07 Nov Stone Testaments
Joshua 3:1-5, 3:14-4:7
November 4, 2018
Calvary Presbyterian Church
Have you ever been to a Jewish cemetery and noticed the headstone erected on the grave of a Jewish man or woman? Instead of flowers, you may have seen stones carefully placed on top or around the grave marker. Sometimes these stones will be lined up across the top, like the box cars of a train. One commemorative meaning of these stones is that they bind an individual person to the whole history of the people of Israel. They are “stone testaments” to the ongoing relationship between God and every son or daughter of Israel. If you saw the movie Schindler’s List, you know what I’m talking about.
In Joshua 4, the still-wandering Israelites face the final barrier that lies between them and the long-awaited Promised Land. This is no small bump in the road, however, for between the Hebrews and their new homeland stands yet another body of water, this time the daunting Jordan River. Like at the Red Sea, the question becomes, how can they possibly get everyone across? And, as has happened throughout their Exodus from Egypt and wilderness wanderings, God intervenes to help Israel surmount this latest obstacle in their path.
With the people assembled and ready on the shore, and under God’s specific instructions, the Levite priests carry the holy Ark of the Covenant right into the center of the river. At the touch of their feet, the Jordan’s waters halt their flow and stand back, creating dry ground downstream of the ark-bearing priests. As the priests continue to stand midstream, the entire nation of Israel crosses safely into the Promised Land.
To mark this miraculous crossing, God commands Joshua to choose one representative from each of the twelve tribes of Israel, and each of these twelve men are to select a stone from the dry riverbed over which they have just walked. These twelve stones, just ordinary river rocks, are carefully carried to the people’s first campsite inside the borders of their new homeland. There, at a place that will become known as Gilgal, which means, “Stone Circle,” the stones are set up.
It is in memory of these stone markers, stone testaments to God’s gifts of deliverance and the land, that graveside mourners still place a simple rock on the top of a deceased person’s grave. These solitary stones connect that one Jewish life to an entire history of a people. But it is up to each individual mourner to place a stone there, to keep the connection alive and unbroken.
This scene from Israel’s story invites us to reflect about the significant events in our lives and how we remember them. How well do you do at commem-orating those times in your life when you received deliverance or salvation? What are the ways you mark meaningful experiences of God’s presence, or grace, or guidance? For Israel, not all the significant moments of their salvation were pleasant to recall. Israel could not remember the Exodus without also recalling their lives as slaves. In bondage, they were homeless and suffered and died under the cruelty of their Egyptian taskmasters. Even after escaping from Egypt, they continued to wander in the wilderness for a generation before coming to this moment of entry into the Promised Land. But the difficulties themselves became testaments in their life and faith, erected in stone as eternal reminders of their covenant relationship with God and the promises God had made—and kept.
What is true for the Hebrews is also true for us. Not all the events that form us and shape our lives are pleasant ones. Pain and grief, suffering and sorrow are interwoven within our stories of freedom and redemption and that offers us the opportunity to ask: how can we transform the events in our lives that have shaken and shocked us? What are we to do with those times we have failed and fallen flat on our faces? What about the hurts and wounds we bear because of someone else’s betrayal or selfishness? What about the ones we have inflicted from our own betrayals and selfishness? Is it really possible for forgiveness and new life to rise from the ashes of our anger and resentments, and if so, how does that happen?
Sometimes we need to be reminded that freedom is a life-long journey that we live into, rather than a port-of-call we reach. Freedom, deliverance, redemp-tion—these don’t come all at once; they are the work of God in us as we move along the path God has given us. But, there are some things we can do to stay on the path. There are attitudes and habits we can cultivate to help us yield to and cooperate with God’s Spirit in this transformative work. Like our Hebrew ancestors, we can keep listening, listening for the voice of God in the myriad ways it comes to us. We can keep moving forward, even if it is just one small step at a time, taken with unsure, faltering feet, though we need to remember that often, to move forward we have to be willing to let go of the past. And, then, we can mark those times when we are aware of God at work in us. Instead of allowing the pains and difficulties and trials of life to hang on our hearts and souls like lead weights, we are invited to set them aside, allowing them to become stone testaments to God’s faithfulness along the journey.
Almost twenty-five years ago, on February 5, 1994, the Markale Market was jammed with Sarajevens. Hundreds of women, children and men came for their weekly outing in search of food and goods. Without warning, a 120 mm mortar shell hit the crowd, exploding in the middle of the open-air market, tearing heads and limbs from 68 people and spewing blood for yards around. The attack occurred just one block from the infamous May 1992 bread-line massacre, when twenty women and children were killed in another marketplace assault and just one day after ten people from the suburb of Dobrinja died from a Serbian-fired mortar shell while waiting for food.
Unwilling to accept the murder and mayhem of his anonymous brothers and sisters any longer, a cellist from the Sarajevo Symphony resolved to mark their memory in some way. He decided that each life lost in the latest shelling needed to be marked, so the day after the deadly bombing, he took his cello and a chair and quietly set them up in the heart of the bombed-out area of the shattered market-place, the site of so much cruelty and carnage.
Without saying a word, he played a short memorial concert, uninterrupted and unannounced, imparting into that scene of horror, the sounds of harmony and beauty. Instead of being only the place where 68 people had died, this cellist’s music transformed the marketplace into a place where 68 lives had lived. At the end of his concert, he picked up his chair and cello and faded into the crowd.
The next day, in the same place, at the same time, the cellist returned with chair and instrument. Again, he played a short concert, uninterrupted and unannounced, and again, he left as silently and without fanfare as he had come. He continued erecting this musical testament until he had played a memorial concert for each of the 68 victims. In doing so, he commemorated their living, not just their dying, bringing dignity and honor to their families, doing what he could to put their souls to rest in love instead of hate.
I don’t know what the bombed-out areas of your life are. I don’t know the places where you hide in fear or insecurity, afraid to be known, convinced you are inadequate, unlovable. I don’t know what is keeping you from receiving all that God is offering you, from being all that God wants you to be, has created you in love to be. I do know that unless and until we open our wounds and look at them, unless and until we get really honest about who and what we are, unless and until we open our lives to the light, we block the Spirit from working in us and we prevent God’s life-transforming love from doing its work in us.
The remainder of this service is designed to allow you the opportunity to reflect on your own life and faith and to mark it in some way. The offertory, the confession, Communion, and honoring the saints who have joined the Church Triumphant—at any point in our worship, I encourage you to listen and then to respond to the Spirit of God in whatever way you feel led. If you need to come to the steps here in the front to pray, do that. If you want to get up and place your stone somewhere in the sanctuary, as a marker, do that. If you need to lay down your stone on the communion table, releasing something you’ve been holding on to that’s been holding you back, so that you can receive the body and blood of Christ is new and cleansing way, do that. That’s why the communion table has been placed on the floor and the servers will be in the corner. If you want to take your stone home, as a reminder to you of God’s faithfulness in delivering you across some rough waters, do that. In fact, we have extra stones at the back, if you want to leave one here but take one with you as a reminder. This is a time and a space to listen and to respond to God’s Spirit, and I invite you to begin by entering a time of silent prayer.