Sunday, July 21, 2019. “From a Pile of Rocks to Living Stones”
The message for Sunday, July 21 “From a Pile of Rocks to Living Stones” by Pastor Erik Goehner, heard during the 8:00, 9:30 and 11:00AM Worship service.
From a Pile of Rocks to Living Stones Joshua Crossing the Jordan
This tradition of using stones to remember goes way back in history, even to the times of the Bible. One of the places in Scripture where we first hear about stones being used as a memorial is in the Book of Joshua. The Israelites are going to the Promised Land when they come up against the Jordan river. The river is an obstacle the Israelites have to cross. God once again miraculously parts the waters, but whereas the Israelites cross the Red Sea to escape and get out of Egypt, this time they cross the Jordan on dry land so that they can go into the promised land of Canaan. Joshua has them make a stack of twelve rocks, one for each of the tribes of Israel, to serve as a memorial to the miracle God performed there.
As the representatives of each tribe brought forth their stone to place on the stack being formed by the Jordan river, I can imagine the thoughts running through the minds of all the Israelites, especially those in the crowd who were older and had been with Joshua as they wandered in the wilderness. They may have been thinking back to dangers they had faced, the enemy tribes who had attacked them, the long, hot days in the desert sun wondering if they were going to survive. They may have been remembering those they had lost along the way, the elders and children who had become too weak to continue on—the friends and family who had succumbed to the rigors of wilderness wandering and who would not be joining them in the holy, Promised Land.
Joshua knows this remembering is important. He knows it makes the miracle of crossing through the Jordan River all that more powerful and he does not want the people to forget it. So he tells them that when their children ask them, ‘What do those stones mean to you?’ then they shall tell them that the waters of the Jordan were cut off in front of the ark of the covenant of the Lord. “When it crossed over the Jordan, the waters of the Jordan were cut off. So these stones shall be to the Israelites a memorial forever.” With this decree, the pile of rocks on the shore would have been transformed into a monument of living memories within the people of Israel who would pass along the story of God’s gracious and mighty acts for generations.
Stones have long been used as a physical sign to remind people of something important. They have long been used as a way to mark a place and remember an event or a person. If you travel around the United States you will come across many places where there is a rock with a plaque on it describing something that happened at a certain time in that spot. It might be when a college was started, where an explorer passed through like Lewis and Clark, when a battle happened, or where someone famous died. (first slide) The Vietnam War Memorial is a well-known example of this. Located in Washington DC, it is made of black, granite, stone and written on it are the names of the 58,000 Americans who died in the Vietnam War.
Over the past decades, the Wall has become a hallowed spot, a place of pilgrimage, homage and reconciliation. When the wall was first built, no one could have predicted how important it would be to the friends and family members who had loved ones who died in the war. No one could have predicted how important it would be for people to have a physical place to come to and remember or let go of their grief. No one could have predicted how many physical items people would bring and leave at the memorial as a part of their remembering or grieving process. Letters, dog tags, college rings, a football helmet, a motorcycle, posters, sneakers, cigars, medals and a piece of a helicopter rotor blade are among the many things that make up what is now the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Collection. Over 400,000 items have been left at the wall over the last several decades. Now, some of the items left there over the years by visitors are being selected for display in the new Vietnam War education center planned for a site nearby the memorial.
While the physical items that are placed on the base of the wall obviously have important emotional or social meaning to those who place them there it can be hard to discern sometimes why a particular item is significant. Physical objects are not enough to tell the full story of what happened. They are not enough to do all the remembering. It takes a living voice to put flesh on the grief and reveal what really happened as well as show the healing that the stone wall can bring. Michael Ruane, reporter for the Washington Post, tells the story of a Vietnam veteran who he was able to follow to the wall and hear the full story of why he was placing a small wooden box with a black and white photo on the base of the memorial.
The veteran had been in the Vietnam war in 1969 when he was just 20 years old. While he was there he experienced the kinds of horrible things that happen in war and had done some horrible things himself. In one battle he had lost a close friend who was his Sergeant. A few days later, his squad destroyed an enemy platoon. Afterwards he saw a black and white photo in the open knapsack of a fallen North Vietnamese soldier. He took the photo as a kind of trophy to prove the revenge that he brought for the Sergeant friend the he had lost.
Six months later, his tour ended. He left Vietnam. He got married, started a family and found a good job. He put the photo in a wooden box and hid it in his closet. But he was chronically troubled by memories of the war. And the contents of the box haunted him. Sometimes he would pause to look inside. The veteran said he would examine the photo closely, looking at each face and wondering which one was the fallen soldier, trying to imagine the unfathomable grief of his mother and father.
The veteran expressed that he had a classic, terrible case of PTSD. He kept saying to himself, ‘What’s wrong with me? Why can’t I readjust? Why can’t I come home and just sort of forget about that?’ But I couldn’t.” Decades passed. Finally, he started going to counseling, and many things got resolved.
But there was one deep dark secret that was sitting right there in his closet. When he was ready, after more counseling, he finally sat down and wrote a letter asking the fallen soldier for forgiveness. Then he asked his wife, who was unaware of the box, to come to a counseling session with him. There, he opened the box and read the letter.
Afterward, he realized that the contents of the box belonged at the Vietnam Memorial Wall. “I don’t know where it came from, but it was my idea,” he said. He told his wife: “I can’t keep these in my closet anymore. One day near dawn in 2011, he and his wife went to the Wall with the contents in a nicer box that they had bought. It was cold outside, and the sun was just reddening the sky as he began to rise over the Capitol. The veteran could see his reflection in the polished stone. He found his old sergeant’s name on the Wall. Then he read the letter aloud.
“I cried,” he said. “I wept in a way I have never wept before. I felt an enormous release, a weight off my soul . . . [and a] peace and a calm . . . that I’ve never known.”
He placed the box against the Wall and propped the letter behind it. As he and his wife walked away from the memorial, he glanced back.
“The day was dawning,” he said. “It literally felt like a new day for me.”
The physical stone of the memorial wall gave a place for the veteran to bring his grief and pain, but it took his living voice telling his story to be a witness to us of the power of the memorial wall to help people remember, let go, and experience forgiveness and healing.
Jesus knew about the power of living voices and that is why when he is preparing his followers to remember him at his last supper. He does not gather a pile of twelve rocks like Joshua did. Instead, he gathers his twelve disciples—his twelve closest students. He gives them some bread and wine–something physical to help them to remember him by, but what he is really doing is getting them ready for the mission he will be sending them on after his death and resurrection. What he is really doing is shaping them into living stones—witnesses to the memory of Jesus and his message of forgiveness and healing that comes from the grace of God.
When we come into this space we too receive some bread and wine to help us remember that we have been forgiven and God’s grace is with us. Many other people who see our church and pass by its walls, however, don’t know this message is inside. To them it might just be a beautiful pile of bricks, drywall and stained glass because they may never set foot inside for a worship service. That is why it is so important for us who come and get filled with the Spirit, to bring that same Spirit out with us whenever we go the rest of the week. Jesus is calling us to also become living stones that give witness to a message of forgiveness and healing. When that calling gets inside us, then the church truly transforms from a pile of rocks into a living voice of God’s love bring light for new day.