“And the Walls Came Tumbling Down”
Joshua 24:1-2a,14-18, Psalm 34:15-22, Ephesians 6:10-20, John 6:56-59
Whenever I hear Joshua’s name, my mind automatically goes into this little singsong:
Joshua fought the battle of Jericho, Jericho, Jericho.
Joshua fought the battle of Jericho and the walls came tumbling down…(remember that song?)
Joshua was Moses assistant, and upon Moses’ death, God spoke to Joshua and commissioned the prophet to pick up where Moses left off. That is, to take the Israelites into the Promised Land. God tells Joshua that everyplace he puts the sole of his foot; God will give to him. God assures Joshua that just as God was with Moses, so shall God be with Joshua and the Israelites. God promises never to fail or forsake them. The same promises that God made to Moses, apply to Joshua. God reminds Joshua to act in accordance with the law that was passed down to Moses, and that he should not turn from it to the right hand or to the left, so that they would be successful wherever they went. In the first chapter of Joshua alone, God tells Joshua “be strong and be courageous” three times. When Joshua relays God’s message to the Israelites, they pledge their allegiance to Joshua and agree to do whatever Joshua says. The people themselves commission Joshua with the words: “be strong and be courageous”
It was Joshua who led the Israelites into the Promised Land, and Joshua did lead the Israelites into battle, not only with Jericho, but many battles. And each step of the way, God told Jericho what Joshua should do, and exactly how the Israelites would win. God kept God’s promise and delivered the enemies into the Israelites hands. God kept God’s promise of not failing or forsaking Israel. God promised and God delivered.
And so, the battles are won. The land is divided up between the 12 tribes of Israel, and this is where we find ourselves the reading this morning. Joshua has gathered the Israelites all together in one place and tells them that they should revere the Lord because of all that the Lord has done for them. He then asks them to make a decision: basically, make up your minds if you are going to serve the Lord or not. He wants to know whether they are going to serve the Lord that their ancestors served, or whether they are going to serve the gods that the Amorites served. He immediately lets them know who he and his family will be serving. He says as for me and my household, we will serve the Lord. The Israelites response sounds like they are even surprised that Joshua would ask such a question. They remember all that the Lord has done for them. Not only for them, but they also remember all that the lord has done for their ancestors. They know that God is a keeper of promises. They know that God is a God who delivers.
As I read through the texts for this week. I prayed for a message that I could deliver to you. I think the apostle Paul says it best: “I pray that when I speak, a message may be given to me to make known with boldness the mystery of the gospel, for which I am an ambassador in chains. Pray that I declare it boldly, as I must speak.”
When I think of Joshua and the battles that were fought, when I think of the gathering of the tribes of Israel: I think of Toronto Canada. I think of the International Aids Conference. Over 25000 people in attendance from all over the world, which was impressive, but what was more impressive to me, was the inter-faith conference, which was held a few days before the main conference. At this inter-faith conference, there were over 500 religious leaders in attendance from all over the world, from many different denominations, from many different cultures.
Just as the Promised Land was occupied by the 12 tribes of Israel, so too, were we gathered as different tribes belonging to the same nation. The theme of this gathering was: Keeping the promise…Faith in Action. We were not there to look for the Promised Land, per se. But we were there seeking responses to promises that were made by government officials in the land. We were there to look within ourselves, within our religious communities, to see whether or not we were keeping the promise. The promise to do all we could to stop the spread of HIV and AIDS. We gathered together looking for answers from the government and public officials that have made promises and have yet begun to keep them.
Our own presiding Bishop Mark Hanson was there and spoke passionately about our responsibility to be part of the response to this pandemic. One thing that Bishop Hanson said that grabbed the attention of most of us was:
“We cannot talk about religious leaders keeping a promise until religious leaders and the faith communities they lead make a promise.”
Well, that about did it. That set the tone for the next two days. We gathered together, worshipped together, attended workshops together. We resolved to re-new old promises, or make new ones. Each of us in our own way, according to the gifts bestowed upon us by the Holy Spirit is called to be a faithful leader to our respective communities. Do we not hold the same faith as our ancestors? Do we not believe that God is a keeper of promises, and that God delivers on his word?
We gathered to re-new covenants, to re-new our strength. We gathered because it was a time for us to begin to deliver. It is time for religious leaders and the faith communities to stop sitting on their haunches and waiting for others to do the work. It was time for us to gather and raise the battle cry that would make the walls come tumbling down: the walls that people are hiding behind or the walls that we ourselves build: walls of shame, stigma, discrimination. These are our battles now. At least for me, it is part of my promise. People will not be tested, will not be educated, and will not receive the treatment that they need if they are to be treated like the lepers of the Old Testament.
I do not know what each of the 500 religious leaders promised to do. At the end of our part of the conference, we were asked to pair off with someone at our table. Ironically, I was paired off with the Bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of South Africa. I say ironically, because when I visited Africa in 2004, I made a promise to them. I returned home, had a fundraiser for them, and then forgot about them. I came home standing in solidarity with my brothers and sisters over there. I came home and got comfortable.
In any case, I promised to continue speaking out about HIV and AIDS: particularly the importance of getting tested and receiving treatment if needed. I promised to speak out against stigma that is sometimes knowingly or unknowingly associated with the disease. I say again: stigma, discrimination and fear of alienation causes people to suffer in silence, causes people NOT to get tested, causes the disease to spread.
In 2001 a remark was made to me: “what if we send you to seminary and you developed AIDS dementia?” My response: “what if you left this building and got hit by a bus?
I decided 12 years ago, that I was not going to live a life of shame. I decided that I was not going to die a death that was preventable by medication. I decided to be open about my HIV status.
People most always tell me always tell me “be strong, be courageous”…but you know what? I tell that to congregations that I speak to. I tell people, I tell congregations to “be strong, be courageous”. Why? Because it takes courage to deal with all the issues that surround this disease. This disease offends people. Because it deals with sexuality and morality. Issues that people do not like to deal with. And when something offends us, we turn away from it…we no longer want to be around whatever that offensive thing is.
Jesus tells those in the gospel this morning that in order for Jesus to abide in us and us in him, that we have to eat his body and drink his blood. Talk about being offended! The people hearing Jesus are offended! Their minds cannot comprehend what the man is saying. They say “this is a hard teaching, who can accept it? They actually think that Jesus is talking about the literal eating of his body, and literally drinking his blood. They cannot understand that his are words of spirit and life. Jesus looks at the twelve and asks them: Do you wish to go away too? Are you going to serve me or not?
Joshua asks the people who are they going to serve, and the people answer unequivocally. Jesus asks the disciples basically the same thing, and only Simon Peter answers: Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life.
Who will you serve Grace Lutheran?
We take communion and we hear the words: “take and eat this is my body given for you”, and “take and drink this is my blood shed for you”. We believe that Jesus Christ came and walked among us. We recite the Apostles Creed. But (and don’t personalize the YOU – I am speaking to the church as an entity) it is not only for YOU. Jesus, the Stigmatized One, did not die on the cross for YOU, Jesus, the Stigmatized One, did not give his body and his blood just for YOU, and Jesus, the Stigmatized One, did not suffer just for YOU. Jesus did it for ALL. Jesus did it for ALL who believe in him: for those with AIDS, for those with HIV, for those with cancer, for those with any kind of disease.
And so, our work is cut out for us. I am sure that you will be hearing a lot more about this issue in the future. At least, that is our strategy. I pray that you will be open to the Holy Spirit and allow the Holy Spirit to work through you and in you. Your work is cut out in the listening, and being receptive to difficult dialogue if it should ever come to that. The church’s work is to raise the battle cry that we raised in Toronto:
“The Church will keep the promise!”, even if others do not.
Make a promise to do something in response to the HIV/AIDS pandemic. It is not only in the sub-Sahara or other less developed countries. It is a pandemic over here also. A pandemic of a different type. The pandemic here is of stigma and discrimination, shame and alienation.
Does that offend you? Is this teaching too difficult for you? Can you accept it? Do you wish to go away too? Or will you serve the Risen Christ?
Finally, our apostle Paul states: My brothers and sisters, be strong in the Lord, and in the power of his might. Put on the whole armour of God that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil. For we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places.
If we are strong, if we are courageous, if we each do our part, surely we too, will cause some walls to come tumblin’ down.…
May the peace of our lord Jesus Christ be with you all…