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Only One Teacher

Joshua 3:7-17; Psalm 107:1-7, 33-37; 1 Thessalonians 2:9-13; Matthew 23:1-12

Bigfork Community United Methodist Church

November 5, 2017 – 22nd Sunday after Pentecost

There is a profound unity in the scriptures. A few weeks ago we read the First Commandment…that there is one God.

That was a radical idea in its day, but this vision of the unity of all things is what gave the Nation of Israel a sense of community. That community was so powerful that it overcame the fear that kept them in bondage to Pharaoh.

It was so powerful that it protected them form their pursuers. It delivered them, on the far side of a great water, from their would-be captors.

It kept them together…when they were disappointed in Moses…and when Moses was disappointed in them.

Together they found water when they needed something to drink, and as one they were showered with manna when their hunger arose in the wilderness.

They were destined to be one nation for all the world…a light to the people everywhere, from the beginning of time to the last day…from Alpha to Omega.

Their many stories make for us…in our Good Book…one story of life and love, perseverance and faith…hope and deliverance.

And it began with one man, Abraham, who could hear God call him to leave his home and go to “a land I will show you.” The Promise was “I [God] will make of you a great nation…

“…and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.”

There is a vast array of diversity …and a oneness…in God’s promise to the one who would be faithful…the Abrahams and Marys among us. There are many moving parts but only one promise…that I will be with you.

As we take up the narrative this morning, the Promise is being fulfilled again. These are people who have followed God’s promise…like homesteaders or pioneers or simply faithful people who came to America to be free from religious prejudice…come back to the river.

We are likely to say that when a person passes on, they have “crossed the river.” We say that Julius Caesar passed the point of no return and would either be hailed as Emperor…or hanged as a traitor... when he “crossed the Rubicon” in 49 BC.

One act was made up of many little acts, by cavalry, foot soldiers, spear carriers and many, many others…but once the river was crossed there was no turning back. That is where we join the Nation of Israel this morning.

The Jordan is their Rubicon. They will succeed or be wiped out. They leave all the discomforts…and all the familiarity…of the wilderness behind them. They begin a new life.

They are wanderers who want to become settlers. They are the people of the God of Abraham and Isaac and Jacob who want to fulfill the promise that God made to their mothers and fathers…and their great-great grandfathers and great-great-great grandmothers …hundreds of years before.

Many years. Many generations. One people. One promise from one God.

All the stories they have to tell…all the stories that they know…find meaning or…no meaning…in what happens next. Will it turn out for good or ill? Was it a promise or a pipedream? How can they know?

The presence of God with them… the sign they seek…is manifested at the end of their time in the wilderness the same way it was as they entered it. The waters part.

It is our tradition to see the water as chaos…the flood…a great barrier that cannot be crossed by human means. Only by the grace of God will we ever find ourselves on the other side of it.

Moses is drawn from the water. The waters part for Moses. Because of the threat he finds a place in Pharaoh’s house. In the midst of chaos, with the pursuing army closing in, he finds order.

He passes through the Red Sea to find life on the other side, but the Egyptian army tries to cross only to find death on the other side. They do not pass through. They pass on.

The waters part again this morning …for Joshua. Israel receives the sign they seek…that their future life awaits them there.

We will take up Israel’s story again next week…at the end of their conquest of the land that their mothers and fathers told them God had given to them many years ago…and again, they will be building community in the midst of the diversity of those who have seen it all.

This oneness can cut across lines, not only of diversity, but also of opposition. I have watched the Lynn Novick and Ken Burns documentary of the Vietnam War a couple of times now.

It is difficult, because it requires viewers who were alive at that time to forget everything that has happened in the intervening 40 years so that they can try to understand something they went through themselves….in another lifetime…like Israel looking out over the Jordan this morning.

20/20 hindsight is better than what we can come up with on the spot at the time. To be given the broad understanding life has bestowed upon us…of how it came out before we see how we got into it… is spiritually disorienting.

I still do not understand it in any way that is satisfactory to me, but it reminds me of the best explanation of the First World War: nobody knows what it was all about. There are many explanations, but there is no answer.

We stumbled into it. We were drawn into it. Once we were in, we could not get out and then the questions about what we were doing there were even more painful and haunting.

And the most poignant moment for me in the whole account comes from a veteran of the North Vietnamese army who experienced the conflict close up, as a soldier, just like the Americans who were there experienced it. There is an adversity in his point of view, but there is also a sense of community between him and the American soldiers he is watching.

Forty years later, here is his most lasting memory of the war: “I witnessed Americans dying. Even though I don’t know their language, I saw them crying and holding each other. When one was killed they stuck together.

“They carried away the body, and they wept. I witnessed such scenes and thought Americans, like us Vietnamese, also have a profound sense of humanity. They cared about each other. It made me think a lot.”

As we read through the Book of Joshua, we can be appalled at the carnage, the wholesale destruction of tribes and villages. But are we really ready to turn away from our reverence for violence as the only way disputes can be settled, once and for all?

Are we ready to trust in truth and justice…the American way…as we move into the future? If there is a oneness…a sense of common purpose…a vision of a community that is in us and encompasses us all …what is it?

Jesus gets to that for us today. We have only one teacher, and that is the one who comes to serve…the Messiah. We are all brothers and sisters. We are all created equal.

We are all one community of believers in the love of God with all our heart and mind and soul and strength…and we are all one community in loving our neighbors as we love ourselves.

It is the love of God that makes us one. It must pain God greatly to see the kind of divisions in our communities that we can all see today. It must have pained God greatly to see the kind of divisions that set his creatures against each other so violently back then.

So God became one with us in the life of Jesus Christ. The Pharisees are not the problem…the fact that they say one thing and do another is the problem.

The government is not the problem. The fact that people find themselves unable to just say one thing and do it is the problem. Do we believe all people are created equal or not? Do we believe we are all brothers and sisters or not?

Do we try to understand why people see us as different or do we dismiss them for doing so? Do people try to understand us…and our Christ…or do they dismiss us for believing in the goodness of each other and the greatness of God?

Are we disciples or Pharisees? Do we tell everyone one thing and then do another? Or do we seek only to serve, to promote understanding, to share what we have?

After 9/11 I got the idea that our response should not be to strike back but to end world hunger. Oh, Osama bin Laden needed to be isolated and stopped in the near term, but what would our actions …the totality of our actions…say to the world in the long term.

Do we believe in the oneness of humanity adrift on a rock in the universe, or do we believe in the need to destroy a town in order to save it from terrorism?

Will we be able to bring people to Christ with punishment…with adverse consequences…or would it be better…and cheaper…to bring them into a community dedicated to loving God and neighbor with food?

We are not so much Republicans and Democrats so much as we are Americans. We are not so much Americans and foreigners so much as we are earthlings.

We do not need to control others so much as we need to control ourselves. If we put ourselves above others, Jesus tells us today, we will be put down.

And if we can humble ourselves…if America can humble itself in the presence of the world community by seeking only to serve the cause of peace and prosperity for all…we will be honored.

We have spent over $4 trillion dollars on military actions abroad since 9/11. What have we got to show for it? If we had spent a quarter as much money ending world hunger, would we have made more progress or less?

We will never know…because we didn’t try it.

Someone once asked Gandhi what he thought of Christianity and he said, “I like your Christ. I do not like your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike your Christ.”

Do we come to the world, then, as Christians or as Pharisees?

We celebrated communion today… one bread, one body, one Lord of all. In that act of sacrament, we seek to be one with Christ, one with each other, and one in ministry to all the world.

We come together when we worship. We become one with Christ when we lift him up… without any holding back…as the one great teacher. And we become one with all the world when we ask what it is we can do to be of service to all humankind.

It is a clear path that our human ways turn into a long and winding road. Let us help each other continue on the way God calls us to follow. Amen.