Rev. Diane K. Hooge
Within three months of my moving to Eugene from Minnesota, my Dad, a long-time resident of Eugene, passed away. As many of you have experienced, not only was I dealing with all the details that death brings, but as the oldest child, designated as his personal representative, I had the responsibility of carrying out his wishes along with sifting and sorting through 87 years of life memories tucked away in closets and drawers.
One of the most challenging tasks was going through boxes of old family photos. As I would study them I would remember stories—not always a complete story—sometimes only a snippet of a story. One picture stands out in my mind—it is a four generation picture taken of the women of the family in the front yard of my Grandparents ranch in Lancaster, California. I’m 9, wearing a silver charm bracelet that my younger brother had found digging in the sand on a trip to the beach. Along with that memory came an emotional response to each woman in the picture, my mother, grandmother and great-grandmother…all physically gone from my life, but in the mystery of life still a part of my life. In the background is an old pick-up truck. I immediately experienced a flash back. I could recall the smell of ancient leather which dovetailed into the memory of the feel of the cotton stuffing inching its way up between the tears in the leather seat. I could hear the sound of the ragged shifting of the gears and the smell of my Granddad’s camel cigarettes, as he drove around dropping off bales of hay for various animals on the ranch.
What we are given by the writer of the book of Joshua is a collage of material from various sources that offer us snippets of history and memories that are welded together like a collage. The result is often a little rough, but like any oral tradition, we’re invited into the story. It’s part of our faith album. Like any picture album, we are offered a tool to review the shifting patterns of our lives. The book of Joshua specializes in the theme of transition.
In order to more fully appreciate today’s lesson, we need to back up a bit and review what has taken place. The last chapter in the book of Deuteronomy brings closure to the leadership of Moses. We are given a final image of him standing on Mount Pisgah viewing the Promised Land with all the emotion that must have been there after having led a raggedy band of slaves out of Egypt through a 40 year rebuilding in the desert. It was the rawness of the wilderness experience that became the setting to help train, guide and empower the people in preparation for their entry into the Promised Land. At the age of 120, he stood on the mountain and took in the site of Canaan. Scripture tells us that shortly after the viewing, he died and was buried in the land of Moab and the Israelites entered a 30 day period of mourning.
But before his retirement, Moses had turned over the leadership role to Joshua, who had been in training for years. Joshua had been recruited to be Moses’ personal attendant. He was present when Moses had received the law. He was one of the twelve men who had been assigned by Moses to spy out the land of Canaan in anticipation of their entry. The report to Moses had been a good news bad news report. The good news was that the land was rich and bountiful. The bad news was that the spies had felt like grasshoppers next to the people who appeared to be giants. The majority report said “Don’t go—we’ll pay too big a price.” Joshua and Caleb submitted the minority report, they urged the people to trust God and make the crossing into the new land.
What we have in the Hebrew Scriptures is the modeling of stories that are simultaneously rooted in history and eternity. The importance of Joshua’s story is his courage, vision and clarity that enabled him to be grounded in such a way that he was used by God to inaugurate a new style of leadership.
When I have sat with people who have been going through major transitions in their lives, I remind them to be patient with themselves because the path is not going to feel comfortable because it isn’t worn…it hasn’t been traveled…it’s not familiar. And, there will be times when they will be tempted to go back to old patterns, not because they are necessarily good for them, but because they are familiar.
The gift that Joshua offered the Israelites was his ability to create ritual that allowed them to remember their history while they claimed the power of God and the promise of God to be with them as they entered into the transition to a new land.
On the day of the procession to Canaan, the Ark of the Covenant, which held the most sacred objects in Israel’s inventory, was carried by the priests and led the way to the Jordan River. There is a trickster element in the first part of the story— as the Israelites came to the Jordan they discovered that it was at its flood stage. If we place ourselves into the story, we can recognize that it must have been overwhelmingly discouraging for both leader and people as they encountered such a formidable barrier.
40 years of living in the desert.
40 years of listening to grumbling and loss of hope about not getting to the NEW land.
40 years of dreaming, thinking and visualizing the future.
For three days they camped while their version of the Board of Directors went in and out of meetings. I suspect that on the agenda was whether or not they could trust their new leader. What was his plan of action? What would Moses have done? Maybe Joshua is just too inexperienced. And, I suspect that there had to have been somebody who felt they should forget trying to cross to the new land and just settle down in the desert. After all, “it’s familiar and we know how to live in the desert.”
On the third day, Joshua announced the plan. They were to take the time to be spiritually connected with God as a preparation for the crossing. To do spiritual work, one has to learn how to carve out time, time to center and ground oneself, time to listen to Spirit.
Joshua then gave the instructions as to the proper distance that was needed between the priests carrying the Ark and the folks following. The leap of faith took place as the priests stepped into the water, and we are told that the waters backed up.
All twelve tribes were to send a representative to take up a stone form where the priests stood and take those stones to the site that Joshua designated in order that they could be formed into a monument to God. It was a testimony to God’s power in their lives. The monument symbolized the fact that their present situation was built on the past faithfulness of God. And every leadership representative played out their role symbolizing their unity in God.
As always we are invited into the story. It’s been my experience that transitions are often part of wilderness stories. We have all been through them, the loss of a loved one, the loss of a job, the loss of a partner, divorce, the loss of a beloved pastor, the journey through a medical diagnosis that has sent some of us into the wilderness. As a nation, the events of 9/11 sent us into a new way of living. The Tsunami changed thousands of lives. The lack of snow pack and rainfall is changing how we farm and garden. And, we understand the need for those times in our lives when we pause, and thank God for God’s faithfulness in taking us through. And sometimes we’re not ready to offer thanksgiving until much later in life.
This church has a profound history of having made some incredible crossings. If we were to pile up stones of remembrance in gratitude to God, I suspect that one of the key stories offered would be the crossing that this community made in 2002. Membership had dwindled. The building was in sad shape. The roof sagged, the back wall bowed out. The ceiling held the history of leaks and the single pane windows meant that coats were often the norm attire on Sunday mornings. In partnership with the Central Pacific denominational Conference, this community stepped out in faith and set up a Capitol Fund Exploration Committee. For a year the committee discussed building plans, budgets, funding ideas and time lines. The leap of faith took place as the congregation of 55 people was asked to raise $250,000 in four months to start construction in the spring of 2004. In the midst of this enormous crossing Pastor Caren Caldwell resigned. By the end of 2004, this church had no building, no pastor, no secretary, and no keyboardist. However, this did not deter the commitment to essentially navigate towards the call of God to a new land: a new church beginning.
Becky Martin and her committee along with Brad Roupp, who gave the enormous gift of working as the General Contractor, along with the congregation stepped out in a huge leap of faith. For six months this community experienced their own wandering in the wilderness; worshiping with various other faith communities. Even when the new Interim Pastor arrived, he joined the wandering congregation as they worshiped with other churches, as they waited to reenter their newly remodeled home. This reconstructed building was dedicated in March, 2005. What a significant stone of remembrance.
You hold a rich heritage. You hold powerful stones of remembrance. God’s call upon Rev. Pamela Shepherd was in response to the yearlong search of this community under the guidance of God’s Spirit to find the right pastoral match. And, it’s in this piece of the story that so many of you have your roots. However, it’s the leaps of faith in the 126 year history of this congregation that is important to remember. God’s faithfulness is woven through so many generations and historic crossings of this congregation.
If you were to come forward and offer a stone remembrance, what would your stone represent? Being touched by a Taize service? Seeing the Church’s welcoming banner in the Gay Pride Parade? Being a part of the Men’s group? Experiencing God’s presence in worship? Your relationship with Pam Shepherd? Support through an AA meeting?
Today we have pledged our commitment to being in partnership as we walk through this transition period in the life of this congregation. We are opening ourselves to doing the inner work that comes with making a crossing – a transition. What is God’s invitation to you and to this community of faith at this stage of the journey? And, where in your life is God inviting you to make a crossing? Where are you being nudged to take a leap of faith? Today we celebrate God’s faithfulness in our own individual lives as well as the life of Ashland First Congregational United Church of Christ.
The stories of remembrance are being carried as reminders of God’s faithfulness as a new segment of the journey is both embraced and lived into. As we both take on new crossings. Let us never forget that we serve a God who has promised to never leave us or forsake us. Amen.