- First Reading Joshua 24:1-3a, 14-25
- Psalm 78:1-7
- Second Reading 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18
- Gospel Matthew 25:1-13
We were supposed to be back together, in-person today. I know some of y’all are disappointed we are not, just as I know some of you would have been with us on Zoom today either way. I know, months ago, I promised that we would have an Easter service whenever we came back, but that was when I thought we would be back in May. I had not planned an Easter service for today.
I wanted people here, in the room, though, because today’s Hebrew Bible passage, taken from the Book of Joshua, is more than it appears.
The Book of Joshua picks up the story immediately after Deuteronomy. Genesis tells us the story of a family, from Creation, through Adam and Eve, through Noah and the Flood, through Abraham Sarah, Isaac and Ishmael, Jacob and Esau, to Joseph, and the settling of that family in Egypt.
Then the story jumps ahead to Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy. By the time these books begin, the family has grown into a people and a new Pharaoh has risen, one who did not remember the contributions made by their ancestor, Jacob. Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy tell the story of the Hebrew people’s escape from slavery in Egypt and journey to the promised land under the leadership of Moses.
These five books, taken together, make up the core of Hebrew scripture—when our Jewish siblings talk about the Torah, the Law, they are not referring to the entire Hebrew Bible, but only to those five books. Christians sometimes use a Greek word, Pentateuch, which just means “five scrolls,” to refer to them.
Joshua immediately continues the story of the Torah, but it is set apart from the Torah, which reflects a change in authorship and possibly even era.
The Bible, as we have it, was not handed down, complete from God. Humans have always been a part of the texts’ creation, and some of these texts existed for centuries in combination of written and oral traditions before finding their current form.
All this is to say, the Book of Joshua is not what historians might call a contemporaneous account. It was not written during the conquest, but likely pulls together a variety of sources telling about the conquest.
Near the beginning of today’s passage from Joshua, he gathers all the Tribes of Israel to Shechem, and tells them: “Long ago your ancestors—Terah and his sons Abraham and Nahor—lived beyond the Euphrates and served other gods. Then [God] took your father Abraham from beyond the River and led him through all the land of Canaan and made his offspring many.”
This struck me this week. In the chronology of the story, the people have recently crossed the Jordan, in miraculous fashion. We did not read that text because last Sunday was also All Saints’ Day, but if we had, we would have read about Joshua and one representative from each of the 12 tribes carrying the Ark into the river, which was flooding, and the people watching as the river stopped, the waters piling up in a heap, as did the waters of the Red Sea, until all the people could cross.
Why then, are we suddenly talking about the Euphrates? Why have we jumped back to Abraham? Also, why are they gathered at Shechem?
The answer is that the Book of Joshua does more than one thing.
The Book of Joshua tells the story of the conquest of the land, yes, but it also carries the story of the re-conquest of the land following the Exile, also called the Babylonian Captivity.
After seventy years of exile, the Persian emperor Cyrus conquered Babylon and allowed the captives, including, but not only, the Israelites, to return to their homes. For the Israelites, this was a journey mirroring Abraham’s, a journey from the Euphrates to the Jordan.
When Joshua is speaking to the Hebrews, telling them it is time to put away the gods they and their ancestors served “beyond the River and in Egypt” the author is not just speaking about the Jordan River and Egypt, but is speaking of the Euphrates River and Babylon. Joshua is speaking to the Hebrews, about to conquer the land after slavery in Egypt and 40 years in the wilderness. The author is speaking to those Israelites returning to the land after 70 years in captivity. The author is calling for the returned Exiles to put aside any Babylonian gods and practices they might have picked up during the exile, to de-assimilate from Babylonian culture and religion, and return to the true God, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Israel.
It is a call for a return to orthodoxy and orthopraxy, the correct belief and correct practice of religion. This is the sermon I planned to write, using the story of the Hebrews conquest of the land, when the story is set, and the Israelites later return to the land, when this story was written, and our own return to this sanctuary to call us back, not only to the practice of worship, but to other commitments and practices, to call us back to prayer, and to study, and to service. To remind us that being a church is not only a practice for Sunday morning, whether you are coming in person or on Zoom, or whatever time you happen to watch the recording later.
I wanted to call us to remember, upon our return to the building that we were never just the building, that we are not defined by this room, and that showing up, or signing in is the beginning, not the end of faith.
But we are not back in this room. We are still apart, not by force, but by love and a desire to protect each other.
And I think that Joshua is not only calling the Hebrews to faith, that the author is not telling the story only to call the Israelites back to faith after their captivity in Babylon.
I think, the author places Joshua at Shechem because Shechem is near the Samaritan Temple at Mt. Gerizim.
The author knows what we might not remember: not everyone was taken to Babylon, not everyone was exiled. The Babylonians took the wealthy and the powerful. They took those who were likely to try to organize a resistance. They left the farmers behind because they still needed people to work the land.
The Samaritans, and there are still Samaritans today, are the descendants of those the Babylonians left behind. Those who, following the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple, built their own Temple, on Mt. Gerizim, which is near Shechem. Those who, without the wealthy, without the educated, without the priests, continued to practice their faith.
At the time this story was written, the Samaritan and Jewish religions had, been diverging for 70 years. That was enough time for the Samaritans to build their new Temple, and for both communities to make revisions to their Torah—there are some 6,000, mostly minor, differences between the Samaritan Torah and the text shared by Christians and Jews. This is not to say that the Samaritans changed the text. Yes, one difference is that the Samaritan Torah says the Temple was always supposed to be at Mt. Gerizim, but the changes to the Jewish Torah, to the Torah of the exiles, are so deep that it is written using a different alphabet, one that was developed with Babylonian influence.
By placing Joshua at Shechem, near the Samaritans, the author is not only speaking to the returned Exiles, but also to the Samaritans. This speech is not only a call for a return to the right practice of religion but is a call for unity. I did not want to talk about the election today, but the Spirit sometimes has other ideas.
There are still Samaritans today, just not very many. Most live in two communities, one, in Israel, near Tel Aviv. The other, in the West Bank, near Mt. Gerizim. The religious authorities of Israel recognize the Samaritan faith as related to Judaism, but not enough to grant the citizenship rights enjoyed by other Jewish people to the Samaritans. Those Samaritans who live near Tel Aviv are Israeli citizens. Those Samaritans who live on Mt. Gerizim, are not. The Jews and the Samaritans remain two separate peoples. By the time of Christ, they had grown to hate each other—remember, the point of the parable of the good Samaritans is that Jesus’ audience was surprised that the Samaritan helped.
Last week, both presidential candidates received more votes than any candidate had ever received. We have not been separated by foreign conquerors. We have not been held apart for 70 years. We are not yet two peoples. We have not had that fate forced upon us. We are able to choose.
Back in August, I challenged all of us to come through this election season behaving in such a way that you could walk into this building today and greet one another with the love and peace of Christ. From what I have been able to see, we have done that, and for that, I thank you all. Many others have not. I said a few minutes ago that this church is not bound by these walls, is not defined by this room or address. Faith does not end by coming here or signing in on Sunday morning. Faith does not end by watching the video of this service later. The church is each and every one of you. Our faith is how we live in our world. Our faith is seen in how we live and respond to others. The hymn says: “They will know we are Christians by our Love.” That is not a declaration. That is not a promise. That is a challenge. It is one I hope we can meet.