter was telling me a few weeks ago about how he honors his father as he takes his sons fishing up in the Poconos in the place where his dad took him. I know Nancy honors her father on Sundays out in our memorial garden.

So we may use our stones today in a memorial ritual. As we bring them to the communion rail today, we may place them there as a monument to God’s grace, God’s love which we know is more powerful than death. As our loved ones have crossed over into the mystery on the other side of the river, we continue to celebrate their lives in and among us, and with God as part of the great cloud of witnesses. We break bread even today for them. We may leave the stones as a way of asking God to number them in God’s sling, or we may take the stones with us as a part of our personal memorial to place on a grave, or to hold in our sling.

Dedication of Memorial Gifts

Responsive hymn 3108 I’m Tradin’ My Sorrows