(Joshua 3:14 – 4:9; 1 Thessalonians 2: 9-13)
It really was a strange sight. Although it got the point where it kind of stopped being strange, because once you see enough of something – even something as strange as this was – it simply becomes part of the scenery, blending in with everything else. You don’t really notice it anymore.
In this case, it blended in with the creek that ran along the eastern side of the Mount Airy city line, or Mayberry as some are known to call it. It blended in with the water and sand underneath; and the trees and brush above and beside. It blended in with the running trail that accompanied the creek on its journey through the woods, and it blended in with the early morning mist that would hover over the water. All of which were regular components of the early morning runs that I’d take through the Mount Airy Greenway a couple of times a week.
It really was a strange sight, these towers of stone – smooth creek stone, various sizes, stacked one on top of the other, scattered around the creek area where the water was its stillest. They stood several stones high, over a dozen in some cases, reaching four and five feet into the air. Someone obviously possessed great skill at finding just the right crevice, the flattest spot on a stone and positioning it just right so it and the ones on top of it would reach straight into the air and stay there. Just looking at them, you were made aware of not only the person’s skill level, but their level of patience!
I remember there was an article about them in the local newspaper. I barely skimmed it, though; and it wound up in the recycling bin before I could find it again. I actually tried looking it up on the website this past week. No luck. All these years later and I wish I knew. I wish I knew who put those stone towers in the river – but even moreso, I wish I knew why. What did those stones mean? Was this a way of simply proclaiming, “I’ve been here?” Or were they a memorial; a religious symbol? What was so special about those strange stones.
Around the second month of my Greenway runs, when those stones started blending in with everything else, I wondered if perhaps it was like this thousands and thousands of years before, on the other side of the world, as passersby happened upon the twelve stones stacked high in the middle of the Jordan River; the twelve stones mentioned in our scripture today. And I wondered if they, too, thought those stones to be strange, out of place, yet seemingly there for some reason. Did they, too, wonder who put them there? Did they wonder what those stones meant?
We, of course today, have the benefit of the back story. We know what those stones meant. It is hard to fathom a greater “watershed” moment for God’s people – the culmination of a journey for a generation and a promise for a lifetime. A land flowing with milk and honey, they’d been told – and how enticingly wonderful that sounded as they mashed their sore feet into Egyptian mud pits to make Pharaoh more of his precious bricks. Let my people God! Moses told him – multiple times, to no avail. Until the tenth, and then they were free – free at last!
Or were they? Now they were imprisoned not by a ruthless enemy, but by the seemingly endless expanse of the desert. They say the shortest distance between two points is a straight line. If that’s the case, the Israelites were not all that well-versed in geometry. Forty years; an entire generation caught up in the winding journey from Egypt to the Promised Land. Babies were born and watched babies of their own grow into adulthood.
And so there they finally stood along the waters of the Jordan River, the only thing separating them from a promise and a reality. Moses’ successor Joshua instructs the priests carrying the Ark of the Covenant to step into the river; and as their feet touch the water’s edge it parts to the side – wide enough so an entire nation of people can follow. How appropriate: God parting the waters for God’s people at both the beginning and the end of their wilderness journey.
And then, when all the people were safely on the other side and ready to run head-first into the land of milk and honey, Joshua implored them to take pause. Because as bright as the future looked, as “promising” as the Promised Land appeared to be, they cannot – and they should not – forget those who had preceded them; those that had brought them there. Because their past would forever be tied to their future.
So is it any wonder, as Joshua’s men stacked those dozen stones one on the other in the middle of the Jordan River, is it any wonder that their leader would instruct them to tell their children about this day, so that they could tell their children, and they their children; and thus, the memory of the trials in Egypt, the generation in the desert, and their arrival at the Promised Land would live on long past the lives of those who helped get them there? Like the river that flowed around it, their lives would come and go; but the story and the moment of fulfilled promise would last forever.
Now there is something big and bright and bold and deep about this story, and about those stones. As it is with each one of us. Today is All Saints Day in the life of the church. A day when we see the stones in the river and take time to remember what they are and why they are there. And I hope you realize this is much more than a simple ritual we observe every first Sunday of November. This is a holy act; it is sacred ground we are treading here.
In fact, let me invite you, if you would, to pull out the insert in your bulletin this morning, and read along with me:
THE CELEBRATION OF ALL SAINTS’ DAY continues a tradition practiced in the church since the 4th century, when special services remembering those who had died in the faith were held in the days or weeks following Easter. By the 8th century, the celebration had been moved to its present date, November 1.
That’s background history. That’s the “who put these stones here” stuff. Now we get to the why:
The day offers us the opportunity to rejoice for all those, known to us and unknown, who have tried in their own lives to serve God faithfully.
Now I want to see if you caught that part, “known to us and unknown?” That’s important, y’all. These names listed here, they may have been your best friend. You may have broken bread with them frequently. Or, if you’re like me, you barely knew most of them. But here’s the thing – ultimately it doesn’t matter whether we know them or not. What matters is that God knows them, right? That’s the important part. Those stones in the river, they are there for a reason and a purpose. And we may not always be privy to what that reason or purpose is. But God knows. And because God knows and these people matter to God, they matter to all of us.
Now read the last part, where it gets really good:
It also gives us occasion to be drawn out of preoccupation with ourselves and our own immediate situations as we affirm our places in the ongoing and living community of saints – of the past, the present, and the future – who abide in God’s eternal presence.
I love that part about us affirming “our place in the ongoing and living community of saints….” It almost sounds like a river, doesn’t it? This sense of something bigger than us, flowing in and through us. That’s why I think of our other scripture today, from 1 Thessalonians, where Paul writes to a community of faith that is thriving, teeming with life-giving water. I want you to hear it again, but this time from The Message translation:
You remember us in those days, friends, working our fingers to the bone, up half the night, moonlighting so you wouldn’t have the burden of supporting us while we proclaimed God’s Message to you. You saw with your own eyes how discreet and courteous we were among you, with keen sensitivity to you as fellow believers. With each of you we were like a father with his child, holding your hand, whispering encouragement, showing you step-by-step how to live well before God, who called us into his own kingdom, into this delightful life.
The community of God’s church reaches far beyond its configuration at any given point in time. It reaches back to include those who have gone before us – those we re-member today. But not only that. Because the community of God’s church also reaches forward and includes those who aren’t even here yet, but will be. See, that’s why those stones in the river were not simply a memorial to the people God had already done great things with, but a harbinger of those yet to become part of God’s mighty acts. Past, present and future – the living community of saints.
You know, I often say in funeral meditations that funerals are occasions for celebration. And the thing is, this isn’t some kind of psychological trick I’m playing to make people feel better at a hard time. It’s biblical. Because when we’re talking about saints of the faith, about those who have died and those still living, there is a thin line between the two; death and life flowing together in the river. I love the song by the Americana folk/pop group Delta Rae called “Dance In the Graveyards,” and the chorus which goes like this:
When I die, I don’t want to rest in peace
I want to dance in joy, I want to dance in the graveyards
And while I’m alive, I don’t want to be alone mourning the ones who came before
I want to dance with them some more,
So let’s dance in the graveyards!
I love that! Because it reminds us that, on this All Saints Day, and every day, we do so much more than simply remember those who have died in the previous year. We re-member them. That’s what the word means! We put them back together in our presence and we dance with them, their story mingling with our own, like river water flowing through and around a tower of meaning-filled stones. What a strange and beautiful sight those stones are when we see them the first time. And may we never get so used to them that they simply become part of the scenery.
In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, thanks be to God – and may all of God’s people say, AMEN.
 http://www.metrolyrics.com/dance-in-the-graveyards-lyrics-delta-rae.html, visited on 10.28.2014