Preached at Colonial Church on June 10, 2018.
Only be strong and very courageous. Be careful to act in accordance with all the law that my servant Moses commanded you. Do not turn from it to the right hand or to the left so that you may be successful wherever you go. This book of the law shall not depart out of your mouth. You shall meditate on it day and night so that you may be careful to act in accordance with all that is written in it. For then you shall make your way prosperous and then you shall be successful. I hear by command you, be strong and courageous. Do not be frightened or dismayed for the Lord your God is with you wherever you go.
– Joshua 1:7-9
Let’s pray. God, this morning, we together breathe in your presence. May your love, your light, your Spirit, your breath fill every fiber and sinew, every tendon, every ounce, every dream—both of what we hold individually and what we hold collectively. God of life and breath who has been breathing in and on us new life, breathe in and on us ever and ever again. For it’s in Christ’s name we gather and pray. Amen.
Well, hi, good morning! Again, a heartfelt welcome to Colonial Church. My name is Sara and I’m one of the ministers here at Colonial. I’m glad to be in worship with you this fine summer morning. For those of you who don’t know, we’ve been in a season and a time called Reforming; a space of intentionally discerning together what God is inviting us to next. The Reforming Task Force just finished the final of three retreats. It was actually three plus plus retreats because of many things that transpired over the past months (deaths, blizzards in April, etc.- if you haven’t heard Kevin Graham Ford’s, our consultant, summary yet, you can listen to it online).1 During the retreats as we prayerfully sat with all of the feedback the congregation shared we kept returning to this idea of breathing in and breathing out, meaning that we want to be a people who are transformed and changed by the love of God, by God’s Spirit, by God’s healing, by God’s restoration in our own lives and we want to live that out in the world.
And so given that, Daniel let me have the pulpit this morning. I thought, “I’m going to talk about breathing in today.” And in so doing, my aim is to invite us into a bit of a journey. I’ll acknowledge at the forefront that this is an incomplete analogy. So for those of you who appreciate good theater, grant me some suspended disbelief in my capacity to tell a good story, okay? That’s always a good preamble, right? The jokes not great, but you should laugh anyway…
Well, here’s the story… And for those of you who don’t know me, I like to do fly-bys of entire portions of the Bible in one sermon. So that’s what we’re going to do this morning. I want to start way back in Genesis with a person that some of you may have heard of before…the father of our faith, as we profess in our congregational affirmations at baptism, Abraham.
Once upon a time, Abraham had God make a promise to Abraham that his descendants would be as numerous as the stars—that he would have a land and a people. That his people, who had been nomads, who had traveled through the desert through this land, looking for a place to settle…that they would indeed have a place to land. And this idea of this land, of the space, of this place, where God would give them persists throughout the Hebrew Scriptures.
And so we continue our journey through the text. We get to the time where you hear about Joseph (spoiler alert: the Bible doesn’t actually talk about his amazing Technicolor dream coat like in the musical, but he did have a very amazing coat and his brothers were jealous). Joseph ends up getting sold into slavery by his brothers and winds up in Egypt. And then there is a famine in the land where his family is still living. They don’t have any food. Cue stage left where Joseph, as it turns out, ended up getting favor with the pharaoh and the pharaoh puts Joseph in a place of power and esteem. So Joseph’s family comes to town to try and get food and, unbeknownst to them, their brother is now a big deal in Egypt. So they go to the guy who will help them get food, who as it turns out is…(you know, right?!) their brother. They don’t recognize him as they ask him for food. He suddenly he reveals to him who he is and they get food. Cue music crescendo…
But the story doesn’t end there! The family ends up moving to Egypt. Sometimes we forget this part of the story, that the way that the people of Israel ended up in Egypt was because Egypt was a good land. It was the place that God had brought them to where there was food enough for them; it was a land of sustenance and goodness. But over time, the Egyptians forgot the story of Joseph. They forgot the goodness of who he had been in the community and the people of Israel ended up becoming enslaved by the Egyptians. It’s in that space that God again shows up and says, “I AM,” and through Moses, he tells the people that he’s heard their cries and is going to rescue them from slavery and bring them to a new land, a land of prosperity that is flowing with milk and honey (meaning it’s fecund and fertile). This is another chapter then in God’s fulfilling the promise that was made to Abraham. Remember, how God said they would have a land? And so the people of Israel exit from Egypt, the land of slavery, and begin the exodus to the promised land.
This journey takes them 40 years, which sounds a little longer than one I would want to go on. They go through the wilderness and they complain and they want to go back. Now again remember, not only did they want to go back to a land that they had known, but they also had a memory of the goodness of what had happened in that land. And here we are in the passage that was just read, it’s the moment right before. The moment right before the new land, where they sent out scouts to check out the land, a land that indeed was flowing with milk and honey, but also had giants which was just a little bit terrifying. And they are told to be strong and courageous. “Do not be afraid for I, the Lord, am with you and I’m going to go with you into this new land.”
Now here’s some of the connection that I want to make between this story and ours.
Some of you have been in this community for a long time and there have been, and there were years of great beauty and power where you in your own life felt what it meant to have God’s Spirit breathe the breath of life and goodness and freedom. And there have also been years of wilderness. Years where you longed for another day, a former time. And we’re not sure yet what’s next.
I want to begin then my first affirming that in moments like this current time as we ask what’s next, that it’s normal to be afraid. It’s normal to be on the precipice of a new land and not be sure if the giants will kill us. What will happen? Will I be part of the story of what God’s goodness will do in this new space? And sometimes we just want to go back.
And God challenges and invites us to be strong. One of the things I wanted to affirm this morning is that no matter what you’re feeling right now as we’re in the season, that you’re not alone. If you’re afraid or nervous or upset or angry or hopeful or positive or anything in between, that is part of the human condition. That’s why in Joshua these words are said, because they actually are afraid because they have forgotten to breathe. And maybe some of you don’t forget things. Maybe God shows up and you remember for your entire life. And in that case, bless you for being a really wonderful human. I, however am not that human. Just to say, God has shown up in my life in powerful ways. I have experienced grace and healing love that I didn’t think was possible. This winter, I got stuck. I got stuck in my own brain.
I’m working on a dissertation (hypothetically) but I actually haven’t been because I’ve quit breathing. While the reasons for this are many and complex, fundamentally I haven’t wanted to think about it or deal with it. I have felt shame and fear. And lovingly God has brought people back into my life who reminded me of who I am, of where God is showing up. And they remind me, “Sara, you can breathe. You’re loved. You’re seen by God.” In the psychological literature it talks about how whenever we forget to breathe, we go back and operate out of our reptilian brains. Then we react because we’re afraid. We’re terrified. All we can see is that we feel under threat and are desperate to survive. It is precisely into these places that God’s breath and Spirit breathes in, on and through us and invites us to remember, invites us to live from our frontal cortex and not just react but to thoughtfully respond in love and faith as we can then remember that God has and will continue to show up. Breath reminds us that we’re not alone and we can breathe for there is so much goodness in the new land and the giants won’t be able to harm us.
So yes, they were afraid and so are we. Israel was on the precipice of a new land, not knowing what would happen. We as a community are in the precipice of a new time and a new way of life and we don’t know what will happen. And in our lives, maybe many of you are in the midst of things that you remember: the goodness of what was, and you aren’t sure what will be next. It’s in this space where I think God shows up. God who breathes on us. Do you know that the word in the Old Testament for the Spirit is ruach…another translation for this is breath? Just like in Genesis where we are told that God hovered over that waters and breathed (ruach).
If we fast forward to the New Testament, are told that the people were breathed upon and received the Holy Spirit. For when the breath of God moves in space, we’re transformed from people who live with our fists clenched in fear and self-protection and we can then open up to what God has for us and turn toward one another. For me, one of the ways I move from my reptilian brain to the frontal lobe of faith and trust is literally by breathing. When I’m feeling anxious, I think of the image from Psalm 1, where it talks about the tree that’s planted by the waters. And what I’ll do is I’ll literally root in my feet, stretch out my hands like I’m a tree and breathe. Praying that God will remind me that I am rooted, that I am loved. And if you’ve never tried this, there’s actually a Ted Talk about how, if you take two minutes to do your super hero pose, I do my tree by the Psalm One, living water thing. And it reminds me, it reminds us to breathe in, to trust the goodness of God, even in the midst of the giants in the land.
As I was working on this sermon and thinking about fear and possibility of promise and breath, I was reminded of a sermon that was preached on April 3rd, 1968. Some of you may remember what happened on April 4th, 1968. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated that day. But the night before, April 3rd, he preached that he’d been to the mountaintop, and he had seen the promised land. And even if he didn’t get there, he knew that God was there. And so he said,
“Well, I don’t know yet what will happen now, we have some difficult days ahead, but that doesn’t really matter with me now because I’ve been to the mountaintop and I don’t mind. But I want you to know that tonight that we, as a people, we are going to get to that promised land.”2
And likewise, we too, in many ways are at the precipice of things in our lives where we don’t know what will happen. And my hope and prayer is that as a people, as individuals and as a community, that we will remember to breathe because the land just over that hill, God’s goodness is there for each of us. Goodness that feeds our souls, that nourishes our hearts and lives. And we don’t do this alone.
A number of years ago, I heard a sermon from Chuck Swindoll. He talked about how the Israelites were just like us. They forgot. And so what you see throughout the Old Testament they built altars of remembrance. Every time that God shows up, they market, they put down stones because they’re like “We’re going to forget this.” So next time we walk back, we’ll be like, “Oh, that’s right. God is actually for us.” So that’s why today as you came in, you received a stone.3
If you don’t have a stone, you can get one on your way out and I’ll tell you what we’re going to do with them. But first, I want you to know whyI thought it would be good for us to each take a stone together. The first reason is because in this season of Reforming we’ve been doing spiritual practices together that have reminded us that God is Potter and God is our Rock; that God is our foundation and is forming us. God gives us strength, no matter what happens. So I want us to have our own physical reminder that as we go into this new land we build upon the rock of the God who holds and sustains us.
The second reason I wanted us to each take a rock with us today is because these rocks represent our remembrance. And I want to invite each of us today to hold our rocks and remember the ways in which God’s love has shown up in our lives, the way God’s goodness has shown up in this place and to hold those together as prayers and hopes and affirmations of remembering this God who has breathed and will continue to breathe in and on us.
In a minute, we’re going to have an opportunity to listen to a song as a way of reflecting. And what I’m inviting you to do is to take your rock, and if you don’t have one right now, just hold a space for it in your open hands and you can get one after the service. I want you to prayerfully consider: what have you forgotten? Where have you quit breathing in your life? Where are you afraid? What are the posters that you think might be in the new land? Where is God’s Spirit inviting you to breathe?
Breathe in, breathe in. For just over there, on the other side of the mountain, I promise- there is a new land where the God of all love will be with all and each of us. So let’s prayerfully consider together how we might be invited to be strong and courageous as we move into the new land together, as we listen to this song by Emilie Sandé called “Breathing Underwater.”4
- See: https://www.colonialchurch.org/sermonaudio/reforming-update-kevin-graham-ford.
- Martin Luther King, Jr., “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop,” Speech delivered April 3, 1968, at the Mason Temple in Memphis, TN. For the full transcript, see: https://kinginstitute.stanford.edu/king-papers/documents/ive-been-mountaintop-address-delivered-bishop-charles-mason-temple.
- I don’t remember which sermon this was, but he’s often written and spoken on this concept.
- Emeli Sandé, “Breathing Underwater,” Long Live the Angels (London: Virgin Records, 2016).