Into the River
Pastor Rick Danielson
Did you hear today’s story from Joshua? A river was cresting and overflowing its banks, but people crossed over and never got wet. I wasn’t here for the flood last September, but I’ve seen the evidence here in Boulder and other places. Driving back and forth to Rocky Mountain Park, I have been amazed and horrified by the broken houses and the tangled remains of dead trees strewn throughout Apple Valley along the St. Vrain River. Speaking of crossing over rivers, I actually did walk across the St. Vrain on one of my days off this past week, and I remained perfectly dry. I was wearing rubberized fishing waders supplied by Rev. Pete Terpenning during an attempt at fly fishing with him using a lure that was hand-tied by A.K. Best. Unfortunately, the fish were hiding somewhere else on Tuesday morning. It was a strange sensation, though, stepping from bank to bank and into the deeper places of the ice-crusted river while staying completely dry and surprisingly warm.
In pastoral leadership, it makes a big difference who the last settled pastor was. I’m deeply grateful to be following Pete, and I realize anything good that I may be able to bring to our church will succeed only because of the excellent foundation laid by Pete and also by those who preceded him. Joshua was just starting out in his leadership endeavors as today’s story unfolds. The crossing of the Jordan River follows immediately after the death of Moses and the passing of the leadership mantle to Joshua.
The river story is actually told twice here: the writer relates God’s announcement of exactly what is about to take place, and then repeats the whole thing as it happens, but with somewhat less detail.
The second telling is inspiring. The first is disturbing. Specifically, God explains how the various indigenous people groups inhabiting Canaan will be driven out. We know from reading ahead that this was far more than a relocation program and it involved much bloodshed as men, women, and children were systematically slaughtered. It’s hard not to see historic parallels in our own nation’s history. The relocated and decimated Native American tribes were also seen as enemies to be controlled and conquered. Genocide is never good, no matter where or when it happen. I have heard many attempts by preachers and teachers to explain away this brutality in the Hebrew Scriptures or to somehow justify the slaughter. I don’t have the stomach for doing that. The truth is that taking land and killing residents is an age-old practice that continues today in many places. It has always been wrong. My belief is that crediting God for Old Testament slaughter says more about the culture and about the thinkers and writers within that culture than it says about God.
But back to the story… There are some especially dramatic moments here. The ark which is said to contain the very presence of God is lifted by twelve men and carried across the river. As if seeing the gold-encrusted box was not remarkable enough, the moment the toes of those who bore it touched the water, the river stopped flowing. Everything downstream slipped away toward the Dead Sea. And all of the water upstream piled up. Do you have a picture of that in your head? Water piling up! When you stop to think about how much water would accumulate as thousands of people plodded across the river bed, it doesn’t make a lot of sense. But it is still an impressive image!
This isn’t the first time water parted for the Israelites. The Red Sea and the Jordan River are bookend events that mark the beginning and the end of the desert journey we know as the Exodus. Though almost no one who started the trip survived to enter Canaan, the story of the miraculous parting of the Red Sea must have been told by one generation to the next. As the Jordan water piled up in the air, I imagine there was a flash of recognition: “This is how God moves us from one piece of our life together to the next.” Slavery gave way to wandering which gave way to the land “flowing with milk and honey.” And water marked the entrance to each phase, though the Israelites never actually get wet. No matter how we look at it, they had been through a great deal, and it was good to be reminded now of God’s power as they faced new trials in a new land.
It’s not hard to confuse words like “Exodus” and “Exile.” The prefix “ex”, of course, means “out of”, and Israel was brought out of slavery in the Exodus. Many years later, after inhabiting the Promised Land for generations, the Exile took them out of their home and into a strange land in Babylon. No doubt, they reflected often while in exile on the Exodus and how God stuck with them in difficult times. It was during the Exile that much of Hebrew scripture was written. It was important for the Israelites to remember right then who they were; to hold up the heroes of their faith and to give thanks for the faithful acts of God on behalf of a not-always-very-faithful people.
Several years ago, after my mother passed away, my father produced a book that he titled “The Danielson Story.” It tells about my four grandparents who each made their way to America across the ocean from Norway. And it explains a bit about their own parents and grandparents, going as far back as can be known. Fishermen and sea captains and farmers fill the chapters of the book. Every time I pick it up and leaf through the pages, I’m amazed by what I read. I’m inspired by the adventures of young men and women and their children and their unceasing efforts to create a good life and to do good in the world. I learned in the book that I have Quaker ancestors, which perhaps inclines me toward peace-making and which I hope compensates for all the Viking blood that runs through my veins.
Most, if not all, of us here today have stories in our own family histories of ancestors who crossed oceans. Or maybe we came here ourselves, not on a wooden boat or a steamship but on a jet. Either way, that journey was a bit like crossing the Jordan in pursuit of something promised. We can look back and see how the dreams of others have created the possibilities that exist for us today.
All Saints Sunday is a time to remember heroes like Moses and Joshua and also those closer to our own experience and memory. We know that we are strongly influenced, whether by nature or nurture, by those who preceded us. Ralph Waldo Emerson put it this way, “In different hours, a person represents each of several different ancestors, as if there were seven or eight of them rolled up in that person’s skin—seven or eight ancestors at least, and they constitute the variety of notes for that new piece of music which his life is.” I love that, despite the mixed metaphors!
Emerson, who must have thought about these things a lot, also said, “The reverence for the deeds of our ancestors is a treacherous sentiment. Their merit was not to reverence the old, but to honor the present moment; and we falsely make them excuses of the very habit which they hated and defied.” People do that with Jesus all the time, of course. They turn him into a model of their own assumptions and values, forgetting his radical, defiant challenges to power and tradition. The same is true of many who went before us, even within our own families. The heroic figures from the past were almost always controversial in some way. It reminds me of the bumper sticker, “Well-behaved women seldom make history.” Remembering those who went before us is more than memorializing them. It is finding our own courage to step into the water and pursue a new way of living.
Communion is an act of remembering, and today we will let bread and wine remind us of Jesus who still leads us to strange places. Whether we get wet or not as we leave the familiar doesn’t really matter. What matters is saying yes and getting up and stepping forward.
Lighting candles is another way to remember, and you are invited to do so on your way to or from the front of the church as we celebrate the sacred meal. Those luminous persons who are no longer physically present with us compel us to give thanks and to follow their lead.
Very close to where today’s story took place, where the Jordan River flows by Jericho, is St. George’s Monastery. The sixth century structure hangs precariously off a high cliff and can only be accessed by climbing down into a deep valley and up a steep hill. The monastery was named after a desert-dwelling monk who lived shortly before the edifice was built. When I visited and entered the monastery chapel last year, I was a bit taken aback by a fully preserved and very well-dressed corpse displayed in a glass case. The body was surrounded by monuments to various saints and the skulls and bones of monks who were martyred during a Persian uprising. It was pretty impressive. The few monks who live in the monastery today keep the memory of those saints alive after almost fifteen hundred years.
All Saints is a good time to think about our own legacy. Who will keep our memory alive someday? As we give thanks and remember others, what is it that will be known about us when we, too, are among the company of saints? May our living and eventually our dying leave a rich legacy that will bind us to all those seekers and adventurers who went before us and to all who will still follow us in this life.