Written on the Doorposts
Joshua 24:1-7, 14-18
September 16, 2018
Rev. Kristin Stoneking
Epworth United Methodist Church, Berkeley, CA
This week I felt the full force of being back to school and having kids going to school in two different towns, one some distance away, and one in a completely new school and district to us. I’ve been feeling a bit overwhelmed with registration forms, music and sports signs ups and contributions, different online portals for parents and the new routines we are in. I’m guessing those among us who are parents of kids in school are feeling similarly. And for all of us, I’m guessing you’ve noticed an upsurge in the energy, the busyness, the traffic around you.
On Thursday night, Elizabeth and I went to Back to School Night at Martin Luther King Middle School, where our daughter is a seventh grader, and where we have a few other Epworthians as students and teachers. We are lucky to have great schools here in Berkeley, and the evening went well, though I was aware that I knew no one, except Elizabeth and Epworth member Tom McClure who I think I saw across the gym.
Afterwards we went to Saul’s, one of my favorite restaurants here in Berkeley, which describes itself as bridging the links between the “Old Country” and “the New World”…connecting with our roots all along the timeline of Jewish food.” How many of you know Saul’s? Saul’s is filled with symbols, words and a menu that joyously reflect Jewish culture. And as we sat there surrounded by a rich array of symbols and words connected to Judaism, and flyers referencing the just past Rosh Hashanah, I reflected how the history of Judaism is a story of leaving one place and going to another, of journey. It is a song of exodus, exile and return. And In the rhythm of exodus, exile and return, the Jewish people are being ever confronted with situations and experiences that require both a clarity on what is really important-- what gives Jewish faith and life meaning and structure, and a need to refract the core of Jewish faith and culture through the prism of a new culture, giving dimension, discovered wisdom and new light. Saul’s is just one example of this, mixing the old world of the traditions of Judaism with the culture of California and Berkeley.
Being a new person in a new land is never easy, and while the story of immigration for any people includes aspects of assimilation, the question of how a person in a new environment maintains faith engagement and practice is a complex one. In the last forty years, a mix of conclusions has been drawn about immigration and faith. In a study done in 2011 using data from the New Immigrant Survey, the researchers suggest that immigration is a disruptive event that alienates migrants from religious practice rather than “theologizing” them, or leading them into a deeper faith practice. But in other studies, it has been concluded that when immigrants do engage in faith communities, they receive what has been called “spiritual capital” or the three r’s: “refuge, resources and respect.”
The difference between losing touch with one’s faith and finding new and essential grounding seems to me to be intentionality, the concerted effort to seek out a faith community, to maintain spiritual practices, and to prioritize religious tradition in one’s life and one’s family’s life.
The church I grew up in from 5th grade until I graduated high school where my father was pastor was a large suburban church in Kansas City in a part of the city in which much new housing and new corporate offices were being constructed. It was not uncommon for families to be transferred by companies to this part of the city. I remember my father talking of these families and their faith and intentionality were the lifeblood of our church. Many new they would only be in their post for a year or two or three. And yet, on their first Sunday in the area, they found the Methodist church, transferred their membership and took on whatever tasks or leadership roles were needed. My dad always said that these folks were some of the most faithful and present members.
In our scripture today from the book of Joshua, the Israelites have had a combined 68 years between the exodus from Egypt, then 40 years wandering in the desert and the destabilization associated with arriving in a land where they experienced conflict as they attempted to settle. Moses, who of course had led the Jews out of Egypt and through the wilderness for the first 40 years, has handed the leadership of the Israelites to his assistant Joshua, as he faced the end of his life. As Moses is dying, he looks with Joshua across the Jordan, and tells him that he, Joshua, will be the one who leads the people into the promised land.
But the entry into the promised land isn’t easy. There are others who live there. In some ways I find the book of Joshua disturbing; it is a story of a people who come into a new place through force, and I do not believe it should ever be used as a justification for occupation in Israel or in any other land. But in the context in which it was written, it’s import was theological, a narrative that scholars now tell us is an amalgam of different events of that time, combined to express the key ideas contained in the Book of Deuteronomy. These key ideas can be expressed singularly in what is known as the Shema, the prayer of the Jewish people: Shema Yisrael, Adonai Elohainu, Adonai Echad, which means simply, Hear O Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is One.
Through the wilderness of the Sinai and then to the lands to the north along the Jordan into Canaan, the Israelites had to be intentional to maintain their faith and practice despite the disorientation of migration and the influence of new people, new places and new religions.
As the book of Joshua closes as we heard Jzanae read today, Joshua is dying. In his final admonition to his people, he is making clear that they need to choose to serve God in order to continue as a distinct people, as a people of faith. He then says the well-known words, “As for me and my household, we will serve the Lord.”
What does a household that serves God look like? Joshua’s words are connected to the words of Deuteronomy 6:9 that give the instruction to write the words of God on one’s gates and doorposts. As I shared with the children, this instruction is lived out in the affixing of mezuzahs to the doorframes in Jewish households, often just on the front door but sometimes in every room in of a house. In going in and coming out, it is a common practice to touch the mezuzah as a way of remembering one’s relationship with God and responsibility as a person of God, and as an affirmation of the constancy of God’s blessing.
What are your reminders, your touchstones? The world I grew up in was in many ways a very Methodist world, I remember crosses as well as the cross and flame symbol in various places in my own house, and my grandparents’ house. On the wall in our entryway was a 4 feet by 4 feet contemporary painting of the virgin Mary by Peggy Sample, wife of contemporary theologian Tex Sample. In the house of a good friend whose father was the president of the United Methodist seminary in Kansas City was a framed piece in which there was a piece of cloth with the embroidered words, “Do all the good you can, in all the places you can, in all the ways you can, as long as ever you can”, which are attributed to the founder of Methodism, John Wesley. It was hung in the bathroom, likely because this was the best place for the words to be seen and read on a regular basis.
Joshua proclaimed to the people of Israel that he and his household were making a choice to serve God, but he also knew that this choice would need to be made over and over again and that in order to make this choice over and over again, he and his family would need reminders, touchstones, supports in the face of challenges that would surely come. Writing God’s words on the doorposts and gates of his household was one of these ways.
What are the devices and reminders you employ to maintain grounding in God, and to communicate to the next generation your faith and trust in God? By this I don’t mean blind faith or trust without intellect. Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, the twentieth century Jewish theologian of whom I have spoken for the last few weeks was one who could simultaneously hold the rigors of intellect with a faith practice that was daily, grounded and pervaded his household in a way that communicated to others that in spite of his own losses in the Holocaust and the horrors he had personally witnessed, he would continue to choose faith and to seek God. He said, “The tasks begun by the patriarchs and prophets and continued by their descendants are now entrusted to us. We are either the last Jews or those who will hand over the entire past to generations to come. We will either forfeit or enrich the legacy of ages.”
God does not want us to be stressed in our comings and goings, but to be blessed as we go in and as we go out! The message of the journey from Egypt to the promised land was one on which the Israelites were to learn a key lesson: we must trust in God’s promises. God promises presence, God promises sustenance, and God promises blessing. Our role is to keep turning toward God, over and over again, making a daily choice, sometimes hourly choice to be God’s people. May we find ways not only to write God’s words on our doorposts, but also to write God’s words on our hearts, continually choosing to turn towards God, and thereby reflect the message of faith and blessing to the world and to generations to come. Amen.