Text: Joshua 5:9-12
One day “it” stopped. “It” simply ceased to be anymore. The first time I consciously recognized this “it,” I had just graduated from seminary and gotten my first full-time salaried job. But let me back up for a moment. Throughout college and seminary, my parents had carried me on both their health insurance and car insurance. When I was sick or had one of those little “bump ups” that can easily happen in the younger years of driving I didn’t have to worry about whether or not I could seek the help of a body doctor or a car doctor. I had insurance and such things were covered. But shortly after I graduated from seminary I got a call from my parents saying that since I now had a full-time job I would need to start taking care of my own health and car insurance. You might say it was “the day the manna ceased.” The miracle of health and auto insurance without having to worry about it, or pay for it, ceased to be with that phone call from my parents.
I imagine you, too, have that day in your life when “it” stopped. In retirement, “it” was a regular paycheck. As a child, “it” may have been when the security blanket suddenly disappeared or the pacifier was mysteriously “lost” and the store didn’t have anymore. In adolescence, the “it” may have been the day when your parents ceased to wash your clothes or make your lunch and told you that you would need to take care of those things. Everybody, of every age, has a day when “it” ceased. At almost every stage of life, “it” is that moment when life teaches you that the only “fair” there is in life is the one that comes to town in mid-October. For the Israelites long ago, the “it” was the day the manna ceased. Manna, that mysterious dew like powder that appeared every morning, in just enough quantity, to keep the Hebrew people from starvation while in the wilderness as they made their way to the promise land.
Joshua chapter 5 recounts this transition from wilderness wandering to the promised land. And it specifically highlights the transition from manna living to farm living. But before we explore the move from manna living to farm living there are a couple of things to know about our text. First, it is important to understand that those entering the promised land were the children of those who had wandered in the wilderness for 40 years. That’s right. An entire generation spent their lives in the wilderness and never experienced that land flowing with milk and honey. And an entire generation grew up knowing that when they woke in the morning, their needs for food would be provided.
A second thing to know about our text is that “The book of Joshua is an edited collection of the old and the new. Ancient traditions are a part of the whole, [and it is safe to say an] editor or two have structured the book to answer certain special theological/historical concerns well after the time of the events portrayed. The book bears both a strong Deuteronomic cast as well as a decidedly priestly concern. In effect, it is historical fiction, employing old stories to speak to much later times and interests.”
And finally, it is important to know that Joshua is reminding us, the reader of this spiritual heritage, of God’s covenantal relationship with God’s people. This covenant between God and God’s people is one of benevolence and faithfulness; written on tablets AND on the heart; a covenant of justice mitigated with mercy and rooted in a radical love and a radical forgiveness. Joshua’s reminder can be found in verse 9.“The Lord said to Joshua, ‘Today I have rolled away from you the disgrace of Egypt.” In case it’s not clear what Joshua is saying, those are liberating words, my friends. Not just for those who traveled through the wilderness centuries ago, but for us as well – for you and me. Today I have rolled away from you the disgrace of YOUR Egypt.
Today, whatever disgrace – (some translations use the word reproach) – meaning whatever regret, disappointment, remorse, guilt you may have felt or known or are feeling and knowing right now, God has rolled that away – just like the stone that was rolled away from an empty tomb. God is faithful with God’s love and mercy and forgiveness. Regret, disappointment, remorse, guilt – all rolled away, forgotten, ready to start anew.
We didn’t read the gospel lesson for today but if we had you would have heard that familiar story of the prodigal child. There is not another story in our sacred scriptures that speaks of this faithfulness more than that story. But the truth is this story we find in Joshua 5 is the same story, essentially. Both speak of God’s response after wilderness wanderings and wayward travels. The message is clear: God stands ready to welcome us home just as we are with no need of promise to be any better. This is the heart of God’s covenant with humanity. God is with us and never leaves us no matter how many spiritual distant lands we travel to or how many golden calves we worship or how many times we squander away our inheritance. God’s covenant is one of faithfulness. God’s covenant sees us coming home from a distance and runs toward us. God’s covenant provides manna when needed as well as the resources needed to take care of one another when we focus on being God’s kin-dom here on earth. Whether we read Joshua 5 or Luke 15, the story is the same: God is always looking for us in the distance ready to welcome us home from our wanderings.
But let me get back to the day the manna ceased. The old fashioned word for manna would have been charity. Or handouts. Or welfare. We don’t like to juxtapose our Biblical stories with our stereotypes of today, but at the end of the day, the Israelites were getting food stamps. And there was no shame in that because they had courageously lived into the promise of God’s covenant to care for them. And God did. God did God’s part in making sure that God’s people had food to eat every day. I’m calling this manna living – when you have no choice but to trust that the morning will bring what you need for the day. But through the covenant, God’s work unfolds over generations, and God’s love does more than just meeting us where we are today. For the Israelites, God also did God’s part in making sure that God’s people found a land where they could thrive, not just survive! And so the Israelites were able to move from manna living to farm living, where they had the means to care for themselves AND to begin to care for others – to move from the receiver to the giver.
If the book of Joshua “is historical fiction, employing old stories to speak to much later times and interests” then I wonder what is Joshua 5:9-12 speaking to us today, for our times and our interests? I invoked the words charity and welfare earlier to purposely provoke you. We don’t think of our work with the community in these terms today. We want to believe that we are living out justice love, not a progressive form of paternalism. So I want to offer three possibilities how we as a faith community can deepen our commitment to the covenant by growing from our manna living (charity work) to farm living (working for the common good of all persons).
While we support our Roundtable ministry, we need to be stronger advocates for a living wage. Anyone of you who have had substantive conversations with a person on the street, or quite frankly one of our young adults, knows that getting a job is not the answer to all of life’s problems. Yes, we want people to work. Jobs give us money, but they also give us purpose and community and the opportunity to serve. But too many of our vulnerable are working, and they are not receiving a just wage. And over time, this injustice erodes their own faith in the covenant of kin-dom, and they abandon their own lives out of despair. We need to demand that all people be valued so that their presence and their effort and their contributions have meaning and are compensated. We need a wage that starts from what it takes to live, not what it takes to profit. If we truly want our poor folks to thrive, we need to do God’s work to move our society from manna living, where we can feel good about giving out meals twice a week, to farm living, where we fight for the Promised Land of human dignity through a fair wage.
While we welcome all people into our church community, we need to organize and double down on our efforts to advocate for the rights of the most marginalized and vulnerable people in America: immigrants, women, people of color, low-income families, disabled individuals, those of the Muslim and Jewish faiths, and the LGBTQIA community, especially the trans and gender-queer community. Pullen has a long history of open doors and open hearts. We have been a sanctuary in the true sense. There are those here this morning, myself included, who came to Pullen because Pullen held a promise that we could be loved and safe in a supposedly “Christian” world that despised us. Pullen has faithfully fulfilled manna living for many of the community’s vulnerable. So where is our opportunity for farm living – to move beyond an internal sanctuary to creating safe spaces out in the world for our marginalized and vulnerable. I offer no answers today, but questions. What more can we be doing to strengthen these communities, not just protect them? Our interfaith worship services are a start. Our protests against a death penalty that disproportionately affects men of color is a start. The Hope Center is a start. Where can we deepen these promising practices of farm living?
And finally, for today (but not completely for tomorrow), we must increase our commitment as a faith community to ecological justice. I want to say upfront that I cannot be more clear that this is a learning edge for me. When we last expanded our footprint as a church we made many efforts to care for creation: geothermal wells, green products, responsible expansion of footprint. Today, we have a renewed effort to reduce our waste by recycling and composting. AND, we must continue our work to move ecological justice from a footnote concern to our organizing principle. When we speak of God’s love, we speak of love for all of creation. When we speak of Christ, we speak not just of the Judean man who personified God, but of the indwelling of the divine in every aspect of the entire cosmos, including those we endanger with our pesticides and those we extinguish with our development. When we speak of justice, we speak of the divine right of all that lives. As Karla reminds me often from her study of the wisdom teachers: All life is One. Everything that lives is Holy. This planet is not a starter home! This planet is alive with the same divinity that we carry. I am excited to share that we are making some strong steps toward farm living in terms of ecological justice. Our Care of Creation group is organizing with other faith communities, and we are eager to support that effort to help us move from the important manna living we are doing today. How can we keep deepening these promising practices of farm living?
If the book of Joshua “is historical fiction, employing old stories to speak to much later times and interests,” this is what I believe it is saying to Pullen. Joshua is saying: Thank you! Thank you, Pullen for your manna living. You have done well, good and faithful servants. Keep doing that work. Know that the need for manna in God’s kin-dom is real. And remember that wherever there is a need for manna, there is a need for you to do God’s work in creating the conditions for farm living. It is easy to look to those who receive manna and put the burden on them. But that is not what God does. And it is not what God is calling you to do. Just as you are always the beloved, you are always the divine lover. You are called to be God’s hand, God’s feet, God’s voice, and God’s love in this world in need. And so Pullen, keep on providing the daily manna for those who need it and press on with courage and divine foolishness in your vision to move all of God’s people to farm living.