Monday, September 27, 2010

Help for the Road Home: Trifles

Preached Sunday, September 26

Scripture Readings:
Joshua 5:13-6:25
1 Peter 4:7-19

A man and his wife were walking in a big crowd, and the wife felt her husband slip his hand into hers. She was more than touched by this, and she asked, “You don’t want to lose me?” And he answered, “I don’t want to have to look for you.”

Either way, a husband and wife holding each other’s hand in a crowd is one of those gestures that are the most important things in life; little things, barely noticed things.

Preached Sunday, September 26

Aliens visiting from another planet might consider the holding of hands to be a mere trifle, and overlook how essential it is. John Calvin wrote almost five hundred years ago…”The Lord often, for a time, conceals his own might under weakness, and seems to sport with mere trifles, that his weakness may at length appear stronger than all might, and his folly superior to all wisdom.” (Commentary on Joshua 6:3)
The daily circling of Jericho by the silent armies of Israel was a sort of mere trifle (a little thing): an odd, funny, almost silly. And they didn’t have time for that. God’s people had the big “M” going for them. They had the momentum.

All the towns and tribes of the Promised Land were afraid of them; afraid of what they would do next. Now was the time for action and the attack.

Jericho was not what we would call a city. The ruin of Jericho can be seen today, and it takes about twenty minutes to walk around it. So it was smaller than Washtucna or Kahlotus (at least in the amount of ground it covered, although it was probably much more densely populated and crowded, people living on top of each other in narrow houses of brick and stone, and people from the outlying villages who were holed up there, too, for refuge).

It was the first time God’s people had laid siege to a town, but they had the means to take it. They had Jericho outnumbered. They could climb the wall with ladders. They would lose men in the process but they had more than enough to take their places. The other towns, and the real cities, would topple like dominoes at the news.
They had to do this if whey wanted to make that land their home. Promised Land was supposed to be their home.

Jericho was the front door. God’s people could smash that door down. That would be glory and honor for them, and (you can guess) that was probably the problem.

The Promised Land was home, and home is about intimacy. Home is about relationships. For us, home is life with God; in a thousand little gestures as small as the touch of a hand every day.

It is true that Jericho would be a battle (a very brief, hand-to-hand combat, soon done with battle). But it was also the front door of home. It was to be their home with God, and God, himself, would open the door for them.

But there is this odd little ceremonious beginning: the little twenty minute parade every morning; not a word, not a whisper spoken, not the big silver trumpets but the little rams’ horns that belonged to the Passover feast; and then nothing for the rest of the day, day after day, for six days: take a walk in silence, and then be quiet and wait.

But why bother with this? If God was going to knock down the wall himself, why not get it over with?

What good would this do? How odd, how silly, that must have seemed, both to God’s people and to the people of Jericho who were watching them from the city walls. What were they doing? What were they thinking? The people of God hardly knew what they were doing, and they didn’t know what they were supposed to think.

There were going to be real battles, real sieges, in the future. God’s people would fight with all their might. Sometimes they would win, and sometimes they would lose.

The battles were important. In fact, the battles were crucial, and God was intensely interested in how those battles went. But the battles were not the whole point of this thing about coming home. What mattered most, to God, was the life that took place between the battles; or the life that was made possible because those battles had been fought.

More than wanting his people to come home and fight, God wanted his people to come home and live. Only, sometimes, they would have to fight a battle in order to live, or in order to live well.

They had come home. They were not supposed to be headed anywhere anymore. They were supposed to have reached their goal. The road had been traveled. God had helped them on the road to arrive at home. Their story was no longer supposed to be about going, or about arriving, but about just “being”.

The first five books of the Old Testament are sometimes called “The Law”. In Hebrew the word is “Torah”. Torah means law, but it also means way. You could say that it contains rules for life, but it is just as well to say that it describes a way of life.

For example: the day of rest in the Old Testament is called the Sabbath. Sabbath basically means to stop. Just stop. Stop and be quiet. Stop and enjoy. Stop and play. Stop and worship and be thankful. Stop, and be still, and know that God is God. The Torah, the way of life for God’s people, is for them to be the kind of people who know how to stop.

In Leviticus God’s word told farmers to not harvest their crops right up to the edges and corners of their fields. This was because that part of the crop should be left for the needy to glean and have what they needed to survive. (Leviticus 19:9)
This is not a rule in itself; not a rule simply for the sake of rules. This is the picture of generosity and care for one’s neighbor. It is a picture of the heart of God’s people and a picture of God’s own heart. But it was a picture to be drawn and painted every year (year after year, and generation after generation) until it was indelible, until it sunk deeper than any tattoo and worked its way into their heart.

It was to make the heart like an onion of generosity. You know how you peal away the outer layer of an onion, and (what do you find underneath?) you only find more onion.

The laws of righteousness and justice in the Old Testament were meant to provide a routine of little gestures and patterns that seemed like trifles; but they would shape the hearts of the people of God into compassion, generosity, and grace. It was meant to shape the hearts of God’s people into the shape of God’s heart.

Life is like a journey, but some stages of life are like arriving. You get married. You get a job. You become a parent. You get a call to pastor a church. You know that this part of life will also be a journey that will take you somewhere you cannot imagine. But you know (or you hope) that here is a place in life where your will stay; where you are home.

There is a way just to be; just be home. This is the way of routines, and habits, and disciplines, and little gestures that you give to those around you. Home is the place of trifles.

When the time comes for me to prepare for a funeral, one of the things I try to do is take time to visit the family of the person who has passed away, and I ask them to share with me stories that I can share to celebrate the person they have lost. I always realize that this is the hardest time to ask people to remember such stories; but I ask them anyway, and some of those stories always come out.

Some of the stories are about challenges and battles that the person fought to overcome, some crisis to be met, some obstacle to face. Sometime there was a need for that person to have the strength to take care of someone, or to stand up for what they believed. Those are good stories.

Sometimes the story is not a story or a battle at all. The story is just the typical thing that this person would say or do every day, every year; that showed the kind of person they were.

We only fight battles so that we and others can live, and live well. At times like Memorial Day, we celebrate the people who fought real battles in real wars, and we remember that the best of them did not do this for glory, but for home; for the orderly lives of people at home, for peace or for freedom. That is what the best battles and wars are all about.

The commander of the armies of the Lord (who met with Joshua on the way to Jericho) is a strange figure. The commander of the armies of the Lord is probably an appearance by the Son of God before he became real flesh and blood in Jesus.
Essentially this commander told Joshua that home itself, and the routines of home, the freedom of home, the intimacy of home, are holy ground. “Take off your sandals, for the place where you are standing is holy.” (Joshua 5:15) They were home.

In an ordinary family it is the routine that matters as holy ground. What matters is not some grand family trip, but playing together or working together as a family in the yard. I remember being a five year old helping my parents paint the house. What were they thinking? How can a five-year-old paint a house?

What matters is this trifle, this routine: not a holiday feast, but the bowl of oatmeal steaming on the table in the morning, and the meatloaf or the spaghetti on the super table in the evening; and the daily prayer as a family wherever you would do that; and the talks you have about what your are going to do that day, or those talks about life in the evening or driving in the car. The holy ground is listening, and patience, and fairness, and kindness, and faithfulness, and integrity.

In the first letter we have from Peter, he wrote, “The end of all things is near. Therefore be clear minded and self controlled so that you can pray.” (4:7)
And what are we to be clear-minded and to pray about?

We are to think and pray about how to, “love others deeply, because love covers a multitude of sins.” (1 Peter 4:8) We are to think and pray how to make our lives redemptive and healing for others?

We are to think about pray about being hospitable to others. That means welcoming and making others feel at ease; not just to strangers, or neighbors, or friends; but even to your husband, your wife, or your children. It means helping and taking care of others.

We are to think about and pray about how to use whatever gifts we have in order to be instruments of God’s grace. We are to live as if we were Jesus. We are to serve as if we were Jesus serving. We are to speak as if we were Jesus speaking.

This doesn’t mean that we always have to be pious and serious. We have to remember that Jesus could say some very funny things; such as asking a blind man, “What do you want me to do for you? (Luke 18:41) And Jesus could do some funny things like turning water into wine. (John 2:1-10)

But the point about what we think and pray about doing is that these things, for us, are to be on our own scale, in our own way. “The end of all things” is a big deal; a big battle. But the point of it all is about our life; how we think, and pray, and love others, and make them welcome.

What matters is what kind of things we are likely to say, and what kind of ways are we likely to serve. Every day, over and over, we talk and we serve. We make people laugh because, over time, they know exactly what we are likely to say and do because we have repeated ourselves so many times. (For instance I have told the joke about the husband holding his wife’s hand any number of times.) This is home. This is our holy ground.

These are all little things, but they are the holy ground of our lives. They are what our lives are really about. These are the surprising things that make our lives matter. Oswald Chambers, a Christian teacher of a hundred years ago, said: “Our job is not to do extraordinary things, but ordinary things in extraordinary ways.”

Our readings from the scriptures tell us how to do little and silly, trifle things: how to walk around a town, how to face the end of all things. There is a secret to both these things. The Lord told Joshua: “See, I have delivered Jericho into your hands.” (Joshua 6:2)

The Lord told Joshua that the battle was already won. The Lord had won the battle long before God’s people ever came on the scene.

This is how we are to live: as people who know that the Lord has won the battle. Even if we face the end of all things, we know that God has come down from heaven in Jesus Christ to live for us, and die for us, and rise for us.

In his life and death he faced our battles against temptation, and pressure, and misunderstanding, and contempt, and injustice. In his life and death Jesus carried our sins and faced death itself for us. Jesus rose from the dead and he is the conqueror of our sins. He is the conqueror of death itself.

The most common part of our lives is the little circles we walk day by day and year by year. God loves the little circles of life as much as he loves the great battles and the great journeys.

God made the wildflowers, and God has made so many of them that we can assume he is like the little child you spin or toss, and they laugh and say, “Do it again.” God loves the little things you do that make you beloved by others, just by being there. Over and over he sees them and says, “Do it again! Do it again!”

This is what makes a home and a family, and this is (after all) the great work that God is at; building a family as big as creation, a family we call the kingdom of God.

Our ordinary lives are supposed to be part of a holy routine that defines who we really are as God’s children. So we need to know that this is the holy ground that God has given us to stand on, and that he has won the battle for us on the cross, and in his resurrection. Sometimes we may wonder if it really matters, but it is enough to just play at God’s trifles, and walk around in circles, and watch and see what God is doing.

1 comment: