Serving God In the Story: Joshua 21.1–15

Delivered at Ames UCC on October 14, 2018

©The Rev. Eileen Gebbie

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2018.10.14 hurricaneSTORMS
It is good to be here together this morning. It is good to be able to leave our homes without having to negotiate any downed power lines or collapsed roofs, unlike so many of our fellow Americans in Florida. Do any of you know anyone affected by Hurricane Michael? The community where Carla and I honeymooned is gone.

How about Harvey in Texas? Maria in Puerto Rico? Sandy in the Northeast? Katrina in the Gulf Coast?

Do any of you know anyone affected by flooding here in Iowa? And the tornado in Marshalltown and Pella? Last week I spent some time in my basement because of a tornado warning—anyone else?

It feels like weather disasters are coming more and more often, with greater and greater intensity. It feels like that because they are. The warmer the oceans, and they are hotter than ever, the greater the storms. The warmer the planet overall, the more intense the rainfall overall. And the collision between warm, humid air, causes tornados when it encounters cold, dry air.

Our bodies can feel the change, can feel the strange. The recent days of high heat with fewer hours of daylight and turning leaves felt fundamentally wrong. Long, dark mornings should come with cold air and gloves, not bug spray and sweat.

It is like we are living in a different place. We did not move, but it is as though we are living in a different land than forty, or even four, years ago. We may not be climate refugees like the people of the Mariana and the Marshall Islands, but we are now exiles from an era when we did not have to talk about family emergency plans, bug out bags, and the tipping point for human survival. So this speech from the book of Joshua can speak as much to us now as it did for its original audience.

Joshua was a spy under Moses as the freed slaves searched for a new home. He came to be their leader after Moses died. Under that leadership, the Hebrew people engaged in repeated battles on the land they wanted, some of which failed and some of which succeeded. In this speech, at the end of the book and the end of Joshua’s career, we hear him give voice to God, and that divine voice taking credit for the military successes: “I delivered them into your hands; I annihilated them for you.” Joshua concludes the speech in his own voice, asking the people if they are at last willing to put aside the gods of the past and commit once and for all to the God of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Moses.

The Rev. Dr. Susan Henry-Crowe, former dean of the chapel and religious life at Emory University and now leader of the social justice ministry of the United Methodist Church, writes that within Joshua’s question is a challenge of old understandings about the location of God. Historically, and in some places still today, divinity was thought to be tied to particular mountains, streams, and valleys. Gods, then, were not portable. So he’s asking them not only to commit to God, but to an entirely new concept of God. Which might seem unnecessary because Joshua’s audience already knows this. The freed slaves and their descendants have already been tromping about the wilderness with their portable God for some time.

So who is this speech for? Who needed to hear such a tale of military triumph and theology of partiality? Who needed to be reminded of the strength of the Hebrew people and God’s presence with them in their survival? The Hebrews who were sent into exile under the rule of Babylon.

The Babylonian empire conquered Israel around 587 BCE. The affluent and influential residents of Jerusalem were then exiled to other parts of the empire. This book of Joshua likely emerged in that context, in a community of people forcibly removed from their homes, their workplaces, their markets, and their temple. But what they could take with them were the stories of Abraham and Jacob, Moses and Joshua, of exile and of homecoming. They could take with them this assertion that God goes wherever they do and that if they are faithful enough God will make them a home again.

Which wasn’t true. It wasn’t true for the slaves, it wasn’t true for the Babylonian exiles, and it will not be true for us.

As David mentioned when he preached on the exodus, there is no historical evidence for a mass revolt by slaves in Egypt; the archaeological record also disputes and disproves the claims of this narrative of a landless people coming en masse to this portion of the Levant and driving others away. So there is no truth in a claim that God won battles for anyone.

The Babylonian exiles didn’t get to go back to Jerusalem, only their children and grandchildren. And when they did, they wreaked havoc on the poor Hebrew population that had been left behind, ruining their home.

And we will not be able to go home, either, in the climatological sense. Even if we could reverse the effects of climate change, and that is a big if, there is not sufficient political will in the nations that most need to commit to change.

So here we are in an exile of wind, dangerous rains, increasingly mild winters (except for when they are especially brutal), and tunnels of wind and water that rip, shred, flatten, flood, and kill.

Will we at last put aside the gods of our previous land, the gods of denial, entitlement, and consumption, in favor of the god that has endured the doubt of Abraham, the crimes of Jacob, and the bloodlust of Joshua?

Will we commit to the God that makes us see ourselves as we really are and continues to offer the means to be and to do better?

I don’t know what the next twenty years will be like, only that it will be completely unlike the last twenty. I don’t know what language, tools, or economy exile will demand of us. But I know that we can carry our God with us.

Often in accounts of survivors of hurricanes and tornadoes and floods, we hear about prayer, prayers offered without ceasing. The one thing that 155 mph winds cannot blow away is words of faith.

The covenant of presence, creativity, and love has never been broken by God and is always ready for ratification by us.

Like the exiles who first told this story of strength and presence and like those who have already died in storms it will not save us from the consequences of human civilization, but, like them, it will give us the means, and the bravery, to endure them to our very end.

So let us, together, in the storms of this new land, shelter in the steadfast cover of faith, wet and wind-whipped but not yet drowned. Let us, not only for our sake but for that of the whole planet, choose this day which gods we are going to serve. I say we and this household will serve the LORD.


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