I grew up in steel and coal country. Steel mills lined the upper Ohio Valley and strip mines cut into the surrounding mountains.
My friends and I would often use the strip mines as trails to ride our motorcycles and we would swim in the lakes that formed throughout the old mines (which was a pretty bad idea, as they were full of leeches and snapping turtles).
On a couple of occasions, as we hiked through the mines and the surrounding woods, we found piles of old tombstones, cast aside by the mining companies as they cut through old homesteads, farms, and long-forgotten communities. Sadly, instead of treating the old cemeteries with the respect they deserved (and that the law required), the coal companies would simply toss the stones into a pile, assuming that no one would ever know, demonstrating a harsh and uncaring attitude toward the memorials of human lives. It was a jolt to find those piles of tombstones, carelessly tossed aside, and to think of the lives they represented. Those stones represented real people; people who were important to and loved by others.
All of us want to be remembered. The drive to remember – and be remembered – is a powerful force among humanity. Pictures, songs, anniversaries – and other practices and material objects – carry powerful meanings to us because of the events with which they are associated, helping us to remember the people and experiences that have been so important in our lives.
This morning we return to the Old Testament, to a story that tells us of when Joshua prepared to lead the Hebrew people across the Jordan River and into the Promised Land. This was a momentous occasion. After centuries of bondage in Egypt and a generation wandering in the wilderness now the people had arrived at the moment which would fulfill the promise of which they had long been told. After centuries of bondage in Egypt, a generation of wandering in the wilderness, the Hebrew people had arrived at their long promised destination.
The instructions were that the priests carrying the Ark of the Covenant should step into the Jordan River and when they did, the water would stop flowing and the people could cross on dry land. After crossing the river, Joshua instructed that one person representing each of the twelve tribes go back down into the river and pick up a stone. The stones were piled together on the bank of the river, as a memorial that God had fulfilled his promise. The stones would remain there at the banks of the Jordan River as a permanent reminder of what God has accomplished for them.
Listen to a portion of that story, from the book of Joshua –
1 When the whole nation had finished crossing the Jordan, the Lord said to Joshua,
2 “Choose twelve men from among the people, one from each tribe,
3 and tell them to take up twelve stones from the middle of the Jordan, from right where the priests are standing, and carry them over with you and put them down at the place where you stay tonight.”
4 So Joshua called together the twelve men he had appointed from the Israelites, one from each tribe,
5 and said to them, “Go over before the ark of the Lord your God into the middle of the Jordan. Each of you is to take up a stone on his shoulder, according to the number of the tribes of the Israelites,
6 to serve as a sign among you. In the future, when your children ask you, ‘What do these stones mean?’
7 tell them that the flow of the Jordan was cut off before the ark of the covenant of the Lord. When it crossed the Jordan, the waters of the Jordan were cut off. These stones are to be a memorial to the people of Israel forever.”
8 So the Israelites did as Joshua commanded them. They took twelve stones from the middle of the Jordan, according to the number of the tribes of the Israelites, as the Lord had told Joshua; and they carried them over with them to their camp, where they put them down.
9 Joshua set up the twelve stones that had been in the middle of the Jordan at the spot where the priests who carried the ark of the covenant had stood. And they are there to this day.
Each of us has a collection of “stones” in our lives. Each of those “stones” is representative of experiences and promises that God has given to us. I want us to consider several of those “stones” this morning (but don’t worry; I’m not going to have a point for all twelve stones).
My grandmother, my father’s mother, was the keeper of our family’s stories and information. I can still hear her in my mind as she told us on numerous occasions that one of us needed to write down the stories she told about our relatives and our family history. We would ask Grandma, why don’t you write them down? Her reply was always the same – my job is to tell the stories, not write them down. One of you needs to write them down. How I wish we had done what she said, and written down what she told us about who we are as a family.
On several occasions, as I prepared a funeral message, families have allowed me to read through the writings of their loved one, and it is very moving to read their recounting of family stories and important events.
It is certainly no accident that so much of the Bible is comprised of stores and much of the teaching of Jesus was delivered through the vehicle of stories. I use stories in my messages not to fill up time, but because that is how truths and lessons are instilled into our souls. I don’t mind that people remember the stories I tell more than they remember the other content of my messages; that’s just how we are as people – stories communicate powerfully to us.
Stories remind us that we are an historical people, but we don’t always think about how we are shaped by the past and the lessons of the past. We are a continuation of the past, and by the past I mean not just a few years, or a few decades, or a generation; I mean centuries and millennia of faith tradition. We are a part of two thousand years of church history, and part of an even longer tradition of faith through our connection to the patriarchs and people of the Old Testament. We don’t just read of Abraham, but we become a part of Abraham’s story, and the same is true of other great characters in Biblical and faith history. We’re not to be prisoners of the past, but the past matters far more than we often give credit.
The ancient Hebrews were always reminded of the importance of remembering. They were told on more than one occasion to build a reminder of what God had done for them. Even to our day and time, at the Passover meal, the youngest in attendance will ask the purpose of what is done and the story of God’s deliverance of his people out of Egypt is retold, so they will never forget.
We can have remarkably short memories, and we must not forget what God has done for us. It is by looking to the past that we find strength, hope, and faith for the future.
When the Hebrew people crossed the Jordan River, God held back the water so that they might cross. The water, however, did not stop flowing until the priests carrying the Ark of the Covenant stepped into the water (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 – Joshua 3:13). It is important to note that the water did not stop flowing until the feet of the priests stepped into the river. I wonder what it was like for the priests as they considered that step into the water. Did they have any doubt and did they worry about what might happen when their feet touched the water? Taking that literal step of faith can be both difficult and frightening, but their faith was rewarded by God’s promise. One of the foundational lessons of faith is that we must take the step that is based upon a promise of what has yet to be seen. We are stepping into the unknown, and as we lift our foot to take that step we are placing our trust in the promise of God that when our foot comes down he will keep his promise.
Faith is questioned with increasing veracity in today’s world. Skeptics have drawn a line in the sand that claims any doubt is evidence of faith’s weakness and doubts triumph. This is, simply put, not at all true. The healthiest faith is one that can exist with doubt. A mature faith is one that is not afraid of questions and uncertainties, but is able to live simultaneously with them. It is a sign of strength, not weakness, to question and even to doubt. Many of the great Biblical characters, and many of the most important characters of church history had their share of doubts and questions, and those doubts and questions led not to a weaker faith, but to a faith that was much stronger.
One of the reasons we look to the past is to be reminded of the faithfulness of God in the past, and from that affirmation comes the promise of his faithfulness in the present and the future.
At our Scripture text takes place around water, I’ll share with you a story about an encounter of mine with water. When I was younger I really liked to play hockey (I know I don’t look like a hockey player – I’ve got my front teeth). In the West Virginia winters we had plenty of frozen pond and lakes on which to play hockey, and one of our favorite places was just off of Cross Creek, which flowed into the Ohio River. Just before Cross Creek connected with the Ohio River there was a several acre area of water that was perfect for hockey, not only because it was so large, but also because it was only about three or four feet deep.
There are two very important rules about ice skating, if you are skating outside. First, never skate over moving water. Some of my friends would skate on frozen creeks, which I always avoided. If the ice breaks and you go under, the current of the water will carry you quickly away from the hole in the ice and tragedy is certain. But an even more important rule is this – never skate alone.
One day my friend Steve and I arrived at the location on Cross Creek a while before anyone else. We decided to get there early and warm up for a game of hockey that afternoon. As we hit the puck back and forth, it eventually slid to a section of the ice we knew was thin. I decided that I would skate over that ice and retrieve the puck, thinking that if I had enough speed and momentum I could glide across the ice without any danger of falling through into the water below.
It was only a few degrees above zero that day. Bitter cold weather is certainly not a good time to skate across thin ice, and as I glided across the ice my momentum began to fade and I could hear the ice beginning to crack below my skates. When I pushed with one foot to try and increase my speed, the ice gave way and I fell into the frigid water. Thankfully, the depth of the water was not above my head – it was about four feet deep – but my momentum carried me forward and I plunged completely below the water. I can still remember the feeling of that frigid water. It was so cold it literally hurt. The water temperature, coupled with the air temperature, took my breath away and quickly sapped my strength. As I tried to climb back on top of the ice it continued to break beneath my weight, and each time it broke I would plunge underneath the frigid water. I don’t know how many times the ice broke beneath my weight, but I remember how quickly I was exhausted by trying to get out of the water and how rapidly I developed a sense of resignation about my ability to escape that frigid water. Thankfully, I wasn’t alone. Steve was able to get a piece of rope from the car, slide it across the ice, and pull me to safety. What if I had been alone? It could have been disastrous.
Steve and I haven’t seen each other in a lot of years, but I keep up with him through my mom. It’s sad to me that some people are in our lives for just a period of time – sometimes a very short period of time – but they occupy an important place in our lives, nonetheless. Steve, and many others, have been very important in my life, even if for just a time.
Remember the people with whom God has graced your life. The people with whom we walk through life are profoundly important to us, and that certainly includes the people in this congregation. Look around you, at the people seated near you, the people God has placed in your path; look around at this church, a place where your children and grandchildren are loved and taught, where they are baptized and buried; look around at the place where are loved ones are bid their earthly farewell. Sometimes, this can be treated as just another commodity, just another service, as we ask what’s it going to do for me, or to be a part of such a body in times only of convenience and agreement.
God has created us to live in relationships, and we need those relationships to get through life. Life can be very difficult, and our relationships carry us through life, as God gifts us with people who will celebrate with us and mourn with us.
From my vantage point as a minister I am very aware of this truth – there is a lot of grief occupying people’s lives. And I don’t mean to limit grief only to the loss of loved ones, but grief encompasses all manner of difficulty. In fact, you don’t have to scratch very deeply into anyone’s life before you find grief that is ready to pour out. If that grief is not managed in a constructive way it will come out in destructive ways. I truly believe that one of the greatest gifts given to us by God are the people with whom we are in a relationship, as they help us to carry burdens, celebrate our joys, and will walk with us through our difficulties.
Imagine when the Hebrew people crossed the Jordan River that day, and as they piled those stones one on top of the other, how they must have thought about the journey they had managed because of their faith in God, and also because of the strength that came from their relationships.
What do these stones mean? They mean that we must remember these gifts of God.