Joshua 1:1-11; John 7:37-39
How do we create community in a world that seems bent on distrust and division? Where do we find the courage to cross over the gaps that separate us from one another and from our neighbors here in the St. Cloud region and beyond?
This past week I was reminded by two novelists just how challenging it is to create healthy community in our world. The first novelist is Barbara Kingsolver best known for her book entitled The Poisonwood Bible. She followed that best-seller with the novel Pigs in Heaven which I was re-reading on our recent flight home from Norway. I was especially attentive when in the book one of the main characters, a woman by the name of Alice, makes interesting observations about the behavior of people on an airplane on which she was a traveler.
Coming from a small town, Alice notes that she can’t remember a time when she “was ever around so many people at one time that she didn’t know.” Alice, who ‘flattered herself in knowing how to get a conversation going” repeatedly tries to connect with the woman seated next to her. Alice gets her final chance when the plane descends under the clouds and reveals the Mississippi River and the city of St. Louis far below, it passes directly over the largest cemetery Alice has ever seen. Her neighbor, hunched over in the window seat, has spent the entire flight in silence, but now remarks: “Well, that’s some welcome!” In response, Alice does her best to keep a conversation going, but it is clear that her effort is in vain when her neighbor snaps the window shut and closes her eyes. Alice next reaches across the aisle and offers a peppermint Lifesaver to the man across from her. As the author continues …”but it’s the same story over there, he barely shakes his head. They are a planeload of people ignoring each other. Alice has spent her life in small towns and is new to this form of politeness, in which people sit for all practical purposes on top of one another in a public place and behave like upholstery.”
In a similar fashion, the second novelist I came across this past week, Sinclair Lewis, reminds us of the challenges of creating healthy community even in the days when the majority of Americans lived in small towns and knew their neighbors. As one commentator put it about the author’s famous book Main Street, based on his childhood in Sauk Centre, Minnesota, “Lewis’ novel pointed out both the good and bad aspects of small-town life. The nice side of small towns is people know who you are, they’ll come to your aid. The bad side is people know your business, and they can be very judgmental-especially if you come from out of town and you’re not one of the people who was born there.”
So how do we create healthy community where we have the courage and commitment to deepen in trusting, caring relationships without the judgment and prejudice associated with small communities?
Our two Scripture lessons today provide guidance for us as we go about this work of creating healthy communities. It is helpful to note how these Scriptures are connected to one another if we are to understand how they connect to us today. In both Scripture lessons there is one underlying theme: God is about the work of creating community in bold, new ways!
As we were reminded last Sunday, the history of the Hebrew people was one of oppression as they labored as slaves in the nation of Egypt. Clearly this was not a healthy community as the wealthy and powerful families of the Pharaoh and his associates dominated and exploited the workers and kept their families living on the edge. Despite being born into a Hebrew slave family, Moses had actually been raised as a member of the elite – adopted as a baby by Pharaoh’s own daughter. Moses had enjoyed a life of privilege and could have continued living in the courts and mansions of the Pharaoh. But, to make a long story short, Moses recognized the suffering of his own Hebrew people and, although somewhat reluctantly, accepted God’s call to lead his people out of their oppression. The idea was that God would use Moses as the leader to create a new community of freedom and justice for these former slaves. So, as we recounted in the story of the Exodus last Sunday, Moses led his people out of Egypt and courageously they crossed through the Red Sea to make their way to the Promised Land.
And then in our Scripture reading this morning we were reminded of another adventure in which Joshua, the successor to Moses, is instructed by God to prepare the people to cross over the Jordan River and enter the land of promise. In both of these stories crossing over or through water is a key to overcoming fear and trusting more fully in God. The water represented both a challenge and an opportunity – and it took courage to face the challenge and to cross over toward the new opportunity.
In the case of Joshua, the courage he needed began with accepting his own role as a leader. Unlike Moses, Joshua had not been raised in a home of privilege, wealth and power. According to the Bible, Joshua had been born in Egypt before the Exodus, experiencing childhood in the home of oppressed slaves. Years later, sometime during the journey to the Promised Land, Joshua had become an assistant to Moses. Joseph was in awe of Moses. Along with his family and most of the other Hebrew people, Joshua looked up to Moses as the one leader who God had chosen to free them from bondage in Egypt, bring them safely to the land of promise and oversee the creation of their new community. When Moses died there was a crisis of confidence both for the people in general and for Joshua in particular. Having been raised in a slave family, Joshua did not feel confident to take on the leadership role that Moses alone had carried. In addition, many of the people questioned whether Joshua was the right person to lead them and some even questioned whether the journey to the Promised Land should continue at all.
When we read the full story in the book of Joshua, we discover why many of the Hebrew people doubted that crossing the Jordan River was such a good idea. Before the death of Moses, upon the advice of his tribal leaders, Moses had sent twelve spies across the Jordan to check out the opposition on the other side. Ten out of twelve of these spies came back with some good news and some very bad news. The good news was that the land was rich and good for produce. The very bad news was that the opposition was stronger and taller than the Hebrew people and their cities were impenetrable – as the spies put it the cities had fortifications “up to the heavens!” This report of the ten spies concluded that God must have brought them from Egypt to cross the river Jordan and be handed over to their new opposition to be destroyed!
With this background, it is not surprising that when Moses died, his successor, Joshua needed re-assurance from God that the river adventure would indeed be an opportunity for something good and not a disaster waiting to happen! And so God promised Joshua that just as God had been with Moses in leading the people out of Egypt and across the Red Sea so God would be with Joshua in crossing over the River Jordan and entering the Promised Land. Three times in the eleven verses we read from the book of Joshua, God tells Joshua to be strong and courageous and promises Joshua that God would be with him and not fail him or forsake him.
It is this same lesson which Jesus teaches his followers as they face the transition of life without their leader, Jesus. But in this gospel story, the image of the river takes a different shape as Jesus promises his followers that rivers of living water will flow out of their hearts. In this way, the adventure on the river takes a new spin as Jesus promises the gift of the life-giving power of God’s Spirit to flow within each person who puts their trust in God. This is a radical change in the history God’s people and not an easy change for those first disciples of Jesus to grasp. No longer would there be one powerful leader like Moses or Joshua or Jesus who would be anointed by God’s Spirit to inspire and unite God’s people in faith, calm their fears and lead them forward. Instead, Jesus taught his followers that each of them was to be equally anointed with God’s Spirit. Jesus promised that this same Spirit would empower his followers to develop and share their unique gifts, to serve and encourage one another and to courageously reach out and create a growing community of faith together.
As God’s people of faith today, we are the beneficiaries of that promise and we are partners on this adventure of spreading God’s love and peace and justice in our world. Seeing God’s Spirit at work through one another is to me the most exciting part of being in this church! Yes, there are times when my own personal fears and doubts lead me to wish that God just would swoop down and make everything in this world better or raise up a new Moses or Joshua to lead us to the Promised Land. But, then I am reminded how God is at work right here through each of us as we courageously open our hearts to God and to one another in faith and see God’s Spirit flowing out in creative and life-giving ways.
I was reminded of this last Monday evening as members and spouses of our church’s Social Justice Team joined together for a fun night of food and fellowship. It was not a business meeting, but as one of the spouses pointed out, it was a joyous celebration of all the ways God had been at work through each member of the team in the past year: tutoring children at Promise Neighborhood, helping out at our monthly community meal, creating new partnerships across the state for the work of caring for God’s creation, improving relations between our local police department and our increasingly diverse community, working with other people of faith in GRIP/ISAIAH for more affordable housing, healthcare and childcare. These are just a few examples of the countless ways not only our Social Justice Team but so many of you act in courage to cross over the gaps in our community in order to help all God’s children have the opportunity to thrive. While others in our world today, even other Christians, live out of fear, I am so thankful for the courage and commitment you people have to reach out, to share your gifts to not only make a difference in this world but to truly help make a different world.
It is this kind of courage to cross over that helps us avoid judgment and prejudice toward others: for when we open our hearts to God’s Spirit to flow through us and cross over the gaps that tend to divide us, we recognize that same Spirit present in those with whom we join in community building. Rather than doing for others, we do with others – making friends out of strangers, listening to one another’s stories, developing new relationships, learning from one another and seeing how each person is created in God’s image and gifted by God’s Spirit. So may we continue in courage to cross over and build a healthy community where all people are affirmed and loved as children of God together! Amen!