I remember a particular Sunday during our pastoral transition. It was a Sunday designed to be a pivotal event in our congregation's life. We were gathered to celebrate our past while we looked to the future. Our congregational profile had been completed; the "transition team" was about to morph into the call committee. Every choir and music group had a part in the worship service.
The sermon revolved around a particular event from Israel's history: just as they were about to cross the Jordan and enter the promised land, a representative of each of the twelve tribes took a stone from one side of the river, and brought it along with them to the other side. The idea was that although our congregation was embarking on a new chapter in our life, we honor our past and take a part of it along with us on our journey. I think that there were even some stones on the floor by the baptismal font, and a paper cut-out of the river Jordan, so that the children could move the stones from one side of the river to the other side.
I have to admit that, though I have more than a passing acquaintance with the Old Testament, this particular story had escaped me up until then. I know that I read almost the entire Old Testament during seminary, but I must have skimmed a few parts, a feeling that came back to me a couple of years ago when I decided to read the whole Bible over a summer. (Wait a minute. When did David do THAT?)
But, I digress.
The more I thought about it, though, the more I thought that the story about the stones was a little more nuanced than I had at first suspected. I remember re-thinking the story a few months later, and coming to the sudden realization that the stones were not simple reminders of the past. They were specific reminders of 40 years of wandering in the wilderness. As the people of Israel was about to cross over into the promised land, they were to take stones from the wilderness, to remember when they were settled the experience of wandering.
The stones were reminders for people coming into the promised land, but they weren't reminders of the 'good old days.' They were reminders of God's goodness when they grumbled, of God's anger and forgiveness, of dancing around a golden calf, of manna and quails, of manna hoarded that went bad.
I can't help asking myself now: What does this mean for us? What stones should we take with us where we are heading, and what do they mean?
The pastoral transition has ended, but in some ways we are still in the wilderness. Getting a new pastor is not the same as entering the promised land. In fact, I am not even sure where we are, or where we are going. Are we in Egypt, living in a culture foreign to us? Is God leading us into the wilderness? Or are we in the wilderness now, wandering without a home, learning to be God's people without the benefit of accustomed markers?
Sometimes I think we need to go back all the way almost to the beginning, all the way to Abraham, to know where we are. We need to go all the way back to Abraham, who was on the road, on the way to somewhere or another when he heard God say, "Go. Go to a place where I will show you. You will be blessed, and you will be a blessing."
What do you take along when you don't know where you are going? I am not sure, but I suspect you take your family, some stories, a little bread and wine. You forget about crossing the river Jordan and entering the promised land, and feeling like you have arrived. You just live here, on the road, sharing stories and bread and wine with the strangers who cross your path, and somehow where you are now becomes the promised land, because it you have come to realize that the promised land is not a place, but the promised land is in the face of the strangers, and in the eyes that look into yours, and in One who called you and accompanies you and will not abandon you. Somehow you come to see the fleeting vision, where the kingdom of God is in everything you gave away, and somehow (who knows how?) you have finally become a blessing.