Sunday, October 30, 2011

Entering the Promised Land: A Sermon on Joshua 3:7-17

Many years ago, when I lived in Atlanta, I would occasionally attend Shabbat services at Congregation Bet Haverim, the glbt synagogue affiliated with the Reconstructionist movement. They met in the parish hall of an Episcopal church that I attended for two years. One Friday night, I had the great privilege of being present for the dedication of their Torah scroll. The student rabbi leading services, Rabbi Sharon Kleinbaum, later became the rabbi of Congregation Bet Simchat Torah, the glbt synagogue in New York City. She had us put our chairs in two long rows facing each other, and hold out our hands, and unrolled the Torah scrolls on our outstretched arms. She made a joke about no one getting out the correction fluid for the “clobber passage” on homosexuality. The passage in front of me was the one giving the laws of Yom Kippur.

The sermon she preached that night was one of the best and most memorable sermons I’ve ever heard. She mentioned that, while most of the Torah dealt with the journey of the Israelites toward the Promised Land, they never reached it within the Five Books. Even Moses, the greatest prophet of the Jewish people, was not allowed to enter, but had to see it from afar before dying and being buried. She compared that to our spiritual lives, during which we are always “on the way” toward the fullness of the presence of God, and of living in perfect harmony with our neighbors – yet we never reach that destination in this life, although it is to be hoped that we are moving closer to that destination.

I believe that this insight is valid for us as Christians as well. We will never reach the place where we are constantly “practicing the presence of God”, to use the phrase used by the Carmelite lay brother and spiritual master Brother Lawrence, who famously said that he was as conscious of the presence of God while washing dishes as he was on his knees in the chapel before the Blessed Sacrament. We may have glimpses, we may even have extended periods of this, yet we never reach the point where this is our reality twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week.

And we never reach the point where our whole lives are lived in perfect charity with our neighbors, live lived in full witness to peace and justice. We may strive for God’s kingdom to come on earth, but it will never be here in its fullness on earth before the eschaton.

Today’s first reading, in the book of Joshua, which appears after the Torah, tells of the arrival of the Israelites in the Promised Land. But there is a final hurdle that must be overcome before they can enter: the Jordan River. God tells Joshua that the way they can overcome that obstacle and enter is by having the priests take the Ark of the Covenant, and walk into the Jordan River. The waters will then gather in a heap, and the dry land of the riverbed will appear, and the Israelites will be able to cross over in ease.

And that is exactly what they did.

The Ark of the Covenant was the most sacred object in Israelites’ worship life. When not in travel, it rested in the Holy of Holies, the most sacred part of the Tabernacle and Temple. On top of it rested the Mercy Seat, on which the High Priest sprinkled blood on the Day of Atonement, Yom Kippur. There are two accounts in different parts of the Bible as to what was inside of the Ark. In some places, it is recorded that only the two tablets of the law, containing the Ten Commandments, were placed inside. In other placed, there are added a scroll of the Torah, a jar of manna – the mysterious substance that God rained down from heaven to feed the Israelites, and finally, the budding almond rod of Aaron. When there were those outside the Levite tribe who wished to be priests in place of Aaron, God instructed Moses to have each tribe place an almond rod – a dead branch -- inside the Tabernacle, and in the morning, Aaron’s had budded, and the others had not.

In our own lives as Christians, while we will not reach our true home, the Promised Land, in this life, there are even obstacles preventing us from reaching those glimpses we are given in this life. Like the Israelites, God has provided us with an Ark that contains gifts that can help us overcome those obstacles, our Jordan River separating us from the land of Canaan. If I may be permitted an allegorical interpretation of the Ark, I believe we as Christians can profit from this passage.

Just as the Ark contained the scroll of the law, and the tablets with the commandments, so we are given the gift of Scripture. In the first Psalm, it says of the righteous that “his [or her] delight is in the law of the Lord, and in his law doth he [or she] meditate day and night” (Psalm 1:2) – which is quoted in the Rule of St. Albert, the Carmelite Rule, as the principal duty of those following it. As we meditate on Scripture, day and night, our lives are transformed, and we are able to be conformed more and more to the image of Christ, in which we are created, and to which we are restored. The word of God in Scripture leads us to the Eternal Word of God, Jesus Christ.

We are also given manna in the form of the Eucharist, and by extension all of the sacraments. We are fed week by week, or even day by day, by the Body and Blood of Christ, receiving Him into our lives, so that we may become living tabernacles, sharing Christ with all with whom we come in contact. We receive the Body of Christ, so that we may become the Body of Christ in the world.

And the rod of Aaron reminds us of the baptismal priesthood to which we are all called. As we share in the offering of our lives to God as a living sacrifice, as Christ offered his body on the altar of the Cross for the whole world, so we too receive new life, just as Christ was raised from the dead. We mediate the reconciliation of the world to God through Christ by sharing with Christ in his eternal priesthood.

As we continue our journey, may we be filled with grace to receive these gifts of Scripture, Eucharist, and Royal Priesthood that we are given in our own Ark of the Covenant, Jesus Christ, and may we be enabled to pass into the Promised Land through Christ.

No comments: