Sermon November 1 – How Many Rivers To Cross (Josh 4:7-17) Rev. Betsy Hogan
Have you ever heard of Elsie Basque? I never had, until she testified at the Truth and Reconciliation Commission here a number of years ago about her experience at Shubenacadie Indian Residential School, and told some of the story of her life.
But Elsie Basque was a pioneer and we should know her name. Because she was the first Mi'kmaq to earn her Teacher’s Certificate from the Nova Scotia Provincial Normal School in Truro, in 1937.
Not because of the Residential School, but in fact because her father – who himself must have been quite a pioneer – actually defied the Indian agents and priests to pull her out of the Residential School and send her instead to Sacred Heart Convent closer to home, in Meteghan. Where she received an excellent education. And later became an educator herself. The first Mi'kmaw teacher certified in this province. In 1937. Which is really quite extraordinary.
It's kind of a funny thing, though, that once there's been a first of something, the mystique seems to fade a bit. It’s usually just the first of something that maybe gets remembered, that's significant enough to note.
And of course that makes sense – of course it's notable when a barrier is finally breached, when something that we never imagined would happen finally does, or when a first opens up new horizons, or somehow makes the unheard of possible, or suggests a cultural sea-change that’s long been awaited with anticipation.
So of course it makes sense that it’s the first that catches our attention and carries such a mystique. But at the same time, a second or a third in some ways can be even more meaningful.
Because they’re kind of a confirmation in some ways – that the barrier really HAS been breached. That the cultural sea-change really HAS begun. That whatever change or possibility that was heralded with so much intensity when it happened the FIRST time has begun to settle into a wonderful permanence. That maybe we can begin to believe that it was no longer a one-off, a fluke because of a particular person whose gifts were so overwhelming they couldn’t be denied – but maybe the new reality can be the way it ALWAYS is now.
It seems to me fairly likely that that’s the sort of pioneering that Elsie Basque would like most to be remembered for – not just as the first, but as the first of others. With their names remembered too.
Which brings me to the passage that we heard earlier from the book of Joshua. Because…. Who parted the water so that the people of Israel could cross through on dry land? Moses did. Right?
Oh yes, he sure did. There they were, the people of Israel, escaping from Pharaoh’s army, desperate to cross the Red Sea – and God instructed Moses to raise his staff, and the waters parted, and across they went. Safely delivered from the oppression of slavery, one of the greatest stories of the scriptures – there is NO image that’s fed and nourished the hunger for liberation and dignity, NO story that’s inspired courage and uprising against captivity so deeply as Moses parting the Red Sea and the people of Israel crossing over. Because it was awesome.
But then -- then they wander through the wilderness for forty years, learning to be a ‘people’ together. Then they follow Moses hither and yon, learn to trust that God is with them, learn to live together with some semblance of mutual care and responsibility, and generally, over a couple of generations, get themselves ready to move into the Promised Land.
Without Moses, because he’s died and that was really hard, but he’d named Joshua as his successor and the people feel confident in that – they know they’re ready for the Promised Land, they know Moses has prepared them well, and they know they’ll arrive there soon. And sure enough, they finally do.
They arrive at the Promised Land. Or actually, they arrive NEAR the Promised Land. Because it’s actually right over there… across the deep wide Jordan River.
I’ve sometimes wondered if when the people of Israel arrived that day at the shores of the Jordan River after forty years of wandering in the wilderness, I’ve wondered if at least a few of them, like maybe the elders who’d been around for the crossing of the Red Sea, didn’t stop – and turn and look at Joshua and just say to him, “Really?? Really, with the big body of water we have to cross through again???”
Because you have to admit. Once may feel like liberation, but twice really starts to seem like bad planning. It can’t have been an easy sell. And it probably wasn’t what Joshua would have chosen to kick things off either as the people’s new leader.
And in the end, of course, the one who gets all the credit for parting waters on the way to the Promised Land is pretty much always Moses ANYWAY. Joshua does have his moment to shine somewhat later when he fits the Battle of Jericho, but parting the waters so the people can cross through?
It’s been done. Moses did it first. Moses is the one that’s remembered, and HIS crossing is the one that’s become so significant. As ‘firsts’ so often do, and with good reason.
But at the same time, there’s something about this second crossing the waters that makes it much much more than just the ‘here we go again’ that I really do think some of the people of Israel must have thought it was.
Because unlike with Moses, how this second crossing actually happens is kind of not about Joshua at all! When the people had crossed the Red Sea, back at the beginning, escaping from slavery, it really WAS about Moses. Moses had the staff, Moses raised the staff, Moses was the one who made it happen.
But this time, there’s no staff in Joshua’s hand. He doesn’t stand at the shore and raise it up in his hand and part the waters in personal miracle of epic proportions. Instead, what makes the miracle happen – what actually parts the waters of the Jordan – is totally different.
It’s the people themselves. It's the elders they choose from among their number – and it’s the ark of the covenant they carry, the symbol of the community they’ve created. That’s what does it. The elders approach the shores of the Jordan, carrying the ark of the covenant, and the waters on one side literally rear up and are stopped, leaving a pathway through. Milk and honey, here we come.
Joshua really didn’t do a blessed thing, other than listen to God and pass on the message and maybe help get things organized.
It’s really kind of amazing to look at the contrast between who the people were when they crossed the Red Sea with Moses – and then to hear this second story of crossing. And how this time, instead of ‘being’ crossed over by a miracle Moses made happen, they themselves as a people, as a community, cross themselves over. And Joshua's just with them.
Not as epic a moment of escape and transformation – not the crashing down of a great barrier of oppression, for sure – but consider what it says about who they’ve become. About where their empowerment from God to move forward has now taken root – about where it’s now located when they need it most. In themselves and in their covenant as a community. We don’t know if they can move mountains, but they can part waters!
Now, there’s no small amount of irony in the fact that this foundational story of the people of Israel finally manifesting the community cohesion and strength for which they were liberated in the first place – is a story of them then taking over the Promised Land from all the people who were already living there.
If the people of Israel are neither the first – nor sadly the last – to crown their sense of ‘nationhood’ with an equally strong sense of divinely ordained entitlement to ‘go forth and subtract’ a whole lot of land from a whole lot of other people, and to do it by pretty much crushing all those people, their foundational story IS wholly responsible for creating the model of Christian colonialism that's literally how we're here. In this building. In this place. While Elsie Basque got taken from her family by law and put in residential school.
And that's not incidental when it didn't have to BE that way. When the model of living together under a Peace and Friendship Treaty existed and those treaties were signed.
Those treaties could have been honoured. Instead of just ignored in favour of the model of 'entering the Promised Land' and just taking it that Christendom absorbed straight out of this story and sacralized, and we haven't really let go of it yet. Even though it's utterly inconsistent with the teachings of the Prophets – Isaiah, Jeremiah, Amos – even though it's utterly inconsistent with Jesus' teachings in the gospels, even though it's utterly inconsistent with Paul's practice in establishing the early church.
That's wrongness we absorbed out of this story and this context – the smash and grab model of invasive colonialism -- that we need to repudiate and repent of and unlearn.
But there IS goodness in this story too. Particularly in moments when we find ourselves, like the Israelites, looking AGAIN at all this water looming up at us that somehow we have to cross, and all we can think is "Haven't we already DONE this already?"
Like, don't we have the Charter? Didn't we march for Pride? What is with this blatant racism? How are we still having the same conversations? But what we see in this story of Israel crossing the Jordan is that crossing the Red Sea is only the beginning of their liberation.
It was HUGE, absolutely. It was the breakthrough moment, it was the big necessary first giant step out of what WAS and into a new start – and those firsts are inspirational. Firsts crash through the Red Sea into what's possible. Firsts are Moses. Firsts are Elsie Basque.
But firsts aren't magic. All that energy and inspiration has to settle into permanence. Into a shift that can be depended on, into a community that's changed profoundly enough that seconds and thirds and however many more are just a matter of course. It's the difference between being FREED from the past, and being FREE from the past.
The first, God did for them with Moses in a huge miracle. The second they had to become a people ready to do it for themselves. Strong in covenant with one another, awakened to a sense of mutual responsibility and hunger for justice and right relationship. In being the kind of community that had needed Moses to cross it over the Red Sea, but had crossed itself over the Jordan River.
I think that's where we are, collectively. And maybe individually too. "Freed" from the past by some big eventful Red Sea crossings, but not free from it. Still working on our covenant with one another, still working on listening, still working on trusting, still working on changing into the people who can cross THEMSELVES over the Jordan.
But we don't do that work alone, any more than Israel did. We're being beckoned forward, encouraged forward, strengthened forward, always. By God who rejoices in every moment that brings us that much closer to the Jordan – and crossing over it? It's a promise. Thanks be to God who travels with us.