March 31, 2019
Fourth Sunday in Lent, Pastor Lois Pallmeyer
We are pilgrims on a journey to new life[i].
We’ve been opening our Wednesday evening Lenten worship services with this line, reminding us of our pilgrimage and praising God for rest. We could all probably describe some journey we’re on, some way in which we see ourselves as pilgrims moving from one stage of life to another. Maybe we’re preparing for graduation and a new start. Maybe we’re cleaning out a spare closet, whether a literal closet, or a metaphorical cache of unneeded baggage. Maybe we’re leaving a career, or adjusting to a new diagnosis or health challenge.
We are all on a journey, on a pathway toward a new life. The season of Lent carries us through a springtime renewal, a journey from baptismal waters into a deeper relationship with God, and ultimately on a journey from death into life.
The people of Israel were pilgrims on a journey to new life. Camped there on the edge of the Jordan River, they were moving from their days of wandering in the wilderness, into the land of promise and hope. We often overlook this little passage from the book of Joshua[ii], but it helps us bridge the story of the exodus, of God’s rescue of the people of Israel from slavery and abuse, to the entrance into the promised land.
There are several signs in the story that God is about to do a new thing for the people. Just before this section is an awkward description of a community-wide circumcision ceremony. For the last 40 years in the wilderness, the males of the tribe had not been circumcised, so they were ordered to take care of that before entering the new land. A pile of the discarded skins was left just outside the camp[iii]. (Interesting detail to have left out of the lectionary readings for the day!)
As we pick up the story in our reading, we hear that God has rolled away the disgrace of the community’s past. God wraps up the shame of having lived as slaves, dismisses their complaints about having left behind a more favorable life, sets aside their rebellion and doubts in the wilderness, and ushers them into a new life. God is no longer concerned with their past, but is offering them a new start.
We see that they have a new leader now, too. As if to underline the fact that they are no longer a wandering people moving from slavery through the wilderness, God replaces Moses with Joshua, who will lead the people into the land of promise.
And while the time in the wilderness was marked with eating manna, a dusty, daily reminder that they were without home and without land, today the people eat the first food of new life – produce harvested from the land of Canaan, a meal of the future.
Did you catch the awkward part of that detail, though? They have harvested grain and cakes from the new land, but it doesn’t seem as if they were the ones who planted them. They’re eating Canaanite food. It’s as if God is making it very obvious to the people that their new life will be a journey into community with strangers; that they will have to depend on neighbors to survive in their new home.
Of course, if we’ve heard the rest of the story, we know how that goes. Rather than learn to depend upon the help and support of their new neighbors, God’s people feel empowered to wipe them out. Jericho’s walls fall down, and the people of God work to annihilate those who lived in the promised land.
But at least for this brief moment, before that part of the story unfolds, we see God’s people with an amazing opportunity, a gift of a new start. With their past shames and disgrace rolled away, with a new leader and a new home, they are allowed to taste a meal of hope and community, sharing their resources, accepting the grace of strangers, and moving into life. That’s what brings us to why we read this often overlooked little story this morning.
Our other text, the parable Jesus tells of the two sons and the indulgent father[iv], is much more familiar to us. Every time we hear the story we identify with a different one of the characters. Sometimes we’re the one longing to welcome the lost; sometimes we’re the lost one, longing to be welcomed. Often we’re the one standing by, finding it all so unfair and nonsensical.
This story has its own awkwardness. We know has happened in the past – the wasteful impudence of the younger brother, and we worry will happen in the future – the resentment and troubles that will face a family trying to reconcile. But God invites us to look at just this present moment, with an invitation to a meal of hope and community, and a celebration of new life.
The father rolls away the disgrace of the younger son’s past, no longer holding his rebellion and offensiveness against him, and welcomes him in to the love of the family again. And though he may not appreciate it, the father rolls away the older son’s past, too, rolls back his self-righteousness, his resentment, his anger, and reminds him that everything the younger son now receives has been his all along.
The party is for both sons, a celebration of the new life they can share together. The old ways of calculating worth and value and eligibility are cut off and cast aside, and a new way of sharing life and abundance is being offered. In this new life, both sons recognize that all they enjoy is their father’s in the first place. Finally this isn’t about whether either son deserves to have a celebration thrown for him, it’s about the father’s absolute delight in welcoming both of them home in love.
Using language from our own experience, both of these stories have a lot to say about privilege. It’s awkward for us to acknowledge that part, too. Do we deserve the land we’ve inherited, the welcome we’ve received, the advantages we’ve enjoyed? Or have we benefited from an unjust bias in the first place? Are we the owners of that which we possess because of some inherent right, or because we’ve claimed it while disregarding others around us? Is the bounty we’re enjoying actually a gift to us and to all? And is there a way we could be invited to share it with others?
What if God is leading us into a new life in which we are invited to share our resources, accept the gifts of strangers, and recognize our neighbors as friends and siblings of the same family?
What old traditions or excuses is God asking us to cut away and leave on a heap in the wilderness? What tired recipes and methods will no longer be needed as we enter a new land? What shame, or failures, or past injuries is God rolling away so that we no longer have to punish ourselves with them? What grief or disgrace no longer need define us? Where is God inviting us into a new life?
On Thursday, two men were freed after having spent 42 years in a Florida prison. Years ago another man had confessed to the crime they had been charged with. This week, a judge determined there was insufficient evidence for their conviction.
Nathan Myers was 18 years old when he was convicted, and is now 61. As he walked out of the prison, he stooped down to kiss the ground[v]. Turning toward his new life, Myers said, “Right now I feel blessed, you know, because I feel among friends.
“I’m not bitter for what happened to me because the Lord Jesus Christ made me to be a man[vi].” “But I am looking ahead and will focus on enjoying my freedom with my family[vii].” Nathan Myers and his uncle have been brought from death to life, and are ready to celebrate.
We are pilgrims on a journey to new life. We’re halfway through out Lenten journey. God is reminding us that our journey leads to life, too, a new beginning, a new start at being human and being part of the human family.
We may have to acknowledge that the harvest we are eating is not grain we planted. We may have to realize that the homecoming we receive is not deserved. We may have to notice that others share this gift with us, and that God wasn’t asking for our approval of their invitation.
But regardless, we don’t have to wait until Easter for death to be rolled away. The new life to which God leads us begins today, with a feast, a harvest of new foods. We taste it here, already, at this table. It begins in just this present moment, without concern for the future, or baggage from the past. It begins without the shame of our prejudice, or the awkwardness of our privilege, without the injuries of our oppressors, or the pride of our self-righteousness, or the worries of our insecurities.
God is right now ushering us into the celebration. What are we waiting for?
[i] Paul Friesen-Carper, A Setting of Evening Prayer, written for the Holden Village Winter Community, 2006.
[ii] Joshua 5:9-12.
[iii] See Joshua 5:2-8.
[iv] Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32.